Christian Love,
or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


A separate and entire section is here devoted to this distinction of love from a counterfeit resemblance of it, because of the importance of the subject, and the frequency with which the mistake is made of confounding things which are so different from each other. No terms have been more misunderstood or abused, than 'toleration' and love. Some have found in them, an authorization to sanction all religious opinions, however opposed to one another or to the word of God; and a permission to indulge in all sinful practices which do not transgress the laws of our country! So that by the aid of these two words, all truth and holiness may be driven out of the world! For if error be innocent, truth must be unimportant. And if we are to be indulgent towards the sins of others, under the sanction and by the command of Scripture, holiness can be of no consequence either to them or to ourselves.

If we were to hearken to some, we would conceive of love, not as she really is—a spirit of ineffable beauty, descending from heaven upon our fallen earth, holding in her hand the torch of truth, which she had lighted at the fountain of celestial radiance, and clad in a vest of unsullied purity; and who, as she entered upon the scene of discord, proclaimed "glory to God in the highest," as well as "peace on earth, good-will to men," and having with these magic words, healed the troubled waters of strife, proceeded to draw men closer to each other, by drawing them closer to Christ, the common center of believers; and then hushing the clamours of contention, by removing the pride, the ignorance, and the depravity which produced them. No! but we would think of her as a lying spirit—clad, indeed, in some of the attire of an angel of light, but bearing no heavenly impress, holding no torch of truth, wearing no robe of holiness; smiling, perhaps, but like a flatterer, upon all without distinction; calling upon men, as they are combating for truth and striving against sin, to sheathe their swords, and cast away their shields, to be indulgent towards each other's vices, and tolerant of each other's errors; because they all mean and feel substantially alike, though they have different modes of expressing their opinions, and of giving utterance to their feelings. Is this love? No! It is Satan in the garments of Gabriel.

That there is much spurious toleration in the world, and that it is advocated by great names, will appear by the following quotation from Dr. Priestley—"If we could be so happy as to believe that there are no errors but what men may be so circumstanced as to be innocently betrayed into; that any mistake of the head is very consistent with rectitude of heart; and that all differences in modes of worship, may be only the different methods, by which different men, who are equally the offspring of God, are endeavoring to honor and obey their common parent—our difference of opinion would have no tendency to lessen our mutual love and esteem." Dr. Priestley, and the followers of his religious system, are not peculiar in this sentiment. Pope's Universal Prayer is to the same effect—

"Father of all, in every age,
In every climate adored,
By saint, by savage, or by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord."

The well-known metrical adage of this poet is adopted, to the full extent of its spirit and design, by great multitudes who suppose that they are quite orthodox both in opinion and practice, and who perhaps boast of their love, while they exclaim—

"For modes of faith, let graceless zealots fight,
His can't be wrong, whose life is in the right."

It is, I imagine, generally thought by at least a great part of mankind, that it is of little consequence what a man's religious opinions are, provided his conduct be tolerably correct; that love requires us to think well of his state; and that it is the very essence of bigotry to question the validity of his claim to the character of a Christian, or to doubt of the safety of his soul. In other words, it is pretended that benevolence requires us to think well of men, irrespective of religious opinions; and that it is almost a violation of the rule of love to attempt to unsettle their convictions, or to render them uneasy in the possession of their sentiments, although we may conclude them to be fundamentally wrong. But does this approval of all opinions—at least this disposition to think well of people as to their religious character, and the safety of their souls, whatever may be the doctrines they hold—enter essentially into the nature of love? Most certainly not—but actually opposes it!

Benevolence is good will to men—but this is a very different thing from a good opinion of their false principles and evil practices. For if I believe that a man holds opinions that endanger his safety, benevolence requires not that I should shut my eyes to his danger, and lull him into false confidence; but that I should bear my testimony and express my fears concerning his situation. Benevolence is a very different thing from acceptance or esteem. These are founded on approbation of character. Benevolence is nothing more than a desire to promote happiness.

The question, whether love is to be confounded with 'indifference to religious principle'—for such does the spurious toleration I am contending against amount to—is best decided by an appeal to Scripture. How decisive are such passages as the following—"You shall know the truth," said Christ, "and the truth shall make you free." "This is life eternal—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." "He who believes on the Son has everlasting life; and he who believes not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."

With what emphasis did the apostle speak of the conduct of those who attempted to pervert the great doctrine of justification by faith, by introducing the obsolete ceremonies of the Jewish law, "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any preach any other gospel unto you than that you have received, let him be accursed." Now, certainly, this is anything but 'indifference to religious opinion'—for, be it observed, it was matter of opinion, and not the duties of morality, or of practical religion, that was here so strenuously opposed. The apostle commands Timothy "to hold fast the form of sound words—and to give himself to doctrine." The apostle John has this strong language—"Whoever transgresses, and abides not in the doctrine of Christ, has not God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work." Jude commands us "to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints."

From these, and many other passages which might be quoted, it is evident, not only that truth is important and necessary to salvation; but that error is guilty, and in many instances is connected with the loss of the soul. If a man may disbelieve one truth, and yet be free from sin for so doing, he may disbelieve two; and if two, four; and if four, ten; and if ten, half the Bible; and if half the Bible, the whole; and if he may be a Deist and yet be in a safe state, he may be an Atheist and still go to heaven. To such awful lengths may the principle be pushed, that there is no guilt in mental error. "Let those," says Dr. Priestley, "who maintain that the mere holding of opinions (without regard to the motives and state of the mind through which men may have been led to form them,) will necessarily exclude them from the favor of God, be particularly careful with respect to the premises from which they draw so alarming a conclusion." Nothing can be more sophistical than this passage; for we do not, in asserting the 'guiltiness of a false opinion', leave out the state of the heart; but contend that all errors in the judgment have their origin in the depravity of our nature, and, in so far as they prevail, discover a heart not brought into subjection to Christ. A perfectly holy mind could not err in the opinion it derived from the word of God—and it may be most fairly presumed that there are certain fundamental truths, which cannot be rejected, without such a degree of depravity of heart, as is utterly incompatible with true piety towards God.

It is to be recollected that the holiness required in the word of God, is a very superior thing to what is called 'mere morality'. Holiness is a right state of mind towards God, and it is enforced by motives drawn from the view which the Scriptures give us of the Divine nature, and of the Divine conduct towards us. If our views of God, and of his scheme of mercy, be false, the motives which influence us cannot be correct. Hence, all right feeling and conduct are traced up by the sacred writers to the truth. Do they speak of regeneration? they tell us we are "begotten by the incorruptible seed of the word." Do they speak of sanctification? they ascribe it, so far as instrumentality is concerned, to the truth; and the truth itself is characterized as a "doctrine according to godliness." It is evident, that without the truth, or in other words, without right opinions, we can neither be born again of the Spirit, nor partake of true holiness.

The whole process of practical and experimental religion is carried on by the instrumentality of right sentiments; and to suppose that holiness could be produced in the soul as well by error as by truth, is not only contrary to revelation, but no less contrary to reason. If truth sanctifies—error must in some way or other pollute; for to suppose that two causes, not only so distinct, but so opposite, can produce the same effect, is absurd; and the Scriptures everywhere insist upon the importance of the truth, not merely on its own account, but on account of its moral effect upon the soul.

If this view of the subject be correct, Christian love cannot mean 'indifference to religious sentiment'; for if so, it would be a temper of mind in direct opposition to a large portion of the Scripture. Nor are we required by this virtue to give the least countenance to what we think is error. We may, indeed, be called bigots; for this term, in the lips of many, means nothing more than a reproach for attaching importance to right sentiments. No word has been more misunderstood than this. If by bigotry is meant such an overweening attachment to our opinions as makes us refuse to listen to arguments; such a blind regard to our own views as closes the avenues of reason; such a selfish zeal for our creed as actually destroys benevolence, and causes us to hate those who differ from us—it is an evil state of mind, manifestly at variance with love!

But if as is generally the case, it means with those who use it, only 'zeal for truth', it is perfectly consistent with love and actually a part of it; for "love rejoices in the truth." It is quite compatible with good-will to men, therefore, to attach high importance to doctrines, to condemn error, to deny the Christianity and safety of those who withhold their assent from fundamental truths, and to abstain from all such religious communion with them, as would imply in the least possible degree anything like indifference to opinion. It appears to me that the most perfect benevolence to men, is that which, instead of looking with complacency on their errors, warns them of their danger, and admonishes them to escape. It is no matter that they think they are right—this only makes their case the more alarming; and to act towards them as if we thought their mistaken views of no consequence, is only to confirm their delusion, and to aid their destruction!

It is true we are neither to despise them nor persecute them—we are neither to oppress nor ridicule them—we are neither to look upon them with haughty scorn, nor with callous indifference—but while we set ourselves against their errors, we are to pity them with sincere compassion, and to labor for their conversion with unselfish kindness. We are to bear with unruffled meekness all their provoking sarcasms; and to sustain, with deep humility, the consciousness of our clearer perceptions; and to convince them, that with the steadiest resistance of their principles, we unite the tenderest concern for their welfare.

And if love does not imply indifference to religious opinions, so neither does it mean acceptance of sin. There are some people whose views of the evil of sin are so dim and contracted, or their good nature is so accommodating and unscriptural, that they make all kinds of excuses for men's transgressions, and allow of any latitude for human frailty. The greatest sins—if they are not committed against the laws of society—are reduced to the mere 'infirmities of our fallen nature', which should not be visited with harsh censure; and as for the lesser ones, they are mere specks upon a bright and polished surface, which nothing but a most fastidious intolerance would ever notice. Such people severely censure all who oppose and condemn iniquity; and revile them as malignant opposers to the cheerfulness of society—the very dregs of puritanism and barbarism; and reproach them as being destitute of all the charities and courtesies of life!

But if toleration be a confounding of the distinctions between sin and holiness—a depreciating of the excellence of holiness, and at the same time a diminishing of the evil of sin; if it necessarily leads us to tolerate with an easy and good-natured air, all iniquity; and to smile with a kind and gentle aspect upon the transgressions which we witness; then it must be something openly at variance with the letter and the spirit of biblical revelation—and surely that toleration which runs counter to the mind of God, cannot be the love on which Paul passes such a eulogium in this chapter.

We are told by the Word of God that sin is exceedingly evil; that it is the abominable thing which God hates; that the wages of it are eternal death; that by unholy thoughts and feelings we violate the law. We are commanded to abstain from sin's very appearance; we are warned against excusing it in ourselves, or in each other; we are admonished to reprove it, to resist it, and to oppose it—to the uttermost. Certainly, then, it cannot be required by the law of love, that we should look with a mild and tolerant eye on sin! Love to man arises out of love to God; but can it be possible to love God, and not to hate sin? Love is the fruit of faith, but faith purifies the heart; it is cherished by a sense of redeeming love—and the very end of the scheme of redemption is the destruction of sin.

Approval of men in their sins, and toleration of their iniquity, instead of being an act of benevolence, is the greatest cruelty! Hence the emphatic language of God to the Israelites—"Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt." Would it be benevolence to approve that conduct by which any individual was bringing disease upon his body—or poverty into his circumstances? If not, how can it be benevolent to leave him, without a warning, to do that which will involve his soul in eternal ruin? To think more lightly of the evil of sin than the Word of God does—to call that good or even 'indifferent', which Scripture calls evil—to make allowances, which Scripture does not make, for human frailty—to frame excuses for sin which Scripture disallows—to lull the consciences of men, by considerations in extenuation of guilt which Scripture forbids—or to do anything to produce other views and feelings in reference to iniquity, than such as are warranted by Scripture—is not love, but a participation in other men's sins!

It is the nature of love, I admit, not to be hasty to impute evil motives to actions of a doubtful nature; not to take pleasure in finding out the faults of others; not to magnify them beyond the reality, but to make all the allowance that a regard to truth will allow; to hope the best in the absence of proof; and to be willing to forgive the offence when it has been committed against ourselves. But to carry it beyond this, and let it degenerate into an affability which is afraid to rebuke, or oppose, or condemn sin—lest we would offend the transgressor, or violate the law of courtesy, or subject ourselves to the reproach of being a censorious bigot; which courts the good-will, and promotes the self-satisfaction of others, by approval of their sins; which seeks to ingratiate itself into their affections, by being indulgent to their vices—is to violate and forget every obligation which we are laid under, both to love God and our neighbor! This kind of 'sentimental toleration' is opposed both to piety and the eternal welfare of humanity! This is not the love enjoined in so many places in the New Testament!

No! No! Christian love is not a poor old senile person—creeping about the world, too blind to perceive the distinction between good and evil. Nor is Christian love a fawning flatterer, too timid to reprove the bold transgressor, and smiling with insincere adulation and imbecile approval of the errors and iniquities of the human race! True Christian love is a vigorous and healthy virtue, with an eye keen to discern the boundaries between right and wrong; a hand strong and ready to help the transgressor out of his miserable condition; a heart full of mercy for the sinner and the sufferer; a disposition to forgive rather than revenge—to relieve rather than to aggravate—to conceal rather than to expose—to be kind rather than severe—to be hopeful of good rather than suspicious of evil. But nevertheless, true Christian love is the inflexible, immutable friend of holiness—and the equally inflexible and immutable enemy of sin!

We are not allowed, it is true, to be scornful and proud towards the wicked, nor censorious towards anyone. We are not to make the most distant approach to the proud disposition which says, "Stand aside! I am holier than you!" We are not to hunt for the failings of others; nor when we see them, without hunting for them, to condemn them in a tone of arrogance, or with a scathing or sarcastic spirit. But still we must maintain that disposition, which while it reflects the beauty of a God of love—no less brightly reflects his glory, as a God of holiness and a God of truth!