Adapted from a Sermon by John Angell James
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
There is no subject of a practical nature, to which I could direct your attention, which is more important, either to yourselves, or to the credit of your profession, and therefore to the well-being of others—than that which is contained in our sermon this morning; That is: Christian love.
Hear again the apostle's beautiful description and eloquent praise of love in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
The circumstances around this chapter were as follows. The Corinthian church was pre-eminent in the possession of spiritual gifts. This distinction brought about the indulgence of pride and vanity in the exercise of these supernatural powers, which called for the interference, admonition, and rebuke of apostolic authority. In the last verse of the preceding chapter, Paul admonishes the members of the church to "earnestly desire the higher gifts;" those which were most edifying, such, for instance, as prophesying, that is, speaking of Divine truth under inspiration; and yet says he, "I will show you a still more excellent way;" (1Cor 12:31) by which he meant that he would set before them something more excellent, and far more to be desired, than the most extraordinary miraculous gift. This pre-eminent excellence, to which he refers, is the love which he describes in the chapter we have read.
Nothing can give us a more impressive or instructive lesson, than this exaltation of love over miracles. What a proof is it that the apostle was neither an impostor nor an enthusiast; that Christianity is indeed from Heaven, since though it is accredited by supernatural powers and endowments, its Divine Author, and its inspired teachers, place these in an inferior rank to Christian virtue. Had Paul been either an impostor or an enthusiast, would he not have dwelt with more emphasis and focus, as all impostors do, upon the marvellous and miraculous, and with less earnestness on that which is plain and practical?
What an idea does it give us of the value of this transcendent disposition, to see it, in this way, placed above the wonder-working powers of the first Christians—and what a notion does it convey to us of our own privileges, when we find ourselves invited and enabled to take possession ourselves of something more to be coveted and esteemed, than the ability to speak all languages without study, and to heal all diseases without the practice or the study of medicine. Such is love.
But of what love does the apostle speak? Evidently not of love to God, as is clear from its description on whom it is to be bestowed; nor of love to our brethren in Christ exclusively, because the acts of it, as described in the chapter, are as much required from us in reference to the wicked, as to the righteous—it is love to all men, whether righteous or wicked; friends or foes. It is the same as love to our neighbor; it is in short, that benevolent disposition or kindness which consists in good-will to all creatures, and which leads us, as we have opportunity, to promote their happiness. God is love—and this is his likeness. God loves all the universe with a love of benevolence—but his people with a love of delight. In accord with this, his people are bound to love all, whether good or bad, so far as to be willing to promote their happiness; but they love the righteous with a special delight, on account of their relation and likeness to God; and thus add to “brotherly affection… love." (2 Peter 1:7)
Such is love—not a mere natural amiableness of character—not a soft, weakly, disposition. No! but a fruit of the Spirit. It is a benevolence, which is the result of regeneration; cherished by a sense of God's love to us in Christ Jesus; guided in its actions by the Holy Scriptures; and directed, as its end, to the glory of God. It is that state of mind into which man is brought by the great change wrought in us by converting grace.
Man, in his fallen state, is under the dominion of supreme selfishness. Deep down, he cares for no other or higher object than self. His wife, children, friends, neighbours, are no otherwise regarded than as part of himself, or for the sake of himself. But to love, in the scriptural sense of the word, that is, a love for God's sake, his heart is a stranger.
To feel the cold and icy selfishness of the heart, warming and melting under the bright rays of Divine and infinite kindness, and a sense of interest awakened in the soul, and an impulse of benevolence given to it, which sends it beyond the circle of relatives, into the vast family of man; to be susceptible of emotions and affections which expand the heart until it embraces the wide range of human beings; to be conscious of a sympathy with all our fellow creatures as capable of happiness, and an anxious desire to promote it; to realize within us a sorrow that resonates with the grief of others, and a joy with their gladness; to know something of a disposition to be an instrument of doing good and the means of communicating happiness; to be ever ready to weep with those who weep, and to rejoice with those who rejoice—in short, to know that our happiness is derived in great part from the happiness of others, and is increased by promoting it, and all this from an imitation of the love of God to us—this is the love spoken of by the apostle in the chapter referred to, and which is now commended to us.
The man who possesses this disposition in a high degree, places himself in imagination on some summit, where as the love of God in Christ streams upon him from above, and the whole human race lies below him, he feels the tide of his sympathy and his yearnings rise in sincere and ardent wishes to do them all good, and make them all happy, irrespective of relationship, of character, of party, or denomination.
The apostle has given us a description of the working out of this noble and god-like principle. "Love is patient," and long-suffering under injuries and annoyances, and does not revile, revenge, or retaliate. "Love is kind," not harsh or crude—but ever ready, willing, and pleased by looks, words, and actions, to promote the comfort of others. "Love does not envy." It does not covet and grieve at the sight of another's better possessions, fame, happiness, or piety—and dislike him on that account. "Love does not boast; it is not arrogant." It neither boasts of its own gifts, achievements, and possessions, nor despises others, nor makes insulting comparisons—but is humble and gentle. "Love is not rude." It modestly keeps its place, and does nothing to offend by what is unbecoming its position, station, or circumstances. "Love does not insist on its own way." It does not selfishly want to promote its own interest, to the neglect of others. "Love is not irritable." It governs its temper, controls its passions, and is not soon or unreasonably irritable or sullen. "Love is not resentful." It is not judgemental, nor quick to impute a bad motive to a doubtful action—but is disposed to put the best construction on actions and words. "Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth." It does not delight in the sins—but in the excellences of an opponent. "Love bears (or covers) all things." It does not divulge, proclaim, aggravate faults—but hides them as far as it can, and it is right to do so. "Love believes all things," that are to the advantage of another. "Love hopes all things," where there is not sufficient evidence to authorize belief. "Love endures all things," bears hardships, does not shrink from hard work, makes sacrifices in order to accomplish its purposes of good-will.
Such is love in exercise and action. This is benevolence—this is a regard to the happiness of others. Whoever acts in this way must promote happiness. He must bless all around him. All things smile in his presence. Beautiful description! Heavenly temper! Godlike mind! This is true religion, and this is to exist forever. "Love never ends," miracles will cease, have ceased—but love remains. Many things which belong to the church militant will cease in the church triumphant—but love goes with us to heaven. Faith will be changed into sight; hope into fruition; prayer into praise; the helmet, and the shield, and the sword will be laid aside, when the fight of faith is over. But love is the victor's trophy, his temper, his whole character, that will be his honor and joy through eternity.
Heaven is a region of love; love is its element, its bliss. Perfect love to God, and perfect love to our companions in glory, will be the consummation of our celestial happiness. We cannot rise higher, we cannot go beyond it. Imagination can neither devise nor conceive of anything richer than perfect love. God has nothing greater, as a disposition of our mind, to bestow. What can he do more for us, than to fill us with perfect love to himself, and to all the universe? What a center, God and the universe, around which for the soul to be ever revolving in a circle of love! Never to have a feeling contrary to, or below, perfect love! To soar in an atmosphere, to plunge in an ocean, to live and move forever in a world of love! To have perpetual thoughts and feelings of pure, generous, unchecked benevolence, and all these coming back again from the objects of them, in mutual smiles, expressions of regard, and acts of pure and perfect love!
Is it surprising that the apostle should give love the first place? "Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." Love is the end of faith, and the accomplishment of hope, and therefore greater. Love is a social grace going out in its influence to others, while faith and hope are personal graces, terminating with ourselves. Love is a resemblance to God, for God is love—but God can have nothing alike to faith or hope. Love is to last forever, when faith and hope will cease—and on all these accounts is greater than the others.
And so take a moment to consider love—admire its lovely form, its beautiful expression, and its graceful actings; and observe its angelic glow, its divine temper, until you are all taken with with its charms. But look at it not only as something to be admired—but to be possessed and practiced. Unless this be your disposition, you are no Christians. This is not to say you cannot be Christians unless you have it in perfection—but you must have the principle, and must be living in its exercise; and you are Christians no further than you live under its influence.
Hear what the apostle says, "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith," 1 Tim. 1:5. No matter what knowledge you may have of the doctrines of the gospel; what seeming faith you may possess; what zeal you may manifest; however liberal you may be in your almsgiving; what constancy, regularity, and punctuality in attendance upon the means of grace, you may maintain—if love be lacking, all are but a body without a soul; all are but the nervous motions of a corpse, without a principle of vitality to originate, direct, or sustain them.
In the beginning of the chapter, the apostle tells us that the most elevated eloquence, made use of in advocating the cause of the gospel; that the faith of miracles carried to the greatest extent; that a fortune spent in alms deeds; and all this closed and crowned with martyrdom, is of no use, without love. Nothing can be a substitute for love. This, this is Christianity; not a slavish attendance on ceremonies; not receiving the sacraments; not zeal for orthodoxy; not a form of church government; not belonging to any particular church; not receiving the benefit of an Episcopal or a Presbyterian ministry; not being a churchman, dissenter, or Congregationalist. These, according as they are scriptural, are important as helps—but not as principals; as means—but not ends; as aids—but not substitutes.
God's eternal thoughts and purposes in election, Christ's redeeming work on the cross, the Spirit's omnipotent agency in regeneration, are not merely to bring us under a particular form of church, a particular denomination—but to deliver us from the dominion of selfishness, and place us under the reign of love, and so make us like God! Whatever there may be of churchmanship, or of dissent, or of Congregationalism—if there is not love, there is no true religion, none at least that Christ will own to be such; and if there is love, there is a religion, which he will own. Let it be inscribed on any place of religious worship, whether a cathedral, or a chapel, "Love is absent here," and it is only saying in another form of expression, "Religion is absent here."
While, on the other hand, if it can be truly said, "Love is in this place,"—some things may be lacking to a perfect exhibition of Christianity, and others may be there which are a blemish upon it—but the substance is there. The supposed apostolical succession, and Episcopal ordination, and a finely composed liturgy, or the more simple system of dissenting worship—are a poor substitute for love. If an individual is destitute of love, he has no saving religion. Zealous he may be for the forms of Christianity—but he is destitute of its living spirit.
It is time to call back the professed children of a God of love, and the professed followers of a Savior, who is love incarnate, to this glorious, simple, and sublime description of true religion, and to show them that whatever may be the religion of denominations, the religion of the true, holy Christian church, is "faith working through love," Gal. 5:6. This is the apostolic spirit, and the true apostolic succession.
Strange that this should be so much forgotten; that men should have fought about the form, until they had lost the spirit of the gospel—and have trampled upon love, in their contest for faith. Sadly, who, on looking at the present state of Christendom, resembling rather a battlefield than a peaceful city; a place of resort for savage animals, that bite and devour one another, rather than a sheepfold, where the flock reposes in quietness and without envy, under one Shepherd—that these were the professors of a religion, which as to its practical nature and design, is all expressed in that one word, love?
Who that is witness of the contention and party spirit that now characterize so large a portion of the so-called Christian world, could imagine that these would dare to call themselves by the name of that meek and lowly Savior, who taught men they could not be his disciples unless they loved their enemies; and who set them the example by praying and dying for his own!
But this is not in any way to encourage or support the notion that love consists of that unprincipled free-thinking, that unsound toleration of error, that fawning flattery—which destroys the importance of right sentiments; which smiles with equal complacency on all religious systems alike; which purchases peace at the expense of truth—and would rather leave men to perish in their sins, than awaken them to the care of their souls by alarming their fears.
No! love is as bold, resolute, and firm to resist error, and as valiant for the truth—as it is gentle, tender, and pacific, where the milder graces will best promote the happiness of its objects. Truth is its weapon—but it is truth in the hand of love. Sin is love's enemy, which it hates and seeks to destroy, while it pities the sinner. Love is zealous—but its zeal is neither the lightning's flash, nor raging inferno, nor volcanic eruption; but the warm, silent, effective beams of the shining light, which shines more and more to the perfect day.
And now let us examine ourselves concerning this great essential of the Christian character.
Is this your disposition in practice? Is this your religion? Is the mould of your temper? Through faith in Christ, and by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, are you brought to love God for his own sake, and man for God's sake? Is this where you find the spring of your affections to God and man? Is that one word love characteristic of your spirit? Have you a tie that binds you to the whole human race, and creates a tendency to promote universal happiness? Has God's love to you changed you into its own likeness? Do you know what it is to have pride, passion, envy, malice, selfishness, if not wholly eradicated, yet subdued, repressed, resisted, by a meek, gentle, lowly, forgiving, forbearing, candid, generous, self-denying spirit? Are the harshness, hardness, sharpness of the fallen nature, displaced by the softness, sweetness, and kindness of true love?
Cultivate this disposition. We have all too little of it. Remember, it is absolutely and indispensably essential. It is not a mere secondary thing—but a fundamental one. You can no more be Christians without love, than you can be without purity, or justice, or truth. It is not a mere decoration of the Christian character—but part of the substance of it. You can have no faith without love, for "faith works by love." (Gal 5:6) You cannot be born of the Spirit without love, for "the fruit of the Spirit is love." (Gal 5:22) You cannot be keeping the commandments of God without love, for "the whole law is fulfilled in one word … love." (Gal 5:14) You do not have the image of God without love, for "God is love." (1 John 4:8) You cannot be fit for heaven without love, for heaven is perfect love. You must have this grace, or you can never be saved.
Make great efforts to obtain love. Without effort, you will never have Christian love. You must watch, wrestle, and pray. Love is not a beautiful wildflower, that, meeting with a agreeable soil in your heart, will grow without culture, or labor. On the contrary, love is an exotic plant, which finds in the soul of man a barren soil, and in this world a chilling atmosphere, and which will never take root and flourish without great pains. Love is a plant of paradise, which cannot live and grow on earth without incessant care, and without placing it by faith and prayer under the warm beams of the Sun of righteousness, and the dew of the Holy Spirit. Unless our heart is set upon it, and we treat it as the gardener does some favourite flower, which he is anxious to raise up to strength and beauty, we will never succeed. Love is a grace which the man of the world neglects, and which many professing Christians think far too little about; but it is of infinite value in the eyes of God.
Let us not be disappointed if we do not make attainments in it as fast or as great as we could wish. But let us put to death every feeling which is contrary to it, and resist to the uttermost the indulgence of every evil passion. Let us feel that love is our vocation, for which we are set apart by both redeeming and regenerating grace.
We should often meditate on the love of God, and of Christ, to us. We cannot call love into exercise by mere will-power—it will not rise and take hold out at our command; we have to meditate on the great pattern, and study the Divine example. We have to steadily contemplate the God of love bending in the attitude of a pitying benevolence over a world in rebellion against him; and we have to visit the cross daily to see the bleeding, dying love of Christ. We have to go in this way to the Fountain of love, and, as it were, drink in love, by the power of faith. The enmities of our nature wither, and all the charities revive and flourish, by the influence of meditation on the love of God.
How earnestly should we pray for that Spirit, whose first and richest fruit is love. It is his to bless our labours; his to make our efforts successful; his to water the precious plant, and make it grow.
And consider some of the motives you have to enforce this disposition. How will it promote your own happiness. How serene a spirit will it produce and sustain in your own mind. Love is peace, and peace is bliss. Love is the calm and sunshine of the heart. How will it bless others around you. Your looks will speak affection, your lips drop words of kindness, your actions will be benevolent—you will, in short, be as a tree of life, the fruit of which offers itself to every hand, and will refresh every palate.
Others will love to approach you, and delight in you as one raised up by grace to bless your species. What honor and credit will you put upon Christianity! You will roll away the reproach brought upon it by the anger, wrath, and all uncharitableness of others; you will clear the minds of many, of a prejudice against it, as if it were a severe, or harsh temper, and convince them that instead of being a fury—it is a ministering angel, sent out from the Father of mercies, to reveal to men his nature, and to fit them for his presence.
And now, in conclusion, let us sigh, and pray, and strive, for the universal reign of love, through the influence of the truth and the power of faith. Let us invoke the God of love to bestow this blessed fruit of the Spirit upon this distracted and divided world, and upon every member of his church.
Love is the only cure for the gangrene of party strife. Love is the most characteristic feature of Christ's image in a renewed man. Love is the most precious fruit of grace; and yet the fruit which too many of his professed followers seem to think themselves hardly under any obligation to cultivate. Yes, love is the image, as well as the law of our Divine Lord.
It is love, which must form the bond of union between all the followers of Christ, the principle of a universal fellowship of saints, and the glory of the church—even as it will form the sweet and everlasting bond of souls in heaven!