The Gracious Judgment of Charity
The issue of warnings, hypocrisy and apostasy is one of exceedingly great importance, precisely because we find in the New Testament (not to mention everywhere throughout the Old) many examples of those who make “shipwreck of the faith” (1 tim. 1:19), who “depart, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10), and who “fall away” (Heb. 6:6). It is, however, exceedingly important that ministers realize the proper emphasis with regard to warnings so as not to steal assurance or proper grace-oriented motivation from the lives of true believers. The warnings in Scripture are not meant to steal assurance from true believers. Rather, they are to keep true believers close to Jesus. Charles Spurgeon was once asked how to reconcile warnings and promises. His answer was simple, “You don’t need to reconcile friends.” Both the warnings and the promises are meant to keep believers on the narrow path of faith in Christ. In addition to the way that the warnings help keep believers close to Jesus, they also function to warn the hypocrite of what he or she will suffer if they depart from Christ, so to speak.
The Scriptures obviously do not teach that someone could have saving faith and then lose that faith, but they do teach that someone may have a profession of faith in Christ (that for a time may look sincere) and then turn away from that profession (1 John 2:19). The question of how the NT authors address the visible church is one of great importance in this regard. The apostles never give a warning without following it up with a promise, or by reminding the members of the church what benefits they have in Christ. In this way, they spoke with a “judgment of charity.” It was not merely for the sake of being “kind” that they did so. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a perfect example of the pastoral implications that such an approach has on the individuals in the church. No one will turn to Christ–and from their sin–merely out of fear of judgment. Believers do not merely need to be told to “stop sinning.” Surely they must be told to turn from their sin. However, unless once they are in a state of grace they need to again be persuaded of what Christ has done for them in His work of redemption. God does not call hypocrites to work hard at turning from sin. Hypocrites need to be converted to Christ. Even within the visible church (where there are many hypocrites) there is a “judgment of charity” that speaks to the members of the church as if they possessed what is most needed in Christ. Jonathan Edwards–in what is perhaps the most helpful analysis of this subject–went through many of the New Testament epistles to show that “the apostles continually in their epistles speak to them [professing believers] and of them as supposing and judging them to be gracious persons.” He wrote:
The apostles continually in their epistles speak to them [professing believers] and of them as supposing and judging them to be gracious persons.
Thus the apostle Paul in his epistle to the church of the Romans, ch. Romans 1:7, speaks or the members of that church as “beloved of God.” In ch. Romans 6:17-18, etc. he “thanks God that they had obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which had been delivered them, and were made free from sin, and become the servants of righteousness,” etc. The Apostle in giving thanks to God for this, must not only have a kind of negative charity for them, as not knowing but that they were gracious persons, and so charitably hoping (as we say) that it was so; but he seems to have formed a positive judgment that they were such: his thanksgiving must at least be founded on rational probability; since it would be but mocking of God, to give him thanks for bestowing a mercy which at the same time he did not see reason positively to believe was bestowed. In ch. Romans 7:4-6, the Apostle speaks of them as those that once were in the flesh, and were under the law, but now delivered from the law, and dead to it. In ch.Romans 8:15 and following verses, he tells them, they had received the “spirit of adoption,” and speaks of them as having the witness of the Spirit that they were “the children of God, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” And the whole of his discourse to the end of the chapter implies, that he esteemed them truly gracious persons. In ch. Romans 9:23-24, he speaks of the Christian Romans, together with all other Christians, both Jews and gentiles, as “vessels of mercy.” In ch. Romans 14:6-8, speaking of the difference, that then was among professing Christians, in point of regard to the ceremonial institutions of the law, he speaks of both parties as acting from a gracious principle, and as those that lived to the Lord, and should die unto the Lord. “He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord,” etc. “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man” (i.e. none of us) “dieth to himself; for whether we live, we live unto the Lord, or whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s.” In ch. Romans 15:14, he says, “I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye are full of goodness.” His being thus persuaded implies a positive judgment of charity.
And the same Apostle in his first epistle to the Corinthians directs it to “the church at Corinth, that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus”; i.e. to all visible Christians through the world, or all the members of Christ’s visible church everywhere: and continuing his speech of these, ch. 1 Corinthians 1:8, he speaks of them as those “that God would confirm to the end, that they may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”: plainly speaking of them all as persons, in Christian esteem, savingly converted. In the 1 Corinthians 1:9, he speaks of the faithfulness of God as engaged thus to preserve ’em to salvation, having called them “to the fellowship of his son.” And in the 1 Corinthians 1:30 he speaks of them as having a saving interest in Christ; “Of him are ye in Christ Jesus; who of God is made unto us, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” In ch. 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, he says to the members of the church of Corinth, “All things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours, and ye are Christ’s.” In ch. 1 Corinthians 4:15, he tells ’em, he had begotten ’em through the gospel. In ch. 1 Corinthians 6:1-3 he speaks of them as those who “shall judge the world,” and “shall judge angels.” And in v. 1 Corinthians 6:11 he says to ’em, “Ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of God.” And in ch. 1 Corinthians 15:49 to the end, he speaks of them as having an interest, with him and other Christians, in the happiness and glory of the resurrection of the just. And in his second epistle, ch 2 Corinthians 1:7 he says to ’em, “Our hope of you is steadfast; knowing that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation.” This steadfast hope implies a positive judgment. We must here understand the Apostle to speak of such members of the church of Corinth, as had not visibly backslidden, as they whom he elsewhere speaks doubtfully of. Again, in the fourteenth and fifteenth verses, he speaks of a confidence which he had, that they should be his rejoicing “in the day of the Lord Jesus.” In all reason we must conclude, there was a visibility of grace, carrying with it an apparent probability in the eyes of the Apostle, which was the ground of this his confidence. Such an apparent probability, and his confidence as built upon it, are both expressed in ch. 2 Corinthians 3:3-4, “Ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ, ministered by us; written not with ink, but with the spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart; and such trust have we through Christ to God-ward.” And in v. 2 Corinthians 3:18, the Apostle speaks of them, with himself and other Christians, as “all with open face beholding, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord,” and “being changed into the same image from glory to glory.”
And in the epistle to the churches of Galatia, ch. Galatians 4:26, the Apostle speaks of visible Christians as visibly belonging to heaven the “Jerusalem which is above.” And vv. Galatians 4:28-29, represents them to be the children of the promise, as Isaac was; and “born after the Spirit.” In the sixth verse of the same chapter he says to the Christian Galatians, “Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, father.” And in ch. Galatians 6:1 he speaks of those of them that had not fallen into scandal, as spiritual persons. In his epistle to that great church of Ephesus, at the beginning, he blesses God on behalf of the members of that as being together with himself and all the faithful in Christ Jesus, “Chosen in him before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blame before him in love, being predestinated to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein God had made them accepted in the beloved; in whom they had redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” In ch. Galatians 1:13-14, he thus writes to them, “In whom ye also trusted… In whom after ye believes, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession.” And in ch. Galatians 2 at the beginning: “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” With much more, showing that they were, in a charitable esteem, regenerated persons and heirs of salvation.
So in the epistle to the members of the church of Philippi, the Apostle saluting them in the beginning of it, tells them that he “thanks God upon every remembrance of them, for their fellowship in the gospel; being confident of this very thing, that he which had begun a good work in them, would perform it until the day of Christ: even” (says he) “as it is meet for me to think this of you all.” If it was meet for him to think this of them, and to be confident of it, he had at least some appearing rational probability to found his judgment and confidence upon; for surely it is not meet for reasonable creatures to think at random, and be confident without reason. In vv. Philippians 1:25-26, he speaks of his “confidence that he should come to them for their furtherance and joy of faith, that their rejoicing might be more abundant in Christ Jesus.” Which words certainly suppose that they were persons who had already received Christ and comfort in him; had already obtained faith and joy in Christ, and only needed to have it increased. In the epistle to the members of the church of Colosse, the Apostle saluting them in the beginning of the epistle, gives thanks for their faith in Christ Jesus, and love to all saints, and the hope laid up for them in heaven; and speaks of the gospel’s bringing forth fruit in them, since the day they knew the grace of God in truth, i.e. since the day of their saving conversion.
In ch. Colossians 1:8 he speaks of their “love in the Spirit.” Vv. Colossians 1:12-14 he speaks of them as “made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; as being delivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son; as having redemption through Christ’s blood, and the forgiveness of sins.” In ch. Colossians 3 at the beginning, he speaks of ’em as “risen with Christ”; as being “dead” (i.e. to the law, to sin, and the world); as having their life “hid with Christ in God”; and being such as, when Christ their life should appear, should “appear with him in glory.” In vv. Colossians 3:7-10 he speaks of them as “having once walked and lived in lusts, but having now put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.”
In the first epistle to the members of the church of Thessalonica, in words annexed to his salutation, ch. 1 Thessalonians 1, he declares what kind of visibility there was of their election of God, in the appearance there had been of true and saving conversion, and their consequent holy life, vv. 1 Thessalonians 1:3-7. And in the beginning of the second epistle he speaks of their faith and love greatly increasing; and in v. 2 Thessalonians 1:7, expresses his confidence of meeting them in eternal rest, when “the Lord Jesus Christ should be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.” And in ch. 2 Thessalonians 2:13 he “gives thanks to God, that from the beginning he had chosen them to salvation.”
In the epistle to the Christian Hebrews, though the Apostle speaks of some that once belonged to their churches, but had apostatized and proved themselves hypocrites; yet concerning the rest that remained in good standing, he says (ch. Hebrews 6:9), “I am persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation.” (Where we may again note, his being thus persuaded evidently implies a positive judgment.) And in ch. Hebrews 12:22-23, he speaks of them as visibly belonging to the glorious society of heaven. And in ch. Hebrews 13:5-6 he speaks of them as those who may “boldly say, the Lord is my helper.”
The apostle James, writing to the Christians of “the twelve tribes which were scattered abroad,” speaks of them as regenerated persons (meaning, as I observed before, those which were in good standing), ch. James 1:18, “Of his own will begat he us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
The apostle Peter writing to the Jewish Christians, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (large countries, and therefore they must in the whole be supposed to be a great multitude of people), to all these the Apostle in the inscription or direction of his first epistle [1 Peter 1:1], gives the title of “elect, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit unto obedience, and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” And in the verses next following, speaks of them as regenerated or “begotten again to a lively hope, to an inheritance incorruptible,” etc. And as “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.” And says to them in vv. 1 Peter 1:8-9, “Whom” (namely Christ) “having not seen, ye love; in whom though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory; receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.” And in v. 1 Peter 1:18 to the end, the Apostle speaks of them as redeemed from their vain conversation, by “the precious blood of Christ,” and as having “purified theirs souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit… being born again of incorruptible seed,” etc. [vv. 1 Peter 1:22-23]. And in the former part of ch. 1 Peter 2 he speaks of ’em, as “living stones, coming to Christ, and on him built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And as those that “believe,” to whom Christ “is precious… As a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, called out of darkness into marvelous light.” The church at Babylon occasionally mentioned in ch. 1 Peter 5:13 is said to be “elected together with them.” And in his second epistle (which appears by ch. 2 Peter 3:1 to be written to the same persons) the inscription is, “To them which have obtained like precious faith with us,” i.e. with the apostles and servants of Christ.
And in the third chapter, he tells ’em, both his epistles were designed to stir up their pure minds. In the first epistle of John, written (for aught appears) to professing Christians in general, ch. 1 John 2:12, etc. the Apostle tells them, he writes to them “because their sins were forgiven,” because they “had known him that was from the beginning,” because they had “overcome the wicked one,” etc. In vv. 1 John 2:20-21 he tells ’em they “have an unction from the Holy One, and know all things”; and that he did not write to ’em because they had not known the truth, but because they had known it, etc. And in v. 1 John 2:27, he says, “The anointing which ye have received of him, abideth in you, and ye need not that any man should teach you; but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.” And in the beginning of the third chapter he addresses them as those who were “the sons of God,” who when he should appear should be like him, because they should “see him as he is.” In ch. 1 John 4:4 he says, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome,” etc.
The apostle Jude, in his general epistle, speaks much of apostates and their wickedness; but to other professing Christians that had not fallen away, he says (vv. Jude 20-21), “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, unto eternal life”: plainly supposing, that they had professed faith with love to God our Savior, and were by the Apostle considered as his friends and lovers. Many other passages to the like purpose might be observed in the epistles, but these may suffice.1