Christian Love,
or the Influence of Religion upon Temper

By John Angell James, 1828


"Now abide these three, Faith, Hope, Love;
but the greatest of these is Love."

Such is the triune nature of true religion, as described by an inspired penman; of that religion about which myriads of volumes have been written, and so many controversies have been agitated. How short and how simple an account; within how narrow a compass does it lie; and how easily understood, might one have expected, would have been a subject expressed in terms so familiar as these. This beautiful verse has furnished the arts with one of their most exquisite subjects—poets have sung the praises of faith, hope, and love; the painter has exhibited the holy three in all the glowing colors of his brush; and the sculptor has given them in the pure and almost breathing forms of his marble; while the orator has employed them as the ornaments of his eloquence. But our orators, poets, sculptors, and painters have strangely misunderstood them, and too often proved that they knew nothing of them but as the mere abstractions of their minds—what they presented to the eye were mere earthly forms, which bore no resemblance to these divine and spiritual graces—and multitudes have gazed with admiration kindling into rapture, on the productions of the artist, who at the same time had no taste for the virtues described by the apostle.

True religion is a thing essentially different from a regard to classic elegance; not indeed that it is opposed to it. For as piety refines the heart, it exerts a favorable influence on the understanding, and by correcting the moral taste, it gives a still clearer perception of the sublime and the beautiful. It is greatly to be questioned, however, whether true religion has not received more injury than benefit from the fine arts; whether men have not become carelessly familiar with the more dreadful realities of truth by the exhibitions of the poet, the painter, and the engraver; and whether they have not mistaken those sensibilities which have been awakened by a contemplation of the more tender and touching scenes of revelation, as described upon the canvass or the marble, for the emotions of true piety. Perhaps the "Paradise Lost" has done very little to produce any serious concern to avoid everlasting misery; and "The Descent from the Cross," by Rubens, or "The Transfiguration," by Raphael, as little to draw the heart to the great objects of Christianity. Innumerable representations, and many of them very splendid productions too, have been given of faith, hope, and love—and doubtless by these means many kindly emotions have been called temporarily into exercise, which after all were nothing but a transient effect of the imagination upon the feelings. It is of vast consequence that we should recollect that no affections are entitled to the character of true religion—but such as are excited by a distinct perception of revealed truth. It is not the emotion awakened by a picture presented to the eye, nor by a sound addressed to the ear—but by the contemplation of a fact, or a statement laid before the mind, that constitutes piety. We now proceed to the subject of this chapter.

It will be perceived, that although these three graces are in some respects very different, yet there are others in which they have points of strong resemblance. Faith has something of the expectation of hope, and hope something of the desire of love. Hope touches faith at the point of expectation—love touches hope at the point of desire—and thus, like the colors of the rainbow, they maintain their distinction, while, at the same time, they soften down into each other by almost insensible degrees.

But how are we to understand the apostle, when he says, "there remain these three?" He here alludes to the miraculous operations of the primitive church, and contrasts with their transient existence the permanent continuance in the Christian church of these cardinal virtues. Miracles were introduced to establish the credibility of the gospel testimony, and having delivered their evidence, retired forever; but faith, and hope, and love, are to remain as the very essentials of true religion. Particular forms of church government are only the attire which piety wears, or the habitation in which it dwells—but these graces are the body, soul, and spirit of vital religion. When these are no longer to be found upon earth, godliness may be said to be retired and gone.

But are these the only Christian virtues which have outlived the age of miracles, and which are destined still to live and flourish on the earth? Certainly not. Penitence, temperance; yes, whatever things are true; whatever things are honest; whatever things are just; whatever things are lovely; whatever things are of good report—are as permanent and as strong in their obligations, as faith, and hope, and love—but these three cardinal virtues either represent, or imply, or excel all others. They are the main trunk, from which all others issue as the branches, and by which they are supported.

"Now abides faith, hope, love; but the greatest of these is love!" Love among the Christian virtues is, as poets have described Gabriel among archangels—a seraph loftier than all the seraph entourage. But we are not to suppose that it was the apostle's intention to depreciate the value and importance of the other two. What can be more important and necessary than the FAITH by which we are united to Christ, and justified in the sight of God; by which we purify our hearts, and overcome the world? Turn to the eleventh chapter to the Hebrews, where the sacred writer seems to conduct you into the temple of Christianity; and after exhibiting the names, and the statues, and the recorded deeds of the heroes of the church, and displayed before you the spoils they have won in the battles of the Lord, says to you, "Behold the triumphs of faith!" Faith is the means of love—hence said the apostle, "Faith, which works by love."

Nor could it be his intention to depreciate HOPE, which is called "the anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, which enters within the veil," of which it is said, "We are saved by hope," and every man who has this hope, "purifies himself, even as He is pure."

Much less are we warranted, from this expression, to select love as the exclusive object of our pursuit, and to cultivate it to the neglect of the other two. Separate from them, it can have no existence. Any attempt to build it up without them, is like the effort to raise a superstructure without a foundation. "Add to your faith, brotherly kindness and love," says the apostle. It is only as we believe the testimony of God's love to us, which is contained in the gospel, that we can possess Christian love to our fellow men.

What the apostle means is, that there are some views of love, in which it must be allowed to possess a higher degree of moral excellence than either faith or hope.

1. Love is the END, which faith and hope are the MEANS of producing. Love is what might be called an ultimate virtue; but faith and hope subordinate ones. Justification itself is but part of the divine means for bringing the soul of man into a state of moral perfection. The ultimate end to be obtained by redemption is the restoration of the image of God to the human spirit; and pardon is the introductory and subsidiary means. Hence faith, by which we are justified, is an exercise of mind, which produces, and is intended to produce, in us a conformity to the divine character. It is not a grace which terminates in itself, without being calculated or designed to originate and support anything else, which is the case with love. Sanctity is the end of truth—so our Lord teaches us "Sanctify them by your truth." The truth is received into the mind by faith that it may impart sanctity, which includes love. Similar remarks will apply to hope, of which it is said, "Every man who has this hope in him, purifies himself." Christian love, then, attains its eminence by being the ultimate virtue which the other two produce. Love is that moral condition of the soul which it is the aim and purpose of faith and hope to produce.

2. Love is a SOCIAL grace, while faith and hope are exercised in reference to ourselves. We believe and hope with an immediate regard to our own happiness; but in the exercise of love, we regard the happiness of mankind. Christian love is a constant efflux of benevolent feeling, from the pure fountain of a heart devoted to the well-being of our race. Faith and hope are the channels by which we receive the streams of peace and joy, from the fullness of God. By the latter, we are recipients of happiness; by the former, we are its distributors—by believing, we rejoice; by loving, we awaken the joys of others—by one, we become the heirs of salvation, who are ministered to by angels; by the other, we become ministering angels in our turn. What a philanthropist must that man be who cultivates, and carries even to a tolerable perfection, the disposition of love—so beautifully described in this chapter, and who displays all its properties in his communion with society. How must such an individual bless all with whom he has to do. As he pursues his holy career, sorrow is alleviated, care is mitigated, need supplied, wickedness reformed by his efforts; the groans of creation are hushed, and the tears of humanity wiped away, by his divine love—and he becomes in his measure, like that heavenly visitant in our world, of whom it is said, "He went about doing good."

Survey, with admiration and delight, the mighty operations and the splendid achievements of love—this powerful and benevolent principle—as they are to be seen within, and only within, the hallowed pale of Christianity. What are all the numerous and diversified institutions in our own land, where houseless poverty has found a home; craving hunger, a supply; forsaken infancy, a protector; helpless old-age, a refuge; ignorance, an instructor; penitence, a comforter; virtue, a defense—but the triumphs and glories of Christian love? What are all those sublime combinations of human energies, property, and influence, which have been formed for the illumination, reformation, and salvation of the human race? What are Bible Societies, Missionary Societies, Tract Societies, Peace Societies—but the mighty monuments of that love, "which seeks not her own, and is kind?" What are the tears of commiseration, which flow for human sorrows—but the drops which fall from the eye of love? What the joy that is excited by the sight of happiness—but the smiles of love? What was it that made the great apostle of the Gentiles willing not only to bear any accumulation of suffering, indignity, and reproach—but to pour out his blood as a offering for others, and even to be accursed from Christ, and from mankind in general, for his kinsmen?—love! What is it that renders the modern missionary willing to go into perpetual exile from the land of his fathers and of his birth, to spend the future years of his life, and find at last a grave amid the sands of Africa, or the snows of Greenland; willing to exchange the society and polished communion of Europeans, for savages, whose minds are brutishly ignorant, and whose manners are disgustingly offensive—willing to leave the land of Sabbaths, and of Bibles, and of churches, for regions over which the 'demon of superstition' has extended his horrid sway, and beneath whose yoke nothing is to be seen—but orgies in which lust and cruelty struggle for pre-eminence? Love!

What was it that breathed into the heart of Howard that spirit which so filled and fired his mind with visions of human misery, and which brought from so many dungeons the plaintive cry, "Come over and help us!" that he could no longer rest in his own house, or in his own country—but traveled, again and again, across the breadth of Europe, in quest of wretchedness; descending into the captive's cell, that he might weigh his fetters, and measure his narrow apartment, and examine his food, to ascertain whether there was not more of misery in his hapless and forgotten lot, than justice demanded for the punishment of his crime; who inhaled the infected atmosphere of the lazaretto, to grapple with the plague, that fell destroyer of the human race, to approach which seemed to be courting death? It was love that formed the character of that illustrious man, and presented him to the notice and admiration of the civilized world.

What was it that gave courage, confidence, and self-denial to that extraordinary woman, who ventured among the furies of Newgate; where, if she had not cause to fear that assassins would attempt her life, she must have calculated upon finding a sort of demons, whose malignity, excited by the purity and virtue which seemed to set in stronger light, by the power of contrast, their own vices, would vent its rage on the angel form which had disturbed them? If ever the shape and the beauty of love were seen in one of our race, it was in Mrs. Fry when she entered the cells of our metropolitan prisons, and called their vicious and loathsome inhabitants around her, to be instructed and reformed.

And what is it that makes ten thousand holy men and women employ themselves continually in all kinds of self-denying exertions, to instruct the ignorant, to relieve the miserable, to reform the wicked? These, O heavenly love, are your works, the displays of your excellences, and the proofs of your pre-eminence!

3. It is a distinguished excellence of love, that it is A LIKENESS TO GOD. We are not at all surprised that the philosopher to whom the question was proposed, "What is God?" should have requested a day to prepare his answer; and when that was expired, should have asked a second, and a third, and should have at length confessed to the reproving monarch who proposed the query, that the more he examined the more he was confounded; and the farther he penetrated, the deeper and deeper he seemed plunging into darkness and mystery. Revelation has come to the aid of feeble reason, and compared with the latter, has thrown a blaze of radiance on the all-important subject—and yet, with the light of truth shining around us, so little do we understand of God, that he may be said, as it respects us, to "make darkness his pavilion," for "who by searching can find out God—who can find out the Almighty unto perfection?"

Of his essence we know nothing—of his eternity, omniscience, and omnipotence next to nothing. His moral perfections are, it is true, more easily understood by us—but as these are all infinite, it is but little even of these we can understand, "He is a rock, his way is perfect, without iniquity, just and right is he." Inflexible justice, immaculate purity, inviolable truth, unimpeachable fidelity, belong to him; but if this were all the view the Scripture gave us of his attributes, if the delineation of the divine character stopped here, how much would be lacking to the sinner's comfort! Can the trembling and condemned criminal take much pleasure in contemplating the power, the justice, and the truth of the judge, who holds his destiny in his hand—at least until he knows whether that judge has mercy also in his heart, and in his prerogative? and as little would it comfort us to know all the other attributes of Deity, if we could not exultingly exclaim, in the language of the apostle, "GOD IS LOVE!" Sublime and heart-reviving declaration! never was anything uttered more calculated to delight the soul of man.

Such a view of Deity is peculiar to revelation. Idolatry, in all her strange devices, in all her image-making processes, never conceived of such a God—power, wisdom, justice, truth, have all received their appropriate symbols of divinity, and have been worshiped under material forms; but benevolence had no statue, no temple, no priest. It was too pure a conception for the human heart, and too elevated an idea for human reason.

"God is love!" This refers not, of course, to his essence—but to his character. It means that benevolence is his whole moral character—not only that his nature is one sum of infinite excellence—but that his conduct is one mighty impulse to that which is good; in other words, that the divine disposition is an infinite propensity to delight in happiness, as already existing, or to produce it, where it does not exist. But be it recollected that the benevolence of God is the love of a governor or ruler, and not merely that of a philanthropist or a father; and who, in the exercise of his good-will to any particular part, cannot sacrifice the welfare of the whole; and, consequently, whose benevolence is not only compatible with the exercise of retributive justice—but requires it.

Such is the disposition of that divine mind, to which, by Christian love, we are conformed—that benevolence of the Deity, which, in its propensity to delight in happiness, and to create it, makes him infinite in patience, to bear with the millions of crimes which daily insult and provoke him; infinite in mercy, to pardon the most aggravated transgressions; infinite in kindness, to provide for the needs and comfort of his creatures. The highest pre-eminence in Christian love, the richest gem in its crown of honor, is its resemblance to God. There is nothing even remotely analogous to faith, or hope, in the divine nature. He who is omniscient cannot be said to believe; nor he who is infinitely blessed, and possessed of a divine fullness, be said to hope; but he can and does love! Resemblance to God is the highest glory of man. We should esteem it an honor to bear a faint impress of some of the more distinguished of the human race. It would be thought a high compliment to have it said that our genius resembled that of Milton, and our benevolence that of Howard; that our faith was like Abraham's, or our meekness akin to that of Moses. But how much greater is the distinction to bear, by love, the image of God!

4. Love is ETERNAL in its duration—it ascends with us to the skies, to live in our hearts, as the temper of our souls, forever and ever. It is questioned by some whether the two other graces will cease in the celestial state. It has been contended that as the glories of the divine nature are illimitable and innumerable, and the glorified mind will not attain to a perfect knowledge of these at once—but be continually receiving fresh communications on this vast theme, there must be both faith and hope in heaven; for as we successively receive these, we must believe in the assurance of those which are to come, and must perpetually look forward with expectation and desire. But does not this assume what cannot be proved, that our knowledge of God and divine things will be communicated in heaven by testimony, and not be acquired by intuition? It is not at all necessary that our growing knowledge, our eternally accumulating ideas, should be thus conveyed to us; for they may, for anything we know, be the reward of pleasant study, or they may flow into the mind, as the ideas of sensation do into the soul, without any effort, and may also come with all the certainty of that intuition, by which we perceive the truth of axioms. To say that this is belief, is to confound two things essentially distinct—knowledge and faith. So that it does not appear plain that faith, in any sense of the term, will exist in heaven.

But though it could be proved that, in some modification of the term, it would be exercised in the celestial state, such a belief would differ so materially from that which we now possess, and by which we are justified and saved, that it may with propriety be said, faith will cease in heaven. All the great objects to which faith now refers are 'absent'—we believe in their existence, through the report which is made of them in the Word of God; but in heaven they will be immediately present to the senses of our glorified body, or the perceptive faculty of our spirit made perfect.

Nor as it respects hope, is it by any means certain that this will exist in the heavenly state; for although it is difficult to conceive how there can be otherwise than a futurity, even in eternity, and how there can be a state of mind otherwise than the desire and expectation of future good—yet, as in hope there is usually some degree of doubt and uncertainty, the state of mind with which glorified spirits contemplate and anticipate future good, may be an indubitable certainty which excludes the restlessness of desire, and the incertitude of expectation.

In the hour of death, the believer closes the conflict with his spiritual enemies, enters a world where no foe shall ever exist, and where, of course, he no longer needs either defensive or aggressive weapons. He takes off the helmet of salvation, for hope is not needed when he is brought to full possession—he lays aside the shield of faith, for seeing and knowing have succeeded to believing, and he will be beyond the fiery darts of the wicked one—the breastplate of sincerity he retains, not as a weapon—but as an ornament—not as a means of defense—but as a memorial of victory—his feet are no longer shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, for he will no more have to tread on the snares of the destroyer, nor be exposed to his missiles—the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, shall be sheathed, and hung with the trumpet in the hall—praying will cease, where there is no need to be supplied, no care to be alleviated, no sin to be forgiven, no sorrow to be soothed—watchfulness will no more be necessary, where no enemy is found, no danger arises—the means of grace will all be useless, where grace is swallowed up in glory—submission will never be called for, where there are no trials—and even many of the properties of love itself will seem to be absorbed in its general principle—many of its modifications and operations will cease, amid its eternal delight in perfect excellence and happiness—for there can be no forgiveness of injuries where none will be inflicted; no patience where there is nothing to suffer; no concealment of faults where none can be committed; no self-denial where there will be nothing to try us. Nothing of love will remain, nothing be exercised—but a pure and unmixed delight in happiness! How should it stimulate us to the exercise of mutual forbearance and commiseration now—to consider that it is the only state where these virtues can be indulged!