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Gospel Charity by John Owen

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Love & Charity

‘And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.’ ~ Colossians 3:14, KJV

The word ‘agape,’ which is translated in the King James Version as ‘charity’ is the only word used in the New Testament to signify ‘love.’ And I wish that this word had always been rendered as such because in common speech, ‘charity’ – relieving the poor and afflicted – is merely one fruit of love. This is not the main sense of the word in Scripture. So our text could be better rendered, ‘Above all these things put on love.’ Every virtue and duty commanded in the Scriptures is usually placed on equal level with other virtues and duties, but there is one that has precedence over all other commands, as is here stated in our text, ‘Above all these things put on love.’ Other Scriptures state the same truth: ‘Before all things, have fervent love among yourselves’ (1 Peter 4:8). ‘Earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way… the greatest of these is love’ (1 Cor. 12:31, 13:13).

In 1 Corinthians 12-14 the Apostle Paul gives directions for the use of spiritual gifts for the edification of the church (and this is a most excellent thing). But when all is said and done, he emphasizes the ‘more excellent way’ of love which he describes in detail in chapter 13. Not only is love commanded, but it is shown to have a special preeminence and excellency above all other things.

Therefore, I offer the following observation: Love is the principal grace and duty that is required from, and expected from, the saints of God. This is to be especially evident when they are engaged together in church fellowship.

With this observation in mind, I will speak to three issues:

  1. I shall show the specific nature of the love that is commanded in the gospel;
  2. I shall give you reasons for the great necessity and importance of it, and;
  3. I shall lay down some directions for its practice.

First, the love I am speaking of is the second great duty that was brought to light by the gospel. There is nothing like it in the world, except what proceeds from the gospel. The world does not have it and doesn’t know what it is. Discord, strife, wrath, and hatred entered by sin. When mankind fell from loving God and from being a special recipient of His love, mankind simultaneously fell into all sorts of hatred, conflict, and discord among one another. The love of God was originally, in the state of innocence, the bond of perfection. When that was broke, all of creation fell into disorder and chaos. In particular, all mankind fell into the state described by the Apostle Paul in Titus 3:3, ‘We were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.’

There is a carnal and natural love still in the world that is based on natural relations. We find this sort of love even among the most debased and brutish. There is also a type of love that arises from a common interest in particular sins and pleasures – from people who partake in the same behaviors or who seek to bind themselves together to advance some political end. All the love of the world may be understood as stemming from one or more of these motives and purposes. None of these are in any way the love that proceeds from the gospel. This is why genuine gospel love has the ability to amaze and attract unbelievers. They should be astonished by the new and different type of love that believers display toward one another. Indeed, one of the first sayings of heathens that observed Christians together was ‘See how they love one another’ For them to see people of different sorts – different races, different personalities, different classes, different financial brackets – all knit together in love was astonishing to them. It was astonishing because of its unique nature.

This love is the means of communion between all the members of the body of Christ, just as faith is the instrument of their communion with the head of the body, Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul joins faith and love together so many times in his writings as the entire means of the communion and fruitfulness of the mystical body of Christ. In one place he so orders his words to show the inseparable nature of these two things. ‘I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints’ (Philemon 5). We are to express both faith and love to Jesus Christ. But it is obvious that the saints are not the objects of our faith. The apostle places them together here to show how inseparable these two things are and to prove that they always go together. Where the one is, the other will be. And where one is not, the other is not.

Love is therefore the life, and soul, and fuel for all the duties that are performed among believers toward one another. Whatever duties you perform toward other believers – no matter how useful or how great – if they are not aroused and animated by this type of love, they are of no value to your communion with Christ or to the edification of the church.

It is possible to perform many things that appear to be duties and acts of love without love. In the two verses before our text, the Apostle Paul writes, ‘So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.’ All these things may be evident in your life, yet there may still be no genuine gospel love. These things – which seem to be the greatest and most practical fruits of love – may be practiced, and yet they may all be done without love. We may forbear without love, forgive without love, be kind to one another without love, and all to no avail, if over and above all these things we are not aroused and animated by love.

The sum and substance of all Christ commanded of us is love. The Apostle John, who lived a long life – indeed, he lived to see the Christian religion advance far in the world – very likely saw a decay of love among believers. It is probably for this reason that he wrote his first letter. He wanted to let us know that there is no real proof of salvation, nor evidence of our love to God unless we have a fervent and intense love for the brethren. No matter how much we say, if we don’t love fellow believers our words are mere empty professions.

Because this gospel love is so different from any other kind of love, allow me to clearly define what I mean by this expression. Gospel love is a fruit of the Spirit of God, an effect of faith, by which believers, being knit together by the strongest bonds of affection because of their common interest in Jesus Christ, and because of their common participation in one Spirit, do delight in, value, and esteem each other, and are constantly ready to act for the temporal, spiritual, and eternal good of one another.

Allow me to explain a little further concerning my definition:

  1. This love is a fruit of the Spirit: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love’ (Gal. 5:22). Some people apart from Christ may naturally have a great deal of love, kindness, and tenderness. This is especially evident when we compare people with one another merely from a human perspective. But this is not the kind of love that is the fruit of the Spirit. The thing that uniquely separates gospel love from natural love is that gospel love is a product of the Spirit of God in the heart of believers. This fruit is not produced or developed in unbelievers because regeneration is the seed which produces this, and unbelievers, by definition, are not regenerate, and thus, are not capable of producing or developing this type of love.
  2. This love is an effect of faith. ‘The only thing that matters is faith working through love’ (Gal. 5:6). But how does faith work by love? Or, put another way, in what way does faith set love to working? Faith works through love when it respects God’s command requiring this love, and believes God’s promise that He accepts this love, and when it practices this love to the end of glorifying God. I urge you to practice love on no other basis. You should love because Christ commands it, and promises to accept it, and because it promotes His glory. It is possible to love because of fleshly interests and promotions. It is possible to love only because of the reputation one will gain because of it. This is not gospel love. Gospel love is love that is the result of ‘faith working through love.’
  3. It is this love, and this love alone, that knits together the hearts and souls of believers. The apostle tells us of the communion that the body of Christ has by love: ‘The whole body is fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies’ (Eph. 4:16). What is it we supply to one another? Love. This is what promotes the building up of one another. As the Psalmist said, ‘As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight’ (Psalm 16:3). This is how much we should esteem one another: We should be willing to lay down our lives for the brethren. In other words, we must be willing to expose ourselves to difficulties, dangers, and hazards if this were to mean edification for the church. The Apostle Paul said of his afflictions, ‘I fill up the measure of the afflictions of Christ, for his body, which is the church’ (Col. 1:24). He bore his afflictions out of love for the church, as well as out of faith and love to Christ personally. He was unwilling that any offence, scandal, or temptation befall the church in order that their faith might be confirmed and strengthened. This is the kind of love we should display if we are called to such a thing. This is the kind of love of which the Scripture speaks. Not that careless, negligent, self-motivated and self-absorbed love which the world and, sadly, many in the church abound with. To truly describe all that this type of love requires would demand many sermons and not just this one! This type of love will affect all our lives and direct us in all our ways. All of our behavior – all that we do, say, think, act – should be influenced by this!

Someone may ask, ‘If I am to love all believers, how can I practically accomplish this? I am acquainted with so few. I hardly have any idea what many are struggling with, nor how I can love them in their particular situation.’

To this I give three answers:

1. We are to equally love all believers, seeing that all in the body of Christ are objects of His love. But this statement must be qualified with certain limitations:

  1. We must exercise much love and compassion in judging those who are fellow believers. We do not want to write off people if the evidence of conversion is lacking. However, we do not want to be undiscerning.
  2. We may have degrees of love toward different believers, especially toward those in whom we see more of the image of Jesus Christ. When we see the image of our Beloved more clearly defined in another believer, it is only natural that we would feel a great love toward them, seeing that they so much resemble the object of our greatest love and desire – Jesus Christ. By the same token, we may have a lessor degree of love toward those in whom we see less of the image of Christ.
  3. We must realize that different occasions and opportunities will determine the extent and ability of our being able to exercise love to others. However, with these three qualifications stated, it must be reemphasized that no one should rest content that they are a true believer unless they love all believers in the world, so as to be inwardly concerned for their benefit and influenced unto prayer, compassion, delight, and joy toward them as the moment requires.

2. We should always be inclined and ready to act in love toward other believers as the opportunity arises. ‘But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?’ (1 John 3:17). Hard times in other believer’s lives can be a great opportunity to help us discern if we really have love for one another. Are we really ready to help in practical ways? Even if it is not to our advantage? Even if it involves a sacrifice on our part? These practical expressions of love will truly test our mettle. We are either willing or not willing to help in such situations – and our response is tangible and testable. The first and greatest opposition of hell toward the believer is in regard to their faith in God. The second is in regard to their love for one another. If we don’t understand this, we are unwise in the schemes of the devil.

3. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in His infinite wisdom and tenderness has provided us with a safe, suitable, constant, and immediate object in order that we might exercise love one to another. Since He has given us such a great command to love one another and has laid so much emphasis on it, we can be sure that He will not leave us in the dark concerning how and where we are to exercise it. He has given us a unique and particular opportunity to express love by instituting the local church. There are two great reasons why Christ instituted the local church and they correlate with the two great graces and duties He requires of us:

  1. The first reason Christ instituted the local church was that His saints may jointly profess their faith in Him and obedience to Him.
  2. The second great reason He instituted the local church was that we might have a forum in which to practice His other great command – ‘love one another.’

It is as if Christ says to us, ‘I will test you here. I want to see if you will love all My saints, My believers, My disciples. You don’t need to go far away to find fit objects of love. I have appointed a forum in which you shall always have objects of love in order that you may prove your love to Me by obeying my great commandment.’ When God gives great commands, He always provides some particular setting in which He will test our obedience. The Lord Jesus Christ has given us a great command of love and has plainly declared that if we don’t love one another, we are not His disciples. The local church is the particular setting in which He tests our obedience. We should love those in the church just as much as if we saw them lying in the arms of Christ. For if they are true believers, they are doing just that – they are true objects of His tender affections. Let no one pretend that they love the brethren in general if their love is not fervently exercised toward those in the same church with them. To boast of loving God and His people and all the saints and yet to refuse to love the flesh-and-blood person in one’s local assembly is the height of self-deception and falsehood. Know that Christ is testing your love! At the last day He will judge you regarding how you loved others in your local assembly. As the apostle says, ‘He that does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen’ (1 John 4:21). I am certain that if you will not love the brethren in your local church which you can see, then you in no way love the brethren whom you do not see – no matter what you say!

I solemnly declare unto you this day that unless this gospel love is found in your life – not abstractly and generally, but practically and particularly – you shall never give an account with joy unto Jesus Christ, nor shall your church ever be truly edified! Christ has given us a great way to evidence our love to Him and prove our obedience to Him in the local church. We must carry out His great command to love one another. This is a weighty thing and should not be taken lightly.

Secondly, I shall give you reasons for the great necessity and importance of gospel love. ‘Before all these things have love. I show you a more excellent way; and that is love.’ I could go on and on concerning the purposes and reasons for this duty. I will give you some of the more weightier reasons. But as I state these, remember that this love is to be exercised first among your local church, and then as opportunity arises, to the whole mystical body of Christ throughout the world.

1. This love is necessary because it is the greatest way we can give testimony to the power of the gospel. The greatest thing we can do in this world is to bear witness unto God’s sending Christ into the world to save His people from their sin. How shall we do this? He Himself has shown us: ‘I ask that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me… I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me’ (John 17:21, 23). Jesus Christ gives us this incredible responsibility in order that the world may be convinced that God sent Him. What is this responsibility? ‘To be one.’ We all participate in the one Spirit of the Father and the Son, and thus we come to be one in the Father and in the Son. But this oneness of union is not all that is intended here. Indeed, I don’t think that this is the meaning Jesus intends us to receive at all from this text! The reason I don’t believe this is referring to mere union is that this type of oneness is perfectly invisible and imperceptible to the world. Jesus prays for a oneness that will convince the world – ‘that the world may see that they are one, and so believe that God sent Me.’ Only the oneness of which love is the bond of perfection will convict the world that God has sent Christ. And if we don’t display this love to one another then we harden the world in their unbelief.

Some who profess allegiance to the gospel have made unity and uniformity synonyms. This has led to the hardening of the world in unbelief. The world looks on and says to itself, ‘I can create a union like this! Making laws of rigid external conformity and enforcing them upon one another in order that all may uniformly and outwardly appear unified is easy. Anyone can accomplish this type of unity!’ But the union which comes from love, no one can give but Christ!

Do you know why real gospel love will convince the world that God has sent Christ? Do you know why this is such a strong argument and proof of the reality of Christ in this world? The answer lies in this, as I mentioned before: When sin entered the world, the bond of all union and perfection among mankind was broken by the loss of love to God and to others, and the whole world was irrecoverably plunged under envy and wrath so that all became ‘hateful, and hating one another’ (Titus 3:3). Nothing in all creation under heaven, and nothing within mankind, could repair this loss, change things, and bring back original order, harmony and love. But now, because of the work of Christ, the gospel brings about a ‘new creation,’ a ‘new order,’ a renewal into the likeness of Christ. This glorious work is wrought within the heart of man and is thus invisible to the outside world. The only thing that is visible to the world are the expressions of love which flow from this new creation. The world sees in God’s people a new union among Christ’s disciples, a union that is unlike anything in the world – indeed, a union that is not of this world! It is as those in the world observe this that they know that God has sent Christ to do His great work! The care, kindness, humility, love, delight, and concern we have for one another as members of the mystical body of Christ, and specifically exemplified in our local church relations, is the great testimony we give to the world that God has sent Christ! And they will be forced to see and say, ‘A glorious work has been done upon these people. They were ‘once foolish and disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another,’ but now God in Christ has gloriously changed them. This could only come about from Christ and from God’s sending Him for this end and purpose.’

2. This love is necessary because we have no evidence that we are Christ’s disciples without it. ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34-35). Why is this command of love here called ‘a new commandment’? In the Mosaic Law God originally gave the command to ‘love one another.’ Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself tells us in another Scripture that the greatest command of the Old Testament is to ‘love the Lord our God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves.’ Why, if this command is found in the Old Testament, is it called by Jesus ‘a new commandment’?

Many reasons could be given, but the greatest one is this: In the Old Testament, there was no preeminent, perfect, life-giving example of this type of love. Therefore, it was not possible to communicate the full breadth and magnitude of all that was involved in loving one another. This was reserved for Christ. He gives the most glorious example of love in His humility in all he did, and in all He suffered. Jesus does something no one else could do before Him and in doing so He reveals a new side of love never before seen! This is what makes this a new commandment. It is as if Christ said, ‘Here is how men shall know you are my disciples: If the great example I have set before you, and the great command I have given you, and the great work I came into the world about, was to renew love, then by love men will know that you are my disciples.’ We have no other way to prove we are disciples of Christ. Gifts, talents, and wisdom will not prove it. If we have no love, the world has no reason to conclude that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

3. This love is necessary because it is the very source of the communion that saints have with one another. We talk a lot about communion and fellowship with one another (and certainly that is not a bad thing). In all the ancient creeds of the church they not only professed to believe in the Triune God but also to believe in the communion of the saints. The ancients’ emphasis on the this evidences that the communion of the saints is important.

Gospel love is the fountain and spring of all communion that saints have with one another. Our common participation in one Spirit is the essential foundation of this fellowship. This is primarily expressed by our participation in the same ordinances in the same local church. The life and reason of this communion is love itself.

It must be said, however, that people may join together in outward ordinances without any real inward communion. The reason is that it is love that creates this communion. ‘But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love’ (Eph. 4:15-16). This is the greatest and most glorious description of the communion of the saints that we have in the Scripture. It begins in love (‘speaking the truth in love’) and it ends in love (‘building up itself in love’). And it is also carried on by love. The fountain and spring of this communion lies in our common relation to the head – Christ Jesus. If we do not hold strongly to the head, we will have no interest in this communion. But it is not enough that there be a head; there must be a ‘growing up into Him in all things, who is the head.’ We shall never carry on the work of communion unless we grow up into Christ – by depending on Him, deriving life and strength from Him, and returning all unto His praise and glory as our head. As we do this we are brought closer to one another and we are made more like Him!

What is next? As we hold onto the head by faith, and as we continue to grow into His likeness, we will communicate a variety of gifts and graces unto one another as suits the body. How is this order displayed? How are believers fitted together in the body? There are two sorts of believers, either ‘joints’ or ‘parts.’ Joints are either officers or principal members who, because of their particular gifts, carry on further the supply of grace that is received from the head. What about the other members? Not only the joints, but every part works toward this end, according to the measure of each one’s gifts and abilities. Each member has a part to play. No one of us should choose our own part in the house of God. The gifts of God fit us for our part – and no more is required of us! But how are we to do this? By ‘speaking the truth in love.’ Whatever we do, we are to do it all in love. ‘Do it all in love,’ the Apostle says, ‘and the body will be increased and edify itself in love.’ Love in the body will be increased when the body is edified.

A church full of love is a church well built up. I would rather be in a church filled with a full measure of love than to be in one filled with the best, the highest, and most glorious gifts and yet have little or no love. It is ten thousand times more for the glory of God and our own comfort, to be a company of poor saints who are filled with love, than to be with those of the highest attainments without it. Without love, we do not testify to the world that God sent Christ, nor do we evidence that we are His disciples, nor do we contribute anything to the edification of the church. Without love, our gifts merely puff us up. If love does not abound in us, we shall be thorns in the sides of others and shall contribute nothing unto the real spiritual edification of the church. This is what the Apostle Paul insists upon in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. ‘If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, etc.’

I conclude all my arguments with this: If we have no love, we have no grace. He that loves Him that begets, will love them that are begotten. If we don’t love the brethren, the love of God does not dwell in us. It is not our outward order and form, nor our duties, nor anything we do or can do that will evidence that that grace of God unto salvation is working in us if we lack gospel love.

Thirdly, Having considered the nature of gospel love and its necessity, I shall now lay down some directions for its practice, in order to press these truths upon your hearts and mine.

Everything depends upon our obeying God in regard to His great command to love. Many are ready at the drop of a hat to rebuke other’s for a lack of love. They say things like, ‘If you will do so and so, and if you will come up to such and such practices of things in religion, and if you go thus far, and thus far, and if you will leave off these and those institutions and ways in which you walk… then you have love. But if not, then you have no love at all.’ What has been the fruit of this kind of talk? New divisions, new animosities, new rendings and tearings in the body of Christ without the least appearance of any improvement in love whatsoever. I desire more than anyone that we would all agree and be of one heart. I desire this sincerely. But I truly believe that when God will accomplish this, it will be the effect of love and not the cause of love. It will proceed from love, before it brings forth love. It amazes me that people try to change others by sharp rebukes and cutting, bitter expressions, hoping to drive people into some outward conformity to external practices, and then expect love to automatically ensue. This is not what we see happening all around us. Those who boast and glory most in bringing all to uniformity of practice have the least love among them. Anyone who truly fears God will not obstruct love. If any teaching were to lead away from producing love, I would flee from it, because I know that the end of all Christ’s commands, ordinances, and institutions is to increase love. Sure, some may be nearer to the truth than others. I readily admit this. But if any practice in itself obstructs love I will leave that way, without further consideration or attempting to debate whether it is right or wrong, for I know it is false if it leads away from love. Institutions and particular practices should not obstruct love but promote it. I pray to God that we would not be overtaken with the notion that we cannot express love until we come to perfect agreement in everything and thus put off our duty to love one another until we have no opportunity or ability to practice it. Let us love in our present state and condition and not wait until all are in uniform agreement with everything we espouse.

I shall close with two cautions against things that may hinder your diligent practice of this great duty of loving one another:

  1. Beware of a morose, sour, natural disposition. This may not hinder the many fruits of love, but it does stain the glory of its expression extremely. Some people are such downers to be with. They have no life or love of beauty. It is a great mistake to believe that grace only subdues our flesh and does not change our natural temper. We are too apt to excuse ourselves from obedience because of our disposition, temper, or personality. Please don’t let this happen. We are transformed by grace. We are new creations.
  2. Beware of things that hinder love based on your specific condition. You may have much wealth and a high honor and reputation in the world. Don’t let this keep you from loving the poorest and lowest member of your church. Whatever you have by birth, education, inheritance, estate, titles, places – all these things the gospel makes void. These give you no right for preferential treatment or no excuse to refrain from associating with the lowly. The gospel makes all level. There is neither rich nor poor, free or slave in Christ. All are new creatures. Thus we should have no particular respect toward people due to their outward advantages (James 2). We all serve one common Master, the same Lord. And He is such a Lord, that when He was rich in all the glory of heaven, he became poor for our sakes. If your riches or reputation cause you to keep a distance from the meanest, poorest saint in the congregation then your riches are your temptation and place you at a disadvantage. Some things could also be said to the poor at this time, but I must finish.

Remember that you were begged and entreated that, as regarding the glory of God, the honor of the gospel, and the edification of this church, you love one another with gospel love. You must give account for hearing this sermon as I must give account for preaching it. May God increase our love one to another. And may we fervently and intensely obey Him in these weighty matters. I have no doubt that He will prosper this day’s work.