“Take good heed therefore unto yourselves, that ye love the Lord your God.”—Josh. 23:11.
It is an interesting account that we have of the last days of Joshua. He is very anxious that, when he should cease to be their leader, Israel should cleave unto the Lord. To make as deep an impression upon their minds as possible, he first called for the elders and leading men among them, and delivered a serious charge to them; after this, he gathered all the tribes together before the Lord in Shechem, where he solemnly rehearsed the dealings of the Lord with them, and bound them, by every consideration that he could suggest, not to forsake him, and go after the idols of the heathen. It is in this connexion that he introduces the words of the text, “Take good heed therefore unto yourselves, that ye love the Lord your God;” intimating that in order to be obedient to the Lord, and secure against idolatrous departures from him, it was necessary, not merely to own him as their God, but to be cordially attached to his name and government. The word rendered “yourselves” in the text, is, in the margin, rendered your souls; denoting that it is not a superficial inspection of the conduct that is meant, but a looking to our inmost motives, seeing to it that we love the Lord from our very hearts.
This is a charge that would well befit the lips of any servant of God before he leaves the world, and be well suited to the conduct of any people. If our hearts be right with God, all is right; if not, all is wrong.
In discoursing upon the subject, we shall offer a few remarks on the nature of love, and of love to God in particular—consider the importance of it in characterizing the whole of our religion—the danger of declining from it—and the means to be used in promoting it.
I. Let us offer a few remarks on the nature of love, and of love to God in particular. That we may perceive the extent of the precept, it is necessary that we understand a few of the different ways in which love operates.
1. Observe, then, in the first place, that love operates differently according to the condition of its object. If directed to one that is miserable, it works in a way of pity and sympathy; if to one that is in necessity, it will impart to his relief; but if to one greatly our superior, as to a kind and benevolent sovereign, for instance, then it will operate in the way of honour, complacency, gratitude, and obedience. I need not say that God is not subject to either misery or want, and, therefore, that our love to him cannot operate in the way of pity towards him, or by communicating to his necessities. The ways in which love to God operates are those of honour, complacency, gratitude, and obedience.
2. Love operates differently according to the condition of the subject of it. If no offence has existed between the parties, it is peace and amity; but if otherwise, it will operate in the way of regret, repentance, and a desire of reconciliation. Man, in his original state, was admitted to commune with his Creator; and love, during his continuance in that state, operated in a way of grateful adoration. But if a spark of love be kindled in the breast of a fallen creature, it will work in a way of sorrow for sin, and a desire to return to God, as the prodigal did to his father. Moreover, in an innocent creature, love to God would operate in a way of delight and praise; but in a fallen creature, under the preaching of the gospel, it will induce him to embrace the way of salvation by Jesus Christ. Hence the want of faith in Christ is alleged in proof of the want of love to God: “I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you; I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not.”
3. A complacency in the Divine character still enters into the essence of love. There may be affections where this is not; but there can be no true love to God. We may be greatly affected by an apprehension that our sins are forgiven us; and this merely from self-love; but such affections will not abide. Many who joined in singing praise to the Lord, on their deliverance at the Red Sea, soon forgot his works; for their hearts were not right with God. Genuine love to God has respect not merely to his benefits, but to his name, nature, or character, as revealed in the Scriptures. As he that hateth not sin as sin has no real hatred to it; so he that loveth not God as God has no real love to him. True love to God; for the gift of his Son and salvation through his death, does not merely respect the benefits we receive, but the holy, just, and honourable way in which those benefits are conferred. He that is affected only by the consideration of his own safety, regardless of the way in which it is obtained, cannot be said to love God. Whether God be just or unjust is, to such a person, a matter of indifference, so that he justifies him. The love of God will lead us to prize that way of salvation which, in making provision for our necessities, secures the Divine glory.
II. Let us observe the importance of this principle as characterizing the whole of our religion. Love is not so much a particular grace as a property pertaining to all the graces. It is to our graces that which the holiness of God is to his moral attributes, pervading and characterizing the whole. Indeed, it is holiness itself; if the law be the standard of holiness, that which is the fulfilling of the law, which love is said to be, must comprehend the whole of it. Observe particularly—
1. It is the love of God which distinguishes true religion from all counterfeits, and from the effects of merely natural principles. It is this that distinguishes repentance from repentance, faith from faith, and fear from fear. Each of these graces has its counterfeit. Wherein consisted the difference between the repentance of Judas and that of Peter? The one was mere remorse of conscience; the other proceeded from love to him whom he had denied. Wherein consisted the difference between the belief of those rulers who, because of the Pharisees, did not confess the Saviour, lest they should be put out of the synagogue, and that which was to the saving of the soul? The one was a conviction which forced itself upon them, while their hearts were averse from it; the other was “receiving the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” And wherein consists the difference between the fear that has torment, and godly fear? Is it not that the one is void of love, and the other is not so? Perfect love casteth out the former, but promoteth the latter.
So much as we have of the love of God, so much we have of true religion, and no more. The love that we bear to our fellow Christians, to the law, to the gospel, and even to Christ himself, is the love of God. We see in our brethren the image of God, and love it; in the law of God, a glorious transcript of his mind, and love it; in the gospel, a more glorious transcript of his mind, and love it more; and in the person and work of Christ, the very image of the invisible God, and our hearts are united to him. In loving each of these objects, we love God.
2. It is the love of God that keeps every thing in a state of moral order. Under its influence, every thing will be done in subserviency to his glory, and every thing taken well at his hand. If God be loved first, he will be sought first. We shall not think of excusing ourselves in the neglect of our duty, by alleging that we could not find time for it: we commonly find time for things on which our hearts are fixed. It is by the love of God that all our actions are directed to his glory. Unbelievers cannot understand how this is. Whether they eat or drink, or whatsoever they do, it is merely for their own gratification, and they cannot conceive of any other end to be answered. Yet it is easy to perceive how men can make every thing subservient to that which their hearts are set upon, whether it be their interest, or the gratification of their desires. Love to a fellow creature will render every thing we do subservient to the object. All the labours and journeys of a loving head of a family are directed to their comfort; and all the busy cares of an affectionate wife to the honour and happiness of her husband. If then God be the supreme object of our love, whether we eat or drink, or whatsoever we do, we shall do all to his glory.
It is thus that the common concerns of life are converted into religion, and that we shall serve the Lord even in our worldly avocations: “Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” It is in abusing the world, by giving it that place in our hearts which belongs to God, that it retards us in our progress to heaven. If, instead of this, we could use it, it would be useful to us even for another life, furnishing us with matter for daily prayer and praise, and thus assisting us in our progress.
If we love God, we shall take every thing well at his hands, and so be reconciled to all his dispensations towards us, whether they be good or evil. We can bear almost any thing from one whom we love; especially when we know that it is accompanied with wisdom, and directed by goodness. When, in the day of Israel’s calamity, their enemies asked, “Where is now their God?” it was sufficient to answer, “Our God is in the heavens; he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.” It was love that dictated those memorable sayings of Job, during the early part of his trials: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!—Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil?” It was this that reconciled David, when driven from his throne by the rebellion of his own son: “Here am I, let him do to me as seemeth good unto him.” And, when cursed by an enemy, viewing it as the Lord’s hand stretched out against him, he submitted: “The Lord hath said unto him, Curse David!”
3. It is the love of God that is the great preservative from error. If, indeed, the truth of God were a matter of mere speculation, and we might take for granted the sincerity and impartiality of our inquiries, error would then be innocent, and the love of God would be no more of a preservative from it than it is from a mistake in reckoning a sum in arithmetic. But if Divine truth be of a practical nature, and be so clearly revealed that no unprejudiced mind can materially misunderstand, and still less disbelieve it, error is not innocent, and the great preservative from falling into it is the love of God. Such is manifestly the import of the following passages: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.—Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.—If I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.—We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” If it be objected that good men err; that to ascribe their errors to prejudice, and the want of love to God, is uncandid; we answer, No good man is free from prejudice, nor does he love God as he ought. To ascribe the errors of others to the same causes to which we ascribe our own, supposing us to be in error, cannot be uncandid. If we loved God as we ought, there would be no prejudice hanging about our minds, and we should imbibe the truth, as angels imbibe it, desiring above all things to look into it. And if we loved him more than we do, we should be more secure than we are from the seducing influence of error. Hence it is that the anointing of the Holy Spirit is represented as teaching us all things, and causing us to abide in the truth. Hence, also, those who have apostatized from the truth are described as not having cordially believed it, but as taking pleasure in unrighteousness.
4. It is the love of God which is the grand spring of evangelical obedience. Respect to ourselves, and regard to our present interests, will produce a correctness of conduct sufficient to excite the respect of those around us; but this’ is not religion. There is no true religion without the love of God; and if, as has been already stated, the love of the law, of the gospel, of our fellow creatures and fellow Christians, and even of Christ himself, be only the love of God ramified, it must follow that without this we shall not be able to exercise the others, but be merely lovers of our own selves. If we take heed to this, we shall have but little else to take heed to, as every duty will become our delight, and be cheerfully discharged as a matter of course. Hence we see the force of the wise man’s precept, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” Look well to the fountain, or the streams will in vain be expected to be pure. To watch our words and actions to the neglect of our hearts will be unavailing.
III. Let us consider the danger we are in of declining from the love of God. The serious tone of caution with which the precept is delivered is expressive of this sentiment: it is only in cases of great danger that we are charged to take good heed.
The love of God is a plant of heavenly extraction; but, being planted in an unfriendly soil, it requires to be well guarded and watered. We are not only surrounded with objects which attract our affections, and operate as rivals to the blessed God, but have a propensity to depart from him. Whether we consider ourselves as individuals or as societies, this will be found to be the case.
In the early stages of the Christian life, love is frequently ardent. The first believing views of the grace of the gospel furnish matter of joyful surprise; and a flow of grateful affection is the natural consequence: “I love the Lord because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.” At this season we can scarcely conceive it possible to forget him who hath done such great things for us; but if twenty years of cares and temptations pass over us without producing this effect, it will be happy for us.
In declining from our first love we are seldom sensible of it till some of its effects appear, as neglecting the more spiritual exercise of religion, or contenting ourselves with attending to them as a matter of form without enjoying God in them, or trifling with those sins from which we should here tofore have started back with horror. Our friends often perceive it, and feel concerned on account of it, before we are aware of it ourselves; and happy is it for us if by their timely admonitions, or by any other means, we are awakened from our lethargy and saved from some greater fall, to the dishonour of God and the wounding of our future peace.
I have heard this departure from our first love spoken of as a matter of course, or as that which must be expected. Nay, I have heard it compared to the time when Isaac was weaned, at which Abraham made a feast! Some old religious professors, who have become sufficiently cold and carnal themselves, will thus endeavour to reconcile young Christians to the same state of mind; telling them, with a cunning sort of smile, that they are at present on the mount of enjoyment, but must expect to come down. And true it is that love, though it may become deeper and better grounded, may not always operate with such tenderness of feeling as it did at first. A change in the constitution from an advance in years will account for this. Many things relating to the present world which in our youth will produce tears will not have this effect as we advance in life, though they may still lie with weight upon our minds. But to confound this with religious declension, coldness, and carnality, and to endeavour to reconcile young Christians to it, is erroneous and mischievous. So did not the apostles in their intercourse with young Christians. When Barnabas visited the young Christians at Antioch, he “saw the grace of God, and was glad;” and instead of leading them to expect a state of declension to follow this their first love, he “exhorted them all that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” The great Head of the church had somewhat against the Ephesians, because they had left their first love.
There is no necessity in the nature of things for the abatement of our love, or zeal, or joy. The considerations which formerly excited these feelings have not lost their force. It is as true and as important as ever that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,” and that he is “able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him;” and, excepting what the first impression derived from its novelty, would, if we had not declined in love, be as interesting to us. So far from our regard for these and other truths being diminished, there is ground for its being increased. Our first views of Christ and his gospel were very defective; if we follow on to know the Lord, we shall know him in a much greater degree. “The path of the just,” if Scripturally pursued, will be “as the shining light, shining more and more unto the perfect day.” This was the course which the apostles pursued toward the Christians of their times: “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge, and in all judgment.—We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth.—Beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” The apostle himself did not relax as he drew toward the end of his course, but forgetting the things that were behind, and reaching forth unto those that were before, he pressed toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
To decline in our love is practically saying that we were once more spiritually-minded, more tender in conscience, and more devoted to God, than was necessary; that we have not found the religion of Jesus so interesting as we expected, and, therefore, have been obliged to have recourse for happiness to our former pursuits; and that what our old companions told us at the outset, that our zeal would soon abate, and that we should return again to them, was true. “O my people, what have I done unto thee, and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me!”
If we be in danger of declining as individuals, we are not less so as societies. Societies being composed of individuals, a number of backsliding individuals will soon diffuse their spirit and produce a backsliding people. It was to a people that the words of Joshua were addressed. That generation of Israelites who went up with him into Canaan were distinguished by their love to God. They had seen his judgments upon their unbelieving fathers, whose carcasses fell in the wilderness, and had learned wisdom. It was of them that the Lord spoke by Jeremiah, saying, “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel was holiness unto the Lord, and the first-fruits of his increase.” But the very next generation relapsed into idolatry: “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the Lord that he had done for Israel.” But when they were gathered to their fathers, “there arose another generation after them which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.” Even before the death of their venerable leader, the young people had begun to tamper with idolatry. It was on this account that he assembled the tribes in Shechem, and so solemnly put it to them to choose on that day whom they would serve; and that when they answered, “God forbid that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods,” he added, “Ye cannot serve the Lord; for he is a holy God: he is a jealous God, he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.” This was telling them that they could not serve the Lord and Baalim. Stung with this suggestion, they answered, “Nay, but we will serve the Lord.” Then said Joshua, “Put away the strange gods which are among you, and incline your heart unto the Lord God of Israel!”
This interesting account furnishes a picture of human nature. The same things have been acted over again in the world. Religion has rarely been preserved in its purity for many generations. Such is the tendency to degenerate, that the greatest and most important reformations have commonly begun to decline, when they who have been principally engaged in them have been gathered to their fathers
Even the apostles themselves, inspired as they were, could not preserve the churches which they had raised from degeneracy. The Lord had many things against those seven in Asia to which the Apocalypse was addressed. We know also that the great body of professing Christians in a few centuries were carried away by the antichristian apostacy; that the descendants of the reformers have mostly renounced their principles; and that the same is true of the descendants of the puritans and non-conformists. Each of these cases furnishes a loud call to us to take good heed unto ourselves that we love the Lord our God.
IV. Let us conclude with a few directions as to the means of promoting the love of God. It has been observed already that love is a tender plant, requiring to be both guarded and watered. It will not thrive among the weeds of worldly lusts. We cannot serve the Lord in this way; if we would serve him, we must put away our idols and incline our hearts unto the Lord God of Israel. Beware of the love of the world. He that loveth the world, the love of God is not in him. Beware of living in the indulgence of any sin: any habitual sin is inconsistent with the love of God. It was on this principle that holy David, after declaring the omniscience and omnipresence of God, invoked his scrutiny: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Wicked actions have been found in good men, who have lamented them, and been forgiven; but a wicked way is inconsistent with a state of grace, vitiating the very principle of religion, and turning the whole into hypocrisy. Transgression of this nature must lead to perdition. It is an affecting consideration, how many professors of religion have been found, either before or soon after they have left the world, to have lived in private drunkenness, concealed lewdness, or undetected fraud!
But it is not merely by avoiding those things which are inconsistent with the love of God that we shall promote it; we must also attend to those that cherish it. It is by being conversant with the mind of God, as revealed in his word; by drawing near to him in private prayer; by associating with the most spiritual of his people; by thinking upon his name, especially as displayed in the person and work of Christ; that the love of God will be cherished. As our minds are insensibly assimilated by the books we read and the company we keep, so will it be in reading the book of God and associating with his people; and as the glory of God is manifested in the highest degree in the face of Jesus Christ, this is the principal theme for our meditation. It is by our repairing to the cross that the love of God will be kept alive, and renewed when ready to expire.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 304–310). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.