One of the best sermons of all time is Jonathan Edwards’s “The Duty of Christian Charity: Explained and Defended.” In it, he argues that helping the poor is one of the highest duties of the Christian. It is not a just a small duty, but a great duty — and even heaven and hell lie in the balance with how we respond to the poor (Matthew 25: 41-46). Further, Christians are not just to help the poor from a little bit of their surplus, but are to be abundant, liberal, and utterly generous in giving to the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Psalm 37:21, 25-26; 112:5; Proverbs 11:24-25; 2 Corinthians 8:1-7; 9:6-11).
Edwards not only goes into all the passages which command helping the poor as “one of the three chief duties of true religion” (Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:23; 1 John 3:17-19), but also all the commands to do this with great generosity. Then, he goes into the vast promises that God makes to those who help the poor. The promises Edwards outlines are amazing and incredible (Deuteronomy 15:10; Psalm 37:25-26; Proverbs 11:24-25; 12:9; 19:17; 28:27; Ecclesiastes 11:1-2, 6; Isaiah 32:8; Luke 6:35-36; 12:32-34; 14:13-26; 2 Corinthians 9:6-11), and show that the ultimate foundation and motive for helping the poor is not only love but also faith – faith in God to fulfill his promises. (Thus, refusal to help the poor reveals not only a lack of love for people, but also lack of faith.)
Edwards argues that “God, in his providence, generally smiles upon and prospers those men who are of a liberal, charitable, bountiful spirit,” whereas “God has threatened to follow with is curse those who are uncharitable to the poor [consider Proverbs 21:3; Ezekiel 16:49].” In calling Christians to take seriously these promises that God makes to generosity, he encourages us to remember:
It is easy with God to make up to men what they give in charity. Many but little consider how their prosperity or ill success in their outward affairs depends upon Providence. There are a thousand turns of providence, to which their affairs are liable, whereby God may either add to their outward substance, or diminish from it, a great deal more than they are ordinarily called to give to their neighbors.
When men give to the needy, they do as it were sow seed for a crop. When men sow their seed, they seem to throw it away; yet they do not look upon it as thrown away; because, though they expect not the same again, yet they expect much more as the fruit of it….
If it be not certain that they shall have a crop, yet they are willing to run the venture of it; for that is the ordinary way wherein men obtain increase. So it is when persons give to the poor; though the promises of gaining thereby, in our outward circumstances, perhaps are not absolute; yet it is as much the ordinary consequence of it, as increase is of sowing seed.
At the end of the sermon, Edward then lists and answers the chief objections people make about helping the poor. Edwards’s answers are penetrating and especially important, because I think most of us see ourselves in many of these objections. He shows that these objections are based on bad theology (best case) or just plain excuses (worst case).
In light of Ann Coulter’s insensitive article on the Ebola doctor (and see my response), I thought it would be helpful to post my notes on this section of Edwards’s sermon. While he obviously isn’t directly addressing Ann Coulter, Coulter’s assertion that Christians should focus on helping America rather than going overseas is simply a species of some of these objections.
More than that, though, is that this discussion in general simply points out the importance of making sure we all have a good theology of helping the poor. Time and again I have seen people (and churches!) refuse to help those in great need on the basis of some of these objections. That is a true disgrace to the name of Christ — not to mention inhumane. Such a thing is worst of all when done “in the name of reason and sensibility.”
Yet, many of these objections do sound reasonable at first. The biblical call to the poor is in some sense very counter intuitive. That’s why it’s so important that we not settle for stage one thinking, but probe deeply into what the Bible actually teaches. If we don’t do that, we easily end up refusing to help those in legitimate need on the basis of what Edwards shows to be superficial and unbiblical objections such as “they aren’t in extreme need yet” or “they brought this on themselves through their own fault” or “they haven’t asked for help; I only help people who ask.”
For that reason, as Christians we need to make sure we have a better theology of helping the poor. Edwards’s sermon is a great start, especially his answers to these 11 objections.
There is a whole theology of helping the poor in these notes. Edwards’s answers reflect an incredible grasp on the biblical teaching on why we should help those in need, and why it is actually hypocritical to refuse to help the poor even on grounds such as “they don’t deserve it” or “they are not in extreme need.”
And for those who love theology, considering Edwards’s answers to these objections is an incredibly sharpening and even enjoyable theological discovery in its own right. His answers (and the whole sermon) are an incredible manifestation of the truth that the best theology is ultimately very practical, and right practice is ultimately highly theological.
Here are my notes:
1. If I give to the poor, it will not be with a right spirit, and so I would get nothing by it.
You could say this about any other duty of religion as well. You are to obey and seek the heart from God.
2. If I am liberal and generous, I will make a righteousness of it, and it shall do more hurt than good.
But you could also say this about any other moral duty.
God has counseled you to do this, and doesn’t he know what’s best?
3. I have given to the poor in the past, but never found myself the better for it.
Perhaps you looked for the fulfillment of the promise too soon. And perhaps you have actually been sparing and grudging.
The promises are not made to every man who gives any thing at all to the poor. The promises are made to mercy and liberality.
If you give by compulsion and little, that may be more an expression of covetousness than generosity.
How can you tell how much greater calamities and losses you might have had, if you had not been generous?
“If you expected to meet with no trouble in the world, because you gave to the poor, you mistook the matter.”
And how can you tell what blessings God has yet in reserve for you, if you continue in well doing? The time may come when you see it remarkably.
We should not say “I cannot afford to give,” for he who observes the winds shall not ever sow. Ecc 11:4. And the context there is giving.
Do not grow weary in doing good, for in due season you will reap: Gal 6:9
4. We may object to charity against particular persons, that we are not obliged to give them anything, for though they are needy, they are not yet in extreme need. They do meet with difficulty, but not so as they cannot live.
“It does not answer the rules of Christian charity, to relieve those only who are reduced to extremity.”
a. We are commanded to love one another as brothers and show pity: 1 Pt 3:8
Is it like brothers to refuse to help one another, except when extreme need?
“The rule of the gospel is, that when we see our brother under any difficulty or burden, we should be ready to bear the burden with him”: Gal 6:2
“The Christian spirit will make us apt to sympathize with our neighbor, when we see him under any difficulty.” Ro 12:15
“When our neighbor is in difficulty, he is afflicted; and we ought to have such a spirit of love to him, as to be afflicted with him in his affliction. And if we are afflicted with him, then it will follow, that we ought to be ready to relieve him; because, if we are afflicted with him, in relieving him we relieve ourselves.”
“Christianity teaches us to be afflicted in our neighbor’s affliction; and nature teaches us to relieve ourselves when afflicted.”
We are fellow travelers together. If brothers are on a journey together, and one meets with need, don’t they all help?
We should not be overly exact and fearful lest we give others too much.
b. Loving our neighbor only when he is in extreme need does not fit with the fact that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
We do not wait until we ourselves are in extreme need to meet our own needs; so neither should we wait until our neighbor is in extreme need.
5. We may object against charity to someone because he “deserves not that people should be kind to him.” He has a temper, an ungrateful spirit, and treated people poorly.
a. But Christ teaches us to love even our enemies.
And the parable of the Good Samaritan shows that our enemies are included in the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
b. We are commanded to love one another as Christ has loved us John 13:34
This opens up our duty to love in a new manner, and goes to a further degree than loving our neighbor as yourself.
Christ loved us so as to be willing to deny himself, and suffer greatly, in order to help us. So also we should be willing to deny ourselves, in order to help one another.
Christ loved us though we were far below him.
Christ loved us though we were unable to repay him.
Christ loved us, though we were evil and hateful and not deserving any good.
Christ loved us though we were his enemies and had treated him ill.
c. Many particular rules also oblige us in this way.
We are to be kind to the unthankful and evil, thus following the example of God Mt 5:45
6. I have nothing to spare
a. Some are not obliged to give by reason of their own circumstances
“For instance, if there be a contribution for the poor, they are not obliged to join in the contribution, who are in as much need as those are for whom the contribution is made.” “It savors of ridiculous vanity in them to contribute with oth3ers for such as are not more needy than they. It savors of a proud desire to conceal their own circumstances, and an affectation of having them accounted above what they in truth are.”
b. There are scarcely any who may make this objection, as they interpret it
“There is no person who may not say, he has not more than enough for himself, as he may mean by enough.” He may mean he has not more than he desires, or more than he can dispose of to his own advantage, or not so much but that, if he had anything less, he would be in worse circumstances than he is now. He could live if he had less, but not well.
All can say they have not enough for themselves—rich, middle class, and poor. “Thus there will be found none to give to the poor.”
c. “In many cases we may, by the rules of the gospel, be obliged to give to others, when we cannot do it without suffering ourselves.”
For we should be willing to suffer with our neighbor, and take part of his burden on ourselves; otherwise “how is that rule of bearing one another’s burdens fulfilled?”
Though we may not have much excess, we may be obliged to afford relief to others who are in much greater necessity: Lk 3:11
They who are very poor may be obliged to give for the relief of those who are in even greater distress than they.
The Macedonians were generous in their giving even though they had almost nothing: 2 Cor 8:1,2
d. A farmer who is having a hard time having enough to eat will still sow seed that he may be able to eat in the future.
Giving “doth not tend to poverty, but the contrary; it is not the way to diminish our substance, but to increase it.”
“All the difficulty in this matter is in trusting God with what we give, in trusting his promises. If men could but trust the faithfulness of God to his own promises, they would give freely.”
7. We may object that we do not know whether a particular person is an object of charity or not. We do not fully know their circumstances or what sort of person they are. Or how he came to be in want, and whether it was by his own idleness and wastefulness. Thus they argue that they cannot be obliged, until they know these things.
a. This was Nabal’s objection, for which he is condemned in Scripture: 1 Sam 25
“This story is doubtless told us partly for this end, to discountenance too great a scrupulosity as to the object on whom we bestow our charity, and the making of this merely an objection against charity to others, that we do not certainly know their circumstances.”
“It is better to give to several that are not objects of charity, than to send away empty one that is.”
b. We are commanded to be kind to strangers whom we know not, nor their circumstances.
We are not to neglect to entertain strangers, for by such some have entertained angels: Heb 13:2
8. But we are not obliged to give to the poor, till they ask. If any one has need, let him come and make it known to me.
a. “It is surely the most charitable, to relieve the needy in that way wherein we shall do them the greatest kindness. Now it is certain that we shall do them a greater kindness by inquiring into their circumstances, and relieving them, without pitting them upon begging.”
There is none of us but who, if we were in the situation, would look upon it more kind in our neighbors to inquire into our circumstances and help us of their own accord.
“To put our neighbors upon begging in order to relief, is painful.” “It is more charitable, more brotherly, more becoming Christians and the disciples of Jesus, to do without. I think this is self-evident, and needs no proof.”
b. This is not agreeable to the character of the liberal man in Scripture, for it is said that he devises liberal things. Is 32:8
“It is not to devise liberal things, if we neglect all liberality until the poor come a begging to us.” “But to inquire who stand in need of our charity, and to contrive to relieve them in the way that shall do them the greatest kindness, that is to devise liberal things.”
c. This is not how we would treat our own brother or sister. And Christians are commanded to love as brothers.
d. If we heard of a people where they took diligence to identify needs proactively and meet them, wouldn’t it appear well to us? Wouldn’t we all commend that?
9. “He has brought himself to this by his own fault.”
But what do you mean by fault?
a. Do you mean lack of a natural faculty to manage affairs to his advantage?
If so, that is to be considered as his calamity. Such a faculty is a gift that God gives to some, and not others. It is not owing to themselves. And it will be a very suitable way for you to show your thankfulness, to help those to whom that gift is denied, and let them share the benefit of it with you.
b. Even if it is by some oversight on their part, this does not free us
If we should refuse to help them because of that, it would be for us to make their inconsiderateness an unpardonable crime, which is quite contrary to the rules of the gospel, which insist so much upon forgiveness.
And we would not resent such an oversight in any for whom we have a dear affection, such as our children. We would not refuse to help them.
c. If they came to want by a vicious idleness and prodigality, we still are not excused from all obligation to relieve them, unless they continue in those vices.
If they continue not, the gospel directs us to forgive them, and if their fault be forgiven, then it will not remain to be a bar in the way of our charitably relieving them.
If we do otherwise, we shall act in a manner very contrary to the rule of loving one another as Christ has loved us. Christ loved us by laying himself out to relieve us from the misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness.
d. If they continue in the same course still, that still does not excuse us from charity to their families that are innocent.
And if we cannot relieve those of their family without their having some of it, that not be a bar in the way of our charity.
If we look upon that which the heads of the families have of what we give to be entirely lost, yet it is better that we lose something of our estate than suffer those who are really proper objects of charity to remain without relief.
10. “But others do not do their duty; if they did, the poor would be sufficiently supplied.”
But we are to relieve those who are in need even though it be another’s fault.
“If our neighbor be poor, though others be to blame that it is so, yet that excuses us not from helping him.”
And notice also the parable of the good Samaritan.
11. The law makes provision for the poor, and the government
This is built on two false suppositions.
a. It is a false assumption that the towns are obliged by law to relieve every one who otherwise would be an object of charity
It was never the design of the law to cut off all occasion for Christian charity.
It is fit that the law should make provision for those that have no estates of their own. “They are in extreme necessity of relief, and therefore it is fit that there should be something sure for them to depend on,” and by this he means the government and law. For “voluntary charity in this corrupt world is an uncertain thing.”
But it was not the design of the law to make such provision for all who are in need, as to leave no room for Christian charity.
b. The town does not always in fact do this.