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it is more reasonable to think that a truly charitable man should meet with a multitude of sins in other people for the exercise of his charity, than that he should have a multitude of his own to cover: we meet with no such description of charity in Scripture, as may lead us to suppose it is consistent with a multitude of sins.
If it be thought that the text, thus interpreted, holds forth no great comfort or encouragement to charity, since the benefit accrues to others, it must on the other side be considered, how blessed a state it is to enjoy a calm serenity of mind, whilst the world around us is agitated by the storms of passion; and how happy we shall be if we are so found when we are summoned by our great Master.
Secondly: there may be reasons for expounding the text of the judgment of God, and yet the Apostle's assertion may still relate to the sins of others, and not to those of the charitable person. But, it may be said, may one man's sins be covered in the sight of God by another man's charity? Yes, they may : and in this sense the very expression of the text is made use of by St. James, ch. v. 20.; where it is evident that the sins to be covered are those of the soul that is saved from death; and this is proposed as a strong incitement to every charitable person, to labor for the conversion of a sinner: this point enlarged on: were the several works of charity to be enumerated, its instruction of the ignorant, its encouragement of the weak, its rebuking of the presumptuous, &c. we should soon see how instrumental it is in covering the sins of others.
Third and last inquiry; viz. what encouragement we have from reason and Scripture to expect that by charity we may cover our own sins.
In the verse before the text, the Apostle gives us this warning, the end of all things is at hand. To this solemn notice he subjoins a proper exhortation ; be ye therefere sober, and watch unto prayer; and above all things have fervent charity
among yourselves : and as a reason for this, he observes, for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. Hence arises a presumption that the Apostle might mean to instruct each person how to cover his own sins : for when we look to future judgment, of whose sins do we think, or for whose offences do we tremble, but our own ? Besides, the exhortation to mutual charity being subjoined to the mention of prayer, may show the A postle's intention to instruct us how to hide our own offences : as it is in the Lord's
prayer. Farther, the nature and extent of charity considered, there is an additional argument to confirm the charitable man in the hopes of pardon for his own offences : for charity is the fulfilling of the law : it is the royal law, as St. James calls it, which whosoever fulfils, shall do well: and in this view St. Peter's advice in the text is equivalent to that of Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, ch. iv. 27.
For these reasons, it
may be allowed that the Apostle meant to exhort us to charity, as a proper means to obtain forgiveness of our sins from God: but to prevent mistakes in so important a matter, a few observations are offered.
First; we must not so expound this text as to make it contradict the general terms of pardon and reconciliation proposed in the gospel, which only gives hopes of this through sincere repentance and amendment of life. The words of the text, it is seen, are capable of various interpretations, and therefore cannot be so strong in any one sense as to control the meaning of more plain and express declarations of holy writ, &c.
Secondly; we must not so expound this or any other passage of Scripture, as to raise up a doctrine reproachful to God, or inconsistent with his attributes. With the Almighty dwelleth truth and justice, and in his court there is no commutation for iniquity; no excuse or pardon but by forsaking it. Under these limitations, it is considered how far we may apply this sovereign remedy of charity to our own sins.
We may consider our sins as past, present, and to come.
SUMMARY OF DISCOURSE XXXVIII.
With respect to our past sins, it is out of our power to recal them; with respect to our present, it is in our power to forsake them; with respect to those which are to come, it is in our power to avoid them. To begin with the last.
No sort or degree of charity can so far vacate the duties of religion as to make it unnecessary for us to avoid occasions of sin for the time to come; the very remedy, if applied to this purpose, would turn to poison. Next, as to our present sins : as it is in our power, so it will ever be our duty, to forsake them; nor can any thing dispense with this obligation. We must not therefore pretend to balance our good and evil, and fondly imagine that our virtues so far exceed our iniquities, that these may safely be enjoyed : for our Saviour tells us that when we have done our utmost, we are unprofitable servants. Lastly, as to our past sins: it is not in our power to recal them. Here therefore the goodness of God has provided a remedy. This is the only case in which we have any encouragement to seek for a cover for our sins. Repentance and amendment of life is required; and as charity is the perfection of the law, to forsake sin, and to live by the rules of charity, is the best way to obtain pardon.
But even in this case we must guard against mistakes : for though a return to our duty and works of charity are the best amends we can make for the guilt of past offences, yet charity will not be accepted of God in lieu of justice: if we have injured one person, our debt to him will not be paid by charity to another. First pay the debts of justice, and then think of charity: till those are discharged, let no one imagine that his charity will cover the multitude of sins.
I PETER, CHAP. IV.-VERSE 8.
And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves ; for
charity shall cover the multitude of sins.
The exhortation in the text being joined with other exhortations to sobriety and watchfulness in prayer, to hospitality, and to a faithful use and exercise of the gifts and graces of God bestowed on the several members of the church; and yet, being introduced in this distinguishing manner, . Above all things have fervent charity among yourselves,' plainly shows how highly the Apostle esteemed this great virtue of charity; and that it is the perfection of a Christian, the very life and soul of all other duties, which without this are empty performances, and of no value in the sight of God.
This excellency of charity, which we collect from the peculiar manner in which St. Peter recommends it to the practice of Christians is fully and expressly set forth by St. Paul in 1 Cor. xiii., where, speaking in his own person, he says, “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 knowlege; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not 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. It is to be observed that St. Paul does not merely compare and prefer charity before all spiritual gifts and attainments, before liberality and almsgiving; but he declares that these without charity are nothing, of no value in the sight of God, of no profit to the salvation of man. Is it not therefore of great consequence to us rightly to understand this great virtue, that we may use proper methods to attain it; since it is that only which can sanctify our offerings to God, and make either our prayers or praises, or our alms and oblations, acceptable in his sight; since it is that only which can make the gifts and abilities bestowed on us of any use, or render them a proper means to save ourselves and others ?
It is necessary to enter into the consideration of the nature of this great virtue, that we may rightly apprehend the meaning of the text. St. Peter affirms that • charity shall cover a multitude of sins. Whatever we are to understand by this expression, it is evident that this great promise or effect must be ascribed to that virtue only, which the Apostle had in his mind, and which he meant to express in the words of the text; and if we apply it to any thing else, we abuse his authority and deceive ourselves. I shall therefore confine this discourse to two inquiries :
First, what that · fervent charity' is, which the Apostle in the text so earnestly recommends; and,
Secondly, what is the true meaning of the Apostle's affirmation concerning this charity, that “it shall cover the multitude of sins.'
As to the first inquiry, it will appear by the language made use of by St. Peter, 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 áyátny értevī, 'continual' or 'uninterrupted love.') Love is a principle, or a good habit of mind, from which many duties flow, but does not denote any one kind of duty more than another; and therefore the charity spoken of in the text has no more immediate relation to “almsgiving' (as the use of the word in our language often leads people to think it has) than it has to patience, forgiveness of injuries, or any other natural effect of love or charity. It is therefore the principle of charity, or a general beneficence of mind towards one another, which the Apostle recommends. And this must be constant