Charity, the Sum of all Virtues - Part One

Charity and Its Fruits
(This week we continue our reading together of the Jonathan Edwards' classic, Charity and Its Fruits. We have just concluded the reading of the "Doctrine" portion of Lecture 1. We will continue with the "Application" portion of the Lecture in next week's reading. This is the pattern we will be using for the entirety of the reading. My notes here will follow Edwards' own outline directly, with my commentary inserted. I will attempt to make each post edifying even to those who are not reading along with us. Feel free to leave your questions or comments in the form below.)
Lecture I. (Part One)
Charity, or Love, the Sum of All Virtues
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”

First, that something is spoken of as of special importance, and as peculiarly essential in Christians, which the apostle calls CHARITY. And this charity, we find, is abundantly insisted on in the New Testament by Christ and his apostles, - more insisted on, indeed, than any other virtue.
"What persons very often mean by 'charity,' in their ordinary conversation, is a disposition to hope and think the best of others, and to put a good construction on their words and behavior; and sometimes the word is used for a disposition to give to the poor. But these things are only certain particular branches, or fruits of that great virtue of charity which is so much insisted on throughout the New Testament. The word properly signifies love, or that disposition or affection whereby one is dear to another....So that by charity here, we are doubtless to understand Christian love in its full extent, and whether it be exercised towards God or our fellow creatures."
Edwards spends some time in this section dealing with the fact that in the King James Version the word for love in the original language "agape" is rendered differently in different places. "Charity in some places, "love" in others. The word "charity" in his day had already come to mean something less than the sum total of love. (It has come to mean even less in our day.)I must say I like the way he handled this problem for his hearers. For whatever reason, he did not appeal to the original Greek. He used Scripture to interpret Scripture, and came up with the same answer one would get by referring to the Greek, that the love here in mind is not the narrow view one might have gotten from the word "charity" but rather the same kind of love we are instructed to have toward God Himself: "agape".

That said, I must admit, my first reaction to the passage above was a bit of horror - because the very thing he was saying was an inadequate definition of love was already more than I had imagined or ever really succeeded in. I also must admit, however, that as I read I knew in my heart, without a shadow of a doubt that what he was saying was true. "a disposition to hope and think the best of others"...this is certainly what I have toward my husband and children...but to others, well, not so much...only those I really love, and even then not all the time. But it is more than that. It is "that disposition or affection whereby one is dear to another." And it is that kind of love I'm supposed to have even for my enemies! God expects that I think of even my enemies as dear to me! Brothers and sisters, I've got a lot of growing to do. Perhaps you do as well. I take some comfort in the fact that I can see the truth and beauty of this Christian love.Christian love is the highest thing I can aspire to in this life, and clearly it will also be the most difficult. 

Secondly, [we observe] what things are mentioned as being in vain without it, viz. the most excellent things that ever belong to natural men; the most excellent privileges, and the most excellent performances.
(“viz.” means “namely”)
  • the most excellent privileges -  Spiritual gifts are vain (empty, worthless, futile) if performed without Christian love.
  • the most excellent performances -  Good works are vain if performed from any other motive than Christian love.
The doctrine taught, then, is this:
"...there is nothing at all that avails* anything without it. Let a man have what he will, and do what he will, it signifies nothing without charity; which surely implies that charity is the great thing, and that everything which has not charity in some way contained or implied in it, is nothing, and that this charity is the life and soul of all religion, without which all things that wear the name of virtues are empty and vain."
* “to avail” here means “to be of use, help, worth, or in accomplishing an end” - in the ultimate and eternal sense. It will not hold any sway before God.
I. I would speak of the nature of a truly Christian love.
1. That all true Christian love is one and the same in its principle.
(Edwards uses the word “principle” here in a very different sense than we tend to, so take careful note of this definition. “the ultimate source, origin, or cause of something”)

Unlike the love of unbelievers, which arises from any number of sources or motives in the heart (ie. greed, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, natural instinctual affection, etc.), Christian love is "one as to its is from the same spring or fountain in the heart, though it may flow out in different channels and diverse directions..."

First, It is all from the same Spirit influencing the heart.
"The Spirit of God is a Spirit of love, and when the former enters the soul, love also enters with it."

"I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf..." Rom. 15:30; "and has made known to us your love in the Spirit." Col. 1:8; "So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy..." Phil. 2:1; "and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." Rom. 5:5; "And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us" 1 John 3:23-24; "No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit." 1 John 4:12-13

In other words, the Spirit of love dwells in the Christian, communicating His own nature to us, so that we come to love who and what He loves.

Second, Christian love, both to God and man, is wrought in the heart by the same work of the Spirit.

"There are not two works of the Spirit of God, one to infuse a spirit of love to God, and the other to infuse a spirit of love to men; but in producing one, the Spirit produces the other also. In the work of conversion the Holy Spirit renews the heart by giving it a divine temper..." (See Eph. 4:23)

Knowing the situation Edwards was dealing within his congregation at the time when he was delivering these lectures, I can't help but wonder if he wasn't addressing a particular excuse he'd heard from his parishioners, ie: "Oh I love God alright, and very much, but it is my brother here I'm having the problem with. I'll need a second blessing from God if I'm going to be able to love them!" Edwards' point is clearly that if you are a Christian, you've already been given a heart to love both God and all that God loves. We have already been given everything that pertains to life and godliness.

Third, When God and man are loved with a truly Christian love, they are both loved from the same motives.
"When God is loved aright, he is loved for his excellency, and the beauty of his nature, especially the holiness of his nature; and it is from the same motive that the saints are loved - for holiness' sake....Love to God is the foundation of gracious love to men; and men are loved, either because they are in some respect like God, in the possession of his nature and spiritual image, or because of the relation they stand in to him as his children or creatures - as those who are blessed of him, or to whom his mercy is offered, or in some other way from regard to him."

We love God because He is supremely beautiful and lovely - He is holy. We love man because of his relationship to God. If a man is a believer, we love him as one whom Christ redeemed by His own suffering and death. We love unbelievers because they are creatures created in God's image. We love all living humans because as long as their breath remains they are creatures to whom God's mercy is being continually extended - recipients of His common grace.

I now proceed:
II. To shew the truth of the doctrine, that all virtue that is saving, or distinguishing of true Christians, is summed up in Christian love. And,

1. We may argue this, from what reason teaches of the nature of love. And if we duly consider its nature, two things will appear -

First, That love will dispose to all proper acts of respect to both God and man.
"Love to God will dispose a man to honor him, to worship and adore him, and heartily to acknowledge his greatness and glory and dominion. And so it will dispose to all acts of obedience to God...Love will dispose the Christian to behave toward God, as a child to a father; amid difficulties, to resort to him for help, and put all his trust in go to the one that we love for pity and help. It will lead us, too, to give credit to his word, and to put confidence in him; for we are not apt to suspect the veracity of those we have entire friendship for."

It will also lead us to submission to His will and humility. "A true Christian delights to have God exalted on his own abasement, because he loves Him. He is willing to own that God is worthy of this, and it is with delight that he casts himself in the dust before the Most High, from his sincere love to Him."

And as to men, Christian love "disposes men to all duties towards their neighbors...for real love and friendship always dispose us to give those we love their due, and never to wrong them. - 'Love worketh no ill to his neighbor.'" (Rom. 8:10) destroys enmity."

"Love will dispose to walk humbly amongst men; for a real and true love will incline us to high thoughts of others, and to think them better than ourselves."
"Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." 1 Peter 2:17
This word "honor" is the same word in the original as in that command to honor our parents. Therefore, any attitude we have, any word we speak, any act we direct toward our fellowman in general, and in particular anyone in authority, should not differ from the way in which we honor our own mother or father. We can test ourselves this way, "Would I think this attitude is [or tone of voice, or thought, or word, or action] disrespectful if someone were to speak [think, act] in this manner to my mother or father?" I think this is important to keep in mind when we find ourselves in an unfavorable political climate, when we can find ourselves so tempted to rail against those who rule over us. These are hard words, at least I find them hard; but they are God's words to us and so we must not only take them to heart, but obey them.

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." Phil. 2:3
This is another excellent test for honor. Are your thoughts or behaviors toward your fellowman really indicative that you count them as more significant than yourself?

"Love will dispose to contentment in the sphere in which God hath placed us, without coveting any things that our neighbor possesses, or envying him on account of any good thing that he has."

"Love will dispose men to meekness and gentleness in their carriage toward their neighbors, and not to treat them with passion or violence of heat of spirit, but with moderation and calmness and kindness. It will check and restrain everything like a bitter spirit; for love has no bitterness in it, but is a gentle and sweet disposition and affection of the soul. It will prevent broils and quarrels, and will dispose men to peacableness and to forgive injurious treatment received from others."

Is this the disposition of your heart to toward others? How about in your home and family? I was, before my conversion, inclined to treat those closest to me - who I claimed to love the most dearly - worse than anyone else I knew. I was what you might call a "street angel, house devil". I would expose my ugliness to those closest to me in hurtful ways. That was the opposite of Christian love. That was carnal attachment, loving others for what they could do for me, or how they could make me feel. (And blaming them when I was unhappy.) One of the biggest changes after Christ entered my life is that now those closest to me get the best of me, for what that's worth anyway. I'm not perfect at home, to be sure, but for me the greater temptations lie in my thoughts of those beyond the four walls of my little abode.

"Love will dispose men to all acts of mercy toward their neighbors when they are under any affliction or calamity, for we are naturally disposed to pity those that we love, when they are afflicted."

"It will dispose men to the duties they owe to one another in their several places and relations."

"It will dispose a people to all the duties they owe to their rulers, and to give them all that honor and subjection which are their due."

"It will dispose a people to all proper duty to their ministers, to hearken to their counsels and instructions, and to submit to them in the house of God, and to support and sympathize with and pray for them, as those that watch for their souls..."

"Love will dispose to suitable carriage between superiors and inferiors."
Here Edwards is speaking from the mindset of one living, as we discussed briefly in our biographical introduction, in a rigidly hierarchical society, which included strict class and social ranks as well as indentured servanthood and slavery. It's difficult from our egalitarian frame of reference to imagine others as superior or inferior to us. But we can, I think, understand it in the sense of military rank. We treat those "above" us in rank with due respect. Employees "rank" below bosses; wives below husbands, children below parents. All of us are to rank ourselves below governmental authorities. These "rankings" are established for the sake of order and we are to honor them.
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed." Romans 13:1-7

Second, Reason teaches that whatever performances or seeming virtues there are without love, are unsound and hypocritical.
"A man is never hearty in the honor he seems to render to another whom he does not love; so that all the seeming honor or worship that is ever paid without love, is but hypocritical. And so reason teaches, that there is no sincerity in the obedience that is performed without love; for if there be no love, nothing that is done can be spontaneous and free, but all must be forced. So without love, there can be no hearty submission to the will of God, and there can be no real and cordial trust and confidence in him. He that does not love God will not trust him: he never will, with true acquiescence of soul, cast himself into the hands of God, or into the arms of his mercy.

And so, whatever good carriage there may be in men toward their neighbors, yet reason teaches that it is all unacceptable and in vain, if at the same time there be no real respect in the heart toward those neighbors; if the outward conduct is not prompted by inward love."

"'You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:  'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'" Matthew 15:7-9

2. The Scriptures teach us that love is the sum of all that is contained in the law of God, and of all the duties required in his word.

 "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." Romans 13:8

"And he said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment."And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.'" Matthew 22: 37-40

First, The Scriptures teach this of the law and word of God in general.

Second, The Scriptures teach the same thing of each table of the law in particular.
"Hence love appears to be the sum of all the virtue and duty that God requires of us, and therefore must undoubtedly be the most essential thing - the sum of all the virtue that is essential and distinguishing in real Christianity.  That which is the sum of all duty, must be the sum of all real virtue."

See also: 1 Timothy 1:5; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8

3. The truth of the doctrine, as shewn by the Scriptures, appears from this, that the apostle teaches us (Gal. 5: 6) that 'faith works by love.' A truly Christian faith is that which produces good works; but all the good works which it produces are by love. By this, two things are evident to the present purpose:

First, That true love is an ingredient in true and living faith, and is what is most essential and distinguishing in it.
"Love is no ingredient in a merely speculative faith, but it is the life and soul of a practical faith. A truly practical or saving faith, is light an heat together, or, rather light and love, while that which is only a speculative faith, is only light without heat; and, in that it wants spiritual heat or divine love, is in vain, and good for nothing. A speculative faith consists only in the assent of the understanding; but in a saving faith there is also the consent of the heart....He whose heart consents to Christ as a Savior, has true love to him as such. For the heart sincerely to consent to the way of salvation by Christ, cannot be distinguished from loving that way of salvation, and resting in it. There is an act of choice or election in true saving faith, whereby the soul chooses Christ for its Savior and portion, and accepts of an embraces him as such; but, as was observed before, an election or choice whereby it so chooses God and Christ, is an act of love - the love of a soul embracing him as its dearest friend and portion."

Second, It is further manifest from this declaration of the apostle 'that faith works by love,' that all Christian exercises of the heart, and works of the life, are from love; for we are abundantly taught in the New Testament that all Christian holiness begins with faith in Jesus Christ.
"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." James 2: 14-17

"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." Galatians 5:6

So, faith without works is dead, and faith works through love.And as Edwards explains, the light of knowledge must be wedded to the heat which is the love through which faith works. Love is that which gives faith its life. Love is the underpinning of it all.

(All text in italics is quoted directly from Charity and Its Fruits. All text in red is Scripture. All text in green is my added commentary.)


Anonymous said…
Estelle writes:
Well, I’m sure I’m not the only one who is glad you chose this book, Laurie!
Agape love is the great, essential of all importance, as Edwards says: the life and soul of the Christian faith.
To think that even faith and knowledge (without sincere Agape) bite the dust. Where there is no love, things are forced – fake/ed – meaningless and result in harm: (knowledge puffs up). Ugly even disgusting, insulting. Pretend-worship/fake friendship/cheesy joy…
Jesus said to the Pharisees: “I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts” and… “ you honour God with your lips but your hearts are far from Me…” No wonder we need God to pour out His love in our hearts – and He graciously does! (Sigh) I too have a lot of growing up to do – ie get better and better at walking in this God-given, genuine Agape – with true motives and from the heart. As you wrote: “Love is the underpinning of it all.”
Thank you, Laurie!
Lisa notes... said…
Thanks, Laurie, for the great summary of this chapter. I've already found it challenging because I know that I do NOT love enough, especially those outside my own four walls, as you mentioned.

I'm encouraged by your reminders:

"You've already been given a heart to love both God AND all that God loves. We have already been given everything that pertains to life and godliness."

So true! I must remember that God equips us to do what he calls us to.

I also liked your pointing out that we can apply an honor test when we think about our parents: would I be offended if I heard someone talking to my parents with the tone that I'm using in talking with others? Ouch.

I so appreciate your hard work in putting this together. I know it takes much time and thought. I haven't sat down to put my own thoughts into words yet; still simmering... So your words add another layer of understanding. Thanks!
Lisa notes... said…
It's not much, but I finally collected my thoughts a little more on the beginnings of this chapter.

I'm looking forward to the second half. I've started reading it, but haven't finished it yet.
Laurie M. said…
Thanks Lisa, I'm off to work, but will head over to read your thoughts when I get home.
Jessica Watson said…
I don't have time to read this book right now, but it certainly sounds very good. I love JE! "A disposition to hope and think the best of others" was,gulp,a very convicting reminder to me as well.
I look forward to reading your summaries in preparation for the day I can actually read the book myself.

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