“The law and glory of Christianity”: Loving All People According to the Puritans

Probably the last thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the Puritans is a loving attitude towards all people. Many imagine the Puritans as obsessed with themselves as God’s people, and obsessed with God’s judgment against humanity at large. Though it is true that they believed in the doctrines of election and hell, they also believed that Christians had a duty to love all people, and this did not contradict the former, nor was it less important. In fact, one might argue that because of the Puritans’ highly developed views of God’s law and love they were able to speak of this command in a deep and meaningful way, rather than a shallow or vague way. This is seen clearly in Puritan heavy-hitters like Owen, Baxter, and Howe, who, though they disagreed on several doctrines like the image of God, asserted many of the same basic points:

  1. Love is wanting and working for the good of another

Owen’s definition of love is the most comprehensive, clear, and concise: love is “the willing of a wanted good unto the object of it . . . producing an endeavour to effect it unto the utmost of the ability of them in whom it is.”[1]He expands on this to say that when someone is lacking good, the loving person’s natural response is compassion, which can be worked out in real life in many specific ways like praying and bringing relief, but is always geared towards leading the person away from “present or eternal misery,” and to joy, which is found in God.[2]Not only should compassion be a normal response to seeing the suffering of someone “originally made like [oneself], in the image of God” and, if an unbeliever, only differing from oneself because of “mere sovereign grace,” but a lack of compassion is a sin against God and humanity, including oneself.[3]

Overall, Owen, Baxter, and Howe describe love as a feeling and action. This is seen in their lists of loving and unloving things, including a forgiving disposition versus a sour disposition, an emphasis on God’s good work in a person versus an emphasis on that person’s sin, valuing people for their riches and reputation rather than valuing people for the way they reflect God, breaking down walls of misunderstanding versus building them up, cultivating familiarity versus remaining strangers, and choosing to help those who are suffering versus being unmoved by their pain.

 

  1. God is the source and standard of love

The Christian cannot understand how to love others or actually do it without understanding God’s love and actually loving him. Love is a part of God’s very nature and manifests itself in many ways that Christians are supposed to imitate. In Owen’s words, “we know that God hath styled himself the God of love . . . because [it is] eminently from him, and highly accepted with him.”[4]In Baxter’s words, God, who is “infinitely and primitively good,” is the “prime and only simple object of our absolute, total love.”[5]

Owen argues that since “none of [God’s] rational creation in this world is . . . exempted from being the object” of his love,[6]Christians must also love “all mankind in general[7]. He builds his argument by putting one point on top of another, making it cumulative and thus powerful. In his words,

[God] hath not only implanted the principles of [love] in that nature whereof we are in common partakers with the whole race and kind, whereunto all hatred and its effects were originally foreign, and introduced by the devil, nor only given us his command for it, enlarging on its grounds and reasons in the gospel; but in his design of recovering us out of our lapsed condition unto a conformity with himself, proposeth in an especial manner the example of his own love and goodness, which are extended unto all, for our imitation, Matt. 5:44, 45. His philanthropy and communicative love, from his own infinite self-fulness, wherewith all creatures, in all places, times, and seasons, are filled and satisfied, as from an immeasurable ocean of goodness, are proposed unto us to direct the exercise of that drop from the divine nature wherewith we are intrusted.[8]

 

  1. Loving others is the second half of God’s law (summed up as loving one’s neighbor) and inseparable from the first half (summed up as loving God himself)

Loving God and loving human beings are distinct acts in that loving one does not necessarily entail that the other is loved by default and in that loving God is supreme. However, they are inseparable as commands in that to love God one must love other people and vice versa.

Howe’s sermons on 1 John 4:20 give a comprehensive explanation of this point. He claims that loving God and brother are connected in their object, root, rule, and end. First, they have the same object in that one can only properly love one’s brother by loving “him for God’s sake and because [one] primarily love God,” since God himself is the “original primary Goodness” which is then analogically seen in human beings.[9]Second, they have the same root of holy love, which not only includes loving God but also others because love is something that “diffuses and spreads itself duly according as the objects are presented or do invite.”[10]Third, loving God and others come from the same royal law, which means that breaking part of it is breaking all of it. Furthermore, the law encompasses the entire range of duty. For example, it forbids both “inordinate lust and impure love, as that which offends against one command; and inordinate hatred and ill-nature, which equally offends against the other, as it is the root of murder.”[11]Fourth, loving God and others have the same end of glorifying God because by loving, Christians show God’s nature in their nature and show themselves to be “the very children of his love;” they also have the same end of enjoying God by enjoying one another, since “God intends to be enjoyed by his in a community.”[12]

Howe concludes that it is absurd to say that you love God if you do not love your brother.

 

  1. Love must extend to all people, though in different ways

Christians must love all people since all are created in God’s image and since God has commanded it. Owen says this includes those who are different than you including your enemies, whether they are “the infidel, pagan, and Mohammedan world, [or] Jews and Gentiles,” and “even the worst of men.”[13]

However, loving a friend in the exact same way as an enemy is potentially irrational and sinful. Thus, Owen, Baxter, and Howe made reasonable distinctions between loving Christians and non-Christians, friends and enemies, and those who are a part of one’s biological family and not. For example, loving enemies does not mean one must love their sin, allow them to keep sinning, and participate in their sin; in fact, that is unloving. Rather, it means that one must hate their sin yet think the best of them, hope for their good, and help them along the way of repentance. These categories do not downplay the actual love that God commands to be given to all people, but clarifies how this love is played out so that it best serves the object of love and its relationship to the source of goodness itself. Baxter is best on this point. Overall, he argues that Christians should love other people according to their worth. The personal experience that he recounts gives a specific and memorable example of what this means:

When I was first awakened to . . . things spiritual and eternal, I was exceedingly inclined to a vehement love of those that I thought the most serious saints, and especially to that intimacy with some one, which is called friendship. By which I found extraordinary benefit, and it became a special mercy to my soul. But it was by more than one or two of the aforementioned ways, that the strict bond of extraordinary friendship hath been relaxed, and my own excessive esteem of my most intimate friends confuted. And since then I have learned, to love all men according to their real worth, and to let out my love more extensively and without respect of persons, acknowledging all that is good in all; but with a double love and honour to the excellently wise and good; and to value men more for their public usefulness, than for their private suitableness to me; and yet to value the ordinary converse of one or a few suitable friends, before a more public and tumultuary life.[14]

 

  1. Love proves Christianity to be true and makes it attractive to the world

Though Owen may seem to be the most tough and least warm of the Puritans, he comes out strongly on this point. He argues that the early Christians were known for loving each other and all people, including enemies, and that this love proved God’s love. First, “to see persons of different sorts . . . nations, tempers, degrees, high and low, rich and poor, all knit together in love, was the great thing that amazed the heathen world.”[15]Second, loving enemies (probably the hardest kind of love) is a primary identifier of Christianity: “where only any exception might seem to be warranted by some men’s causeless hatred, with unjust and unreasonable persecution of us, there the exercise of it is given us in especial and strictest charge; which is one of the noble singularities of Christian religion,” or in Howe’s words, “the law and glory of Christianity.” [16]Third, because love proves that God sent Christ to retrieve the spiritual love lost in the fall, this means a lack of love between Christians would eliminate the evidence of God’s love for them and their love for God, and thus harden the world in unbelief.[17]Gifts and wisdom (which are good but also apt to puff up) do not provide adequate proof for the gospel; only love does.

Baxter applies this point to the task of preaching, saying that love must be the mark and message of the preacher because it is convincing and powerful, even to the darkened mind that is in stubborn rebellion against God. Baxter explains, “love is a thing so agreeable to right reason, and to social nature, and to the common interest of all mankind, that all men commend it; and they that have it not for others, would have it from others.”[18]Moreover, “love is the powerful conqueror of the world; by it God conquereth the enmity of man, and reconcileth to himself even malignant sinners.”[19]In fact, if the preacher does not have love even though he has charm, he preaches in vain because a person’s love cannot be won to God without God stirring the heart, “which usually must be done by the instrumentality of the preacher’s love.”[20]The preacher must exhibit and teach love because it distinguishes Christianity from other religions and proves Christianity to be true. In Baxter’s words,

It is the Christian who doth truly love his neighbor as himself; who loveth the godly as his co-heirs of heaven, and loveth the ungodly with a desire to make them truly godly; who loveth a friend as a friend, and an enemy as a man that is capable of holiness and salvation; it is he that liveth, walketh, speakteth, converseth, yea suffereth, which is the great difficulty in love, and is, as it were, turned, by the love of God shed abroad upon his heart, into love itself; who doth glorify God in the world, and glorify his religion, and really rebuke the blasphemer, that derideth the Spirit in believers, as it were but a fanatical dream.[21]

Those Puritans who said love is wanting and working towards the good of another, that God is the source and standard of love and in one way loves all, that loving others is the second half of God’s law and inseparable from the first (summed up as loving God himself), that love must extend to all people but in different ways, and that love proves Christianity to be true and makes it attractive to the world, are the same Puritans who came down hard on sin, judgment, and hell. They did not neglect either but properly used both by allowing one to inform the other.

[1]John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1826; repr., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965),15:71.

[2]Ibid, 15:71.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid., 15:68.

[5]Baxter, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter,ed., William Orme (James Duncan: London, 1830), 6:426.

[6]Owen, Works, 15:70.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]John Howe, The Works of Rev. John Howe, M.A. with Memoirs of his Life by Edmund Calamy, D. D. (New York: John P. Haven, 1835),2:688.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid., 2:689.

[12]Ibid., 2:690.

[13]Owen, Works, 15:71–72.

[14]Baxter, Works, 6:462.

[15]Owen, Works, 9:258.

[16]Owen, Works, 15:69–70; Howe, Works, 2:694.

[17]Owen, Works, 9:258.

[18]Baxter, Works, 17:201.

[19]Ibid.

[20]Ibid., 17:203.

[21]Ibid. 17:203.

 

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