American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition


Back to the Classic Unitarian Writings  page

Love to Christ

First Discourse

William Ellery Channing

EPHESIANS vi. 24: "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity."

      I PROPOSE in this discourse to speak of Love to Christ, and especially of the foundations on which it rests. I will not detain you by remarks on the importance of the subject. I trust that you feel it, and that no urgency is needed to secure your serious attention.
      Love to Christ is said, and said with propriety, to be a duty, not of natural, but of revealed religion. Other precepts of Christianity are dictates of nature as well as of revelation. They result from the original and permanent relations which we bear to our Creator and our fellow-creatures; and are written by God on the mind as well as in the Bible. For example, gratitude towards the Author of our being, and justice and benevolence towards men, are inculcated with more or less distinctness by our moral faculties; they are parts of the inward law which belongs to a rational mind; and accordingly, wherever men are found, you find some conviction of these duties, some sense of their obligation to a higher power and to one another. But the same is not true of the duty of love to Jesus Christ; for as the knowledge of him is not communicated by nature, -- as his name is not written, like that of God, on the heavens and earth, but is confined to countries where his gospel is preached, -- it is plain that no sense of obligation to him can be felt beyond these bounds. No regard is due or can be paid to him beyond these. It is commonly said, therefore, that love to Christ is a duty of revealed, not natural religion, and this language is correct; but let it not mislead us. Let us not imagine that attachment to Jesus is an arbitrary duty, that it is unlike our other duties, that it is separate from common virtue, or that it is not founded, like all virtues, in our constitution, or not recognized and enforced by natural conscience. We say that nature does not enjoin this regard to the Saviour, simply because it does not make him known; but, as soon as he is made known, nature enjoins love and veneration towards him as truly as towards God or towards excellent men. Reason and conscience teach us to regard him with a strong and tender interest. Love to him is not an arbitrary precept. It is not unlike our other affections; it requires for its culture no peculiar influences from heaven; it stands on the same ground with all our duties it is to be strengthened by the same means. It is essentially the same sentiment, feeling, or principle, which we put forth towards other excellent beings, whether in heaven or on earth.
      I make these remarks, because I apprehend that the duty of loving Jesus Christ has been so urged as to seem to many particularly mysterious and obscure; and the consequence has been that by some it has been neglected as unnatural, unreasonable, and unconnected with common life; whilst others, in seeking to cherish it, have rushed into wild, extravagant, and feverish emotions. I would rescue, if I can, this duty from neglect on the one hand, and from abuse on the other; and to do this, nothing is necessary but to show the true ground and nature of love to Christ You will then see not only that it is an exalted and generous sentiment, but that it blends with, and gives support to, all the virtuous principles of the mind, and to all the duties, even the most common, of active life.
      There is another great good which may result from a just explanation of the love due to Christ. You will see that this sentiment has no dependence, at least no necessary dependence, on the opinions we may form about his place, or rank, in the universe. This topic has convulsed the church for ages. Christians have cast away the spirit, in settling the precise dignity, of their Master. That this question is unimportant, I do not say. That some views are more favorable to love towards him than others, I believe; but I maintain that all opinions, adopted by different sects, include the foundation on which veneration and attachment are due to our common Lord. This truth -- for I hold it to be a plain truth - is so fitted to heal the wounds and allay the uncharitable fervors of Christ's divided church, that I shall rejoice if I can set it forth to others as clearly as it rises to my own mind.
      To accomplish the ends now expressed, I am led to propose to you one great but simple question. What is it that constitutes Christ's claim to love and respect? What is it that is to be loved in Christ? Why are we to hold him dear? I answer, There is but one ground for virtuous affection in the universe, but one object worthy of cherished and enduring love in heaven or on earth, and that is moral goodness. I make no exceptions. My principle applies to all beings, to the Creator as well as to his creatures. The claim of God to the love of his rational offspring rests on the rectitude and benevolence of his will. It is the moral beauty and grandeur of his character to which alone we are bound to pay homage. The only power which can and ought to be loved is a beneficent and righteous power. The creation is glorious, and binds us to supreme and everlasting love to God, only because it sprung from and shows forth this energy of goodness; nor has any being a claim on love any farther than this same energy dwells in him, and is manifested in him. I know no exception to this principle. I can conceive of no being who can have any claim to affection but what rests on his character, meaning by this the spirit and principles which constitute his mind, and from which he acts; nor do I know but one character which entitles a being to our hearts, and it is that which the Scriptures express by the word righteousness; which in man is often called virtue, -- in God, holiness; which consists essentially in supreme reverence for and adoption of what is right; and of which benevolence, or universal charity, is the brightest manifestation.
      After these remarks, you will easily understand what I esteem the ground of love to Christ. It is his spotless purity, his moral perfection, his unrivalled goodness. - It is the spirit of his religion, which is the spirit of God, dwelling in him without measure. Of consequence, to love Christ is to love the perfection of virtue, of righteousness, of benevolence; and the great excellence of this love is that, by cherishing it, we imbibe, we strengthen in our own souls, the most illustrious virtue, and through Jesus become like to God.
      From the view now given, you see that love to Jesus Christ is a perfectly natural sentiment, -- I mean, one which our natural sense of right enjoins and approves, and which our minds are constituted to feel and to cherish, as truly as any affection to the good whom we know on earth. It is not a theological, mysterious feeling, which some super-natural and inexplicable agency must generate within us. It has its foundation or root in the very frame of our minds, in that sense of right by which we are enabled to discern, and bound to love, perfection. I observe next that, according to this view, it is, as I have said, an exalted and generous affection; for it brings us into communion and contact with the sublimest character ever revealed among men. It includes and nourishes great thoughts and high aspirations, and gives us here on earth the benefit of intercourse with celestial beings.
      Do you not also see that the love of Christ, according to the view now given of it, has no dependence -- on any particular views which are formed of his nature by different sects? According to all sects, is he not perfect, spotless in virtue, the representative and resplendent image of the moral goodness and rectitude of God? However contending sects may be divided as to other points, they all agree in the moral perfection of his character. All recognize his most glorious peculiarity, his sublime and unsullied goodness. All therefore see in him that which alone deserves love and veneration.
      I am aware that other views are not uncommon. It is said that a true love to Christ requires just opinions concerning him, and that they who form different opinions of him, however they may use the same name, do not love the same being. We must know him, it is said, in order to esteem him as we ought. Be it so. To love Christ we must know him. But what must we know respecting him? Must we know his countenance and form, must we know the manner in which he existed before his birth, or the manner in which he now exists? Must we know his precise rank in the universe, his precise power and influence? On all these points, indeed, just views would be gratifying and auxiliary to virtue. But love to Christ may exist and grow strong without them. What we need to this end is the knowledge of his mind, his virtues, his principles of action. No matter how profoundly we speculate about Christ, or how profusely we heap upon him epithets of praise and admiration; if we do not understand the distinguishing virtues of his character, and see and feel their grandeur, we are as ignorant of him as if we bad never heard his name, nor can we offer him an acceptable love. I desire indeed to know Christ's rank in the universe; but rank is nothing except as it proves and manifests superior virtue. High station only degrades a being who fills it unworthily. It is the mind which gives dignity to the office, not the office to the mind. All glory is of the soul. Accordingly we know little or nothing of another until we look into his soul. I cannot be said to know a being of a singularly great character because I have learned from what region he came, to what family he belongs, or what rank he sustains. I can only know him as far as I discern the greatness of his spirit, the unconquerable strength of his benevolence, his loyalty to God and duty, his power to act and suffer in a good and righteous cause, and his intimate communion with God. Who knows Christ best? I answer, It is he who, in reading his history, sees and feels most distinctly and deeply the perfection by which he was distinguished. Who knows Jesus best? It is he who, not resting in general and almost unmeaning praises, becomes acquainted with what was peculiar, characteristic, and individual in his mind, and who has thus framed to himself, not a dim image called Jesus, but a living being, with distinct and glorious features, and with all the reality of a well-known friend. Who best knows Jesus? I answer, It is he who deliberately feels and knows that his character is of a higher order than all other characters which have appeared on earth, and who thirsts to commune with and resemble it. I hope I am plain. When I hear, as I do, men disputing about Jesus, and imagining that they know him by settling some theory as to his generation in time or eternity, or as to his rank in the scale of being, I feel that their knowledge of him is about as great as I should have of some saint or hero by studying his genealogy. These controversies have built up a technical theology, but give no insight into the mind and heart of Jesus; and without this the true knowledge of him cannot be enjoyed. And here I would observe, not in the spirit of reproach, but from a desire to do good, that I know not a more effectual method of hiding Jesus from us, of keeping us strangers to him, than the inculcation of the doctrine which makes him the same being with his Father, makes him God himself. This doctrine throws over him a mistiness. For myself, when I attempt to bring it home, I have not a real being one heart, answering to my own in all its essential powers and affections, but purified, enlarged, exalted, so as to constitute him the unsullied image of God and a perfect model, is a being who bears the marks of reality, whom I can understand, whom I can receive into my heart as the best of friends, with whom I can become intimate, and whose society I can and do anticipate among the chief blessings of my future being.
      My friends, I have now stated, in general, what knowledge of Christ is most important, and is alone required in order to a true attachment to him. Let me still farther illustrate my views by descending to one or two particulars. Among the various excellences of Jesus, he was distinguished by a benevolence so deep, so invincible, that injury and outrage had no power over it. His kindness towards men was in no degree diminished by their wrong-doing. The only intercession which he offered in his sufferings was for those who at that very moment were wreaking on him their vengeance; and what is more remarkable, he not only prayed for them, but, with an unexampled generosity and candor, urged in their behalf the only extenuation which their conduct would admit. Now, to know Jesus Christ is to understand this attribute of his mind, to understand the strength and triumph of the benevolent principle in this severest trial, to understand the energy with which he then held fast the virtue which he had enjoined. It is to see in the mind of Jesus at that moment a moral grandeur which raised him above all around him. This is to know him. I will suppose now a man to have studied all the controversies about Christ's nature, and to have arrived at the truest notions of his rank in the universe. But this incident in Christ's history, this discovery of his character, has never impressed him; the glory of a philanthropy which embraces one's enemies has never dawned upon him. With all his right opinions about the Unity or the Trinity, he lives and acts towards others very much as if Jesus had never lived or died. Now I say that such a man does not know Christ. I say that he is a stranger to him. I say that the great truth is hidden from him; that his skill in religious controversy is of little more use to him than would be the learning by rote of a language which he does not understand. He knows the name of Christ, but the excellence which that name imports, and which gives it its chief worth, is to him as an unknown tongue.
      I have referred to one view of Christ's character. I might go through his whole life. I will only observe that, in the New Testament, the crucifixion of Jesus is always set forth as the most illustrious portion of his history. The spirit of self-sacrifice, of deliberate self-immolation, of calm, patient endurance of the death of the cross, in the cause of truth, piety, virtue, human happiness, this particular manifestation of love is always urged upon us in the New Testament as the crowning glory of Jesus Christ. To understand this part of his character; to understand him when he gave himself up to the shame and anguish of crucifixion; to understand that sympathy with human misery, that love of human nature, that thirst for the recovery of the human soul, that zeal for human virtue, that energy of moral principle, that devotion to God's purposes, through which the severest suffering was chosen and borne, and into which no suffering, or scorn, or desertion, or ingratitude, could infuse the least degree of selfishness, unkindness, doubt, or infirmity, -- to understand this, is to understand Jesus; and he who wants sensibility to this, be his speculations what they may, has every thing to learn respecting the Saviour.
      You will see, from the views now given, that I consider love to Christ as requiring nothing so much as that we fix our thoughts on the excellence of his character, study it, penetrate our minds with what was peculiar in it, and cherish profound veneration for it; and consequently I fear that attachment to him has been diminished by the habit of regarding other things in Christ as more important than his lovely and sublime virtues.
      Christians have been prone to fix on something mysterious in his nature, or else on the dignity of his offices, as his chief claim; and in this way his supreme glory has been obscured. His nature and offices I, of course, would not disparage; but let them not be exalted above his moral worth. I maintain that this gives to his nature and offices all their claims to love and veneration, and that we understand them only as far as we see this to pervade them. This principle I would uphold against Christians of very different modes of faith.
      First, there are Christians who maintain that Jesus Christ is to be loved as the Son of God, understanding by this title some mysterious connection and identity with the Father. Far be it from me to deny that the Divine Sonship of Jesus constitutes his true claim on our affection; but I do deny that the mysterious properties of this relation form any part of this claim; for it is very clear that love to a being must rest on what we know of him, and not on unknown and unintelligible attributes. In saying that the Divine Sonship of Jesus is the great foundation of attachment to him, I say nothing inconsistent with the doctrine of this discourse, that the moral excellence of Jesus is the great object and ground of the love which is due to him. Indeed, I only repeat the principle that he is to be loved exclusively for the virtues of his character; for what, I ask, is the great idea involved in his filial relation to God? To be the Son of God, in the chief and highest sense of that term, is to bear the likeness, to possess the spirit, to be partaker of the moral perfections of God. This is the essential idea. To be God's Son is to be united with him by consent and accordance of mind. Jesus was the only begotten Son, because he was the perfect image and representative of God, especially of divine philanthropy; because he espoused as his own the benevolent purposes of God towards the human race, and yielded himself to their accomplishment with an entire self-sacrifice. To know Jesus as the Son of God is not to understand what theologians have written about his eternal generation, or about a mystical, incomprehensible union between Christ and his Father. It is something far higher and more instructive. It is to see in Christ, if I may say so, the lineaments of the Universal Father. It is to discern in him a godlike purity and goodness. It is to understand his harmony with the Divine Mind, and the entireness arid singleness of love with which he devoted himself to the purposes of God, and the interests of the human race. Of consequence, to love Jesus as the Son of God is to love the spotless purity and godlike charity of his soul.
      There are other Christians who differ widely from those of whom I have now spoken, but who conceive that Christ's offices, inspiration, miracles, are his chief claims to veneration, and who, I fear, in extolling these, have overlooked what is incomparably more glorious the moral dignity of his mind, the purity and inexhaustibleness of his benevolence. It is possible that to many who hear me, Christ seems to have been more exalted when he received from his Father supernatural light and truth, or when with superhuman energy he quelled the storm and raised the dead, than when he wept over the city which was in a few days to doom him to the most shameful and agonizing death; and yet his chief glory consisted in the spirit through which these tears were shed. Christians have yet to learn that inspiration, and miracles, and outward dignities are nothing compared with the soul. We all need to understand better than we have done that noble passage of Paul, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and understand all mysteries, and have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity [disinterestedness, love], I am nothing;" and this is as true of Christ as of Paul. Indeed it is true of all beings, and yet, I fear, it is not felt as it should be by the multitude of Christians.
      You tell me, my friends, that Christ's unparalleled inspiration, his perpetual reception of light from God, that this was his supreme distinction; and a great distinction undoubtedly it was: but I affirm that Christ's inspiration, though conferred on him without measure, gives him no claim to veneration or love, any farther than it found within him a virtue which accorded with, welcomed, and adopted it, any farther than his own heart responded to the truths he received; any farther than he sympathized with, and espoused as his own, the benevolent purposes of God, which he was sent to announce; any farther than the spirit of the religion which he preached was his own spirit, and was breathed from his life as well as from his lips. In other words, his inspiration was made glorious through his virtues. Mere inspiration seems to me a very secondary thing. Suppose the greatest truths in the universe to be revealed supernaturally to a being who should take no interest in them, who should not see and feel their greatness, but should repeat them mechanically, as they were put into his mouth by the Deity. Such a man would be inspired, and would teach the greatest verities, and yet he would be nothing, and would have no claim to reverence.
      The excellence of Jesus did not consist in his mere inspiration, but in the virtue and love which prepared him to receive it, and by which it was made effectual to the world. He did not passively hear, and mechanically repeat, certain doctrines from God, but his whole soul accorded with what he heard. Every truth which he uttered came warm and living from his own mind; and it was this pouring of his own soul into his instructions which gave them much of their power. Whence came the authority and energy, the conscious dignity, the tenderness and sympathy, with which Jesus taught? They came not from inspiration, but from the mind of him who was inspired. His personal virtues gave power to his teachings; and without these no inspiration could have made him the source of such light and strength as he now communicates to mankind.
      My friends, I have aimed to show in this discourse that virtue, purity, rectitude of Jesus Christ is his most honorable distinction, and constitutes his great claim to veneration and love. I can direct you to nothing in Christ more important than his tried, and victorious, and perfect goodness. Others may love Christ for mysterious attributes; I love him for the rectitude of his soul and his life. I love him for that benevolence which went through Judea, instructing the ignorant, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind. I love him for that universal charity which comprehended the despised publican, the hated Samaritan, the benighted heathen, and sought to bring a world to God and to happiness. I love him for that gentle, mild, forbearing spirit, which no insult, outrage, injury, could overpower; and which desired as earnestly the repentance and happiness of its foes as the happiness of its friends. I love him for the spirit of magnanimity, constancy, and fearless rectitude with which, amidst peril and opposition, he devoted himself to the work which God gave him to do. I love him for the wise and enlightened zeal with which he espoused the true, the spiritual interests of mankind, and through which he lived and died to redeem them from every sin, to frame them after his own godlike virtue. I love him, I have said, for his moral excellence; I know nothing else to love. I know nothing so glorious in the Creator or his creatures. This is the greatest gift which God bestows, the greatest to be derived from his Son.
      You see why I call you to cherish the love of Christ. This love I do not recommend as a luxury of feeling, as an ecstasy bringing immediate and overflowing joy. I view it in a nobler light. I call you to love Jesus, that you may bring yourselves into contact and communion with perfect virtue, and may become what you love. I know no sincere, enduring good but the moral excellence which shines forth in Jesus Christ. Your wealth, your outward comforts and distinctions, are poor, mean, contemptible, compared with this; and to prefer them to this is self-debasement, self-destruction. May this great truth penetrate our souls; and may we bear witness in our common lives, and especially in trial, in sore temptation, that nothing is so dear to us as the virtue of Christ!

2003 American Unitarian Conference