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Love to Christ

Second Discourse

William Ellery Channing

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

      IN the preceding discourse, I considered the nature and ground of love to Christ. The subject is far from being exhausted. I propose now, after a few remarks on the importance and happiness of this attachment, to call your attention to some errors in relation to it which prevail in the Christian world.
      A virtuous attachment purifies the heart. In loving the excellent, we receive strength to follow them. It is happy for us when a pure affection springs up within us. When friendship knits us with holy and generous minds. It is happy for us when a being of noble sentiments and beneficent life enters our circle, becomes an object of interest to us, and by affectionate intercourse takes a strong hold on our hearts. Not a few can trace the purity and elevation of their minds to connection with an individual who has won them by the beauty of his character to the love and practice of righteousness. These views show us the service which Jesus Christ has done to mankind, simply in offering himself before them as an object of attachment and affection. In inspiring love, he is a benefactor. A man brought to see and feel the godlike virtues of Jesus Christ, who understands his character and is attracted and won by it, has gained, in this sentiment, immense aid in his conflict with evil and in his pursuit of perfection. And he has not only gained aid, but happiness; for a true love is in itself a noble enjoyment. It is the proper delight of a rational and moral being, leaving no bitterness or shame behind, not enervating like the world's pleasures, but giving energy and a lofty consciousness to the mind.
      Our nature was framed for virtuous attachments. How strong and interesting are the affections of domestic life, the conjugal, parental, filial ties! But the heart is not confined to our homes, or even to this world. There are more sacred attachments than these, in which instinct has no part, which have their origin in our highest faculties, which are less tumultuous and impassioned than the affections of nature, but more enduring, more capable of growth, more peaceful, far happier, and far nobler. Such is love to Jesus Christ, the most purifying, and the happiest attachment, next to the love of our Creator, which we can form. I wish to aid you in cherishing this sentiment, and for this end I have thought that in the present discourse it would be well to point out some wrong views which I think have obstructed it, and obscured its glory.
      I apprehend that among those Christians who bear the name of rational, from the importance which they give to the exercise of reason in religion, love to Christ has lost something of its honor, in consequence of its perversion. It has too often been substituted for practical I religion. Not a few have professed a very fervent attachment to Jesus, and have placed great confidence in this feeling, who, at the same time, have seemed to think little of his precepts, and have even spoken of them as unimportant, compared with certain doctrines about his person or nature. Gross errors of this kind have led, as it seems to me, to the opposite extreme. They have particularly encouraged among calm and sober people the idea that the great object of Christ was to give a religion, to teach great and everlasting truth, and that our concern is with his religion rather than with himself. The great question, as such people say, is not what Jesus was, but what he revealed. In this way a distinction has been made between Jesus and his religion; and, whilst some sects have done little but talk of Christ and his person, others have dwelt on the principles he taught, to the neglect, in a measure, of the Divine Teacher. I consider this as an error to which some of us may be exposed, and which, therefore, deserves consideration.
      Now I grant that Jesus Christ came to give a religion, to reveal truth. This is his great office; but I maintain that this is no reason for overlooking Jesus; for his religion has an intimate and peculiar connection with himself. It derives authority and illustration from his character. Jesus is his religion embodied and made visible. The connection between him and his system is peculiar. It differs altogether from that which ancient philosophers bore to their teachings. An ancient sage wrote a book, and the book is of equal value to us whether we know its author or not. But there is no such thing as Christianity without Christ. We cannot know it separately from him. It is not a book which Jesus wrote. It is his conversation, his character, his history, his life, his death, his resurrection. He pervades it throughout. In loving him, we love his religion; and a just interest in this cannot be awakened, but by contemplating it as it shone forth in himself.
      Christ's religion, I have said, is very imperfect without himself; and therefore they who would make an abstract of his precepts, and say that it is enough to follow these without thinking of their author, grievously mistake, and rob the system of much of its energy. I mean not to disparage the precepts of Christ, considered in themselves. But their full power is only to be understood and felt by those who place themselves near the Divine Teacher, who see the celestial fervor of his affection whilst he utters them, who follow his steps from Bethlehem to Calvary, and witness the expression of his precepts in his own life. These come to me almost as new precepts when I associate them with Jesus. His command to love my enemies becomes intelligible and bright when I stand by his cross and hear his prayer for his murderers. I understand what he meant by the self-denial which he taught when I see him foregoing the comforts of life, and laying down life itself for the good of others. I learn the true character of that benevolence by which human nature is perfected, how it unites calmness and earnestness, tenderness and courage, condescension and dignity, feeling and action; this I learn in the life of Jesus as no words could teach me. So I am instructed in the nature of piety by the same model. The command to love God with all my heart, if only written, might have led me into extravagance enthusiasm and neglect of common duties for religious excitement has a peculiar tendency to excess but in Jesus I see a devotion to God entire perfect never remitted yet without the least appearance of passion as calm and self possessed as the love which a good mind bears to a parent and in him I am taught, as words could not teach, how to join supreme regard to my Creator with active charity and common duties towards my fellow-beings.
      And not only the precepts but the great doctrines of Christianity are bound up with Jesus, and cannot be truly understood without him. For example, one of the great doctrines of Christianity, perhaps its chief, is the kind interest of God in all his creatures, not only in the good but in the evil: his placable, clement, merciful character: his desire to recover and purify and make for ever happy even those who have stained themselves with the blackest guilt. The true character of God in this respect I see indeed in his providence, I read it in his word, and for every manifestation of it I am grateful. But when I see his spotless and beloved Son to whom his power was peculiarly delegated, and in whom He peculiarly dwelt, giving singular attention to the most fallen and despised men, casting away all outward pomp that he might mingle familiarly with the poor and neglected; when I see him sitting at table with the publican and the sinner, inviting them to approach him as a friend, suffering the woman whose touch was deemed pollution to bedew his feet with tears; and when I hear him in the midst of such a concourse saying," I am come to seek and to save that which was lost" -- I have a conviction of the lenity, benignity, grace, of that God whose representative and chosen minister he was, such as no abstract teaching could have given me. Let me add one more doctrine, -- that of immortality. I prize every evidence of this great truth; I look within and without me for some pledge that I am not to perish in the grave; that this mind, with its thoughts and affections, is to live, and improve. and be perfected, and to find that joy for which it thirsts, and which it cannot find on earth. Christ's teaching on this subject is invaluable; but what power does this teaching gain, when I stand by his Sepulchre, and see the stone rolled away, and behold the great Revealer of immortality rising in power and triumph, and ascending to the life and happiness he had promised !
      Thus Christianity, from beginning to end, is intimately connected with its Divine Teacher. It is not an abstract system. The rational Christian who would think of it as such, who, in dwelling on the religion, overlooks its Revealer, is unjust to it. Would he see and feel its power, let him see it warm living, breathing, acting in the mind, heart, and life of its Founder. Let him love it there. In other words, let him love the character of Jesus, justly viewed, and he will love the religion in the way most fitted to make it the power of God unto salvation.
      I have said that love to Christ, when he is justly viewed, -- that is, when it is an enlightened and rational affection, -- includes the love of his whole religion; but I beg you to remember that I give this praise only to an enlightened affection; and such is not the most common, nor is it easily acquired. I apprehend that there is no sentiment which needs greater care in its culture than this. Perhaps, in the present state of the world, no virtue is of more difficult acquisition than a pure and intelligent love towards Jesus. There is undoubtedly much of fervent feeling towards him in the Christian world. But let me speak plainly. I do it from no uncharitableness. I do it only to warn my fellow-Christians. The greater part of this affection to Jesus seems to me of very doubtful worth. In many cases, it is an irregular fervor, which impairs the force and soundness of the mind, and which is substituted for obedience to his precepts, for the virtues which ennoble the soul. Much of what is called love to Christ I certainly do not desire you or myself to possess. I know of no sentiment which needs more to be cleared from error and abuse, and I therefore feel myself bound to show you some of its corruptions.
      In the first place, I am persuaded that a love to Christ of quite a low character is often awakened by an injudicious use of his sufferings. I apprehend that if the affection which many bear to Jesus were analyzed, the chief ingredient in it would be found to be a tenderness awakened by his cross. In certain classes of Christians, it is common for the religious teacher to delineate the bleeding, dying Saviour, and to detail his agonies, until men's natural sympathy is awakened; and when assured that this deep woe was borne for themselves, they almost necessarily yield to the softer feelings of their nature. I mean not to find fault with this sensibility. It is happy for us that we are made to be touched by others' pains. Woe to him who has no tears for mortal agony! But in this emotion there is no virtue, no moral worth; and we dishonor Jesus when this is the chief tribute we offer him. I say there is no moral goodness in this feeling. To be affected, overpowered by a crucifixion, is the most natural thing in the world. Who of us, let me ask, whether religious or not, ever went into a Catholic church, and there saw the picture of Jesus hanging from his cross, his head bending under the weight of exhausting suffering, his hands and feet pierced with nails, and his body stained with his open wounds, and has not been touched by the sight? Suppose that, at this moment, there were lifted up among us a human form, transfixed with a spear, and from which the warm life-blood was dropping in the midst of us. Who would not be deeply moved? and when a preacher, gifted with something of an actor's power, places the cross, as it were, in the midst of a people, is it wonderful that they are softened and subdued? I mean not to censure all appeals of this kind to the human heart. There is something interesting and encouraging in the tear of compassion. There was wisdom in the conduct of the Moravian missionaries in Greenland who, finding that the rugged and barbarous natives were utterly insensible to general truth, depicted, with all possible vividness, the streaming blood and dying agonies of Jesus, and thus caught the attention of the savage through his sympathies, whom they could not interest through his reason or his fears. But sensibility thus awakened is quite a different thing from true, virtuous love to Jesus Christ; and, when viewed and cherished as such it takes the place of higher affections. I have often been struck by the contrast between the use made of the cross in the pulpit, and the calm, unimpassioned manner in which the sufferings of Jesus are detailed by the Evangelists. These witnesses of Christ's last moments give you in simple language the particulars of that scene. without one remark. one word of emotion; and if you read the Acts and Epistles, you will not find a single instance in which the Apostles strove to make a moving picture of his crucifixion. No; they honored Jesus too much, they felt too deeply the greatness of his character, to be moved as many are by the circumstances of his death. Reverence, admiration, sympathy with his sublime spirit, these swallowed up, in a great measure, sympathy with his sufferings. The cross was to them the last crowning manifestation of a celestial mind; they felt that it was endured to communicate the same mind to them and the world; and their emotion was a holy joy in this consummate and unconquerable goodness. To be touched by suffering is a light thing. It is not the greatness of Christ's sufferings on the cross which is to move our whole souls, but the greatness of the spirit with which he suffered. There, in death, he proved his entire consecration of himself to the cause of God and mankind. There his love flowed forth towards his friends, his enemies, and the human race. It is moral greatness, it is victorious love, it is the energy of principle, which gives such interest to the cross of Christ. We are to look through the darkness which hung over him, through his wounds and pains, to his unbroken, disinterested, confiding spirit. To approach the cross for the purpose of weeping over a bleeding, dying friend, is to lose the chief influence of the crucifixion. We are to visit the cross, not to indulge a natural softness, but to acquire firmness of spirit, to fortify our minds for hardship and suffering in the cause of duty and of human happiness. To live as Christ lived, to die as Christ died. to give up ourselves as sacrifices to God, to conscience, to whatever good interest we can advance, -- these are the lessons written with the blood of Jesus. His cross is to inspire us with a calm courage, resolution, and superiority to all temptation. I fear (is my fear groundless?) that a sympathy which enervates rather than fortifies, is the impression too often received from the crucifixion. The depression with which the Lord's table is too often approached, and too often left, shows, I apprehend, that the chief use of his sufferings is little understood, and that he is loved, not as a glorious sufferer who died to spread his own sublime spirit, but as a man of sorrows, a friend bowed down with the weight of grief.
      In the second place, love to Christ of a very defective kind is cherished in many by the views which they are accustomed to take of themselves. They form irrational ideas of their own guilt, supposing it to have its origin in their very creation, and then represent to their imaginations an abyss of fire and torment over which they hang, into which the anger of God is about to precipitate them, and from which nothing but Jesus can rescue them. Not a few, I apprehend, ascribe to Jesus Christ a greater compassion towards them than God is supposed to feel. His heart is tenderer than that of the Universal Parent, and this tenderness is seen in his plucking them by a mighty power from tremendous and infinite pain, from everlasting burnings. Now. that Jesus under such circumstances should excite the mind strongly, should become the object of a very intense attachment, is almost necessary; but the affection so excited is of very little worth. Let the universe seem to me wrapped in darkness, let God's throne send forth no light but blasting flashes, let Jesus be the only bright and cheering object to my affrighted and desolate soul, and a tumultuous gratitude will carry me towards him just as irresistibly as natural instinct carries the parent animal to its young. I do and must grieve at the modes commonly used to make Jesus Christ an interesting being. Even the Infinite Father is stripped of his glory for the sake of throwing a lustre round the Son. The condition of man is painted in frightful colors, which cast unspeakable dishonor on his Creator, for the sake of magnifying the greatness of Christ's salvation. Man is stripped of all the powers which make him a responsible being, his soul harrowed with terrors, and the future illumined only by the flames which are to consume him, that his deliverer may seem more necessary; and when the mind, in this state of agitation, in this absence of self-control, is wrought up into a fervor of gratitude to Jesus, it is thought to be sanctified. This selfish, irrational gratitude, is called a virtue. Much of the love given to Jesus, having the origin of which I now speak, seems to me of no moral worth. It is not the soul's free gift, not a sentiment nourished by our own care from a conviction of its purity and nobleness, but an instinctive, ungoverned, selfish feeling. Suppose, my friends, that in a tempestuous night you should find yourselves floating towards a cataract, the roar of which should announce the destruction awaiting you, and that a fellow-being of great energy should rush through the darkness and bring you to the shore; could you help embracing him with gratitude? And would this emotion imply any change of character? Would you not feel it towards your deliverer, even should he have acted from mere impulse, and should his general character be grossly defective? Is not this a necessary working of nature, a fruit of terror changed into joy? I mean not to condemn it; I only say it is not virtue. It is a poor tribute to Jesus; he deserves something far purer and nobler.
      The habit of exaggerating the wretchedness of man's condition for the purpose of rendering Jesus more necessary, operates very seriously to degrade men's love to Jesus, by accustoming them to ascribe to him a low and commonplace character. I wish this to be weighed. They who represent to themselves the whole human race as sinking by an hereditary corruption into an abyss of flame and perpetual woe, very naturally think of Jesus as a being of overflowing compassion, as impelled by a resistless pity to fly to the relief of these hopeless victims; for this is the emotion that such a sight is fitted to produce. Now this overpowering compassion, called forth by the view of exquisite misery, is a very ordinary virtue; and yet, I apprehend, it is the character ascribed above all others to Jesus. It certainly argues no extraordinary goodness, for it is an almost necessary impulse of nature. Were you, my friends, to see millions and millions of the human race on the edge of a fiery gulf, where ages after ages of torture awaited them, and were the shrieks of millions who had already been plunged into the abyss to pierce your ear, could you refrain from an overpowering compassion, and would you not willingly endure hours and days of exquisite pain to give these wretched millions release ? Is there any man who has not virtue enough for this? I have known men of ordinary character hazard their lives under the impulse of compassion, for the rescue of fellow-beings from infinitely lighter evils than are here supposed. To me it seems that to paint the misery of human beings in these colors of fire and blood, and to ascribe to Christ the compassion which such misery must awaken, and to make this the chief attribute of his mind, is the very method to take from his character its greatness, and to weaken his claim on our love. I see nothing in Jesus of the overpowering compassion which is often ascribed to him. His character rarely exhibited strong emotion. It was distinguished by calmness, firmness, and conscious dignity. Jesus had a mind too elevated to be absorbed and borne away by pity, or any other passion. He felt, indeed, deeply for human suffering and grief; but his chief sympathy was with the mind, with its sins and moral diseases, and especially with its capacity of improvement and everlasting greatness and glory. He felt himself commissioned to quicken and exalt immortal beings. The thought which kindled and sustained him was that of an immeasurable virtue to be conferred on the mind, even of the most depraved, -- a good, the very conception of which implies a lofty character; a good, which as yet has only dawned on his most improved disciples. It is his consecration to this sublime end which constitutes his glory; and no farther than we understand this, can we yield him the love which his character claims and deserves.
      I have endeavored to show the circumstances which have contributed to depress and degrade men's affections towards Jesus Christ. To me the influence of these causes seems to be great. I know of no feeling more suspicious than the common love to Christ. A true affection to him, indeed, is far from being of easy acquisition. As it is the purest and noblest we can cherish, with the single exception of love to God, so it requires the exercise of our best powers. You all must feel that an indispensable requisite or preparation for this love is to understand the character of Jesus. But this is no easy thing. It not only demands that we carefully read and study his history; there is another process more important. We must begin in earnest to convert into practice our present imperfect knowledge of Christ, and to form ourselves upon him as far as he is now discerned. Nothing so much brightens and strengthens the eye of the mind to understand an excellent being, as likeness to him. We never know a great character until something congenial to it has grown up within ourselves. No strength of intellect and no study can enable a man of a selfish and sensual mind to comprehend Jesus. Such a mind is covered with a mist; and just in proportion as it subdues evil within itself, the mist will be scattered; Jesus will rise upon it with a sunlike brightness and will call forth its most fervent and most enlightened affection.
      I close with two remarks. You see, by this discourse, how important to the love of Christ it is, to understand with some clearness the purpose for which he came into the world. The low views prevalent on this subject seem to me to exert a disastrous influence on the whole character, and particularly on our feelings towards Christ. Christ is supposed to have come to rescue us from an outward hell, to bear, the penalties of an outward law. Such benevolence would indeed be worthy of praise; but it is an inferior form of benevolence. The glory of Christ's character, its peculiar brightness, seems to me to consist in his having given himself to accomplish an inward, moral, spiritual deliverance of mankind. He was alive to the worth and greatness of the human soul. He looked through what men were, looked through the thick shades of their idolatry, superstition, and vice, and saw in every human being a spirit of divine origin and godlike faculties, which might be recovered from all its evil, which might become an image and a temple of God. The greatness of Jesus consisted in his devoting himself to call forth a mighty power in the human breast, to kindle in us a celestial flame, to breathe into us an inexhaustible hope, and to lay within us the foundation of an immovable peace. His greatness consists in the greatness and sublimity of the action which he communicates to the human soul. This is his chief glory. To avert pain and punishment is a subordinate work. Through neglect of these truths, I apprehend that the brightness of Christ's character is even now much obscured, and perhaps least discerned by some who think they understand him best.
      My second remark is that, if the leading views of this discourse be just, then love to Jesus Christ depends very little on our conception of his rank in the scale of being. On no other topic have Christians contended so earnestly, and yet it is of secondary importance. To know Jesus Christ is not to know the precise place he occupies in the universe. It is something more; it is to look into his mind; to approach his soul; to comprehend his spirit; to see how he thought, and felt, and purposed, and loved, -- to understand the workings of that pure and celestial principle within him, through which he came among us as our friend, and lived and died for us. I am persuaded that controversies about Christ's person have in one way done great injury. They have turned attention from his character. Suppose that, as Americans, we should employ ourselves in debating the questions, where Washington was born, and from what spot he came when he appeared at the head of our armies; and that, in the fervor of these contentions, we should overlook the character of his mind, the spirit that moved within him, the virtues which distinguished him, the beamings of a noble, magnanimous soul, - how unprofitably should we be employed! Who is it that understands Washington? Is it he that can settle his rank in the creation, his early history, his present condition? or he to whom the soul of that great man is laid open, who comprehends and sympathizes with his generous purposes, who understands the energy with which he espoused the cause of freedom and his country, and who receives through admiration a portion of the same divine energy? So in regard to Jesus, the questions which have been agitated about his rank and nature are of inferior moment. His greatness belonged not to his condition, but to his mind, his spirit, his aim, his disinterestedness, his calm, sublime consecration of himself to the high purpose of God.
      My hearers, it is the most interesting event in human history, that such a being as Jesus has entered our world, to accomplish the deliverance of our minds from all evil, to bring them to God, to open heaven within them, and thus to fit them for heaven. It is our greatest privilege that he is brought within our view, offered to our imitation, to our trust, to our love. A sincere and enlightened attachment to him is at once our honor and our happiness, a spring of virtuous action, of firmness in suffering, of immortal hope. But remember, it will not grow up of itself. You must resolve upon it, and cherish it. You must bring Jesus near, as he lives and moves in the gospel. You should meet him in the institution which he especially appointed for the commemoration of himself. You should seek, by prayer, God's aid in strengthening your love to the Saviour. You should learn his greatness and beneficence by learning the greatness and destination of the souls which he came to rescue and bless. In the last place, you should obey his precepts, and through this obedience should purify and invigorate your minds to know and love him more. "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity."

2003 American Unitarian Conference