1 John 4:7-10
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God.…
Nothing can be more explicit. The whole nature of religion, as it is interpreted to us in Christianity, is comprised in that one word — love. The Divine nature is love; and piety in us is to be love. When a great structure is arising, there are multitudes of labourers; there are artisans in wood, in stone, in clay, in iron and metals; and each in his own department is in lawful authority. But higher than all of them is the artist and architect. His controlling authority brings all these various workers together, limits and directs their tasks, gives to their cooperative skill a central unity toward which they all are unconsciously tending. Does he, then, abate or limit the power of the heads of departments underneath him? Is not his influence necessary to their greatest development and the highest triumphs of their several skills? So in that temple of the human soul, which each one of us is building by the industries of many noble and potent faculties, Love is the architect, and gives the lines for a foundation, and forms the proportions, and teaches all these diverse faculties, not how to work in their kind and nature, but how, working in their kind and nature, to subserve higher purposes by a Divine unity, and purity, and moral excellence. Love unites their agencies.
I. Let us employ this truth as A CRITERION OF HUMAN CHARACTER. The law of God is the only thing by which we can measure a character. That law, set forth for man's obedience, is Thou shalt love the Lord thy God supremely, and thy fellow man as thyself. Now let us apply this test. Does any man live that does not violate this command of God, "Thou shalt love"? Let us look inward for one single moment. Did you ever know a man who could say, I have never, from the hour of conscious intelligence, carried my intellect so that in its operations I have violated the law of love? Let a man summon to the bar of his own conscience, pride. What a man would be physically without a backbone, that he would be mentally without the element of pride. And yet, has this element been so controlled in any man that it can rise up and say, "I have never disregarded, either negatively or positively, the supreme law of love"? Summon that most lithe and nimble feeling — the love of praise — and what man can say, "I have so carried my vanity, my approbativeness, that it has always been in subordination to the law of love"? Can any man say, "My imagination has so acted as never to infract the law of love"? Or, can any man say, "My moral sentiments have so acted as never to overstep the law of love"? What, then, shall we say of the lower feelings? What of the business, executive powers? What of the passions and appetites? Go through the soul, and look at every one of the faculties, and is there one that has not violated this law? I go still further. The action of each element in the soul has been such that its obedience to the law of love has been occasional, has been rare. There are spots where almost everybody, first or last, has felt some glow and warming of love; but to the greatest number of men that ever dwelt on earth, love has been just what Northern days are, when the sun stands above the horizon only one short hour, is sunk below it for the other twenty-three, and is growing worse and worse toward the six-months night. Is not the whole of our outer life, is not our daily conduct, are not our ambitions, are not our secular ends, is not our treatment of men, organised and solidly constructed upon a selfish motive? Thus the inward life and the outward conduct of men both come to one and the same testimony. They are both of them built up not only outside of God's law, but right over against it, and in antagonism with it. These being the facts: God's command of love being neglected, and your character and whole history turning on the infraction of it, ought I not to lay this terrible truth before you, and roll it again and again upon you? In my own case, the belief of this doctrine, instead of being an injury, has been a benefit. My charity for men has been augmented in the proportion in which my opinion of their goodness has been lowered. When I deal with men on the supposition that they are good, I am roused with impatience at the manifestations of their wickedness; and when I deal with them on the supposition that they are altogether sinful, I expect nothing from them, and I find myself prepared beforehand to treat them with charity and forbearance.
II. This truth affords, also, A CRITERION OF CONVERSION. There are such loose notions of what religion is, that we cannot too urgently hold attention to the fact that in Christ's kingdom love is a characteristic element of piety; and that when a man is converted genuinely, he must be converted to the spirit of love. There may be other things with this spirit, but it is this that makes piety in Christ's kingdom. Let us make some discriminations. A man may come to a certain state of great and sudden joy, and of relish for religious exercises, and yet not be a Christian. Religious inspirations and great fertility of feeling, of fancy, fervour of emotion, and elegant utterance, are not evidences, in themselves, of piety. They are blessed concomitants of it often; but they may exist separately from and independently of piety. Your piety is to be tested by its consistency with God's law of love. The power of right ideas, the clearness with which you take hold of them, the aptness with which you are able to state them, your zeal for them — all these, while they are desirable in piety, are not characteristic of it; and a man may have them and not be a Christian. God's orthodoxy is of the heart always. That will make the head correct. A man, also, may have great faith and not be a Christian. I go further, and say that a man may be a very generous, good fellow, a very agreeable, companionable man, and yet not be a Christian. A man, likewise, may have an unflinching zeal in religion, and constancy in its service, even to martyrdom, and yet not be a Christian. How many there are that are wardens and doorkeepers of God's house, who have no love, no benevolence, no conscience, no fidelity. Zeal they may have, but summer in the soul they have not. I go still further, and say that religiousness is not piety. Far be it from me to say a word to discourage reverence, devoutness, awe, in the presence of God. But that alone, that without love, is not enough. With love, it makes piety broader and deeper, and life more massive and noble; but unless there be, first, intermediate, and last, the spirit and the law of love, there is no piety. When a man is converted, therefore, it is very important that he should be converted to the right thing. No man is a Christian till he is converted to the law of love. Since you made a profession of religion, are you kinder in the various relations of life? Is your life more full of the fruits of love? Have you a more comprehensive benevolence toward all mankind? Every year do you less and less accept the service of loving men as a task, and do you more and more accept it with cheerfulness? Do you find that the currents of your thought and feeling are setting outward instead of inward? Are you more full of the sweetness of true Christian's love? In this direction you must measure to know whether you are growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
(H. W. Beecher.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.