Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 85

The Pre-Eminence of Charity

Preached March 13, 1853

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” - I Peter 4:8


The grace of charity is exalted as the highest attainment of the Christian life by St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. John. These three men were very different from each other. Each was the type of a distinct order of character. And it is a proof that the Gospel is from God, and that the sacred writings are inspired from a single Divine source, that personal peculiarities are not placed foremost in them, but the foremost place is given by each to a grace which certainly was not the characteristic quality of all the three.

It is said in these modern days that Christianity was a system elaborated by human intellect. Men, they say, philosophized and thought it out. Christianity, it is maintained, like ethics, is the product of human reason. Now had this been true, we should have found the great teachers of Christianity each exalting that particular quality which was most remarkable in his own temperament. Just as the English honor truthfulness, and the French brilliancy, and the Hindoos subtlety, and the Italians finesse-and naturally, because these are predominant in themselves-we should have found the apostles insisting most strongly on those graces which grew most naturally in the soil of their own hearts.

Indeed, in a degree it is so. St. John’s character was tender, emotional and contemplative. Accordingly, his writings exhibit the feeling of religion and the predominance of the inner life over the outer.

St. Paul was a man of keen intellect, and of soaring and aspiring thought which would endure no shackles on its freedom. And his writings are full of the two subjects we might have expected from this temperament. He speaks a great deal of intellectual gifts; very much of Christian liberty.

St. Peter was remarkable for personal courage. A soldier by nature: frank, free, generous, irascible. In his writings, accordingly, we find a great deal said about martyrdom.

But each of these men, so different from each other, exalts love above his own peculiar quality. It is very remarkable. Not merely does each call charity the highest, but each names it in immediate connection with his own characteristic virtue, and declares it to be more Divine.

St. John, of course, calls love the heavenliest. That we expect from St. John’s character. “God is love. He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God;” “No man hath seen God at any time: if we love one another God dwelleth in us.”

But St. Paul expressly names it in contrast with the two feelings for which he was personally most remarkable, and, noble as they are, prefers it before them. First, in contrast with intellectual gifts. Thus, “Covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet show I unto you a more excellent way: though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, it is nothing.” Gifts are nothing in comparison of charity. Again, “We know that we all have knowledge: knowledge puffeth up, but charity buildeth up.” Knowledge is nothing in comparison.

Next, in comparison of that liberty which was so dear to him. Christian liberty permitted the converts the use of meats, and the disregard of days from which the strict law of Judaism had debarred them. Well, but there were cases in which the exercise of that liberty might hurt the scruples of some weak Christian brother, or lead him to imitate the example against his conscience. “If thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably.” Liberty said, You have a right to indulge; but Charity said, Refrain.

So that, according to St. Paul, there is one thing, and one only, to which Christian liberty must be sacrificed. That one is Christian love.

Now let us see how St. Peter does honor to the same grace, at the expense of that which we should have expected him to reckon the essential grace of manhood. Just before the text, we find the command, “Be sober, and watch unto prayer.” This is a sentence out of St. Peter’s very heart. For in it we have prayer represented as the night-watch of a warrior, armed, who must not sleep his watch away. “Be sober, and watch”-the language of the soldier and the sentinel; words which remind you of him who drew his sword to defend his Master, and who in penitence remembered his own disastrous sleep when he was surprised as a sentry at his post. But immediately after this-“And, above all things, have fervent charity amongst yourselves.” Sobriety, self-rule, manhood, courage, yes; but the life of them all, says St. Peter, the very crown of manhood, without which sobriety is but prudent selfishness, and courage is but brute instinct-is love.

Now I take that unanimity as a proof that the Gospel comes from one Living Source. How came St. Peter and St. John, so different from each other, and St. Paul, who had had almost no communion with either of them, to agree, and agree so enthusiastically, in this doctrine-love is over all and above all; above intellect, freedom, courage-unless there had streamed into the mind and heart of each one of them light from One Source, even from Him the deepest principle of whose being, and the law of whose life and death, were love?

We are to try, to-day, to understand this sentence of St. Peter. It tells us two things-


I. What charity is.

II. What charity does.


I. It is not easy to find one word in any language which rightly and adequately represents what Christ and his apostles meant by charity. All words are saturated with some imperfect meaning. Charity has become identified with almsgiving. Love is appropriated to one particular form of human affection, and that one with which self and passion mix inevitably. Philanthropy is a word too cold and negative.

Let us define Christian charity in two sentences: 1. The desire to give. 2. The desire to bless.

1. The desire to give. Let each man go deep into his own heart. Let him ask what that mysterious longing means which we call love, whether to man or God, when he has stripped from it all that is outside and accidental; when he has taken from it all that is mixed with it and perverts it. Not in his worst moments-but in his best, what did that yearning mean? I say it meant the desire to give. Not to get something, but to give something. And the mightier, the more irrepressible this yearning was, the more truly was his love love. To give-whether alms in the shape of money, bread, or a cup of cold water, or else self. But be sure, sacrifice, in some shape or other, is the impulse of love, and its restlessness is only satisfied and only gets relief in giving. For this, in truth, is God’s own love, the will and the power to give. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Therefore God is the only blessed One, because He alone gives and never receives. The universe, teeming with life, is but God’s love expressing itself. He creates life by the giving of Himself. He has redeemed the world by the giving of His Son. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” The death of Christ was sacrifice. The life of God is one perpetual sacrifice, or giving of Himself and shedding forth of His Spirit. Else it would not be love.

And so, when the poor sinful woman gave her costly ointment with a large profuseness, Christ saw in it an evidence of love. “She loved much.” For love gives.

2. The desire to bless. All love is this in a degree. Even weak and spurious love desires happiness of some kind for the creature that it loves. Almsgiving is often nothing more than indolence. We give to the beggar in the street, to save ourselves the trouble of finding out fitter objects. Still, indolent as it is, it is an indolent desire to prevent pain.

What we call philanthropy is often calm and cool-too calm and cool to waste upon it the name of charity. But, it is a calm and cool desire that human happiness were possible. It is, in its weak way, a desire to bless. Now, the love whereof the Bible speaks, and of Which we have but one perfect personification-viz., in the life of Christ-is the desire for the best and true blessedness of the being loved. It wishes the well-being of the whole man-body, soul, and spirit; but chiefly spirit.

Therefore, He fed the poor with bread. Therefore, He took His disciples into the wilderness to rest when they were weary. Therefore, “He gave Himself for us, that we, being dead unto sin, might live unto righteousness.” For the kingdom of God is not bread only and repose, which constitute physical happiness, but goodness, too; for that is blessedness.

And the highest love is, therefore, the desire to make men good and Godlike; it may wish, as a subordinate attainment, to turn this earth into a paradise of comfort by mechanical inventions; but far above that, to transform into a kingdom of God, the domain of love, where men cease to quarrel and to envy, and to slander and to retaliate. “This, also, we wish,” said St. Paul, “even your perfection.”

Concerning this charity we remark two points: 1. It is characterized as fervent. 2. It is capable of being cultivated.

1. “Fervent.” Literally intense, unremitting, unwearied. Now, there is a feeble sentiment which wishes well to all so long as it is not tempted to wish them ill, which does well to those who do well to them. But this, being merely sentiment, will not last. Ruffle it and it becomes vindictive. In contrast with that, St. Peter calls Christ’s spirit, which loves those who hate it, “fervent” charity, which does not tire, and can not be worn out; which loves its enemies, and does good to them that hate it. For Christian love is not the dream of a philosopher, sitting in his study, and benevolently wishing the world were better than it is, congratulating himself, perhaps, all the time on the superiority shown by himself over other less amiable natures. Injure one of these beaming sons of good-humor, and he bears malice: deep, unrelenting, refusing to forgive. But give us the man who, instead of retiring to some small, select society, or rather association, where his own opinions shall be reflected, can mix with men where his sympathies are unmet, and his tastes are jarred, and his views traversed, at every turn, and still can be just, and gentle, and forbearing.

Give us the man who can be insulted and not retaliate; meet rudeness and still be courteous; the man who, like the Apostle Paul, buffeted and disliked, can yet be generous, and make allowances, and say, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.” That is “fervent charity.”

2. Again, it is capable of being cultivated. We assume that, simply because it is enjoined. When an apostle says, “Have fervent charity among yourselves,” it is plain that it would be a cruel mockery to command men to attain it if they could do nothing towards the attainment. It would be the same insult as saying to the deformed, “be beautiful.” For it is wanton cruelty to command where obedience is impossible.

How shall we cultivate this charity?

Now, I observe first, love can not be produced by a direct action of the soul upon itself. You can not love by a resolve to love. That is as impossible as it is to move a boat by pressing it from within. The force with which you press on is exactly equal to that with which you press back. The reaction is exactly equal to the action. You force backward exactly as much as you force on. There are religious persons who, when they feel their affections cooled, strive to warm them by self-reproach, or by unnatural effort, or by the excitement of what they call revivals-trying to work themselves into a state of warm affection. There are others who hope to make feeble love strong by using strong words. Now, for all this they pay a price. Effort of heart is followed by collapse. Excitement is followed by exhaustion. They will find that they have cooled exactly in that proportion in which they warmed, and at least as fast.

It is as impossible for a man to work himself into a state of genuine fervent love as it is for a man to inspire himself. Inspiration is a breath and a life coming from without. Love is a feeling roused not from ourselves, but from something outside ourselves. There are, however, two methods by which we may cultivate this charity.

1. By doing acts which love demands. It is God’s merciful law that feelings are increased by acts done on principle: If a man has not the feeling in its warmth, let him not wait till the feeling comes. Let him act with such feeling as he has; with a cold heart if he has not got a warm one; it will grow warmer while he acts. You may love a man merely because you have done him benefits, and so become interested in him, till interest passes into anxiety, and anxiety into affection. You may acquire courtesy of feeling at last, by cultivating courteous manner. The dignified politeness of the last century forced man into a kind of unselfishness in small things, which the abrupter manners of to-day will never teach. And say what men will of rude sincerity, those old men of urbane manners were kinder at heart with real good will, than we are with that rude bluffness which counts it a loss of independence to be courteous to any one. Gentleness of manner had some influence on gentleness of heart.

So, in the same way, it is in things spiritual. If our hearts are cold, and we find it hard to love God and be affectionate to man, we must begin with duty. Duty is not Christian liberty, but is the first step toward liberty. We are free only when we love what we are to do, and those to whom we do it. Let a man begin in earnest with-I ought-he will end, by God’s grace, if he persevere, with the free blessedness of-I will. Let him force himself to abound in small offices of kindliness, attention, affectionateness, and all those for God’s sake. By-and-by he will feel them become the habit of his soul. By-and-by, walking in the conscientiousness of refusing to retaliate when he feels tempted, he will cease to wish it: doing good and heaping kindness on those who injure him, he will learn to love them. For he has spent a treasure there: “And where the treasure is, there will the heart be also.”

2. The second way of cultivating Christian love is by contemplating the love of God. You can not move the boat from within; but you may obtain a purchase from without. You can not create love in the soul by force from within itself-but you may move it from a point outside itself. God’s love is the point from which to move the soul. Love begets love. Love believed in, produces a return of love: we can not love because we must. “Must” kills love; but the law of our nature is that we love in reply to love. No one ever yet hated one whom he believed to love him truly. We may be provoked by the pertinacity of an affection which asks what we can not give; but we can not hate the true love which does not ask but gives. Now this is the central truth of Christ’s Gospel: “We love Him because He first loved us;” “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another;” “God is love.”

It is the one, almost only struggle of religious life, to believe this. In spite of all the seeming cruelties of this life; in spite of the clouded mystery in which God has shrouded Himself; in spite of pain and the stern aspect of human life, and the gathering of thicker darkness and more solemn silence round the soul as life goes on, simply to believe that God is love, and to hold fast to that, as a man holds on to a rock with a desperate grip when the salt surf and the driving waves sweep over him and take the breath away-l say that is the one fight of Christian life, compared with which all else is easy: when we believe that, human affections are easy. It is easy to be generous, and tolerant, and benevolent, when we are sure of the heart of God, and when the little love of this life, and its coldnesses, and its unreturned affections, are more than made up to us by the certainty that our Father’s love is ours. But when we lose sight of that, though but for a moment, the heart sours, and men seem no longer worth the loving: and wrongs are magnified, and injuries can not be forgiven, and life itself drags on, a mere death in life. A man may doubt any thing and every thing, and still be blessed, provided only he holds fast to that conviction. Let all drift from him like sea-weed on life’s ocean. So long as he reposes on the assurance of the eternal faithfulness of the Eternal Charity, his spirit at least can not drift. There are moments, I humbly think, when we understand those triumphant words of St. Paul, “Let God be true, and every man a liar.”


II. What charity does.

It covereth a multitude of sins.

Now the only question is, whose sins does charity cover? Is it that the sins of the charitable man are covered by his charity in God’s sight? Or is it the sins of others over which charity throws a mantle so as not to see them?

Some wise and good men have said the first. Love obliterates sin in the sight of God; and assuredly it might be this that St. Peter meant. No doubt whole years of folly we outlive “in His unerring sight, who measures life by love.” Recollect our Master’s own words-“Her sins, which are many, are forgiven her: for she loved much.”

Nevertheless, that does not seem to be the meaning of this passage. A large number of deep thinkers have been convinced that St. Peter is here describing Christianity, and the description which he gives of it as most characteristic is, that it hides out of sight, and refuses to contemplate, a multitude of sins which malevolence would delight to see. It throws a veil over them and covers them. At all events, this is true of Christian charity: and we shall consider the passage in that sense to-day.

There are three ways, at least, in which love covers sin.

1. In refusing to see small faults. Every man has his faults, his failings, peculiarities, eccentricities. Every one of us finds himself crossed by such failings of others, from hour to hour. And if he were to resent them all, or even notice all, life would be intolerable. If for every outburst of hasty temper, and for every rudeness that wounds us in our daily path, we were to demand an apology, require an explanation, or resent it by retaliation, daily intercourse would be impossible. The very science of social life consists in that gliding tact which avoids contact with the sharp angularities of character, which does not argue about such things, does not seek to adjust or cure them all, but covers them, as if it did not see.

Exceedingly wise was that conduct of the Roman pro consul at Corinth which we read of in the Acts. The Jews, with Sosthenes at their head, had brought a charge of heresy against the Christians, and tried it at the Roman law. Gallio perceived that it was a vexatious one, and dismissed it; drove them from the judgment-seat. Whereupon the Greeks, indignant at the paltry virulence of the accusation, took Sosthenes, in his way from the judgment-seat, and beat him even in Gallio’s presence. It is written, “Gallio cared for none of these things.” He took no notice. He would not see. It was doubtless illegal and tumultuous, a kind of contempt of court-a great offense in Roman law. But Gallio preferred permitting a wholesome outburst of healthy indignation, to carrying out the law in its letter. For he knew that in that popular riot human nature was throwing off an incubus. It was a kind of irregular justice, excusable because of its provocation. And so Gallio would not see. He covered the transgression in a wise and willful blindness.

That which the Roman magistrate did from wise policy, the Christian spirit does in a diviner way. It throws over such things a cloak of love. It knows when it is wise not to see. That microscopic distinctness in which all faults appear to captious men, who are forever blaming, dissecting, complaining, disappears in the large, calm gaze of love. And oh! it is this spirit which our Christian society lacks, and which we shall never get till we begin each one with his own heart. What we want is, in one word, that graceful tact and Christian art which can bear and forbear.

That was a rude, “unpardonable” insult offered by Peter to his Master when he denied Him. In His hour of trial, he refused to seem even to know Him. We should have said, I will never forget that. The Divine charity covered all. Ask ye how? “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Feed my sheep.”

2. Love covers sin by making large allowances. In all evil there is a “soul of goodness.” Most evil is perverted good. For instance, extravagance is generosity carried to excess. Revenge is sometimes a sense of justice which has put no restraint upon itself. Woman’s worst fault is perverted self-sacrifice. Incaution comes from innocence. Now there are some men who see all the evil, and never trace, never give themselves the trouble of suspecting the root of goodness out of which it sprung. There are others who love to go deep down, and see why a man came to do wrong, and whether there was not some excuse, or some redeeming cause: in order that they may be just. Just, as “God is just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.”

Not as the passage is sometimes quoted-just, and yet the justifier; as if there were some difficulty in reconciling God’s justice and God’s mercy: but just and the justifier, just and therefore the justifier. Merciful because just.

Now human life, as it presents itself to these two different eyes, the eye of one who sees only evil, and that of him who sees evil as perverted good, is two different things. Take an instance. Not many years ago, a gifted English writer presented us with a history of ancient Christianity. To his eye the early Church presented one great idea, almost only one. He saw corruption written everywhere. In the history of the ascetics, of the nuns, of the hermits, of the early bishops, he saw nothing noble, nothing aspiring. Everywhere the one dark spectacle of the Man of Sin. In public and in private life, in theology and practice, within and without, everywhere pollution. Another historian, a foreigner, has written the history of the same times, with an intellect as piercing to discover the very first germ of error, but with a calm, large heart, which saw the good out of which the error sprung, and loved to dwell upon it, delighting to trace the lineaments of God, and discern His Spirit working where another could see only the spirit of the devil. And you rise from the two books with different views of the world; from the one, considering the world as a devil’s world, corrupting towards destruction; from the other, notwithstanding all, feeling triumphantly that it is God’s world, and that His Spirit works gloriously below it all. You rise from the study with different feelings: from the one, inclined to despise your species; from the other, able joyfully to understand in part why God so loved the world, and what there is in man to love, and what there is, even in the lost, to seek and save.

Now that is the “charity which covereth a multitude of sins.”

It understands by sympathy. It is that glorious nature which has affinity with good under all forms, and loves to find it, to believe in it, and to see it. And therefore such men-God’s rare and best ones-learn to make allowances; not from weak sentiment, which calls wrong right, but from that heavenly charity which sees right lying at the root of wrong. So the Apostle Paul learned to be candid even towards himself “I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly, in unbelief.” His very bigotry and persecuting spirit could be justified by God, and by men who see like God. It was wrong, very wrong; he did not palliate it; he felt that it had made him “the chief of sinners,” but he discerned that his had been zeal directed wrongly-not hate, but inverted love.

So too, over the dark grave of Saul the suicide, the love of friendship could shed one ray of hope. He who remembered of Saul only his nobler nature and his earlier days, when his desolate character was less ambiguous-the man after God’s own heart-whose love refused to part with the conviction that that light which was from God was not quenched forever, though it had set in clouds and thick darkness-dared to say, “Saul and Jonathan were lovely in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided.” Would you or I have dared to hope over a grave like Saul’s? So, too, over the grave of the prophet whose last act was disobedience, love still dared to hope, and the surviving prophet remembered only that he had shared the gift of prophecy with himself “Alas, my brother!” A sinner, who had died in sin, but as our own burial service nobly dares to say, in the hope of intense charity, “To rest in Thee, as our hope is this our brother doth.” And so, lastly, in the blackest guilt the earth has seen-in memory of which we, in our Christian charity, after eighteen hundred years, brand the descendant Jews with a curse, which is only slowly disappearing from our minds-there was one Eye which could discern a ground on which to make allowance, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Let us dismiss from our minds one false suspicion. The man who can be most charitable is not the man who is himself most lax. Deep knowledge of human nature tells us it is exactly the reverse. He who shows the rough and thorny road to heaven is he who treads the primrose path himself. Be sure that it is the severe and pitiless judge and censor of others’ faults on whom, at a venture, you may most safely fix the charge, “Thou art the man!” I know not why, but un-. relenting severity proves guilt rather than innocence. How much purity was proved by David’s sentence of an imaginary criminal to death? How much by the desire of those Pharisees to stone the woman taken in adultery? Convicted by their own consciences, they went out one by one; yet they had longed to stone her. No: be sure you must be free from sin in proportion as you would judge with the allowance and the charity of Christ Jesus. “Tempted in all points, yet without sin.” “Wherefore also, He is a merciful High-priest.”

3. Lastly, charity can tolerate even intolerance. Let no man think that he can be tolerant or charitable as a matter of self- indulgence. For real charity and real toleration he must pay a price. So long as they are merely negative-so long as they mean only the permission to every one to think his own thoughts and go his own way-the world will bear them. But so soon as charity becomes action, and toleration becomes earnest, basing themselves on a principle, even this-the conviction that at the root of many an error, there lies a truth, and within much evil a central heart of goodness, and below unwise and even opposite forms, the same essential meaning-so soon charity and toleration exasperate the world secular, or so-called religious.

For instance, if, with St. Paul, you affirm, “He that observeth the day, observeth it to the Lord; and he that observeth not the day, to the Lord he observeth it not,” tolerating both the observance and the non-observance, when you perceive the desire of doing God’s will existing in both, you can not avoid the charge of being careless about the question of the sanctities of a day of rest. Or if, with St. Paul, you say of some superstitious idolatry, that men ignorantly worship God in it, their worship being true, their form false-you can not avoid the stigma of seeming for the time to be tending to that idolatry. Or if, with the Son of God, you recognize the enthusiasm of nature, which passion had led astray in devious paths, you can not escape the imputation of being “a friend of publicans and sinners.” This is the price which a man must pay for charity. His Master could not escape the price, nor can he.

And then comes the last and most difficult lesson of love to make allowances even for the uncharitable. For surely below all that uncharitableness which is so common, there is often a germ of the life of love; and beneath that intolerance, which may often wound ourselves, a loving and a candid eye may discern zeal for God. Therefore St. Paul saw even in the Jews, his bitterest foes, that “they had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” And therefore St. Stephen prayed, with his last breath, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Earth has not a spectacle more glorious or more fair to show than this-love tolerating intolerance; charity covering, as with a veil, even the sin of the lack of charity.