And above all things have fervent Charity among your selves: for Charity shall cover the multitude of Sins.
THE Design which I am now prosecuting, obligeth me to take notice of such Passages of Scripture as any professed Christians may, on any Account, be apt to interpret to a very bad Purpose: that is, to the giving themselves Encouragement to hope for God's future Mercy; for the Sake of his Son: even whilst they continue in the habitual Practice of known Sins. And the Words which I have now read to you, as well as some others in the New Testament to the same purpose, seem at first reading, and taken by themselves, to be as likely to be abused this way, as any we can well pick out: which, therefore, I now design carefully to consider; in order to prevent any such fatal-practical Mistake as may endanger the Salvation of those who profess the Faith of Jesus Christ.
THE Apostle is, in this Verse, after the most earnest manner, pressing upon the Christians to whom he writes, the most fervent and unconfined Love towards one another, Above all things, have fervent Charity among your selves: as his great, Master had frequently, in the most pathetic manner, exhorted his Followers to love one another. From which Words, Charity among your selves; it is evident that He is not in this place, pressing upon them Love in the most comprehensive Sense possible; or the Love of God, which is a distinct part of the Law of Christ; but particularly the Love of one another.
NOR is it any Objection against this (which is indeed plain from the very Words) that the form of Expression, with which the Apostle introduceth them, seems too much for this. For the Phrase, above all things, in the common use of it, is not designed to be understood, as making the thing spoken of, of greater Importance than every other Point whatsoever: but only to signify that the Matter is of great Importance; and that there was great Occasion, perhaps from some manifest Failure amongst the Persons spoken to, to press upon them this Particular, at this time, above all others. Thus, to .give one plain. Instance, St. James, in the fifth Chapter of his Epistle, at the 12th ver. brings in the Prohibition of Swearing, after the same manner, But above all things, my Brethren, swear not. Not that any one can imagine but that other Crimes, condemned by the Gospel, were full as much to be avoided by Christians, or were of a less heinous nature than this: but that He had some more than ordinary present Occasion to remind them of their Duty in this Particular; and in an especial manner to charge them not to be guilty of this Vice. So likewise, in the Case before us, there may be supposed very good Reason for St. Peter, at that time, to press upon Christians to whom He wrote, the Love of one another, above all things; because they either had offended particularly against this Law, or were most likely to do so; without putting such a Sense upon this common Form of Expression, as if He must mean by it any thing more, and greater, than what this own Words profess; viz. fervent Charity among themselves.
THIS might suffice to account for the manner of his introducing this Duty: but it is fit likewise to consider that the Love of one another, considered as a Duty distinct from the Love of God and all other Duties; the Forgiveness of one another; the bearing with, and tenderly regarding one another, is so peculiar a Branch of Christianity: is so much insisted on by Christ himself, as the indispensable Condition of our Happiness, and that which He came down from Heaven in an especial manner to implant, and encourage in the Minds and Manners of Men; that an Apostle, and Preacher of the same Gospel, might well, in speaking to Christians, put them in mind, in a very particular manner, to regard this peculiar Branch of their Profession; that Love of one another, by which all Men were to know they were Christ's Disciples, and to see them distinguished from the rest of an unfriendly, and selfish World about them.
IT is, therefore, without doubt, as the Words themselves shew, Love to one another, peculiarly so called, or a fervent Charity among themselves, that St. Peter is pressing upon them with such Vehemence: and which he urgeth farther by this Consideration; for Charity, i. e. this Charity to one another, of which He is speaking, shall cover the multitude of Sins. With respect to which words, all my present Design is to guard against any fatal practical Mistake, by considering in what Senses they may possibly, or probably, be understood; and shewing that no Encouragement can be drawn from these or the like Words, taken in any Sense of which they are capable, to induce Christians to hope for Salvation on account of their loving one another, or forgiving one another, without forsaking their own Sins, and entering upon an holy Course of. Life in other respects.
INDEED, it is very observable that there are none less likely to stand in need of the Abuse of this Text than such as are truly charitable; and sincerely love their Neighbours; and are heartily disposed to forgive their Offenses against themselves: that none have fewer Faults to cover, than such as these; or are less likely to take Refuge in their Charity, to indulge themselves in any thing evil. For, Did any of us ever know one truly charitable Man; I mean, charitable in a regular and stated Course, and in an eminent Degree; who willingly allowed himself in the habitual Practice of any known Vice; or in any sort of Transgression of God's Law? On the contrary, tho' we may have known a very vicious Man do particular Acts of Liberality, and shew an uncommon Generosity upon some uncommon Occasion; perhaps out of an ill-gotten Stock; and to support a great Temporal Interest: yet, did we ever know any Man, who continued in a course of a multitude of known Sins, to be regularly charitable in a great degree; and always disposed and ready to forgive and overlook all Offenses against himself? But yet it is fitting sometimes to do more than may be strictly necessary, in order to take away all Pretext from such Men, as may fancy themselves possessed of a Charity which they have not; and take Courage from thence to presume upon the Mercy of God. To return, therefore, to what I proposed,
1. IT is not at all improbable that the Apostle, when He declares that our Charity shall cover, or covers, the multitude of Sins, means that it will, or doth, cover the Sins of others; and not our own: which Interpretation at once cuts off the Ground of the Mistake, supposed to be founded upon this Declaration. And supposing him to speak of the Sins of others; it may be, as it hath been by several Interpreters, understood two ways.
1. IT may signify that our Charity and Love to others will incline us to cover, that is, to hide so as to forgive, and not to revenge or punish, all the Offences of others against our selves. So that the Apostle may exhort the Christians to have a fervent inward Affection for one another, on this Account; because this fervent Love of one another will incline them to overlook and forgive all the Offences of others against themselves: which is so main a part of the Evangelical Law, and so acceptable in the Eyes of God. Against this Interpretation there may be Two Objections raised.
1. THE first is, that the Phrase, which is rendered to cover Sins, is always in other places used with respect to God's covering our Sins, and not to our covering the Offences of others against our selves. But this will not be of great force, because, tho' this may possibly be found true, yet is to be looked upon as a Matter purely accidental; and not arising from any Impropriety in applying the Word to the Sins of others: it being of that nature, that it is full as apt to express our covering, so as to pardon the Offences of others, as it is to denote God Almighty's covering, so as to pardon our Offences. Just as the Word Forgive is used both of God's forgiving our Sins, and of our forgiving one another: So may the Word Cover be, in it self, equally proper in both cases; and the Circumstances or Words of any particular Passage of Scripture be reasonably left to determine to which it is designed by the Writter to belong. If the Word which is translated Forgive, had happened to have been generally used in speaking of God's forgiving us; this would not have been a Proof that it might not have been used, in one or two places, where our Forgiveness of one another was spoken of: and the same may be said with respect to the Word Cover; which is equally applicable to both Cases. From whence it follows, that no Argument can be drawn from hence to prove that it may not as properly and justly be said that Charity covers the Offences of others against us, as that it covers our Offences against God. Indeed, if there were any thing peculiar in the Word, which made it absurd to apply it to any thing but our own Sins against God; a critical Argument might be drawn from hence against this Sense. But when the Word is frequently used in many other Cases, and applied to many other Things; nay, is only in a metaphorical Sense used for Forgiveness, or taking no notice of, Sins; nothing can be urged from hence against using it in all Cases, in which it is equally proper. Besides, as I hope to make out by and by, this very Word and Phrase is used by St. James, with respect to the Sins of others.
2. IT may seem to some a little absurd to make the Apostle press Christians with so much Vehemence to mutual Love; not by declaring the future Reward of it, but by laying before them, one main Effect and Branch of it, as a Motive to engage them to endeavour after that Love. But if we consider what a Stress the Gospel layeth upon our Placability, and Forgiveness of one another; we shall not much wonder to find an Apostle, earnestly pressing Christians to labour after that inward Disposition, which will produce such an Effect; so necessary to their own Happiness. Let us labour after a fervent Charity, or Love, for one another; for this will dispose us readily to cover, to pass by, overlook, and forgive, the greatest Number of Offences of others against our selves: This, I say, is no small Argument to Christians, who know that this is the way to their own Forgiveness, and Happiness; and a Condition, without which they cannot hope to have their own past Sins covered by Almighty God. The like way of speaking is used by St. Paul, Rom. xiii.8. where He exhorts the Christians to love one another, because He that loveth another may be said to have fulfilled the Law: that is, because, if we truly love one another, this will induce us to do no Mischief, but all possible Good, to our Neighbour; and so to come up to what is required of us by God, with respect to our Neighbour, which must be a great and substantial Motive to any Christian to endeavour after such a Love, and Charity.
2. THE second way, in which the Words of the Text may be interpreted, with respect to the Sins of others, is this; that, if we have a fervent Charity for others, this will engage us to seek after the Conversion of such as are Sinners, and so our Love to the Souls of Men, shewing it self by turning many to Righteousness, will be the Occasion of God's covering, or pardoning, their Sins, who are so turned from a Life of Sin, to all holy Conversation; and Godliness. This is, indeed, a safe Sense of the Words. But, I cannot think it so probable that the Apostle could mean this; because it is unlikely that the Christians to whom He wrote should so understand him: since He doth not make the least mention, or give the least hint, of that Conversion of Sinners, upon which this Interpretation wholly depends. If this had been the thing in his View; it is hardly possible to suppose but that He would have once mentioned what He principally intended.
I GRANT, indeed, that there is a Passage at the latter end of St. James's Epistle; which in Words is parallel to this in St. Peter: about which it is now fit to say something. The very last Words of that Epistle are these, Let him know that He who converts a Sinner from the Error of his way, shall save a Soul from Death, and shall cover a multitude of Sins, the very Words used by St. Peter. Where indeed it is very natural to interpret the Words to signify, that by converting a: Sinner to Righteousness we save a Soul from Death; and are the Occasion of God's not punishing those many Sins, which if they had been continued in, must have laid the Sinner open to the Divine Vengeance: which is a Consideration enough to move any sincere Christian to that Work. Nor is it any Objection against this Interpretation, that saving a Soul from Death, and covering a multitude of Sins in this Sense, are the same thing, in other Words; when the Apostles seems to propound them as two distinct Motives: because there are numberless Instances, in sacred and profane Writers of the best Rank, of the like Tautology to this; viz. the expressing the present Sentiment of their Minds, at the same time, after several ways, and yet still to the same Purpose.
BUT here, we see, when St James meant particularly to signify to Christians that it was by Conversion of Sinners that they might be Instruments of covering a multitude of Sins, which was a great and God-like Work; that He doth not speak of Charity in general: but very particularly and plainly points out to them that particular Branch of it, by which a multitude of Sins might be covered. And this is an Argument why St. Peter probably had not this in his View: because, if He had, there is no reason to think but that He would have said so, as plainly as St. James did; or, at least, that He would have given some Hint, sufficient to have led us to understand Him to the same Purpose. Nor is the use of the same expression sufficient to shew that they both meant the same thing: it being full as proper for St. Peter to tell Christians that their Love to one another would engage them to forgive one another's Offences, without resenting or punishing them; as for St. James to tell other Christians that their converting a Sinner would be the means of his past Sins being covered, so as to be forgiven by God. This shews us that, as the Word Cover is applied to several other things as well as Sins; so, may the Expression of covering Sins, or a multitude of Sins, be used with respect to very different Cases, and with very different Views.
THIS, therefore, is the first general Proposition I lay down, that these Words may be so interpreted, at least one way, very probably, as to respect only the covering the Sins of others from Punishment; and not our own. And if this be the Intent of the Apostle in this place; the Inference is plain, that all Ground is removed of building upon it any such Opinion, as that any degree of any sort of Charity will cover our own Sins: since, according to this Interpretation, all that is here said, is that our Charity will cover, and overlook, the Failings and Offenses of others. Nay, if this be but a possible Interpretation of the Words; as long as it is free from all Hazard; who would be so weak as to venture his Eternity, and Salvation, upon the Possibility of any other Sense, not so certainly safe, and secure? But lest any Sinner should think himself too hardly dealt with; and not indulged and soothed, so much as he may imagine this Passage to have indulged him: let us proceed farther, and, in the second place,
II. LET us suppose that the Apostle intended in the Text to exhort and allure Christians to Charity amongst one another, by telling them that Charity would cover the multitude of their own Sins: and yet we shall find, upon a due Examination, how small a Consolation this, or any the like Assertion, rightly understood, can afford to any Christian who continues in his Sins. And, under this Head, it is my Design to take notice of three or four several Passages, which may give unstable Men occasion of imposing upon themselves.
As to the Words of the Text; supposing it be affirmed by St. Peter that Charity shall cover the multitude of our own Sins; I say,
1. IT is highly unreasonable to interpret this, as if He meant that it should atone for the wilful Sins in which we still continue: because to say this of any thing, is to contradict, as I have often observed, the whole Tenour of the Gospel, in which the Wrath of God is revealed, without Exception, against all Unrighteousness. This therefore, cannot be fixed upon any obscure Words of the first Preachers of the Gospel: whose Business it was to declare this Wrath of God: it being one certain Rule to go by, not to fix a Sense upon any particular Passage, contrary to the main Design, and Tenour, of the whole.
2. IT is contrary to St. Peter's own Declarations, and most earnest Exhortations, in this very Epistle: who beseecheth the Christians to whom He wrote, to be holy in all manner of Conversation, as He that called them is holy, ch. i.15. And to abstain from fleshly Lusts which war against the Soul, Ch. ii. ver.11. and the like. Now in vain did He do this; and to no purpose were all his Exhortations: if He can be supposed tell them after all, that tho' they should not be holy in all manner of Conversation; tho' they should not abstain from fleshly Lusts; yet they might be secure of the Favour of God; that, if they did but take care to love one another, that would cover all. So that if we would not make St. Peter contradict and destroy his own Design; we must not make him speak after this manner.
BUT if any should say that St. Peter means it of a most comprehensive and extensive Love of God, and Man: I answer, that He saith himself, He means it of Charity among themselves; and that St. James hath used the very same Words of one single Branch of brotherly-Love, which are supposed, by those who alledge this, to be exactly parallel in meaning to these in St. Peter. This wholly takes away the Benefit of this Observation; and affixeth Salvation to one single Branch of Charity, distinct from other Virtues.
AND here, having mentioned the Passage in St. James again; I must observe of that likewise, that, supposing the Apostle to mean by it, that a Christian by converting a Sinner doth cover, or make an Atonement, for his own Sins; yet, it cannot there be understood of the Sins he continues in; but only of those which He hath forsaken because the particular Branch of Charity spoken of there, supposeth the Necessity of all Sinners being converted, in order to the saving their Souls. If therefore, I convert a Sinner; yet, if I my self remain a wilful Sinner against God's Laws in other respects; there is the same Necessity of my being converted, in order to the saving my Soul, that there was for the Conversion of the other, about whom I have been labouring. But if it were sufficient to convert another; though the Converter himself remain a wilful habitual Sinner; supposing that another should afterwards convert this Man himself from his Sins; it cannot be said, as this Passage affirms, that He saves a Soul from Death, because it was saved before by his having converted another: and then likewise, all the Business any Man hath to do, is to endeavour to chuse out some Sinner, and by all means to labour his Conversion upon which He may be sure of God's Favour, let his own Life be what it will. But what then signifieth the Gospel of Jesus Christ? and the Terrors of the Lord displayed in it against Sinners.; if such a Sense can be fixed upon any part of it? It remains, therefore,
3. THAT, if St. Peter meant the Words of the Text with respect to our own Sins, all his Intention was to say that our loving one another; our kind Regards; our Placability and good Nature; our Forgiveness and Forbearance of one another, would engage Almighty God to forbear the Punishment of us, or to forgive to us our selves those manifold Sins, which we have ever been guilty of towards Him, in Time past: not those which we indulge our selves in; but those which we have forsaken. For I must observe to you that this is the Peculiarity belonging to that great Virtue of loving one another, so as to be ready to forbear, and forgive; viz. that, for the sake of that, God will forgive us the Sins which we have forsaken: but that, without it, (that is, unless we forgive others, our Neighbours and Brethren;) even those Sins which we have formerly been guilty of; tho' we have forsaken them, and tho' God had, upon that, heretofore forgiven them; shall be remembred against us, solely on the Account of our implacable and unforgiving Temper of Mind.
IF St. Peter, therefore, speaks of our own Sins, as covered by our Love to others; I take him to say what our Lord himself affirmed, Matth. vi.14. If ye forgive Men their Trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: to the right Interpretation of which Words, what I have already said will lead all Christians who are not resolved to impose upon themselves. The Interpretation which I mean is this, that, if they forgive the Trespasses of others, God will likewise forgive them the Sins which they have forsaken, and amended: but, if they do not forgive others, that even those Sins which God had formerly remitted to them, on Account of their first Faith, or Amendment, shall be again accounted for, and severely punished upon them in the other World. And thus Christ himself seems to have explained it in the Parable, Matth. xviii.3. in which the Lord punisheth his Servant for the Debt which He had once forgiven him, only because afterwards He would not forgive the small Debt of one of his Fellow-Servants.
To draw towards a Conclusion; If our Lord, in his Account of the great Day, speaks of Alms-giving only; we see, by the forementioned Text, and multitudes of others, that it was not his Design there to speak of every thing necessary; but only to shew the great Acceptableness of that Branch of Charity to God Almighty; and what strict Enquiry there would be made, at the great Day, into the Practice of this Virtue: but that we must not so interpret it, as to render void his other plain Declarations about the absolute Necessity of all the other Instances of Goodness and Holiness.
IF, in any other Places of Scripture, or in the Apocryphal pious Writers, Alms-giving, or any sort of Charity, be spoken of as an Atonement for Sins; or particularly, in any of the first Christian Writers: it is evident how a Christian must understand such Expressions. Every thing that is commendable; Every singular Act of Piety, or Charity, may be, by a Figure of speech, called a Sacrifice, as it is offered to the Honour and Service of God by those who perform it rightly: or an Atonement, as it may be said to make some Amends for a past Life of contrary or Vicious Actions; just as a present Regard and Friendship, and the serving any Man in a very remarkable Matter of Importance, may be called an Atonement for a past State of Disservice and Disrespect; without supposing any such single Actions to be any Satisfaction, or Atonement, for multitudes of Affronts which we continue, upon many more Occasions, still to offer Him.
IF any Writers, of good Authority, have parallell'd the Atonement of Mercy with that of Baptism; this shews still farther that they could mean it with respect to nothing but past Sins, forsaken and abandoned. For, as Baptism atones not for any Sins, but such as were committed before it, and are utterly renounced in it; not at all for such as the baptized Person continues in, after his Baptism; so, in like manner, cannot Mercy, or Charity, by any one who useth this Similitude, be thought, or said, to atone for any Sins, but what are forsaken by the merciful Person: not at all for such as He still continues to be guilty of.
FROM all which there cannot be any Consolation, or hope of Salvation, drawn to any such Christians, as still go on to allow themselves in the wilful Violation of any of the Laws of Christ: but, on the contrary, this Consolation of making some sort of amends to God Almighty, by signal Acts of Charity, belongs only to such as, tho' Sinners in Time past, yet have now actually reformed their Lives.
THIS, therefore, is the Christian Doctrine about Charity or rather, about that Part of it which consists in Forgiveness of others: that, on account of this, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God will cover and forgive our Sins, which we have forsaken and not without it. And this is so far from releasing us from the Obligation of forsaking them; that it supposeth it done, and adds to it the Obligation of our imitating God Almighty in forgiving one another: which God grant we may all do, & c.