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SUMMARY OF DISCOURSE XXXVIII.
I PETER, CHAP. IV.-VERSE 8.
The high esteem in which the great virtue of charity was held by St. Peter is shown by the distinguishing manner in which introduces the exhortation in the text. The excellency of charity is explicitly set forth by St. Paul in 1 Cor. xiii., where he does not merely compare it with, and prefer it before all spiritual gifts, but declares that without it all these are of no profit to salvation. It is of the utmost consequence therefore, that we should rightly understand this great virtue, that we may use the proper methods of attaining to it. Its nature must be considered, that the text may be rightly understood. St. Peter affirms that charity shall cover the multitude of sins ; and as it is evident that this great promise must be ascribed to that virtue only which the writer of the text had in his mind, if we apply it to any thing else, we abuse his authority and deceive ourselves. The discourse confined to two inquiries : I. what that fervent charity is, which the Apostle recommends : II. what is the meaning of his affirmation that it shall cover the multitude of sins.
First: it will appear by the words used, that he is not recommending any particular duty; much less any particular acts of duty. The words in the original, rendered by our translators fervent charity are åyánnv ÉKTEVĨ, continual or uninterrupted love. It is therefore the principle of charity, or a general beneficence of mind, which the Apostle 'recommends : and this must be constant and regular, not subject to passion or resentment, but presiding over all the desires of the heart: charity is thus distinguished from good-nature, a quality which results rather from a man's constitution than his reason, and which often needs correction in its very principles; being sometimes an agreeable and easy weakness of mind, or an indolence and carelessness with respect to persons or things. Charity is reason made perfect by grace; it is a beneficence which arises from a contemplation of the world, from a knowlege of the great Creator, and the relation we bear to him and to our fellow-creatures : the character, the temper, and the duty of a disciple of the gospel are all comprehended in this virtue. Actions of the same sort may proceed from different principles : thus liberality and hospitality, the natural effects of charity, may be produced by pride and vanity. This leads to an inquiry, how we may certainly distinguish the principles from which our actions proceed : the ready answer to this is, that we must consult our own hearts: but since to search the heart, and to examine the principles of action, are the same thing, this will not forward our inquiry. The difficulty of arriving at the knowlege of our own hearts shown. Though in actions which require deliberation, an honest man may judge of his own motives, yet there are many things which men do habitually, and with such ease and readiness, as not to attend to the motive at the time of action : it is hardly possible for us to estimate the good or evil of our actions, by considering the immediate and sensible connexion between each act and the motives which produce it: for as many motions of the body, which depend on the acts of our will, are exerted with the greatest reason, and yet the reason of exerting them is but seldom if ever attended to; so, in moral actions, a man of confirmed habitual goodness does many things right, without recurring by reflexion to the special grounds of duty on which their morality is founded. Hence it seems a very distracting method to set people on an inquiry into the motives of all their particular actions; and it is still more improper to exclude sincerity from all actions that are not immediately influenced by true motives of religion.
We must therefore search after a inore equitable and practicable way of judging of our sincerity. Our Saviour tells us, we must love our neighbor as ourselves : this therefore will be a sufficient evidence or test of our charity.
Now it is certain that the principle of self-preservation does generally act so uniformly in men, that they do the things most necessary to their own well-being without much thought on the reasons for so doing ; nor do we ever suspect the sincerity of their motives.
What the principle of self-preservation is with respect to ourselves, the same is charity with respect to our neighbor: and the more real and vigorous this principle is, the more easily, and with the less deliberation, does it exert its acts of beneficence: hypocrites have a design, and therefore they deliberate: but it is a great presumption that a man acts on a general principle of charity and humanity, when he lives well towards others, without having a particular reason to assign for every instance of so doing.
This rule however is not so strict, as that men should be always condemned for the good they do to others with a view to themselves : for it is as reasonable to exchange good offices as other less valuable conveniences of life; and the Apostle bimself exhorts us to provoke one another to love and to good works.
The surest way to know whether we are influenced by a true principle of charity, is to consider, not this or that particular action, nor our behavior with respect to particular persons ; but to reflect on our carriage towards all in general, and in all instances; for the true principle will discover itself in the uniformity of our actions.
If therefore we find that our sentiments of humanity are confined to certain persons or parties, we may be sure they are the product of some partial narrow views, and not the genuine offspring of true charity, which is in its nature extensive and universal : or if we find ourselves acting in some instances justly and mercifully, whilst in others we are regardless of mercy and justice, we have not the virtue of charity: this point enlarged on.
The rule here recommended is the same which the Apostle in effect describes 1 Cor. xiii. ; where he speaks of spiritual gifts, and shows that without charity they are of no use.
Thus the Scripture rule of judging ourselves in this great point of charity, is to compare our conduct with the precept, and to consider whether our actions are uniformly suited to the principle by which we pretend to act. When we find a constant benevolence in our minds, and that we act conformably to it within the rules of reason, why should we doubt of our own sincerity, or scrupulously examine the special motives which attended every charitable act? Such an examination shown to be unreasonable.
Conclusion : we see the extensive nature of charity, as well as a plain and natural way of judging whether we possess it. If we allow ourselves in any instance to injure our neighbor, how can we be said to love him? Whatever therefore be the darling passion, which makes us transgress against our brother, that it is which destroys in us this most excellent grace of charity.
Consideration of the sense in which the Apostle's assertion is to be understood, that charity shall cover the multitude of sins. To cover sins signifies to excuse and exempt them from punishment: in no other sense is it possible for sins to be covered in the sight of God. With respect to the judgment of men, this
expression will bear a stronger exposition; for whether we consider the charitable person as judging of other men's sins, his charity may incline him to judge better of sinners than they deserve; or whether we consider others as judging of the charitable person's own offences, it is natural for men to be so charmed with the excellency of charity, as not to see the defects which are in such good company.
Which of these two expositions ought to prevail, depends on a farther inquiry; viz. whether the Apostle in the text had respect to the judgment of God or of men.
We must also consider of whose sins he speaks; and whether he means to affirm that charity shall cover those of the charitable person, or of other people.
Probable reasons may be given for each interpretation : these examined.
First; there are good reasons to be assigned for limiting the Apostle's assertion to the judgment of men. Hatred, says Solomon, stirreth up strifes, but love covereth all sins : where covering of sins being opposed to stirring up strifes, the meaning needs must be, that as hatred generates animosities, so love allays intemperate heats, and inclines men to overlook offences : this point enlarged on. Charity therefore, as it naturally inclines us to forgive the offences of our brethren, so it puts us into that peaceful state of mind which may best enable us to prepare for our great Judge. In this sense St. Peter's assertion agrees exactly with the accounts of charity in other places of Holy Scripture, and with those properties ascribed to this virtue by St. Paul.
Besides, the expression, the multitude of sins, leads to this interpretation : when the Apostle put the question to our Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against we, and I forgive him ?-till seven times? Jesus answered, I unto thee, until seven times, but until seventy times seven : from which St. Peter could not but learn that the property of charity was to cover the multitude of a brother's sins. Moreover,