Vital Godliness: A Treatise on
Experimental and Practical Piety
By William S. Plumer
LOVE TO OUR NEIGHBOR
"I give you a new commandment: love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people
will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
We need line upon line and precept upon precept. Although
one clear and undeniable revelation of God's will binds the conscience and
moulds the character of a child of God, yet it is with peculiar pleasure
that the pious mind finds a duty inculcated in various forms, at different
times, and by different men. This remark applies to the whole matter of love
to our neighbor. In Leviticus 19:18, Jehovah says, "Do not take revenge on
others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love
yourself. I am the Lord." And in the thirty-fourth verse of the same chapter
he says, "
Let him be to you as one of your countrymen and have love
for him as for yourself; for you were living in a strange land, in the land
of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
The evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, inform us that
Jesus Christ repeatedly called attention to the command, "You shall love
your neighbor as yourself," and pronounced this saying as the great pillar
of morals. See Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31-34; Luke 10:27-37. In his
epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, Paul also quotes with high
commendation the same law. Rom. 13:9, and Gal. 5:14. The apostle James does
the same. Jas. 2:8. So that there is no room left for any doubt as to the
importance and obligation of the duty enjoined. That great prophet Moses,
Jesus the Son of God, Paul the great apostle to the Gentiles, and James the
near relative of our Lord, all in the name of Jehovah give us this command
to love one another. It is distinctly repeated nine times in God's word.
Such a command is far from being unnecessary.
We are naturally slow to open our hearts in a
comprehensive love and good-will. We are all by nature prone to
narrow-heartedness. Carnal men are never in a mood to be pleased with a
widely diffusive benevolence. They may admire its fruits as exercised by
others, but its practice is irksome to the unrenewed mind. We love like
snails to crawl into our little shells and there abide. The plan of God is
to call us out and make us banish these contracted views. All the noble
sentiments of the human heart are, like the widow's oil, increased by
pouring out. God is as kind as he is holy in so ordaining that no man shall
be strongly selfish and truly happy. If God gives you bread enough and to
spare, and then brings to your knowledge the case of the poor and needy, he
does you a great kindness; and you will be a better and happier man for
having your soul drawn out to the hungry.
The Bible says, "You shall love your neighbor as
yourself." And here we are met with the old question, "Who is my neighbor?"
When a carping lawyer, who wished to justify himself, asked this question,
Jesus Christ answered him thus: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to
Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up,
and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that
road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a
Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other
side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the
man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring
on oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn,
and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the
innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him. When I come back I'll reimburse you
for whatever extra you spend.' "Which of these three do you think proved to
be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" "The one
who showed mercy to him," he said. Then Jesus told him, "Go and do the
same." (Luke 10:30-37)
Without dwelling on the striking incidents here brought
out in detail, the great truth clearly taught is that any man is our
neighbor to whom we can show a kindness. Although one, in remarking on Psalm
15:3, says, "A neighbor is everyone with whom we have any dealing or
conversation;" yet in the days of our Savior the Jews regarded themselves as
bound to love none except their own people. Their rule was, "You shall love
your neighbor, and hate your enemy." Between Jews and Samaritans there was
no fellowship that could possibly be avoided. Yet Christ teaches that they
are neighbors in the eye of God's law. No man who admits that God gave the
command to love our neighbor, will deny that it obliges us to love our
friends, our kindred, and our countrymen. Even the scribes and Pharisees
always admitted thus much. Yet this is a very low standard of virtue. Christ
said, "If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even
the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what
more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?"
While he whose love does not go beyond his own little
sphere, has but little deserving of the name of right affections; he who
goes not thus far, is a monster of wickedness, and without natural
affection. It is also evident from Scripture that even our enemies are to
receive the tokens of our good-will. Jesus Christ said, "Love your enemies;
bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you; and pray for those
who despitefully use you and persecute you; that you may be the children of
your Father which is in heaven." Matt. 5:44, 45. Again, "Love you your
enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward
shall be great, and you shall be the children of the Highest." Luke 6:35.
Paul and Solomon teach the same doctrine: "If your enemy is hungry, feed
him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will
heap burning coals on his head."
Rom 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome
evil with good." Rom. 12:20, 21; Proverbs 25:21, 22. With these agree all
the inspired writers.
Now all consent that we should love our friends, and the
Scriptures teach that we should love our enemies; and these two classes
comprehend the whole human race with whom we have social fellowship or
dealings. Besides the foregoing explanations, it may be stated that the
'love of gratitude' is confessedly binding on all the human race. There is
no man so depraved as not to see gross iniquity in a flagrant act of
injustice. It is a truth no less commonly confessed, that if men have great
moral excellence, they ought to be loved on that account. But when we
enforce the obligations of a pure and high benevolence to all the race,
there is apt to be a withholding of the hearty consent of the mind. Yet from
Scripture nothing is clearer than that such good-will is due to all, as we
have knowledge of them and opportunity to do then good. This leads us to
consider what are the proper proofs and uniform fruits of such love to our
neighbor as is enjoined in Scripture.
In the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus there are many
things specified as duties to our fellowmen, all of which are so fitly
joined with love to our neighbor, that they may be properly mentioned here.
One was this: "When you harvest your fields, do not cut the grain at the
edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the heads of grain that were
left. Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were
missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for poor people
and foreigners. I am the Lord your God." Verses 9, 10. Another was in these
words: "You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to
another." Verse 11. Again, "You shall not defraud your neighbor, neither rob
him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with you all night until
the morning." Verse 13. One still more striking was, "You shall not curse
the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind." Verse 14. In other
words, you shall take no advantage of the afflictions and powerlessness of
men. Another precept was, "Be honest and just when you make decisions in
legal cases; do not show favoritism to the poor or fear the rich." Verse 15.
Another rule of great importance was, "You shall not go up and down as a
talebearer among your people." Verse 16. Nothing could be more inconsistent
with love to our neighbor than such a practice. Another precept forbade any
man to give false testimony, or to refuse to give true testimony. Verse 16.
Another was in these words: "You must not hate your brother in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of
him." Verse 17. Then immediately comes the command, "You shall love your
neighbor as yourself."
From all this it is evident that love to our neighbor is
the same in its fruits as the fulfilment of the second table of the law. And
we have the authority of Christ for saying that on love to God and to our
neighbor hang the law and the prophets. Matt. 22:40. Paul teaches the same
when he says, "He who loves another has fulfilled the law. For this, You
shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You
shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet; and if there be any other
commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this—You shall love your neighbor
as yourself. Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the
fulfilling of the law." Rom. 13:8-10.
The fruits of love to our neighbor are, first,
benevolent wishes concerning him and his affairs. Hearty good wishes are far
from being vain either in the sight of God or of good men. Oftentimes good
wishes are the best, the only proof we can give of our good-will. Only let
us see to it that they be sincere. Again, we can express kind thoughts and
charitable judgments of men and their conduct, and so prove that we love
them. Towards ourselves we are at liberty to practice severity of
judgment; but to others there must be lenity. "Do not judge, so that you
won't be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with
the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the
speck in your brother's eye but don't notice the log in your own eye? Or how
can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and
look, there's a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your
eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's
eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
Some express contempt for kind words; but they really
mean such as are hypocritical, or they know not what they say. Words of
genuine kindness are of the highest value. Without them society is a source
of constant misery. When our love leads us to the throne of grace, and
we are drawn out in fervent prayer for men, then the fruit of love is very
pleasing. "Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who despitefully
use you and persecute you." So says Paul, "I exhort therefore, that, first
of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made
for all men: for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead
a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty." 1 Tim. 2:1, 2.
What mode of expressing good-will could be more appropriate than that
commended in Psalm 20:1-5: "May the Lord answer you when you are in trouble!
May the God of Jacob protect you! May he send you help from his Temple and
give you aid from Mount Zion. May he accept all your offerings and be
pleased with all your sacrifices. May he give you what you desire and make
all your plans succeed. Then we will shout for joy over your victory and
celebrate your triumph by praising our God. May the Lord answer all your
requests." Let us often search and try our ways, and see if by our prayers
we prove that we love our fellow-men.
True Christian love will of course lead us to FORGIVE
those who have injured us. This is a point on which our blessed Savior
laid the greatest stress. There is no dispensing with it. "If you don't
forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins." Matt. 6:15.
"Forgive, and you shall be forgiven." Luke 6:37. Perhaps there is no better
evidence of a renewed heart than a cordial forgiveness of injuries; nor a
surer sign that we are yet in our sins, than carrying old grudges about with
us. He who will not forgive—must soon have his heart filled with hatred. He
who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has
eternal life abiding in him. Of all the holy arts possessed by Christians,
none is more admirable than that whereby they turn injuries to their own
profit and to the divine glory.
Mather says, "The injuries of life, if rightly improved,
will be to us as the strokes of the sculptor on his marble, forming us to a
more beautiful shape, and making us fitter to adorn the heavenly temple."
Genuine love to man will not only seem to forgive, but it will do that very
thing. "It is the glory of a man to pass over a transgression." Proverbs
19:11. Merely to pretend to such a thing, and not to do it, is but miserably
to mimic goodness, while we are filled with all hypocrisy. There are upon
earth no worse and no more unhappy men than those who carry about old
grudges, and retain a lively memory of wrongs long since committed against
themselves. The Persians have a pleasing proverb: "The man who returns good
for evil is as a tree which renders its shade and its fruit to those who
cast stones at it." South says, "Love is never so blind as when it sees
faults in others. It is like the painter who, drawing the picture of a
friend having a blemish in one eye, would picture only the other side of his
"Love your enemies." "This is the most sublime precept
ever delivered to man. A false religion dared not give a precept of this
nature, because, without supernatural influence, it must be forever
Another good fruit of love to man is MERCIFULNESS.
"The righteous are ever merciful." Psalm 37:26. "Blessed are the merciful;
for they shall obtain mercy." Matt. 5:7. "Be merciful, as your Father also
is merciful." Luke 6:36. A habitual unrestrained inclination to harshness,
cruelty, and oppression is one of the worst signs in the character of any
man. On the other hand, an enlarged prevailing disposition to pity men's
sorrows, alleviate their miseries, and promote their happiness is one of the
best signs in the character of any man. There is in some men a fitful and
variable tenderness to others, which seems to be a mere instinct. It
sometimes burns with great heat, and soon subsides into indifference or
But genuine love forms habits of kindness in the
heart, and brings them forth in the life. The dispositions we display to
the helpless, the guilty, the forsaken—are often the best tests of our real
character. Nor is there any surer prelude of wrath, than cruel dispositions.
"He shall have judgment without mercy that has showed no mercy." James 2:13.
Tyrants, in any sphere of life, are hateful not only to all virtuous men,
but also to God himself. Love to man will always produce kindness to the
poor and needy, the friendless and afflicted. "Blessed is the one who has
concern for helpless people. The Lord will rescue him in times of trouble.
The Lord will protect him and keep him alive. He will be blessed in the
land. Do not place him at the mercy of his enemies. The Lord will support
him on his sickbed. You will restore this person to health when he is ill."
Psalm 41:1-3. "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is
this—To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep
himself unspotted from the world." James 1:27. "Remember the words of the
Lord Jesus, how he said—It is more blessed to give than to receive." Acts
These portions of Scripture form a basis broad enough for
any sober scheme of genuine charity that has ever been devised. The word of
God uniformly lays the greatest stress upon kindness to the poor and
afflicted, as evidence of a heartfelt charity. "Whoever has earthly
possessions and notices a brother in need and yet withholds his compassion
from him, how can the love of God remain in him? Little children, we must
stop loving in word and in tongue, but instead love in action and in truth."
(1 John 3:17-18). The Scriptures deny the genuineness of all love, which is
without good fruits. Nor is any act of our lives more sure of reward than
kindness to the needy. "He who has pity on the poor lends unto the Lord; and
that which he has given will he pay him again." Proverbs 19:17.
But love is never at a loss for some way to express
itself. If it can do no more, it will cheer with a smile, it will
rejoice or weep with those it loves, it will soften a pillow or smooth a
bed, it will watch with those to whom nights of vanity are appointed, it
will whisper encouragement to the faint, it will in some way make itself
felt for good. A preacher once said, "If you know anything that will make a
brother's heart glad, run quick and tell it; but if it is something that
will only cause a sigh, bottle it up, bottle it up."
God's word requires that you should "love your neighbor
as yourself." The measure of love due to our neighbor is a matter of
chief importance. Very few people in a Christian country will deny that it
is our duty to bear some good-will to those around us. But many deny the
extent of the obligation. Some respectable writers have expressed great
difficulties on the subject. But surely it is no presumption to prefer the
plain teachings of God's word above those of any mortal. Here is a command
repeated in by Moses, Christ, Paul, and James, in all nine times, without
any variation, and in very plain terms. Nor is it pretended that there is
any difficulty in understanding the meaning of the verses. The translation
is correct. There is no room for doubt in this respect. What right therefore
has any man to say that the command so often repeated means no more than
that we should love our neighbor generally and indefinitely as ourselves? To
clear the matter, the following remarks are offered, with confidence in
their entire justice:
1. It is evidently the design of the inspired writers to
fix the degree in which we are bound to love our neighbor. They
distinctly require us to love God supremely, above all others, admitting no
rivals, no comparisons. They as distinctly say that we should love our
neighbor as ourselves. There is no reason why inspired men should so
often have added the words "as yourself," unless they thus designed to
determine how far we should love others.
2. In alluding to our love of self, the inspired writers
did not refer to such love of ourselves as is inordinate, and therefore
sinful. All inordinate affection, whether towards. ourselves or others, is
contrary to God's word and will; and its excesses in one case cannot justify
its excesses in another. Besides, it is simply impossible, in the nature of
things, that the human mind should love God supremely, and at the same time
go out inordinately both towards one's self and one's neighbor.
3. There is a difference between selfishness and
self-love. Selfishness is the excess and immoderate indulgence of self-love.
Selfishness is wicked, and consists in a persistent looking on our own
things and a constant caring for ourselves, let others do as they may.
Self-love is an enlightened and lawful regard to our own welfare, and is the
standard and measure approved of God for regulating our affections towards
others. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
4. It is not denied that in a sense we may care and act
more for the immediate good of ourselves and families than of others more
remotely connected with us. We are urged by the instinct of
self-preservation to protect from harm our own bodies more than those of
others. But the commandment relates not to instincts, but to moral
affections. So also by natural affection the mother is led to forget the
rest of the world for a season, that she may watch her own languishing babe.
But the law we are now considering does not relate to natural affection,
which is more or less discoverable even in brute animals. It is a moral law,
given to moral agents. And so there is no violation of its spirit in a man's
providing for his own, and especially for those of his own household. Not to
do so would prove him "worse than an infidel."
5. There is nothing in this law which requires us to do a
natural impossibility. Thus it is commonly in our power to do much more for
ourselves and families than for others. Most people are commonly not within
our reach. They are out of our sight and beyond the compass of our voice.
But we can reprove, exhort, warn, and encourage ourselves when we will. We
can often do the same to those near us. But this does not prove that we may
love ourselves and families more than all others. The mother may not
lawfully love the child at her side more than she may love his little
brother captured by savages and carried into the wilderness. Yet a man would
not be esteemed sane who should assert that this same mother was bound to do
as many acts of daily kindness for one child as for the other. It would be
6. The law of love to our neighbor has an excellent
practical exposition in what has long been called the golden rule, which is
in these words: "Do for others what you want them to do for you: this is the
meaning of the Law of Moses and of the teachings of the prophets." None can
deny that this law binds us to all the acts of love to our neighbor which we
may lawfully desire him to perform towards ourselves. If therefore we are
bound to yield the fruits of love to others, as we seek them from others,
why should we not love our neighbor as we do ourselves? Where is any flaw in
this reasoning? This golden rule affords an excellent test by which to judge
both of our selfish and of our benevolent feelings. When we wish others to
do something for us, let us ask first whether, in an exchange of
circumstances, we would be ready to do the same for them.
7. The Scriptures do commend a very high degree of love
to men. They say that "perhaps for a good man some would even dare to die."
Rom. 5:8. This is evidently spoken not in censure, but in praise of the
self-sacrificing man. John is yet more explicit, and says that in certain
cases "we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." 1 John 3:16. Paul
furnishes us with an example of what John here teaches when he says to the
Philippians, "If I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith,
I rejoice with you all." Phil. 2 17. Now Paul did not love others more than
the law requires; yet he was willing to suffer martyrdom, if thereby he
could be most useful to his fellow-men. Surely this is loving our neighbor
as ourselves. The thing is therefore not impracticable. Greater love than
this is not required.
8. We do most effectually promote our own happiness, when
we cultivate the most benevolent affections towards our neighbor. Nor is
there any limit to this remark. Who that ever hoarded up wealth was as happy
as John Howard? What lazy, selfish minister ever enjoyed life like Paul, who
rejoiced even in tribulation?
"The truly generous, is truly wise;
And he who loves not others lives unblest."
I have never known an unhappy philanthropist. I have
never had a doleful letter from a foreign missionary. It is on the
selfish—that boredom and overindulgence and discontent and anguish prey.
"Would you from sorrow find a sweet relief?
Or is your heart oppressed with woes untold?
Balm would you gather for corroding grief?
Pour blessings round you like a shower of gold."
Thus it is clear that we ought to love our neighbor as
much as we love ourselves; we ought to be as ready to give as to receive
justice, kindness, truth, pity, and bounty; in our dealings with others, we
should be as careful to fulfill to all men the duties required, and to avoid
the sins forbidden in the second table of the law, as we are free to regard
them bound to do and to avoid the same. In some things, we may even give
others the advantage. "In honor preferring one another;" and, "Let each
esteem other better than themselves," are forms of speech which show that
where there seems to be a conflict between our love to ourselves, and our
love to our neighbor—there are cases where he is to have the benefit of the
doubt, and to take the precedence.
This love will make us put a proper estimate upon the
worth of our neighbor; construe all his conduct in as charitable a manner as
truth will permit; offer assistance whenever it is required and we can
afford it; be careful to say nothing contrary to "the royal law;" take
pleasure in the welfare of others; and especially with diligence seek their
spiritual and eternal good. The highest charity is that which aims at men's
salvation. "He who wins souls is wise."
It remains that a few words be said in presenting
MOTIVES for the performance of this duty. The motive twice presented in
the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, is the solemn authority of God:
"I am the Lord." "I am the Lord your God." A due consideration of God's
authority, and a due regard to it, are sufficient to command the assent and
the consent of all who have the love of God in them. But this saying, 'I am
the Lord,' may mean more than this. It may call us to a large benevolence,
corresponding in our measure to the love manifested by God himself. Thus
Paul says, "Be imitators of God, as dear children; walk in love, as Christ
also has loved us, and has given himself for us." Eph. 5:1, 2.
God "makes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Matt. 5:45. Even where whole
nations have forsaken God, practiced idolatry, and walked in their own ways,
"he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave them
rain from heaven, filling their hearts with food and gladness." The Lord's
mercies are "new every morning." Lam. 3:23. "Herein is love, not that we
loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the atoning
sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love
one another." 1 John 4:10, 11.
The example of our blessed Savior is often
presented as a powerful motive to this very duty. He went about doing good.
We should walk as he walked. He has set us an example, that we should follow
his steps. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was
rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might be
made rich. In this way we can also best commend our religion to others, and
put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, and win those who are of a
Nothing more fatally hinders our prayers than the want of
love to men. All correct moral feelings are shocked—at prayer mingled
with malice. Who ever heard of a happy or thriving church where the spirit
of love was not? Leighton says, "To pray together, hearts must be consorted
and tuned together; otherwise, how can they sound the same petitions
harmoniously? How unpleasant in the exquisite ear of God, who made the
ear—are the jarring, disunited hearts that often seem to join in the same
prayer, and yet are not set together in love! And when you pray alone, while
your heart is imbittered and disaffected to your brother, although upon an
offence done to you—prayer is as a mistuned instrument; the strings are not
accorded, are not in tune among themselves—and so the sound is harsh and
Try it well yourself, and you will perceive it; how much
more He to whom you pray. When you are stirred and in passion against your
brother, or not lovingly affected towards him—what broken, disordered,
contemptible stuff are your prayer requests! Therefore the Lord will have
this done first-your heart tuned. "Go your way," says Jesus; "leave your
gift, and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."
Every enlightened conscience must approve this method. No other consists
with sincerity or holiness. One of the great excellences of love to our
neighbor is, that it is an immortal principle. "Love never fails." "It will
survive the wreck of worlds," says John James, "out-time time itself, and be
forever the work of the servants of God."