A Plea for Alms
by Thomas Watson
(Delivered in a sermon before the London city assembly,
on April 13, 1658)
"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother
in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" 1 John
To the assembly of the famous city of London,
My own lack of dexterity and my unfitness to release this publicly, needs
some apology. But your acceptance is my encouragement and the order from
your honorable court carries so much authority with it as to add some
weight to that which dares not plead worth. I was more inclined
to publish this discourse because, though the theme is common—yet the
practice of it is rare and unusual. When contentions are never more
hot, and charity never more cold—it is a sign that iniquity abounds. The
zeal of our forefathers condemns us; we with Rachel have better eyes—but
they with Leah were more fruitful. We are so far (at least the
generality of men) from building churches and almshouses, that we are more
ready to pull them down.
How truth is, in these days, forsaken—and
charity forgotten! We may say of many, that they are miserably rich;
their affections toward public advancements and charity are like the scales
of the Leviathan, "tightly sealed" (Job 41:15). Ambrose said that when we
relieve not one whom we see ready to perish with hunger—that we are the
cause of his death. If this rule holds true, there are more guilty of the
breach of the sixth commandment, than we are aware of.
When shall we see a resurrection of charity, which seems
to lie dead and buried? Surely it will not be, unless God works a miracle
upon men's hearts. May the good Lord by His Spirit cleave the rocks in
our bosoms so that the water of repentance and the wine of
charity may flow forth! Oh, that England might have that eulogy, as once
Athens had, to be the nursery of humanity.
Believe it, charity is the best policy. By helping
others—we heal ourselves. Job 29:13: "The blessing of him who was ready to
perish came upon me." As the poor had Job's alms—so he had their prayers,
and he fared better. Christ's poor are favorites of the court of
heaven, and when you give them of your gold—they can unlock heaven by the
golden key of prayer, and set God at work on your behalf. The merciful man
has many intercessors, which made Jerome to say that it is almost impossible
that God should not hear the prayers of so many. Why should there be the
least regret or hesitance in our hearts? It would be our glory, if it might
be said of us as Paul speaks of those evangelical Christians in 1
Thessalonians 4:9: "As touching brotherly love, you need not that I write
unto you." Oh, how forgetful are we—of that breast of mercy which
feeds us, those golden wings which cover us! Surely we need to keep a
register of God's favors to us. If we did, we would, as Clement of
Alexandria said, give alms to testify of our gratitude.
This sermon which you read with seriousness, is not so
much to be read over as to be lived over. Your liberality to
those who are in need will give the best commentary upon the text. The Lord
has set you in public places, and that you may become public blessing in
your generation, walking in the fear of God and shining forth in a Bible
life, shall be the prayer of him who is your servant in the work of the
"He distributes freely to the poor; his righteousness endures forever."
The prophet David, inspired from heaven in this Psalm,
describes a godly man and describes him in two ways:
1. By his sanctity, and that, first, in general,
he is one who fears God (verses 1 and 2). In particular, he is
charitably minded (verses 5 and 9).
2. The psalmist describes a godly man by his safety.
"Surely he will never be shaken" (verse 6). He stands impregnable, being
planted on the rock of ages. Though evil times come, he is not terrified.
"They do not fear bad news; they confidently trust the Lord to care for
them" (verse 7). Guilt is the breeder of fear. Isaiah 33:14:
"The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless!" Leviticus
26:36: "The sound of a wind-driven leaf will put them to flight."
It is not affliction without—but sin
within which creates fear. It is the stirring withing the earth which
makes an earthquake. True religion is the best antidote against these
heart-killing fears. The fear of God drives out all other fear! The
godly man insults danger. With the Leviathan, he laughs at the shaking of a
spear, as in Job 41:29. When there is a tempest abroad—he has
music at home. He is settled by faith—as a ship at anchor or as a weight
in the center. His heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord.
I shall at this time consider the godly man as he is
described by his sanctity, specified under the notion of charity
and munificence in these words: "He distributes freely to the
poor; his righteousness endures forever."
Mercy is a weighty matter of the law (Matthew 23:23).
Never can it more seasonably be pressed, than upon a day of such solemnity
wherein we commemorate the noble bounty of many worthy and famous men, whose
acts of beneficence and liberality are left behind, as so many monuments
of their piety and renown to succeeding ages.
Give me permission to open the terms.
"He distributes freely." This is a metaphor taken
from farmers who scatter and disperse their seed in the furrows of the
field, expecting a crop afterwards. So the godly man scatters the precious
seed of his charity abroad—-and this seed is not lost but afterwards springs
up into a crop.
"To the poor." The Hebrew word for "poor" in
Scripture signifies one who is empty or drawn dry, a metaphor
taken from ponds or rivers that are drawn dry. So the poor are exhausted of
their strength, beauty, and substance. Like ponds, they
are dried up; therefore, they must be filled again with the silver streams
"His righteousness." By "righteousness" (as most
agreeable to the context) I understand the work of inherent grace in the
heart, displaying and evidencing itself in works of mercy and bountifulness.
"Endures forever." Either, first, the comfort
of his righteousness endures—he has sweet peace and satisfaction in his own
Or, second, the honor of it endures. According to
the Hebrew phrase, the memorial of his goodness stands as a monument of
fame, not to be forgotten.
Or third, the reward of his righteousness endures.
He reaps the fruit of his charity forever, as others interpret it.
The words thus opened fall into these four parts:
his bounty—"He distributes freely";
the object—the poor;
the trophy or insignia of his honor
displayed—"His righteousness endures forever."
Or, if you will, the text consists of two things:
the godly man's benignity—"He distributes freely";
and his benediction—"His righteousness endures
The observation from the words is this—that a godly
man is a liberal man. The Hebrew word for "godly" signifies
merciful. The more godly—the more merciful. A godly man is a public
blessing in the place where he lives, as in Psalm 37:26. "He is ever
merciful and lends." As a nobleman's servant is known by the livery he
wears; just so, a servant of Christ known by this livery of mercifulness
There are two channels in which the stream of charity
must run: charity to the souls of others and charity to the
temporal needs of others.
Charity to the souls
of others is a spiritual alms. Indeed, this is the highest kind of charity.
The soul is the most precious thing. It is a vessel of honor, a bud of
eternity, a spark lighted by the breath of God, a rich diamond set in a ring
of clay. The soul has the image of God to beautify it—and the blood of God
to redeem it. It being, therefore, of so high a descent, sprung from the
ancient of days, and of so noble an extraction, that charity which is shown
to the soul must be the greatest.
This is charity to souls—when we see others in their
sins, and we pity them. If I weep (says Augustine) for that body from which
the soul is departed, how should I weep for that soul from which God is
departed! This is charity to souls—when we see men in the bondage of sin—and
we labor by counsel, admonition or reproof to pull them out of their
dreadful estate, as the angels did to Lot in Sodom. "Hurry! Get out of here
right now, or you will be caught in the destruction of the city! When Lot
still hesitated, the angels seized his hand and the hands of his wife and
two daughters and rushed them to safety outside the city!" Genesis 19.
God made a law (Exodus 23:5) "If you see the donkey
of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it
there; be sure you help him with it." On these words Chrysostom said, "We
will help a beast which is fallen under a burden, and shall we not
extend relief to those who are fallen under a worse burden of sin!" To let
others go on in sin securely—is not charity but cruelty! If a
man's house were on fire, and another should see it and not tell him of it
for fear of waking him—would not this be cruelty? Did he not deserve to be
warned? And when we see the souls of others sleeping the sleep of death and
the fire of God's wrath ready to burn about their ears—and we are silent, is
not this to be accessory to their death!
If men wish to go to hell—and we do not attempt to stop
them, is this love to their souls? Oh, I beseech you, if you have any
compassion—strengthen the weak, bring back the wandering, raise up those who
are fallen. "He who turns a sinner from the error of his way, will save his
soul from death and cover a multitude of sins." James 5:20
Charity to the needs
of others, which this text properly intends, consists of three things:
(1) a judicious consideration;
(2) a tender commiseration;
(3) a liberal contribution.
1 A judicious CONSIDERATION. Psalm 41:1,
"Blessed is he who cares for the poor." And you must consider four things:
1. It might have been your own case. You might
have stood in need of another's charity—and then how welcome and refreshing
would those streams have been to you!
2. Consider how sad a condition poverty is.
Though Chrysostom calls poverty the highway to heaven, he who keeps this
road will go weeping there. Consider the poor. Behold their tears,
their sighs, their dying groans. Look upon the deep furrows made in their
faces and consider if there is not reason why you should scatter your seed
in these furrows. The poor man feeds upon sorrow, he drinks tears (Psalm
80:5). Like Jacob in a windy night—he has the clouds for his canopy, and a
stone for his pillow. Further, consider that oftentimes poverty becomes not
only a cross—but a snare. It exposes to much evil which made Agur pray,
"Give me not poverty" (Proverbs 30:8). Poverty puts men upon sinful courses.
The poor will venture their souls for money. If the rich would wisely
consider this, they might be a means of preventing much sin.
3. Consider why the wise God has ordained an inequality
in the world. It is for this very reason, that He would have
charity exercised. If all were rich, there would be no need for alms nor
could the merciful man have been so well known. If he who traveled to
Jericho had not been wounded and left half dead, the good Samaritan who
poured wine and oil into his wounds would not have been known.
4. Consider how quickly the balance of providence
may turn. We ourselves may be brought to poverty, and then it
will be no small comfort to us that we relieved others while we were in a
capacity to do it. Ecclesiastes 11:2: "Give a portion to seven and also to
eight, for you know not what evil shall be upon the earth." We cannot always
promise ourselves halcyon days. God knows how soon any of us may change our
pasture. The cup which now runs over with wine—may be soon filled with the
waters of Marah. Ruth 1:21: "I went out full—and the Lord has brought me
home again empty." How many have we seen who are invested with great
lordships and possessions, who have, all of a sudden brought their manor
down to a morsel.
It is wisdom in this sense to consider the poor. Remember
how soon the scene may alter, and we may be put in the poor's dress and, if
adversity comes, it will rejoice us to think that while we had an estate, we
laid it out upon Christ's indigent members.
This is the first thing in charity—a judicious
2. Second is a tender COMMISERATION. The
Hebrew word for "mercy" signifies affections. Christ first had compassion
on the multitude (Matthew 15:32), then He wrought a miracle to feed
them. Charity which lacks compassion, is brutish. The brute
creatures can relieve us in many ways—but cannot pity us. It is a kind of
cruelty (said Quintilian) to feed one in need and not to
sympathize with him. True religion begets tenderness. As it melts
the heart in tears of contrition towards God, so in affections of compassion
toward others. Isaiah 16:11: "My affections shall sound like a harp." When
your affections of pity sound, then your alms make sweet music in the ears
3. Charity consists of a liberal CONTRIBUTION.
Isaiah 58:10: "Feed the hungry and help those in trouble." Deuteronomy 15:8:
"If there be a poor man within your gates, you shall open your hand wide
unto him." The Hebrew word in the text signifies a largeness of bounty.
It must be like water which overflows the banks. If God has enriched you
with estates and made His candle (as Job said) to shine upon your
tabernacle, you must not encircle and engross all to yourselves—but be as
the moon which, having received its light from the sun, lets it shine to the
world. The ancients made oil to be the emblem of charity. The golden
oil of your mercy must, like Aaron's oil, run down upon the poor which are
the lower skirts of the garment.
This liberal disbursement to the necessities of others,
God commands, and grace compels. There is an express statute in Leviticus
25:35: "'If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support
himself, then you shall relieve him." The Hebrew is, "You shall strengthen
him," or "put under him a silver crutch when he is falling."
It is worth our observation, what great care God took of
the poor besides what was given privately. God made many laws for the public
and visible relief of the poor, as in Exodus 23:11: "During the seventh year
let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may
get food from it. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove."
God's intention in this law was that the poor should be liberally provided
for. They might freely eat of anything which grew of itself the seventh
year, whether of herbs, vines, or olive trees.
Someone may ask how the poor could live only on these
fruits, there being (as it is probable) no corn growing then. Cajetan is of
the opinion they lived by selling these fruits and converting them into
money; so they lived upon the price of the fruits.
There is another law made in Leviticus 19:9: "When you
reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field
or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a
second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor
and the alien. I am the Lord your God." See how God indulged the poor. Some
corners of the field were for the poor's sake, to be left uncut; and when
the owners reaped they must not go too near the earth with their sickle.
Something like an after-crop must be left. The shorter ears of corn, and
such as lay bending to the ground, were to be reserved for the poor.
God made another law in favor of the poor, Deuteronomy
14:28-29: "At the end of every third year bring the tithe of all your crops
and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who have no
inheritance among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the
orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied.
Then the Lord your God will bless you in all your work." The Hebrews write
that every third year, besides the first tithe given to Levi, which was
called the perpetual tithe (Numbers 18:21), the Jews set apart another tithe
of their increase for the use of the widows and orphans; and that was called
the tithe of the poor. Besides, at the Jew's solemn festivals, the
poor were to have a share (Deuteronomy 16:11).
Relieving the necessities was commanded under the law,
and it stands in force under the gospel. 1 Timothy 6:17-18: "Charge those
who are rich in this world, that they do good, that they be rich in good
works." It is not only a counsel but a charge, and
non-attendance to it runs men into a gospel offense.
Thus we have seen the mind of God in this particular
charity. Let all good Christians comment upon it in their practice.
What benefit is there of gold while it is emboweled and locked up in the
mine? How is it better to have a great estate if it is so hoarded and
cloistered up, as to never see the light?
As God commands us, so grace compels us to works of mercy
and beneficence. 2 Corinthians 5:14: "The love of Christ constrains us."
Grace comes with majesty upon the heart. Grace is not in theory—but virtue.
Grace does not lie as a sleepy habit in the soul—but will put forth itself
in vigorous and glorious actions. Grace can no more be concealed, than fire.
Like new wine, it will have vent. Grace does not lie in the heart as a
stone in the earth—but as seed in the earth; and it will spring
up into good works.
It may serve to justify the Church of England against the
calumny of malevolent men. The church of Rome lays upon us the aspersion
that we are against good works. Indeed, we plead not for the merit of
them—but we are for the use of them (Titus 3:14). Let us also learn
to maintain good works for necessary use.
We read the angels had hands under their wings
(Ezekiel 1:8). It may be an emblem of this truth: Christians must not only
have the wings of faith to fly—but hands under their wings to work the works
of mercy. "Everyone who trusts in God will be careful to do good deeds all
the time. These things are good and beneficial for everyone" (Titus 3:8).
The lamp of faith must be filled with the oil
of charity. Faith alone justifies—but justifying faith is not alone. You
may as well separate weight from lead or heat from fire—as works from faith.
Good works, though they are not the causes of salvation—yet they are
evidences of salvation. Though they are not the foundation—yet
they are the superstructure. Faith must not be built upon works—but
works must be built upon faith. Romans 7:4: "You are united with the One who
was raised from the dead. As a result, you can produce good fruit, that is,
good deeds for God." Faith is the spouse which marries Christ—and good
works are the children which faith bears! For the vindication of the
doctrine of our church and in the honor of good works, I shall lay down
these four aphorisms.
1. Works are distinct from faith. It is vain
to imagine that works are included in faith, as the diamond is enclosed in
the ring. They are distinct, as the sap in the vine is different from the
clusters that grow upon it.
2. Works are the touchstone of faith. "Show me
your faith by your works" (James 2:18). Works are faith's letters of
credence to show. If (said Bernard) you see a man full of good works, then,
by the rule of charity, you are not to doubt his faith. We judge the health
of the body by the pulse, where the blood stirs and operates.
Christian, judge the health of your faith—by the pulse of charity. It is
with faith as with a deed in law. To make a deed in law valid, there are
three things required: the writing, the seal, and the witnesses. So for the
trial and confirmation of faith, there must be these three things: the
writing (the Word of God), the seal (the Spirit of God), and the witnesses
(good works). Bring your faith to this Scripture touchstone. Faith
justifies works; works testify to faith.
3. Works honor faith—as the fruit adorns the tree.
Let the liberality of your hand (said Clement of Alexandria) be the ornament
of your faith, and wear it as a holy bracelet about your wrists. "All who
heard of me praised me. All who saw me spoke well of me. For I helped the
poor in their need and the orphans who had no one to help them. I helped
those who had lost hope, and they blessed me. And I caused the widows'
hearts to sing for joy. All I did was just and honest. Righteousness covered
me like a robe, and I wore justice like a turban. I served as eyes for the
blind and feet for the lame. I was a father to the poor." Job 29:11-16.
While Job was pleading the cause of the poor, this was the ensign of his
honor; it clothed him as a robe and crowned him as a diadem. This is what
takes off the odium and obloquy from religion, and makes others speak well
of holiness—when they see good works as handmaids waiting upon this
4. Good works are in some sense more excellent than faith
in two respects:
First, because they are of a more noble diffusive nature.
Though faith is more needful for us—yet works are more beneficial to
others. Faith is a receptive grace, all for self-interest, and it
moves within its own sphere. Works are for the good of others. It is a more
blessed thing to give, than to receive.
Second, good works are more visible and conspicuous than
faith. Faith is a more hidden grace. It may lie hidden in the
heart and may not be seen—but when works are joined with it, it shines forth
in its native beauty. Though a garden is decked with flowers, they are not
seen until the light comes. So the heart of a Christian may be
enriched with faith—but it is like a flower in the night. It is not
seen until works come. When this light shines before men—then faith
appears in its orient colors.
REPROOF. If this is the effigy of a godly man,
that he is of a charitable disposition; then it sharply reproves those who
are far from this temper—who are all for gathering, but not for
dispersing. They move only within the circle of their own interests—but
do not relieve the necessities of others. They have a flourishing estate—but,
like the man in the gospel, they have a withered hand and cannot
stretch it out to good uses. These are like the churl Nabal in 1 Samuel
25:11: "Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have
slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows
It was said of the Emperor Pertinaz that he had a large
empire—but a narrow, scanty heart. There was a temple at Athens which was
called the temple of mercy. It was dedicated to charitable uses, and
the greatest reproach was to upbraid one—that he had never been in the
temple of mercy. It is the greatest disgrace to a Christian to be
Covetous men, while they enrich themselves,
debase themselves, setting up a monopoly and committing idolatry with
mammon, thus making themselves lower than men.
In the time of pestilence it is sad to have your
houses shut up—but it is worse to have your hearts shut up.
Covetous people are like the Leviathan in Job 41:24—their hearts are hard
as a stone. You may as well extract oil out of a flint—as the golden oil
of charity out of their flinty hearts! Coldness of the heart is a
presage of death. When men's affections toward works of mercy are frozen,
this coldness of heart is ominous and sadly portends that they are dead in
sin. We read in the law, that the shellfish was accounted as unclean.
This is probably because the meat of it was enclosed in the shell and was
hard to come by. They are to be reckoned among the unclean who
enclose all their estate within the shell of their own cabinet, and will not
let others be the better for it. How many have lost their souls by
being so saving!
There are some who, perhaps, will give the poor good
words—and that is all. James 2:15-16: "Suppose a brother or sister is
without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you
well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs,
what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied
by action, is dead." James 2:15-17. Good words are but a cold kind of
charity. The poor cannot live as the chameleon, upon this air. Let your
words be as smooth as oil—yet they will not heal the wounded. Let them drop
as the honeycomb, they will not feed the hungry.
"Though I speak with the tongue of angels and have not
charity, I am but as a tinkling cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1). It is better
to be charitable as a saint—than eloquent as an angel. Such as
are cruel to the poor, let me tell you—you "unChristian" yourselves.
Unmercifulness is the sin of the heathen, Romans
1:31. While you put off the affections of charity, you put off the badge of
Christianity. James speaks a sad word in James 2:13: "for he shall have
judgment without mercy—who showed no mercy." Dives denied Lazarus a crumb
of bread—and Dives was denied a drop of water at the last day.
Behold the sinner's indictment in Matthew 25:42: "I was hungry and you gave
Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a
stranger and you didn’t take Me in; I was naked and you didn’t clothe Me,
sick and in prison and you didn’t take care of Me." Christ does not say,
"You took away My food," but "You gave Me nothing to eat. You did not feed
My members." Then follows the sentence, "Depart from Me, you who are cursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!"
If Christ's poor come to your doors—and you bid them
depart from you; the time may come when you shall knock at heaven's gate—and
Christ will say, "Go from My door; depart from Me, you who are cursed."
In short, covetousness is a foolish sin. God gave
the rich man in the gospel the appellation, "You fool!" (Luke 12:20). The
covetous man does not enjoy what he possesses. He embitters his own life. He
occupies himself with care either how to get, or how to increase,
or how to secure an estate; and what is the outcome and result?
Often, as a just reward of sordid penuriousness, God blasts and withers him
in his outward estate. The saying of Gregory Nazianzen is to be seriously
weighed: "God many times lets the thief take away and the moth consume that
which is injuriously and uncharitably withheld from the poor."
I am sorry that any professors should be impeached as
guilty of this sin of covetousness and unmercifulness. Sure I am,
that God's elect are merciful people. (Colossians 3:12). I tell you, these
devout misers are the reproach of Christianity! They are warts
and spots on the face of true religion. Truly, I know not well what
to make of them!
Aelian, in his history, reports that in India there is a
griffin having four feet and two wings, with a bill like an eagle. It
is hard to decide whether to rank him among the beasts or the fowl.
So I may say of penurious votaries: they have the wings of
profession, by which they seem to fly to heaven—but the feet of
beasts—walking on the earth and even licking the dust! It is hard to
know where to rank these, whether among the godly or the wicked. Take heed
that, if your religion will not destroy your covetousness, that at last,
your covetousness does not destroy your religion.
The fable tells us a story of the hedgehog that
came to the conies' burrows in stormy weather and desired harbor, promising
that he would be a quiet guest. Once he had gotten entertainment, he set up
his prickles and never left until he had thrust the poor conies out of their
burrows. So it is with covetousness: though it has many fair pleas to
insinuate and wind itself into the heart, as soon as you let it in—this
thorn will never stop pricking until it has choked all good beginnings and
thrust all religion out of your heart!
EXHORTATION 1. I beseech all who hear me this
day to put on affections of mercies, to be ready to relieve the miseries and
necessities of others. Ambrose calls charity "the sum of
Christianity". The Apostle James (1:27) makes it the very definition of
religion: "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this—to
visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction." The poor are, as
it were, in the grave—the comfort of their life is buried.
Help with your merciful hands to raise them out of the sepulcher. God sends
His springs into the valleys (Psalm 104:10). Let the springs
of your charity run among the valleys of poverty. Your sweetest and
most gracious influences should fall upon the lower grounds. What is
all your seeming devotion, without bounty and mercifulness?
I have known many (said Basil) who pray and
fast—but do not relieve those who as are in distress. They are for a
zeal which puts them to no expense. What are they the better (said he) for
all their seeming virtue?
We read that the incense was to be laid upon the fire
(Leviticus 16:13). The flame of devotion must be perfumed with
the incense of charity. Aaron was to have a bell and a
pomegranate. The pomegranate (as some of the learned observe) was
a symbol of good works. They lack the pomegranate (said Gregory Nazianzen)
who have no good works. The wise men not only bowed the knee to Christ—but
presented Him with gold, myrrh, and frankincense (Matthew 2:11).
Pretenses of zeal are insufficient. We must not only worship Christ—but
bestow something upon His members. This is to present Christ with gold and
frankincense. Isaac would not bless Jacob by the voice—but he felt
and handled him, and supposing them to be Esau's hands—he blessed
him. God will not bless you by your voice, your loud prayers, or your devout
discourses—but if He feels Esau's hands, if your hands have wrought
good works—then He will bless you.
Let me exhort you, therefore, to deeds of mercy.
Let your fingers drop with the myrrh of liberality. Sow your
golden seed. In this sense, it is lawful to put out your money—when you
lay it out for good uses. Remember that excellent saying of Augustine,
"Give those things to the poor which you cannot keep—that you may receive
those things which you cannot lose."
There are many occasions for exercising your pious
charity: hear the orphan's cry; pity the widow's tears. There
are some who need employment, so it would do well to set their wheel
a-going. Others who are past employment. Be as eyes to the blind and feet to
the lame. Some whole families will sink—if your merciful hands do not help
to shore them up.
I cannot be unmindful of the Christian universities—which
are the nurseries of the church. They may be compared to that Persian
tree—which buds, blossoms and bears ripe fruit at the
same time. Oh, let these plants be watered with your silver drops! Cast not
salt—but gold into these springs, that from thence may flow forth
many celestial streams both of learning and piety—to refresh
this city of our God.
Before I come to press you with arguments to liberality
and munificence, there are three objections in the way which I shall
endeavor to remove.
OBJECTION 1. "We may give, and so in time
ourselves come to need." Let Basil answer this, "Wells which have
their water drawn—spring ever more freely." Proverbs 11:25: "The liberal
soul shall be made fat." There is nothing lost—by doing our duty. An
estate may be imparted, yet not impaired. The flowers
yield honey to the bee—yet their own fruit is not harmed. When the candle
of prosperity shines upon us—we may give light to our neighbor who is in
the dark—and have never the less light ourselves. Whatever is disbursed to
pious uses, God brings it back in some other way, as the loaves
multiplied in breaking, or as the widow's oil increased by
pouring it out. 1 Kings 17:16.
OBJECTION 2. "I cannot do so much as
others—erect churches, build hospitals, augment libraries, or maintain
scholars at the university."
If you cannot do much—do something! The
widow's two mites cast into the treasury were accepted by Christ. He did
not look at the smallness of her gift—but the largeness of her
heart! In the law, for him who could not bring a lamb for an offering,
it sufficed if he brought two turtle-doves. We read in Exodus 35 that the
people brought gold and silver and goat's hair for the
building of the tabernacle. On which place, said Origen, "I desire, Lord, to
bring something to the building of Your temple; if not gold to make
the mercy seat, if not silk to make the curtains—yet a little
goat's hair that I may not be found in the number of those who brought
nothing to Your temple."
OBJECTION 3. "I have nothing to bestow upon
the necessities of others." Do you have money to feed your lust and
pride—and nothing to relieve the poor members of Christ? Let us admit this
excuse to be real, that you have no such estate—yet you may do
something wherein you may express your mercy to the poor. You may
sympathize with them, pray for them, or speak a word of
comfort to them. Isaiah 40:2 says, "Speak comfortably to Jerusalem." If you
can give them no gold—you may speak a word in season which may be as apples
of gold in pictures of silver. You may be helpful to the poor by stirring up
others who do have estates, to relieve them. If a man is hungry, the wind
will not fill him—but it can blow the sails of the mill and make it grind
corn for the use of man. Just so, though you have no estate yourself to help
those in need, you may stir up others to help them. You may blow the sails
of their affections, causing them to show mercy—and so may help your brother
by a proxy.
EXHORTATION 2. Having answered these
objections, let me pursue the exhortation to mercy and liberality. I shall
lay down several arguments which I desire you to weigh in the balance
of reason and conscience.
To be diffusively good is the great end of our
creation. Ephesians 2:10 says we are created in Christ Jesus unto
good works. Every creature answers the end of its creation. The star
shines, the bird sings, the plant bears fruit, the end of
our life is service. He who does not answer his end in respect of
usefulness, cannot enjoy his end in respect of happiness. Many,
says Seneca, have been long in the world—but have not lived. They have done
no good for others. A selfish person is good for nothing, but to cumber the
ground and—because he is barren of good works—he shall be fruitful in
By this we resemble God, who is a God of mercy.
He is said to delight in mercy (Micah 7:18). "His mercies are over
all His works" (Psalm 145:9). He requites good for evil. Like the
clouds which receive ill vapors from us—but return them to us again in sweet
showers, there is not a creature alive—but tastes of the mercies of God!
"Every bird," said Ambrose, "does in its kind sing hymns of praise to
God for His bounty—but men and angels, in a more peculiar
manner, taste the cream and quintessence of God's mercies."
What temporal mercies have you received? Every time you
draw your breath—you suck in God's mercy; every bit of bread you eat—the
hand of God's mercy carves it to you. You never drink, but in a golden cup
of mercy. What spiritual mercies has God invested some of you with?
Pardon, adoption, saving mercy. The picture of God's mercy, can never be
drawn to the full. You cannot take the breadth of His mercy, for it
is infinite; nor the height of it, for it reaches above the clouds;
nor the length of it, for it is from everlasting to everlasting
(Psalm 103:17). The works of mercy are the glory of the Godhead. Moses
prayed, "Lord, show me Your glory." God said, "I will make all My
goodness to pass before you" (Exodus 33:18-19). God accounts Himself
most glorious, in the shining robes of His mercy. Now, by works of
mercy, we resemble the God of mercy. We are bid to draw our lines
according to Luke 6:36: "Be merciful—as your Father also is merciful."
Alms are a sacrifice. Hebrews 13:16: "Don't
forget to do good and to share what you have with those in need, for such
sacrifices are very pleasing to God." When you are distributing
to the poor, it is as if you were praying, as if you were
worshiping God. There are two sorts of sacrifices: expiatory
sacrifices (the sacrifice of Christ's blood); and thank offerings
(the sacrifice of alms). This, said holy Greenham, is more acceptable to God
than any other sacrifice. Acts 10:4: "The angel said to Cornelius, 'Your
acts of charity have come up as a memorial offering before God." The backs
of the poor are the altar on which this sacrifice is to be
We ourselves live upon alms. Other creatures
liberally contribute to our necessities. The sun has not its light
for itself—but for us. It enriches us with its golden beams; the earth
brings us a fruitful crop. The Psalmist says, "The valleys are covered
with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing" (Psalm 65:13). One creature
gives us wool, another oil, another silk. We are glad to go begging to the
creation. Shall every creature be for the good of man—and man alone, be for
We are to extend our liberality by virtue of a shared
membership. Isaiah 58:7: "I want you to share your food with the
hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those
who need them, and do not hide from your own flesh and blood, who need your
help." The poor are fellow members of the same body. The members, by a law
of equity and sympathy, contribute one to another.
The eye conveys light to the body, the heart
blood, the head spirits. It is a dead member in the body, which
does not communicate to the rest. Thus it is also in the body of Christ. Let
no man think it is too far below him, to mind the needs and necessities of
others. It is a pity that the hand should disdain to pluck a thorn out of
the foot. It is spoken in the honor of that renowned princess, the Empress
of Theodosius, that she herself visited the sick and prepared relief for
them with her own imperial hands.
We are not owners of an estate—but stewards.
Soon we may hear, "Give an account of your stewardship, for you may
be no longer steward" (Luke 16:2). An estate is a talent to trade
with. It is as dangerous to hide our talent—as to waste it
(Matthew 25:25-30). If the covetous man keeps his gold too long, it will
begin to rust—and the rust of it will witness against him.
Recall the examples of others who have been famous
and renowned for acts of charity. Our Lord Christ was a great
example of charity. He was not more full of merit, than of bounty.
Trajan, the emperor, tore off a piece of his own royal robe, to wrap his
soldiers' wounds. Christ did more: He made a medicine of His body and
blood to heal us. Isaiah 53:5: "By His stripes we are healed." Here
was a pattern of charity without parallel.
The Jews are noted in this respect. It is a
rabbinical observation that those who live devoutly among the Jews
distribute a tenth part of their estate among the poor, and they give freely
(said Philo, the Jew) as if by giving they hope to receive some great
gratuity. Now if the Jews are so devoted to works of mercy, who live without
the Messiah, shall not we much more, who profess our faith in the blessed
Let me tell you of some heathens. I have read that
Titus Vespasian, who was so accustomed to works of mercy that, remembering
he had given nothing that day, cried out, "I have lost a day!" It is
reported of some of the Turks that they have servants whom they employ for
the sole purpose to send relief to the poor. The Turks have a saying in
their Koran, that if men knew what a blessed thing it was to distribute
alms—they would give some of their own flesh to relieve the poor; and shall
not a Christian's creed be better than a Turk's Koran!
Beloved, we are not left this day without witness. I
desire to speak it to the glory of God, and the renown of this city—that
there has been, both in the days of our worthy ancestors, and still to this
day among many of you—a spirit of sympathy and compassion.
When poor indigent creatures have been as Moses, laid in
the ark of bulrushes, ready to sink in the waters of affliction, you have
sent temporal favors to them, and have drawn them out of the waters with a
golden cord. When they have been ready to make their own grave, you
have built them hospitals. The milk of your charity has nursed
them—and while they have sat under your vines, they have eaten the sweet
grape! We read that they showed Peter the garments and coats which Dorcas
made (Acts 9:39). May we not this day behold the coats which have been made
to clothe the indigent? Go on still to do worthily, and, by your acts of
munificence, to emblazon your coat of arms and eternalize your fame!
I shall use one more argument to persuade to charity, and
that is the REWARD which follows alms-deeds. Giving alms is a
glorious work, and, let me tell you, it is a fruitful work. They who sow
mercy—shall reap mercy. Whatever is disbursed to the poor, is
given to Christ! Matthew 25:40: "Whatever you did for one of the least
of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me!" The poor man's hand is
Christ's treasury—and there is nothing lost, which is put there.
There is a reward in this life.
The charitable man is crowned with a blessing. He is:
Blessed in his PERSON. Psalm 41:1: "Blessed is he who
considers the poor." God casts a favorable aspect upon him.
Blessed in his NAME. So it is in the text: his horn shall
be exalted with honor. Also Psalm 112:6: "He shall be had in everlasting
remembrance." His name shall be gloriously embalmed.
Blessed in his ESTATE. Proverbs 11:25: "The liberal soul
shall be made fat." He shall not only have the venison—but the
Blessed in his POSTERITY. Psalm 37:26: "He is ever
merciful and lends, and his seed is blessed." He shall not only leave an
estate behind—but a blessing behind to his children; and God will
see that the estate shall not be cut off.
Blessed in his NEGOTIATIONS. Deuteronomy 15:10: "Give
freely without begrudging it, and the Lord your God will bless you in
everything you do!" The charitable man shall be blessed in his building,
planting, journeying; whatever he is about—a blessing shall empty itself
upon him. He shall be a prosperous man; the honeycomb of a blessing
shall be still dropping upon him!
Blessed with LONG LIFE. Psalm 41:2: "The Lord will
preserve him and keep him alive." He has helped to keep others alive—and God
will keep hint alive. Is there anything then, lost by charity? It spins out
the silver thread of life. Many are taken away the sooner for their
unmercifulness; because their hearts are not charitable, their lives
The great reward is in the life
to come. Aristotle joined these two together, liberality
and usefulness. God will reward the merciful man, though not for
his works—yet according to his works. Revelation 20:12: "I saw
the dead, small and great, stand before God, and the books were opened and
the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books,
according to their works." As God has a bottle to put your tears
in—so He has a book to write your alms in! As God will put a veil
over His people's sins—so He will set a crown upon their works.
The way to lay up—is to lay out. Other parts of your estate
you leave behind—but that which is given to Christ's poor, is hoarded up in
heaven! That is a blessed kind of giving which, though it makes the purse
lighter—makes the crown heavier.
Whatever alms you distribute, you shall have good
security. Proverbs 19:17: "He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord, and
that which he has given will He pay him again." There is God's pledge to
save you from being the loser for your charity. Yet here is our unbelief and
atheism: we will not take God's pledge. We commonly put our deeds of
mercy among our desperate debts.
You shall be paid with an abundance. For a
wedge of gold which you have parted with—you shall have a weight of
glory! For a cup of cold water—you shall have rivers of
pleasure which run at God's right hand forevermore! The interest
comes to infinitely more than the principal. Pliny writes of a
country in Africa where the people, for every bushel of seed they sow,
receive a hundred and fifty-fold increase. Just so, for every penny
you drop into Christ's treasury—you shall receive above a thousandfold
increase. Your after-crop of glory will be so great that, though you are
still reaping, you will never be able to come to the end the whole harvest.
Let this persuade rich men to honor the Lord with their substance.
Before I conclude, let me briefly lay down some RULES
concerning your charity—that it may be the sacrifice of a sweet-smelling
savor to God.
RULE 1. Your charity must be FREE. Deuteronomy
15:10: "Give freely without begrudging it, and the Lord your God will bless
you in everything you do." That is, you shall not be troubled at parting
with your money. He who gives grievingly gives grudgingly.
Charity must flow like spring water—freely. The heart must be the spring,
the hand the pipe, the poor the cistern. God loves a cheerful giver.
You must not give to the poor as if you were delivering your purse to the
highway robber. Charity without willingness, is rather a fine than an
offering. It is rather doing penance than giving alms. Charity
must be like the myrrh which drops from the tree without cutting or
RULE 2. We must give that which is our own.
Isaiah 58:7: "Share your bread with the hungry, bring the poor and
homeless into your house." The word for "alms" in the Syriac
signifies "justice". To show that alms must be of that which is justly
gotten, the Scripture puts them together. "To do justice, to love
mercy" (Micah 6:8), we must not make a sacrilege of sacrifice.
Isaiah 61:8: "For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and injustice." He
who shall build a hospital with ill-gotten goods, displays the insignia of
his pride and sets up the monument of his shame!
RULE 3. Do all IN Christ and FOR Christ. Labor
that your persons may be in Christ. We are accepted in Him (Ephesians 1:6).
Origen, Chrysostom, and Peter Martyr affirm that the all works, not
springing from a root of faith—are lost.
The Pelagians thought to have posed Augustine with the
question whether it was sin in the heathen to clothe the naked. Augustine
answered rightly, "The doing of good is not in itself simply evil—but,
proceeding of infidelity, it becomes evil." Titus 1:15: "To those who are
unbelieving, nothing is pure." That fruit is most sweet and genuine which is
brought forth in the vine (John 15:4). Outside of Christ—all our alms and
charities are but the fruit of the wild olive. They are not good
works—but dead works.
RULE 4. Do all for Christ, for His sake, that you may
testify to your love for Him. Love mellows and ripens our alms
deeds; it makes them a precious perfume to God. As Mary, out of love,
brought her ointments and sweet spices to anoint Christ's dead body; so, out
of love for Christ, bring your ointments and anoint His living body, His
saints and members.
RULE 5. Works of mercy are to be done in HUMILITY.
Away with ostentation! The worm breeds in the fairest fruit, the
moth in the finest cloth. Pride will be creeping into our most holy
things. Beware of this dead fly in the box of ointment. When Moses'
face shone, he put a veil over it; so while your light shines before men,
and they see your good works—cover yourselves with the veil of humility. As
the silkworm weaves her fancy works, and hides herself within the
silk and is not seen—so we should hide ourselves from pride and vainglory.
It was the sin of the Pharisees that, while they were
distributing alms, they blew the trumpet (Matthew 6:2). They did not give
their alms—but sold them for applause. A proud man casts his
bread upon the waters, as the fisherman casts his rod upon the waters—he
angles for vainglory.
I have read of Cosmos Medices, a rich citizen of
Florence, who confessed to a near friend of his, that he built so many
magnificent structures, and spent so much on libraries, not for any love of
learning—but to raise up for himself the trophies of fame and
renown. A humble soul denies himself, yes, even annihilates
himself. He thinks how little it is he can do for God, and, if he could
do more, it would be but a due debt. Therefore he looks upon all his works
as if he had done nothing.
The saints are brought in at the last day as disowning
their works of charity. "Then the righteous will answer Him—Lord, when
did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to
drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes
and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?"
Matthew 25:37-39. A good Christian not only empties his hand of alms—but
empties his heart of pride. While he raises the poor out of the
dust—he lays himself in the dust. Works of mercy must be like the cassia—which
is a sweet spice, but grows low.
RULE 6. Dispose your alms PRUDENTLY. It is
said of the merciful man, that he orders his affairs with discretion (Psalm
112:5). There is a great deal of wisdom in distinguishing between those who
have sinned themselves into poverty—and those who, by the hand of
God, are brought into poverty. Discretion in the distribution of alms
consists in two things: in finding a fit object and in taking the fit
In finding a fit OBJECT. Give to those who are in
most need. Raise the hedge where it is lowest; feed the lamp which is going
out. Give to those who most in dire need. Though we bestow cost and dressing
upon a weak plant—yet not upon a dead plant. Help such as may
help to build the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11). Those who may be pillars
in church and state, not caterpillars, make your charity to
In taking the fit SEASON. Give to charitable uses
in time of health and prosperity. Distribute your silver and gold to the
poor before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken
(Ecclesiastes 12:6). Make your hands your executors, not as some who
reserve all they give until after they expire. Truly, what is then bestowed
is not given away—but taken away by death. It is not
charity but necessity. Do not marry yourselves to money—so that
you are resolved that nothing shall part you but death. The miser is never
good—until he is rotted in the grave. A covetous man receives money—but
parts with none until death breaks his money-box in pieces, and then the
silver and gold come tumbling out. Give in time of health. These are the
alms which God takes notice of, and, as Calvin said, He puts into His book
RULE 7. Give THANKFULLY. They should be more
thankful who give alms—than they who receive alms. We should,
said Nazianzen, give a thank offering to God that we are in the number of
givers—and not receivers. Bless God for a willing heart. To have
not only a good estate—but a good heart, is a matter for thankfulness. Set
the crown of your thankfulness upon the head of free grace!