Lectures On Systematic Theology
By Charles G. Finney
1878 Edition
Edited by J.H. Fairchild

LECTURE 12: ATTRIBUTES OF LOVE

It has been shown that the sum and spirit of the whole law is properly expressed in one word love. It has also been shown, that this love is benevolence or good willing; that it consists in choosing the highest good of God and of universal being, for its own intrinsic value, in a spirit of entire consecration to this as the ultimate end of existence. Although the whole law is fulfilled in one word love, yet there are many things implied in the state of mind expressed by this term. It is, therefore, indispensable to a right understanding of this subject, that we inquire into the characteristics or attributes of this love. We must keep steadily in mind certain truths of mental philosophy. I will, therefore:

Call attention to certain facts in mental philosophy as they are revealed in consciousness.

1. Moral agents possess intellect, or the faculty of knowledge.

2. They also possess sensibility, and sensitivity, or in other words, the faculty or susceptibility of feeling.

3. They also possess will, or the power of choosing or refusing in every case of moral obligation.

These primary faculties are so correlated to each other, that the intellect or the sensibility may control the will, or the will may, in a certain sense, control them. That is, the mind is free to choose in accordance with the demands of the intellect, which is the lawgiving faculty, or with the desires and impulses of the sensibility, or to control and direct them both. The will can directly control the attention of the intellect, and consequently its perceptions, thoughts, etc. It can indirectly control the states of the sensibility, or feeling faculty, by controlling the perceptions and thoughts of the intellect. We also know from consciousness, as was shown in a former lecture, that the voluntary muscles of the body are directly controlled by the will, and that the law which obliges the attention, the feelings, and the actions of the body to obey the decisions of the will, is physical law, or the law of necessity. The attention of the intellect and the outward actions are controlled directly, and the feelings indirectly, by the decisions of the will. The will can either command or obey. It can suffer itself to be enslaved by the impulses of the sensibility, or it can assert its sovereignty and control them. The will is not influenced by either the intellect, or the sensibility, by the law of necessity or force; so that the will can always resist either the demands of the intelligence, or the impulses of the sensibility. But while they cannot lord it over the will, through the agency of any law of force, the will has the aid of the law of necessity or force by which to control them.

Again: We are conscious of affirming to ourselves our obligation to obey the law of the intellect rather than the impulses of the sensibility; that to act virtuously we must act rationally, or intelligently, and not give ourselves up to the blind impulses of our feelings.

Now, inasmuch as the love required by the moral law consists in choice, willing, intention, as before repeatedly shown; and inasmuch as choice, willing, intending, controls the states of the intellect and the outward actions directly, by a law of necessity, and by the same law controls the feelings or states of the sensibility indirectly, it follows that certain states of the intellect and of the sensibility, and also certain outward actions, must be implied in the existence of the love which the law of God requires. I say, implied in it, not as making a part of it, but as necessarily resulting from it. The thoughts, opinions, judgments, feelings, and outward actions must be molded and modified by the state of the heart or will.

Here it is important to remark, that, in common language, the same word is often used to express either an action or attitude of the will, or a state of the sensibility, or both. This is true of all the terms that represent what are called the Christian graces or virtues, or those various modifications of virtue of which Christians are conscious, and which appear in their life and temper. Of this truth we shall be constantly reminded as we proceed in our investigations, for we shall find illustrations of it at every step of our progress.

Before I proceed to point out the attributes of benevolence, it is important to remark, that all the moral attributes of God and of all holy beings, are only attributes of benevolence. Benevolence is a term that comprehensively expresses them all. God is love. This term expresses comprehensively God's whole moral character. This love, as we have repeatedly seen, is benevolence. Benevolence is good willing, or the choice of the highest good of God and the universe, as an end. But from this comprehensive statement, accurate though it be, we are apt to receive very inadequate conceptions of what really belongs to, as implied in, benevolence. To say that love is the fulfilling of the whole law; that benevolence is the whole of true religion; that the whole duty of man to God and his neighbor, is expressed in one word, love these statements, though true, are so comprehensive as to need with all minds much amplification and explanation. Many things are implied in love or benevolence. By this is intended, that benevolence needs to be viewed under various aspects and in various relations, and its nature considered in the various relations in which it is called to act. Benevolence is an ultimate intention, or the choice of an ultimate end. But if we suppose that this is all that is implied in benevolence, we shall egregiously err. Unless we inquire into the nature of the end which benevolence chooses, and the means by which it seeks to accomplish that end, we shall understand but little of the import of the word benevolence. Benevolence has many attributes or characteristics. These must all harmonize in the selection of its end, and in its efforts to realize it. By this is intended that benevolence is not a blind, but the most intelligent, choice. It is the choice of the best possible end in obedience to the demand of the reason and of God, and implies the choice of the best possible means to secure this end. Both the end and the means are chosen in obedience to the law of God, and of reason. An attribute is a permanent quality of a thing. The attributes of benevolence are those permanent qualities which belong to its very nature. Benevolence is not blind, but intelligent, choice. It is the choice of the highest well-being of moral agents. It seeks this end by means suited to the nature of moral agents. Hence wisdom, justice, mercy, truth, holiness, and many other attributes, as we shall see, are essential elements, or attributes, of benevolence. To understand what true benevolence is, we must inquire into its attributes. Not everything that is called love has at all the nature of benevolence. Nor has all that is called benevolence any title to that appellation. There are various kinds of love. Natural affection is called love. Our preference of certain kinds of diet is called love. Hence we say we love fruit, vegetables, meat, milk, etc. Benevolence is also called love, and is the kind of love, beyond all question, required by the law of God. But there is more than one state of mind that is called benevolence. There is a constitutional or phrenological benevolence, which is often mistaken for, and confounded with, the benevolence which constitutes virtue. This so-called benevolence is in truth only an imposing form of selfishness; nevertheless it is called benevolence. Many of its manifestations are like those of true benevolence. Care, therefore, should be taken, in giving religious instruction, to distinguish accurately between them. Benevolence, let it be remembered, is the obedience of the will to the law of reason and of God. It is willing good as an end, for its own sake, and not to gratify self. Selfishness consists in the obedience of the will to the impulses of the sensibility. It is a spirit of self-gratification. The will seeks to gratify the desires and propensities, for the pleasure of the gratification. Self-gratification is sought as an end, and as the supreme end. It is preferred to the claims of God and the good of being. Phrenological, or constitutional benevolence, is only obedience to the impulse of the sensibility a yielding to a feeling of compassion. It is only an effort to gratify a desire. It is, therefore, as really selfishness, as is an effort to gratify any constitutional desire whatever.

It is impossible to get a just idea of what constitutes obedience to the divine law, and what is implied in it, without considering attentively the various attributes or aspects of benevolence, properly so called. Upon this discussion we are about to enter. But before I commence the enumeration and definition of these attributes, it is important further to remark that the moral attributes of God, as revealed in His works, providence, and word, throw much light upon the subject before us. Also the many precepts of the Bible, and the developments of benevolence therein revealed, will assist us much, as we proceed in our inquiries upon this important subject. As the Bible expressly affirms that love comprehends the whole character of God that it is the whole that the law requires of man that the end of the commandment is charity or love we may be assured that every form of true virtue is only a modification of love or benevolence; that is, that every state of mind required by the Bible, and recognized as virtue, is, in its last analysis, resolvable into love or benevolence. In other words, every virtue is only benevolence viewed under certain aspects, or in certain relations. In other words still, it is only one of the elements, peculiarities, characteristics, or attributes of benevolence. This is true of God's moral attributes. They are, as has been said, only attributes of benevolence. They are only the essential qualities that belong to the very nature of benevolence, which are manifested and brought into activity wherever benevolence is brought into certain circumstances and relations. Benevolence is just, merciful, etc. Such is its nature, that in appropriate circumstances these qualities, together with many others, will manifest themselves in executive acts. This is and must be true of every holy being.

I will now proceed to point out the attributes of that love which constitutes obedience to the law of God.

As I proceed I will call attention to the states of the intellect and of the sensibility, and also to the course of outward conduct implied in the existence of this love in any mind implied in its existence as necessarily resulting from it by the law of cause and effect. These attributes are:

1. Voluntariness. That is to say, it is a phenomenon of the will. There is a state of the sensibility often expressed by the term love. Love may, and often does exist, as every one knows, in the form of a mere feeling or emotion. The term is often used to express the emotion of fondness or attachment, as distinct from a voluntary state of mind, or a choice of the will. This emotion or feeling, as we are all aware, is purely an involuntary state of mind. Because it is a phenomenon of the sensibility, and of course a passive state of mind, it has in itself no moral character. The law of God requires voluntary love or goodwill, as has been repeatedly shown. This love consists in choice, intention. It is choosing the highest well-being of God and the universe of sentient beings as an end. Of course voluntariness must be one of its characteristics. The word benevolence expresses this idea.

If it consists in choice, if it be a phenomenon of the will, it must control the thoughts and states of the sensibility, as well as the outward action. This love, then, not only consists in a state of consecration to God and the universe, but also implies deep emotions of love to God and man. Though a phenomenon of the will, it implies the existence of all those feelings of love and affection to God and man, that necessarily result from the consecration of the heart or will to their highest well-being. It also implies all that outward course of life that necessarily flows from a state of will consecrated to this end. Let it be borne in mind, that where these feelings do not arise in the sensibility, and where this course of life is not, there the true love or voluntary consecration to God and the universe required by the law, is not. Those follow from this by a law of necessity. Those, that is, feelings or emotions of love, and a correct outward life, may exist without this voluntary love, as I shall have occasion to show in its proper place; but this love cannot exist without those, as they follow from it by a law of necessity. These emotions will vary in their strength, as constitution and circumstances vary, but exist they must, in some sensible degree, whenever the will is in a benevolent attitude.

2. Liberty is an attribute of this love. The mind is free and spontaneous in its exercise. It makes this choice when it has the power at every moment to choose self-gratification as an end. Of this every moral agent is conscious. It is a free, and therefore a responsible, choice.

3. Intelligence. That is, the mind makes choice of this end intelligently. It not only knows what it chooses, and why it chooses, but also that it chooses in accordance with the dictates of the intellect, and the law of God; that the end is worthy of being chosen, and that for this reason the intellect demands that it should be chosen, and also, that for its own intrinsic value it is chosen.

Because voluntariness, liberty, and intelligence are natural attributes of this love, therefore, the following are its moral attributes.

4. Virtue is an attribute of it. Virtue is a term that expresses the moral character of benevolence; it is moral rightness. Moral rightness is moral perfection, righteousness, or uprightness. The term marks or designates its relation to moral law, and expresses its conformity to it.

In the exercise of this love or choice, the mind is conscious of uprightness, or of being conformed to moral law or moral obligation. In other words, it is conscious of being virtuous or holy, of being like God, of loving what ought to be loved, and of consecration to the right end.

Because this choice is in accordance with the demands of the intellect, therefore the mind, in its exercise, is conscious of the approbation of that power of the intellect which we call conscience. The conscience must approve this love, choice, or intention.

Again: Because the conscience approves of this choice, therefore, there is and must be in the sensibility a feeling of happiness or satisfaction, a feeling of complacency or delight in the love that is in the heart or will. This love, then, always produces self-approbation in the conscience, and a felt satisfaction in the sensibility; and these feelings are often very acute and joyous, insomuch that the soul, in the exercise of this love of the heart, is sometimes led to rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory. This state of mind does not always and necessarily amount to joy. Much depends in this respect on the clearness of the intellectual views, upon the state of the sensibility, and upon the manifestation of Divine approbation to the soul. But where peace, or approbation of conscience, and consequently a peaceful state of the sensibility are not, this love is not. They are connected with it by a law of necessity, and must of course appear on the field of consciousness where this love exists. These, then, are implied in the love that constitutes obedience to the law of God. Conscious peace of mind, and conscious joy in God must be where true love to God exists.

5. Disinterestedness is another attribute of this love. By disinterestedness, it is not intended that the mind takes no interest in the object loved, for it does take a supreme interest in it. But this term expresses the mind's choice of an end for its own sake, and not merely upon condition that the good belongs to self. This love is disinterested in the sense that the highest well-being of God and the universe is chosen, not upon condition of its relation to self, but for its own intrinsic and infinite value. It is this attribute particularly that distinguishes this love from selfish love. Selfish love makes the relation of good to self the condition of choosing it. The good of God and of the universe, if chosen at all, is only chosen as a means or condition of promoting the highest good of self. But this love does not make good to self its end; but good to God and being in general, is its end.

As disinterestedness is an attribute of this love, it does not seek its own, but the good of others. "Charity (love) seeketh not her own" (1 Cor. 13:5). It grasps in its comprehensive embrace the good of being in general, and of course, of necessity, secures a corresponding outward life and inward feeling. The intellect will be employed in devising ways and means for the promotion of its end. The sensibility will be tremblingly alive to the good of all and of each; will rejoice in the good of others as in its own, and will grieve at the misery of others as in its own. It "will rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep" (Romans 12:5). There will not, cannot be envy at the prosperity of others, but unfeigned joy, joy as real and often as exquisite as in its own prosperity. Benevolence enjoys everybody's good things, while selfishness is too envious at the good things of others even to enjoy its own. There is a Divine economy in benevolence. Each benevolent soul not only enjoys his own good things, but also enjoys the good things of all others so far as he knows their happiness. He drinks at the river of God's pleasure. He not only rejoices in doing good to others, but also in beholding their enjoyment of good things. He joys in God's joy, and in the joy of angels and of saints. He also rejoices in the good things of all sentient existences. He is happy in beholding the pleasure of the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea. He sympathizes with all joy and all suffering known to him; nor is his sympathy with the sufferings of others a feeling of unmingled pain. It is a real luxury to sympathize in the woes of others. He would not be without this sympathy. It so accords with his sense of propriety and fitness, that, mingled with the painful emotion, there is a sweet feeling of self-approbation; so that a benevolent sympathy with the woes of others is by no means inconsistent with happiness, and with perfect happiness. God has this sympathy. He often expresses and otherwise manifests it. There is, indeed, a mysterious and an exquisite luxury in sharing the woes of others. God and angels and all holy beings know what it is. Where this result of love is not manifested, there love itself is not. Envy at the prosperity, influence, or good of others, the absence of sensible joy in view of the good enjoyed by others, and of sympathy with the sufferings of others, prove conclusively that this love does not exist. There is an expansiveness, an ampleness of embrace, a universality, and a divine disinterestedness in this love, that necessarily manifests itself in the liberal devising of liberal things for Zion, and in the copious outpourings of the floods of sympathetic feeling, both in joys and sorrows, when suitable occasions present themselves before the mind.

6. Impartiality is another attribute of this love: By this term is not intended, that the mind is indifferent to the character of him who is happy or miserable; that it would be as well pleased to see the wicked as the righteous eternally and perfectly blessed. But it is intended that, other things being equal, it is the intrinsic value of their well-being which is alone regarded by the mind. Other things being equal, it matters not to whom the good belongs. It is no respecter of persons. The good of being is its end, and it seeks to promote every interest according to its relative value. Selfish love is partial. It seeks to promote self-interest first, and secondarily those interests that sustain such a relation to self as will at least indirectly promote the gratification of self. Selfish love has its favorites, its prejudices, unreasonable and ridiculous. Color, family, nation, and many other things of like nature, modify it. But benevolence knows neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, white nor black, Barbarian, Scythian, European, Asiatic, African, nor American, but accounts all men as men, and, by virtue of their common manhood, calls every man a brother, and seeks the interests of all and of each. Impartiality, being an attribute of this love, will of course manifest itself in the outward life, and in the temper and spirit of its subject. This love can have no fellowship with those absurd and ridiculous prejudices that are so often rife among nominal Christians. Nor will it cherish them for a moment in the sensibility of him who exercises it. Benevolence recognizes no privileged classes on the one hand, nor proscribed classes on the other. It secures in the sensibility an utter loathing of those discriminations, so odiously manifested and boasted of, and which are founded exclusively in a selfish state of the will. The fact that a man is a man, and not that he is of our party, of our complexion, or of our town, state, or nation that he is a creature of God, that he is capable of virtue and happiness, these are the considerations that are seized upon by this divinely impartial love. It is the intrinsic value of his interests, and not that they are the interests of one connected with self, that the benevolent mind regards.

But here it is important to repeat the remark, that the economy of benevolence demands, that where two interests are, in themselves considered, of equal value, in order to secure the greatest amount of good, each one should bestow his efforts where they can be bestowed to the greatest advantage. For example: every man sustains such relations that he can accomplish more good by seeking to promote the interest and happiness of certain persons rather than of others; his family, his kindred, his companions, his immediate neighbors, and those to whom, in the providence of God, he sustains such relations as to give him access to them, and influence over them. It is not unreasonable, it is not partial, but reasonable and impartial, to bestow our efforts more directly upon them. Therefore, while benevolence regards every interest according to its relative value, it reasonably puts forth its efforts in the direction where there is a prospect of accomplishing the most good. This, I say, is not partiality, but impartiality; for, be it understood, it is not the particular persons to whom good can be done, but the amount of good that can be accomplished, that directs the efforts of benevolence. It is not because my family is my own, nor because their well-being is, of course, more valuable in itself than that of my neighbors' families, but because my relations afford me higher facilities for doing them good, I am under particular obligation to aim first at promoting their good. Hence the apostle says: "If any man provide not for his own, especially for those of his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (1 Tim. 5:8). Strictly speaking, benevolence esteems every known good according to its intrinsic and relative value; but practically treats every interest according to the perceived probability of securing on the whole the highest amount of good. This is a truth of great practical importance. It is developed in the experience and observation of every day and hour. It is manifest in the conduct of God and of Christ, of apostles and martyrs. It is everywhere assumed in the precepts of the Bible, and everywhere manifested in the history of benevolent effort. Let it be understood, then, that impartiality, as an attribute of benevolence, does not imply that its effort to do good will not be modified by relations and circumstances. But, on the contrary, this attribute implies, that the efforts to secure the great end of benevolence, to wit, the greatest amount of good to God and the universe, will be modified by those relations and circumstances that afford the highest advantages for doing good.

The impartiality of benevolence causes it always to lay supreme stress upon God's interests, because His well-being is of infinite value, and of course benevolence must be supreme to Him. Benevolence, being impartial love, of course accounts God's interests and well-being, as of infinitely greater value than the aggregate of all other interests. Benevolence regards our neighbor's interests as our own, simply because they are in their intrinsic value as our own. Benevolence, therefore, is always supreme to God and equal to man.

7. Universality is another attribute of this love. Benevolence chooses the highest good of being in general. It excludes none from its regard; but on the contrary embosoms all in its ample embrace. But by this it is not intended, that it practically seeks to promote the good of every individual. It would if it could; but it seeks the highest practicable amount of good. The interest of every individual is estimated according to its intrinsic value, whatever the circumstances or character of each may be. But character and relations may and must modify the manifestations of benevolence, or its efforts in seeking to promote this end. A wicked character, and governmental relations and considerations, may forbid benevolence to seek the good of some. Nay, they may demand that positive misery shall be inflicted on some, as a warning to others to beware of their destructive ways. By universality, as an attribute of benevolence, is intended, that good will is truly exercised towards all sentient beings, whatever their character and relations may be; and that, when the higher good of the greater number does not forbid it, the happiness of all and of each will be pursued with a degree of stress equal to their relative value, and the prospect of securing each interest. Enemies as well as friends, strangers and foreigners as well as relations and immediate neighbors, will be enfolded in its sweet embrace. It is the state of mind required by Christ in the truly divine precept, "I say unto you. Love your enemies, pray for them that hate you, and do good unto them that despitefully use and persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). This attribute of benevolence is gloriously conspicuous in the character of God. His love to sinners alone accounts for their being today out of perdition. His aiming to secure the highest good of the greatest number, is illustrated by the display of His glorious justice in the punishment of the wicked. His universal care for all ranks and conditions of sentient beings, manifested in His works and providence, beautifully and gloriously illustrates the truth, that "His tender mercies are over all His works" (Psalms 145:9).

It is easy to see that universality must be a modification or attribute of true benevolence. It consists in good willing, that is, in choosing the highest good of being as such, and for its own sake. Of course it must, to be consistent with itself, seek the good of all and of each, so far as the good of each is consistent with the greatest good upon the whole. Benevolence not only wills and seeks the good of moral beings, but also the good of every sentient existence, from the minutest animalcule to the highest order of beings. It of course produces a state of the sensibility tremblingly alive to all happiness and to all pain. It is pained at the agony of an insect, and rejoices in its joy. God does this, and all holy beings do this. Where this sympathy with the joys and sorrows of universal being is not, there benevolence is not. Observe, good is its end; where this is promoted by the proper means, the feelings are gratified. Where evil is witnessed, the benevolent spirit deeply and necessarily sympathizes.

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