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INQUIRIES ABOUT LOVE TO CHRIST
John 21:17. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.
IT requires much wisdom to discharge the office of a reprover aright. We have a duty to the Church, not to countenance sin in any one, and least of all in a person professing godliness: on the other hand, we have a duty to our offending brother, not to wound his feelings by a needless severity. If his fault have been private, a private admonition will suffice; but if his sin have given open offence, we must bear a public testimony against him, and require a public acknowledgment of his fault. Our blessed Lord was full of compassion towards Peter, after his shameful dereliction of duty: he looked upon him with pity; he appeared to him before any other of his Apostles; and restored him publicly to his office, from which he had fallen. But in what manner did he restore him? He drew forth from him, in the presence of all the Apostles, repeated confessions of his faith and love; and re-invested him with his Apostolic commission, precisely as often as Peter had publicly renounced it.
The questions put to Peter on this occasion, and the answers he gave to them, will naturally furnish us with the following remarks:
That repeated violations of duty are a just ground for questioning our love to Christ—
There is no surer test of our love to Christ, than our obedience to his commands—
[This is what our blessed Lord himself requires as the fruit and evidence of our love; “If ye love me, keep my commandments [Note: John 14:15.].” And certainly a more unexceptionable test cannot be conceived. Had he required only some particular feelings, a person of a sanguine disposition might easily have wrought up himself to those frames which he supposed to be indications of love to Christ: and many, on the contrary, might have been discouraged, under the idea that they never had experienced what was necessary to their salvation. But the evidence of an obedient life is such as no man can have who does not love the Lord [Note: John 14:24.], and as every man will have who does love the Lord [Note: John 14:23.]: so that it is less likely to be mistaken than any other, and carries stronger conviction with it: it enables us to determine with certainty, who does love him, and who does not [Note: John 14:21. with 2 Corinthians 8:8.]. St. John, who was, beyond all others, the loving, and beloved Disciple, not only establishes this as the most unequivocal test of our love [Note: 1Jn 5:3 and 2 John, ver. 6.], but without hesitation pronounces him a “liar,” who pretends to have any knowledge of the Saviour, without justifying his pretensions by this mark [Note: 1 John 2:3-4.]. We may therefore assume this as an infallible distinction between those who are sincere followers of Christ, and those who are only hypocrites and dissemblers with God.]
In proportion as this evidence is wanting, doubts must be entertained of our love to Christ—
[We speak not now of a course of open sin, which would at once brand us as enemies of Christ: nor, on the other hand, do we speak of those infirmities which are found in the best of men: we refer rather to those habitual deviations from duty which afford us just reason to doubt of our state. We know that, amongst men, there is always a desire to please those whom we love. The “loving one another in word and in tongue is contrasted with the loving in deed and in truth [Note: 1 John 3:18.].” And supposing the fact to be true, that was an unanswerable question which Delilah put to Sampson; “How canst thou say ‘I love thee,’ when thy heart is not with me [Note: Judges 16:15.]?” If then our heart be not with Christ, if we seek not after him in earnest prayer, if we feel no desire to do his will, if we live in a way which is displeasing to him, if we indulge dispositions and habits which are directly opposite to those which he himself cultivated, how can we imagine that we love him? Such a life is rather characteristic of his enemies than of his friends: and, while we live in such a state, we have far greater reason to suspect our love to him, than to indulge any confidence respecting it.]
We wonder not that “Peter was grieved” at being a third time questioned about the sincerity of his love: for we cannot but feel,
That the very existence of a doubt respecting it ought to fill us with deep concern—
Let it only be considered, what such a doubt implies: it involves a doubt,
Respecting our interest in God’s favour—
[There is no medium between a state of acceptance with God, and of obnoxiousness to his wrath and indignation. We must either be his friends or his enemies: we must either be his children, or “the children of the wicked one.” Now our blessed Lord has said, “If God were your father, ye would love me [Note: John 8:42.]:” and consequently, if there be room for questioning our love to him, there is room also for questioning our relation to God. And is it not an awful thing to doubt, whether we be children of God, or children of the devil? Is it a light matter, to whom we belong? Should any man feel composed or satisfied, till he has ascertained this point on sure and scriptural grounds?]
Respecting our prospects in the eternal world—
[There are two states, in one or other of which all will be placed as soon as they go hence: to some will be assigned a state of happiness in heaven; to others a state of misery in hell: and whichever be our lot, it will be eternal.
Now that heaven cannot be the receptacle of those who love not the Lord Jesus, is evident: for what should they do there: or how could they be happy, if they were there? We are not happy even here amongst those whom we do not love; notwithstanding we may manage to conceal our aversion, and to put on a cheerful countenance before them: but in heaven there can be no concealment: our real dispositions will all be manifest; and if we cannot cordially unite in the exercises of those around us, we shall find nothing to amuse or divert our minds: in other words, if our whole delight be not in singing “praises, to God and to the Lamb,” we shall find no congeniality of sentiment with those around us, nor any occupation suited to our taste: and the very consciousness of our unfitness for the place, will render the place dreary, the company odious, the employment irksome.
And must it not be inexpressibly painful to be left in suspense; to see time running away, and eternity fast approaching, and not to know whether we shall spend that eternity in heaven or in hell? If we were not ourselves melancholy examples of the same obduracy, we should wonder how any one could give sleep to his eyes, or slumber to his eye-lids, till he had attained some solution of this doubt. Were he only in suspense about the issue of a trial for life and death, it would create considerable anxiety: how much more then should it, when it respects everlasting happiness or everlasting misery! Well indeed may that man be grieved, who is in the least doubt what answer he shall give to the question in our text, “Lovest thou me?”]
We cannot however but take occasion from the instance before us to observe,
That notwithstanding we have deviated for a time from the path of duty, we may be so far recovered as to warrant an appeal to Christ, that we do indeed love him—
God forbid that we should encourage any man to think lightly of sin; or that any thing we speak for the comfort of true penitents should have such a construction put upon it. Yet we must not conceal the truth, for fear it should be perverted; nor must we forbear to magnify the grace of God, lest some one should abuse it. Our position, properly understood, will not sanction false confidence in any man. We concede, that a man may have fallen as grossly as ever Peter did, yet may he afterwards recover his confidence towards God, provided, like Peter, he,
Bitterly bewail his sin—
[Peter, after his fall, “went out and wept bitterly:” and as our Lord had particularly “prayed for him, that his faith might not fail,” we can have no doubt but that he sought for mercy in God’s appointed way. Now let this be done in sincerity and truth, and we do not hesitate to declare, that it shall not be done in vain: whether the guilt be contracted by an ignorant opposer of the Gospel, or a backslidden professor of it, and whether it be more or less heinous, it shall certainly be forgiven [Note: Isaiah 1:18. 1 John 1:7; 1 John 1:9.], and peace shall be again restored to his wounded conscience. “God will heal his backslidings, and love him freely,” yea, and seal a sense of his pardoning love upon his soul. Upon his confessing with David, “I have sinned against the Lord,” the Lord will say to him, “I have put away thy sin; thou shall not die.” But besides this he must,]
Take occasion from his fall to search out and mortify his besetting sin—
[Peter’s besetting sins were self-preference, and self-confidence. He had such an over-weening conceit of his own strength, that he engaged, that “though all the other Apostles should forsake their Lord, he never would: no; he would rather die with him than deny him.” To this our Lord alludes in his first question, “Lovest thou me more than these?” To that part of the question Peter made no reply: he would no more boast of his superiority to others; but was contented with affirming what from his inmost soul he knew to be true. Moreover, he seems many years afterwards to have had in view his own fatal miscarriage, when he gave that advice to the Church at large; “Be sober, be vigilant; for your adversary the devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in the faith.” Thus he learned both humility and caution from his past experience.
A similar effect in us will warrant a similar assurance of our love to Christ. It is often a long time before our besetting sin be even known to us: for sin has such a bewitching power, that it makes us not unfrequently admire as a virtue, what others see and know to be a weakness and a crime. Pride, envy, covetousness, and a variety of other evils, often lurk and reign in us, while we are scarcely sensible of their existence in our hearts. Now if we have been led to search out these hidden abominations, to mourn over them, to subdue and mortify them, and maintain a spirit directly opposed to them, we can scarcely wish for a clearer evidence of our sincerity: the very fruit we produce, indisputably proves our union with Christ; and consequently justifies an assured conviction of our love to him. Thus humbling himself for his iniquity, he must yet further,]
Be determined, through grace, to live and die for Christ—
[If sin be unrepented of, or self-confidence be indulged, our resolutions, like Peter’s, may prove fallacious: but if formed with a humble dependence upon Divine grace, and with a penitent sense of our former miscarriages, they afford a strong additional testimony on our behalf. Peter speedily evinced the renovation of his soul, when with undaunted courage he charged home upon all the Jewish Sanhedrim the murder of his Lord, and set at nought all their threatenings against him. And if we also are enabled boldly to confess Christ, and cheerfully to suffer for him, and unreservedly to devote ourselves unto him, the matter is clear; we do indeed love him; and we may appeal to the heart-searching God that we “love him in sincerity” and truth.]
Let us now institute the same all-important inquiry, and address to every one of you the question in the text. Let each one put his own name in the place of Peter’s, and conceive the Lord Jesus Christ saying to him, Lovest thou me? Perhaps all of you, except a few humble and contrite souls, will be ready to answer this question in the affirmative: but if you would enter more dispassionately into it, some of you might possibly apply to yourselves what was spoken to the unbelieving Jews, “I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you [Note: John 5:42.].” Others of you might be in doubt what answer to make; while others might be able to adopt the language of Peter, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”
Taking for granted that there are these three descriptions of persons here present, we shall address ourselves,
To those who manifestly do not love the Lord Jesus Christ—
[How surprising is it that there should be such persons in the world! yet this is the state of the generality even of those who live in this Christian land. And what shall I say to them? Are you not yourselves amazed at your own wickedness? Do you not appear to yourselves to be even monsters in impiety? Not to love Him, who is infinitely lovely! Not to love Him, who is so beloved of God, and of the holy angels, and of all the saints both in heaven and earth! Not to love Him, who has so loved you as to give himself for you, and to lay down his own life a ransom for your souls! How astonishing is it that his wrath has not long since broken forth against you to the uttermost to consume you! Must you not assent to the justice of that denunciation, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema, maran-atha [Note: 1 Corinthians 16:22.]?” And do you not tremble lest the curse of God should come upon you? O rest not in a state of such dreadful guilt and danger: but contemplate Him; and turn unto Him; and make Him “the only beloved of your souls.”]
To those who are in doubt whether they love him or not—
[Do not leave this matter any longer in suspense. Search your own hearts, and beg of God to search and try you. Indulge not a needless scrupulosity on the one hand, neither “speak peace unto your souls lightly” on the other hand. Of the two, it were better to be distressed by raising the standard too high, than to deceive yourselves by putting it too low; because, in the one case, your pain will be only small and transient; whereas, in the other, it will be unspeakable and eternal. Not that it is at all needful to err on either side: the marks and evidences of true love to Christ are laid down with the utmost precision in the Holy Scriptures; and if you read the Scriptures with earnest prayer to God for the illumination of his Spirit, “He will guide you into all truth.” If you are destitute of true love, he will convince you of sin; and if you are possessed of it, he will shine upon his own work, and give you the witness of his Spirit that you are his. Your Lord and Judge “knoweth all things:” him therefore you cannot deceive: O pray that you may not deceive yourselves.]
To those who can truly say, “Lord, I do indeed love thee “—
[How sweet to you must be those words of our Lord, “If any man love me, my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him [Note: John 14:23.].” You may rest assured, that these words shall be fulfilled to you. There is not any mercy which God will not vouchsafe to those who make Christ their all in all. While you have a scriptural evidence that you do this, you have a right to rejoice: and your joy is an earnest of that everlasting blessedness which you shall possess in his immediate presence.
Be careful then to “abide in his love.” Guard against every thing that may impeach the sincerity of your regard. “Keep yourselves diligently in his love;” and be attentive to the duties of your calling, whatever they may be. To Peter, who was a minister of his Gospel, our Lord said, “Feed my sheep; feed my lambs; feed my sheep.” This he required of him as the best testimony of his regard. To you he says, “Finish the work which God hath given thee to do.” Can you instruct others, whether adults or children? embrace every opportunity with joy. Can you do any thing whereby your Lord may be glorified? do it: and “whatever your hand findeth to do, do it with your might.”]
[Another Exordium.—It is universally acknowledged, that men ought to inquire into their actions, so far at least as to ascertain that they are just and honourable: but few are aware of the obligation which they lie under, to examine the dispositions of their minds towards God. Yet this is of prime importance. We should ask ourselves frequently, Do I love God? Do I love the Lord Jesus Christ, my Saviour? This was the question which our Lord himself put to Peter after his fall. The question and the answer given to it, furnish us with a fit occasion to observe—]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on John 21". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany