Edwards series of sermons on love (published as “Charity and Her Fruits). The sermons as published by Yale may be found here in volume of 8 of the collected works of Jonathan Edwards, Ethical Writings: www.edwards.yale.edu
Charity, or Love, the Sum of All Virtue
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. I CORINTHIANS13:1–3.
Edwards begins his sermon with the observation that love is of greater value than any other virtue mentioned in the New Testament:
IN these words may be observed
1. Something spoken of as of special importance, and as peculiarly essential in Christians, which the Apostle here calls charity. Charity we find abundantly insisted on in the New Testament by Christ and his apostles. And indeed there is no virtue so much insisted on by them.
Having raised his topic, Edwards immediately dispenses with a potential problem in the text. The word English word “charity” had far too narrow a significance for Edwards’ congregants in 1738. They must not think of giving alms or having kind thoughts about another person. Rather, when they read the word they must think of a broader idea, “that disposition or affection whereby one is dear to another”.
Edwards then makes second observation about the text, any action—even “the most excellent things that ever belong to natural men—are of no true importance if not stemming from love.
Based upon his observations, Edwards draws out the doctrine which he will explain in the sermon:
All that virtue which is saving, and distinguishing of true Christians from others, is summed up in Christian or divine love.
Now the word “love” can be used in a variety of ways to describe a variety of things. Therefore, Edwards begins explanation by setting out the nature of true Christian love:
I. I would speak of the nature of a truly Christian love.
A. That all true Christian love is one and the same in its principle.
When love springs from my desire to some-thing, then the love will vary because of my heart and will vary with the thing loved. A truly Christian love cannot be so. This is a strange idea, because we naturally experience a different love toward friends than toward someone we have never met. And that is Edwards’ point for his hearers. The love which the Bible commends and commands has a different source and nature than our common affections. Edwards makes three points to demonstrate that Christian love is unique in its source and purpose:
First, such love is an operation of the Holy Spirit in and on the human heart:
It is all from the same Spirit influencing the heart. It is from the breathings of the same Spirit that the Christian’s love arises, both towards God and men. The Spirit of God is a spirit of love. And therefore when the Spirit of God enters into the soul, love enters. God is love, and he who has God dwelling in him by his Spirit will have love dwelling in him. The nature of the Holy Spirit is love; and it is by communicating himself, or his own nature, that the hearts of the saints are filled with love or charity.
This must be understood: The love which a Christian is called upon to possess, exhibit, expend does not originate with the individual human being. True Christian love is God’s work in the Christian’s life.
The difficulty which Christians often experience in their love toward neighbor lies in a failure to understand this point. They look upon the requirement to love neighbor—and even their enemies—and think, I can’t make myself do that. Of course not. The love which a Christian must expend is a love which comes from God. Therefore, the Christian’s trouble lies in their Godward relationship: They are not receiving love from the Spirit’s work and thus have no true love to expend.
If I send my child to the market to buy something, I give him money to spend. God does not merely command love, but God also supplies the love.
Edwards proves this point with the following Scripture references:
Hence the saints are said to be “partakers of the divine nature” [2 Peter 1:4]. And Christians’ love is called the love of the Spirit. Romans 15:30, “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit.” And having bowels of love and mercy seems to signify the same thing with having the fellowship of the Spirit in Philippians 2:1, “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies.” It is the Spirit which infuses love to God.8 Romans 5:5, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost.” And it is by the indwelling of this Spirit that the soul dwells in love to men. 1 John 4:12–13, “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.”9 And ch. 1 John 3:23–24, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.”
Second, the love which the Christian shows to God is the same love which the Christian shows to neighbor:
The Spirit of God in the work of conversion renews the heart by giving it a divine temper. Ephesians 4:23, “And be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” And it is the same divine temper which is wrought in the heart that flows out in love both to God and men.
Third, true love proceeds from motive to glorify God. Things in nature, particularly human beings, are loved with reference to God. The Christian is love neighbor because of God. Not as a fearful, if I don’t love I’ll get in trouble. Rather, the Christian must love neighbor because God is excellent, beautiful, holy:
When God and men 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, the beauty of his nature, especially the holiness of his nature. And it is from the same motive that the saints are loved; they are loved for holiness’ sake. And all things which are loved with a truly holy love are loved from some respect to God. Love to God is the foundation of a gracious love to men. Men are loved either because they are in some respect like God, either they have the nature or spiritual image of God; or because of their relation to God as his children, as his creatures, as those who are beloved of God, or those to whom divine mercy is offered, or in some other way from regard to God.
Why then do Christians have such difficulty with the love described herein by Edwards? A great deal of the fault lies with their guides, their pastors and teachers. The love which the Christian must exhibit flows from a sight of the surpassing glory and beauty of God in Jesus Christ. Love does not proceed by merely haranguing people to “love”.
It is possible to manipulate and guilt people into particular actions. But all such manipulated behaviors will fall short of what Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 13. Indeed, Paul’s point is that such actions are inadequate because they do not proceed from true Christian love: such actions are “nothing”.
If true Christian love proceeds from the operation of the Holy Spirit and proceeds on the basis of exalting in the beauty and excellencies of God, then love can only be rightly motivated by a sight of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).