Jonathan Edwards on Love as the “Sum of All Virtue”

[This is a guest post by Paul Barger. Paul is an M.A. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

Jonathan Edwards’ Charity and its Fruits is a collection of manuscript adapted for publication by Edwards on the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Jonathan Edwards first delivered these lectures as a series of sermons to his church in Northhampton in 1738, and were first published in 1852. Shortly, after it was published, The New Englander, a journal founded at Yale College, described Edwards’ work as a volume that reflected “the childlike simplicity of his tastes, his strength of intellect, his acute and searching discrimination, and the warmth and earnestness of his piety.”1 Charity takes a simple tone and clear logic that reflects the nature of a work design to be delivered to those in his flock in Northhampton. Each lecture functions as its own independent unit, and therefore lacks a structured progression, even though Edwards works through each verse in succession. I would group each lecture under several headings.

The first heading could be titled, the primacy & nature of love. The title of this volume uses the term, charity. Even though, Edwards uses charity throughout this work, it is somewhat misleading. At first glance, any modern reader would assume that when Edward uses the word “charity”, he means to discuss the voluntary giving of help, usually expressed in the giving of money. However, Edward simply adopts this word due to its use in his translation of the Bible. He points out that in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the word “which is here translated ‘charity,’ might better have been rendered ‘love’.” Edwards defines love as “that disposition or affection whereby one is dear to another;” and is expressed as it is “exercised towards God or our fellow-creatures.” Despite the object of its expression, Edwards argues that Christian love is always the same because it comes from God by God motivated by God’s loving nature. When Christian love is active in an individual, we find that we possess the greatest ingredient of the Christian faith. For Christian love reflects “the sum of all the virtue and duty that God requires of us, and therefore must undoubtedly be the most essential thing.”  And without it, there can be no real exercise of true religion. Edwards also argues that Christian love is to be prized above all virtues, as well as all supernatural gifts of the Spirit. In Edwards estimation, supernatural gifts of the Spirit are granted temporarily by God for a purpose, however love is inherent in a Christian’s nature & continues through to eternity. Edward describes those extraordinary gifts as “a beautiful garment, which does not alter the nature of the man that wears it.” However, love is that “fruit of the Spirit that never fails or ceases in the church of Christ.”

The second heading could be titled, the visible effects of love. Edwards argues, “All true grace in the heart tends to holy practice in the life.” Therefore, it must be visible and there must be fruit. If we desire to know that Christian love is real, it is most clearly evidenced in a individuals seeking and doing it—“for whatever we truly desire, we do thus seek.” This is most clearly seen in our redemption. “He has reconciled them to God by his death, to save them from wicked works, that they might be holy and unblamable in their lives.” Edwards continues by showing the effects, or fruits, of love. This is reflected in a Christian’s ability to endure all sufferings of all degrees. Edwards argues that Christian love enables Christians to willingly undergo “the fiercest and most cruel sufferings in degree, they are willing to undergo for Christ”; for they “are like pure gold, that will bear the trial of the hottest furnace.” Christian love is also visible in Christian humility. Edwards argues that if we have God’s condescending love, and we understand & love God who is infinitely greater than we are, and we love our humble Lord who was crucified for our sake; then the fruits of love will be a humble spirit.

The final heading I would use to organize Edwards thoughts in this volume is the opposing spirits of love. Edwards first address the spirit of envy, which is opposed to Christian love. He states, “The nature of charity or Christian love to men is directly contrary to envy; for love does not grudge, but rejoices at the good of those who are loved.” Edwards also points out that selfishness is at opposite of Christian love for “those that are possessed of the spirit of Christian charity are of a more enlarged spirit still; for they are concerned not only for the thrift of the community, but for the welfare of the Church of God.” Finally, Edwards argues that the spirits of anger and censoriousness are at complete odds with love.

Charity and its Fruits possess tremendous strengths, which should be noted. Compared to many of the writings of Jonathan Edwards, the language is extremely clear and easy to read. His arguments have a powerful straightforwardness about them that is well supported by Biblical evidence. This volume is possesses a practicality unlike any of his other works. Most lectures in this volume end with valuable considerations of the application of arguments made by Edwards. My biggest concerns in this work were largely peripheral concerns. With this volume, they begin with the lack of exposition, due to my fondness of preaching, and end on Edwards’ heavy emphasis on personal examination. Though Edwards does recognize that when discussing love and “a life of Christian practice…the meaning is not, that the life is a perfect and sinless life.” There is significant emphasis on demands of love and our failings to meet them. This would not be as problematic had there been countered with significant devotion to the Gospel, and Christ’s perfect and sinless life. In the end, Edwards’ exploration into the nature and fruits of love helps uncover true Christian love, how it is identified, and practiced.

1 Northrop, F. W. “President Edwards on Charity and its Fruits.” New Englander. 10.2 (1852): 222-36.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 16, 2011, in Spiritual Formation, Th.M. Program, The Enlightenment and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Thanks for post Paul. You have done a great job of communicating Edwards and clarifying what he meant by charity.

    Edwards seems to address charity/love as fruit of the spirit and that this fruit manifests itself through selfless acts of benevolence toward God and others. As I look around and ponder the culture we live in, there seem to be many people out there doing good things; feeding the homeless, giving financially to charitable causes, etc. And the theme that arise among many of them is that they just want to help others less fortunate than themselves. My question is, ‘can not-yet-believers possess the type of love Edwards speaks about?’ Would God infuse non-yet-believers with the ability to love people if His chosen church was not doing it?

    I also am not sure of Edwards view of love as is seen in 1 Corinthains. He seems to be saying that love is ‘fruit’ of the Spirit, which one can certainly argue for. But, the context of this section, 1 Cor. 12 – 14, is that of Spiritual Gifting. What is your take on Edwards handling of love as fruit?

    So often we are confronted with a not-yet-believing society that seems to love and care more for the world around them than the faithful Christian. This approach that Edwards takes on love is convicting.

    Great post Paul! Thanks for the encouragment!

    • First, Edwards would say, “Scripture requires us to do good to all.” (99)

      And when we strive to help people with their external needs, our speech is more compelling. “And by endeavouring thus to do good to them externally, we are under the greater advantage to do good to their souls; for, when our instructions, counsels, warnings, and good examples are accompanied with such outward kindness, the [external] tends to open the way for the better effect of the [spiritual], and to give them their full force, and to lead such persons to appreciate our efforts when we seek their spiritual good.” (98)

      He would also say that when we attempt to do any other virtuous act, apart from divine love, God remains displeased with it. “…there can be nothing acceptable in his sight in a mere external action without sincere love in the heart…The heart is just as naked and open to him as the external actions.” (56)

      My estimation of Edwards view on love is that it is something from God infused into our hearts/nature by the Spirit. The fruit is our visible love for God & others.

      Hope that helps…

  2. Thank you Paul for a wonderful summation of this collection of sermons. I really did appreciate Edwards emphasis on love in his writings. As you said above he did see love as the best Christian virtue. The practical ways that Edwards reveals love are still very much applicable to today and are challenges to Christians today.

    Would you say that for Edwards love is more God-centered or Christ-centered? As in who would you say is ultimately the source of love? It seems from what you wrote it would be God but from some of the writings I have read it seems as though Christ is the center. I guess it could be both but I was wondering if Edwards specifically stated in these writings the answer.

    Thanks again for a great post! It really challenged me in how I live out God’s love for me in my life.

    • Edwards doesn’t use this language, but it seems to me that it is a triune love. He does deal with all persons of the Trinity in this volume. Though, I think you could say the emphasis in this volume is on God.

  3. Paul, thanks for the nice summary. You use an interesting turn of phrase, one for which I do not know if you are responsible or borrowing from Edwards. You colas with a comment about “demands of love and our failings to meet them”. Does Edwards view love as a taskmaster, prescriptively demanding what we MUST do and be? Or does he see 1Co 13 as a descriptive explanation of what Christian love looks like as the Fruit of the Spirit working within the Christian?

    This question I think hits a major issue whether Calvinist, Arminian, or happily neither. To what extent do we actively try to develop love (or any other Christian trait) and to what extent do they manifest as the sovereign Spirit works His will in us?

    Obviously Edwards, deterministic though he was, did not deny the function of volition working within the Christian making good decisions and poor. Yet there also is the sovereign side of things, that God’s WIll prevails. How does the growth of love fall into that spectrum? Does it result from making good “loving” decisions? Or is it God effectual work within us? Both? Does this fall under the compatiblist category as well?

    • That comment is something “extra-Edwards”. It is more of a reflection of my own feelings after reading it. Taskmaster is such a rough word that I believe is really incompatible with Edwards view. This volume is primarily with showing that all true Christian virtue is summed up in love, one of three “more excellent” gifts. And in unpacking those idea, Edwards forces the questions: Do you possess this love? And how can we know that we do (by its fruit)? If we do possess, Edwards would say it is marred by imperfections, but we should lavor to grow in it, and its works.

      Maybe this quote will help…
      “If your heart is full of love, it will find vent; you will find or make ways enough to express your love in deeds. When a fountain abounds in water it will send forth streams. Consider that as a principle of love is the main principle in the heart of a real Christian, so the labor of love is the main business of the Christian life.” (25)

  4. Have you thought about the relationship between love as Edwards explains it in these sermons (particularly as it flows out in acts of service toward others) and the idea of “disinterested benevolence” that he addresses in True Virtue? Do you see the latter idea at work in these sermons at all?

  5. And, I’d like to hear more about your concerns regarding the emphasis on personal reflection. What exactly is your concern here and how might it be a problem in Edwards’ thought?

    • My concern with the overwhelming emphasis on personal reflection is that if it ends there, it always ends in despair. More often than not, I was convinced of Edwards’ principles/doctrine. Also, I was constantly evaluating personal “performance” before Edwards every moved into “application”. At the point of personal reflection, I was already undone from my short-comings, and I would think he’s audience would have been as well. Edwards’ applications seemed to push the despair further and further, instead of bringing the hope of the Gospel to the forefront.

      I don’t know that I would say that it is a problem in Edwards’ thought. I do think it was counter-productive to his purposes. How does despair ever lead to love and hope, if the Gospel is rarely communicated (especially since its the only thing that bridges that gap).

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