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1 Cor. xiii. 13. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three;
but the greatest of these is charity.
[Text taken from the Epistle for the Day.]
In the chapter before this, mention is made of several spiritual and extraordinary gifts, which God, in those early times, conferred upon Christians: but even these excellent gifts of the holy Spirit of love and peace and order, did not altogether produce in the Corinthian church the fruits which might have been expected:—there were persons, who misapplied the gifts of tongues; some were guilty of pride and ostentation; others, of jealousy and envy. St. Paul therefore puts them in mind that these gifts, various and variously distributed, though unequal in their use and excellence, yet all proceeded from one and the same Holy Spirit, and all conspired to the same good end; being designed by him for the edification of the Church, and to preserve unity and concord amongst its members, though unhappily perverted by some of them. Hence he takes occasion to exhort them to put away all strife and vain-glory, and envy, and contempt; to love and esteem and serve each other; and to apply the powers which they had received from God, to the public good, and to the glory of their author. * Covet earnestly,' says he,' the best gifts; and yet show I unto you a more excellent way :'—that is; You may beg of God that he would confer upon you those gifts, which are most useful; for to serve him in this manner is an honourable employment, and to desire it is a laudable ambition: but remember that there is a grace of more value in the sight of God, and more beneficial to men,—more glorious therefore, and more desirable, than all these extraordinary gifts, than all the abilities of the mind,— and that is, Charity.
St. Paul proceeds to show the nature of charity, and the effects which it produces. 'It suffereth long, and is kind; envieth not; vaunteth not itself; doth not behave itself unseemly; seeketh not its own; is not easily provoked; thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things; believeth all things; hopeth all things; endureth all things.'
The charitable man, as he is represented by St. Paul, is one who, in all his behaviour, hath the convenience and welfare of his neighbour as much in his view and at heart, as his own. He bears with gentleness, meekness, and patience, the defects and faults of others, and is willing to conceal them, though himself is the sufferer; nor doth he expose them, unless justice and the public good absolutely require it. He allows those who have offended against him, time and leisure to become sensible of it, and to amend their manners. He is inclined to entertain hopes of their reformation, and to give credit to favourable reports of it, when there is any reason to suppose them true. Free from suspicious malice and censoriousness, he had much rather be mistaken in thinking too kindly, than too harshly. He is never hurried away and overcome by anger; never loses his prudence, and becomes unable to govern him•elf. He always tempers his passion, and restrains it from breaking out into any indecencies of words and actions. He is courteous and civil, void of austerity, ill humour, and moroseness; liberal and ready to the utmost of his power, to relieve and assist all who stand in need of his aid. He envieth not the prosperity of his neighbour; he sincerely desires it, and rejoiceth at it, as if he were a gainer by it; and indeed he is, for, by this benevolent temper, he in some sort partakes of it, and makes it his own, without any loss to the proprietor. He is free from that pride, conceit, and arrogance, which arc always attended with a disregard and contempt of others. He never misbehaves himself through vain-glory; but seems rather ignorant of his own good qualities, than an admirer and proclaimcr of them. He is willing to submit to the lowest offices for the benefit of his fellow-christians, not thinking it beneath his dignity to be thus employed. His zeal for the glory of God, and for the advancement of religion, is strong and active, but joined with discretion and goodnature. He is disinterested and public-spirited, and prefers the common welfare to his private advantage and convenience. Thus he thinks, and thus he acts, not by fits and starts, but uniformly, and through the whole course of his life.
Let us now proceed to consider what St. Paul advances concerning the necessity of practising this 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 no 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., That is,—If I had the gift of tongues, a gift which you earnestly covet, and sometimes misapply, if I had it in the utmost extent, so that I could speak all languages; yet if I have not charity also, which would direct me to use it properly at all times, for the good of the church, and which would keep me from exalting myself above others upon that account,—I should be only a vain and useless talker, and should sound forth my own praise, not the glory of God.
And though I have the spirit of' prophecy,' a gift superior to the former, by which I can expound the Scriptures, and teach the Gospel, and sometimes foretel things to come; 'and though I understand' and can explain 'all the figures and mysteries' of the Old Testament accomplished in Christ; and though I am perfect in the 'knowledge' of divine truths; and though I have the highest degree of that faith by which we are enabled to work miracles, so that I can perform the most wonderful works; if I have not charity, I am nothing; nothing worth in the sight of God, nor to be compared with those who have this virtue, but am far from Christian perfection.
And though I give alms to the needy, till by relieving them I become as poor as they; though I lay down my life, when I might save it by renouncing my religion, yet if I have not charity, it availeth me nothing. If I think by those splendid acts of self-denial and constancy to please God, and at the same time violate the duty of charity, I deceive myself in imagining that God will accept so incomplete an obedience. If I have not charity, whatsoever I may do that appears great and commendable, and whatsoever gifts of the holy Spirit I may possess, I cannot deserve the name of a good man.
Thus St. Paul, in a few words, but those the most striking and expressive, declares the necessity of performing this great duty. He proceeds to make some observations upon the excellence of charity, in the following manner:—
'Charity never faileth; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away:' that is,— Herein Charity exceeds these gifts, that its use and duration are endless; but hereafter, the gift of tongues shall cease; and prophecy, whether it be the knowledge of divine truths, or the prediction of future events, shall become unnecessary.
'For we know in part, and we prophecy in part; but when that which is perfect, is come, then that which is in part, shall be done away:' (i. e.) our knowledge of God and of religious truths is confmed in narrow bounds; and the prediction of future events extends itself not to many things, and is not without obscurity, and will have its completion in this world. These gifts are bestowed upon us as helps suitable to our present imperfect state; and must become useless hereafter, when we shall arrive at a state of perfection.
'When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things:' that is,—Whilst we are children, our thoughts are low and trifling; our manner of expressing them suitable to such thoughts; our reasoning weak and inconclusive; but as we advance in years, we advance in understanding. Such, and far greater, is the difference between our knowledge here in this life, and that which we shall attain hereafter. This is our state of childhood, and we now reason of divine things imperfectly, and suitably to our obscure apprehensions of them: but, in the next world, all difficulties will vanish, and these things will be clear to us.
'For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known:' divine truths are at present seen by us but obscurely and imperfectly. Our knowledge of God, of his nature and properties, of the scheme of his providence and the method of his government, is short and incomplete. But, in heaven, we shall not be less wise than happy: we shall then know many things, which are now, in a great measure, hidden from us; we shall know them, as we ourselves are known of God, that is, clearly and perfectly.
'And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity:' that is,—Above all the miraculous gifts of the spirit, are these three christian graces; faith, or a belief in God, and in the truths which he hath revealed to us by his Son; hope of receiving from God those rewards which he hath promised to the obedient; and charity, or a love and good-will to all men: but of these three, the lastmentioned is the first in dignity, being the most perfect, the most useful, and the most durable.
In this place, the word faith, being distinguished from hope and charity, is used by St. Paul in a limited sense, as barely a belief of Christianity. It cannot be the justifying faith, of which he speaks in other places; for as to the faith here mentioned, St. Paul prefers charity to it; and, without charity, it is so far from justifying, that it signifies nothing. But the faith which justifies, is believing, receiving, and obeying the Gospel: that is, it is. faith, and hope, and charity altogether; or, which amounts to the same thing, it is faith producing hope andcharity, and working by love. For it is as hard to comprehend how a man can be justified, or, which is the same thing, how he can be a good man, by believing without obeying, as how he can be sick and well, or alive and dead, at the same time.
Having examined and endeavoured to explain the several parts of the Apostle's discourse upon the duty of charity, we will now review the doctrine contained in it.
The design of St. Paul is, to show the nature and the importance of charity. By the word charity we often mean alms-giving: but St. Paul distinguisheth alms-giving from charity; 'though I bestow all my,goods,' says he, 'to feed the lwor, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.' The word charity, or love, is constantly used in the New Testament in a more extensive manner; and means that benevolent, disposition which rejoices in doing what is good and right, and is earnestly bent upon promoting the happiness of mankind. And yet relieving the bodily wants of our fellow-creatures is, both by our Saviour and by his Apostles, represented as a considerable part of charity: and such it plainly is, as not only the spirit of Christianity, but the social nature and inclinations of man, the unequal distribution of things, the uncertainty of worldly possessions, and the public welfare, evidently prove.
Charity, according to St. Paul's description, with relation to our conduct towards those who offend us, is long-suffering, abstains from revenge, is inclined to forgive, is slow to wrath, and decent and moderate in reproving.
With relation to our behaviour towards men in general, it is free from envy, vanity, insolence, pride, self-interest, suspi
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