Charity and Its Fruits Book Review
In the June 2020 edition of Grace Notes, we began exploring the life of American pastor, theologian, and writer Jonathan Edwards. From A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, we learned about the extraordinary work God accomplished in the “awakening” of Edwards’ town of Northampton, Massachusetts from 1733–1736. This month we delve into Charity And Its Fruits, a 16-part sermon series Edwards preached to his congregation on the well-known love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13.
Part 2 of 3: Charity And Its Fruits
By the latter half of 1736, Edwards noticed the gradual withdrawing of the Holy Spirit from this extraordinary time of awakening. Various diversions began to draw the townspeople’s attention away — the coming governor’s visit, a treaty with the Indians, and the building of a new meeting house. Additionally, in-fighting increased, as old quarrels and rivalries reignited. While many conversions had been genuine, time began to reveal some were counterfeit.
Concerned for his congregants’ souls, Edwards responded by preaching on portions of Scripture that address how one can evaluate whether their Christian experience is genuine or false. Thus, in 1738, he delivered the 16-part sermon series Charity And Its Fruits on 1 Corinthians 13:1-8.
Meticulous in his study of God’s Word, Jonathan Edwards wrote out his sermons in their entirety and memorized them for delivery. A characteristic principle of his preaching is to distinguish between: (1) believing a doctrine from Scripture theoretically, versus (2) having a true sense of that biblical doctrine as a personal reality. Consequently, he sought to teach his congregation to press beyond merely having an intellectual knowledge of God, but instead, to have biblical truth penetrate the heart, thus revealing the sincerity of one’s faith.
This 16-part series on Christian love is intricate, clear, and relentlessly logical. If it sounds impersonal to describe sermons on love as merely clear and logical, keep in mind that Edwards was not only a gifted logician, but also a man of deep personal devotion to Christ, who wrote profusely of his intense experiences seeking after God and enjoying sweet communion with his heavenly Father.
As he exposits 1 Corinthians 13:1-8, Edwards organizes his sermons into three major parts:
- Sermons 1-3 explain why Christian love is a virtue superior to all other biblical virtues.
- Sermons 4-15 explore the fruits and qualities of love.
- Sermon 16 “Heaven is a World of Love” magnificently concludes the series by illustrating God’s dwelling place in heaven, a glorious world of perfectly divine, holy, reciprocated, and practiced love.
Love — the Sum of All Biblical Virtues
In our everyday conversation, the word charity is commonly used to describe either helping the poor or having a disposition to think the best of others; yet these descriptions, while noble, are only fruits of the great virtue of charity. What is charity then? Living in the 1700s, Edwards used the King James Version of the Bible, which uses the word charity in 1 Corinthians 13 instead of love. Edwards explains that in the New Testament the word charity signifies love, or “that disposition or affection whereby one is dear to another.”[i] Thus, charity is more accurately translated as the word love, as seen in most of our current Bible translations today. Edwards uses the two words interchangeably.
But the question remains — what is love? American pop culture often paints love as a feeling or sentiment, shared romantically between lovers, affectionately between parent and child, and faithfully amongst friends. Hollywood depicts love as a passion, reducing it to a mere physical attraction or a vulgar lust. While these illustrations of love are incomplete and disfigured portraits, they all share one common truth — love is relational, shared between people.
As Edwards expounds 1 Corinthians 13, he shares the foundational truth that Christian love has its source in the one and only living God of the Bible, who exists in three persons. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit enjoy an uninterrupted and perfect unity, for the Godhead is united in love. Though God is all-sufficient, he decreed from eternity past to make a people for himself and to redeem them for the purpose of sharing his love with them for eternity. Therefore, to comprehend this divine love, Edwards teaches that a man must be born again by the Holy Spirit.
When a man knows Christ as his Savior and Lord, the love of God is poured out in his heart through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Thus, Edwards proposes “that all the virtue that is saving, and that distinguishes true Christians from others, is summed up in Christian love.”[ii] Love motivates the Christian to all proper acts of respect to God and his fellow neighbor. Love causes a man to honor God, to worship him alone, and to strive to keep his commandments. Love disposes a man to sincerely seek the good of his neighbor, to act with justice and real friendship to his fellow man, to cast off envy and to truly rejoice in the prosperity of another. Accordingly, since love motivates a Christian to all proper duties to God and to his fellow neighbor, love is the root and source of all other biblical virtues. From the spring of love flows the virtues of joy, peace, patience, and on.
Love — Superior to the Extraordinary Gifts of the Spirit
After establishing that love is the sum of all biblical virtues, Edwards expounds 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 and argues that love is more excellent than the extraordinary gifts of the spirit, such as the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy. Reading Bible stories about miracles and extraordinary gifts — Moses parting the Red Sea, Elijah raining fire down from heaven, and Daniel interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s visions enthrall us. To exercise such miraculous gifts is a privilege, yet Edwards shows from Scripture that in addition to godly men, ungodly men were also chosen to exercise extraordinary gifts. Balaam, a wicked man, prophesied and blessed the people of God in Numbers 23-24, and Judas, betrayer of Jesus, worked miracles by healing all manner of sickness and disease in Matthew 10:1-8.
These examples reveal that although the exercise of extraordinary gifts is a great privilege, they do not necessarily indicate that a man is saved. And this is why the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:2 that a man is nothing if he does not have love: “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 not charity, I am nothing.” The principle of love residing in a man’s heart and the fruit that this love produces is the proof and evidence that he belongs to God.
Furthermore, to show the superiority of love, Edwards shares that the extraordinary gifts of prophecy or miracles are external to a man; they are not part of his internal nature. In contrast, when the Holy Spirit regenerates a man, the Spirit of God indwells the heart of the Christian and transforms the man, communicating his holiness and giving the believer the principle of love in his heart. It is in this grace or holiness that the spiritual image of God consists. Edwards profoundly explains, “The spiritual image of God does not consist in having a power to work miracles, and foretell future events, but it consists in being holy, as God is holy: in having a holy and divine principle in the heart, influencing us to holy and heavenly lives.”[iii]
The Fruits of Love
After communicating the importance of biblical love, Edwards preaches seven sermons on the fruits of love and five sermons on the qualities of love. In addition to being a meticulous scholar and an astute logician, Jonathan Edwards was also a creative theologian. This creativity manifests in how Edwards explains God’s Word with unique arguments that challenge the Christian reader to think deeply. To demonstrate how these sermons help us understand the fruits of love, let us consider “Sermon 8: The Spirit of Charity the Opposite of a Selfish Spirit.”
This sermon explores 1 Corinthians 13:5 “Charity…seeketh not her own.” As Edwards asserts that Christian love is the opposite of a selfish spirit, he maintains that Christian love is not contrary to all self-love. When Christ spoke to the rich young ruler, he commanded, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19). Here, the Bible reveals that not all self-love is unlawful since if we are to love our neighbor as our self, we may, and must, love ourselves. With this point established, Edwards argues that the selfishness that Christian love is contrary to is an inordinate amount of self-love.
Edwards explains that the inordinateness of self-love in which a corrupt selfishness resides is: (1) when the degree of self-love is too great and thus the influence of self-love too great and (2) in placing our happiness in things that are confined to self.
When the Scripture reads, “Charity…seeketh not her own” this means love does not seek that which is only good to herself. Thus, Christian love instructs us to not only seek our own good but the good of others. In doing so, we are called to sacrifice our ease and comfort for the sake of our neighbor’s good. Finally, Edwards demonstrates that Christian love is the very opposite of a selfish spirit because those who have the principle of love sown in their hearts by the Holy Spirit seek to live lives that please and glorify God. Consequently, along with the Apostle Paul we say, “to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). Living for Christ is contrary to living for self.
Edwards concludes this sermon with a practical application section. He exhorts us to remember that we have been bought with a price, the precious blood of God’s only begotten Son. God has created and redeemed us for higher and nobler purposes than just living for self-interest and self-good. Therefore, we should not think of our bodies, minds, abilities, possessions, time, influence, or comforts as our own absolute property, but we are stewards of these resources and should use them for God’s glory and the good of our neighbor.
Heaven is a World of Love
To complete this series, Edwards delivers the final sermon “Heaven is a World of Love.” Though God is everywhere, heaven is known especially as his dwelling place above all other places in the universe. He created heaven as his special abode, the place of his glorious presence where all his people will join him at last. Since heaven is God’s home, it is a world of love for God is the cause and source of all love. In this holy habitation, he manifests his love to his people for eternity. This final sermon stirs the soul, filling the mind and heart with glorious thoughts of God, his perfect nature, the excellency of his ways, and the incomparable loveliness of one day being in his holy presence.
Jonathan Edwards loved his Northampton church. These sermons manifest his deep concern for his congregants’ souls. After the awakening ended, he desired to instruct them from Scripture on how love is an essential ingredient in real Christian living, for “faith works by love” (Gal 5:6). In reading Charity And Its Fruits, you will find each sermon delivers profound truths from Scripture that pierce the heart and illumine the mind. If you are longing to grow in holiness and seeking to mortify the persistent sins of envy, selfishness, pride, and anger, this series on Christian love will help you dive deep into God’s Word and be shepherded by his eternal truth. Charity And Its Fruits is available in the Church Library and on Amazon.
[i] Jonathan Edwards, Charity And Its Fruits (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 2.
[ii] Ibid, 3.
[iii] Ibid, 37.
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