Charity, one of the three chief Christian graces. The Greek word ἀγάπη, frequently rendered in the authorized version love, is occasionally translated charity, and is so rendered throughout 1 Corinthians 13. The old English word charity means love — love to God and man, which is the fulfilling of the law. Perhaps it would have been better had the word been rendered "love." The meaning of the term can, however, scarcely be misapprehended after a careful perusal of that important chapter. In popular usage, charity is often restricted to almsgiving, which is only one of its manifestations. See LOVE. Christian ethics teach that charity, in this sense of love, is to be the habitual affection of the heart, in all our relations to our fellow-creatures. Charity considered,
1. As to its source, implies a regenerated state of mind.
2. As to its exclusiveness, shuts out all,
1, anger; 2, implacability; 3, revenge; 4, prejudice; 5, evil speaking; 6, petty aggressions, though legal; 7, artificial distinctions, as its limitations.
3. As to its active expression;
(1) it delights in sympathy, liberality, and, in general, in benevolence; (2) it dictates and regulates works of mercy; (3) it teaches us that we are only stewards of the divine goodness.
"All spiritual gifts are surpassed by charity, which alone puts on them the crown of perfection (1Co 12:31-13:13). By this we are to understand not a mere inclination and emotion, however pure, or natural benevolence and philanthropy, however disinterested; but a disposition wrought by the Holy Ghost, springing from the consciousness of reconciliation; a vital supernatural energy, uniting all the powers of the soul with God, the essence of all love, and consecrating them to the service of his kingdom. Without this, even speaking with the tongues of angels were but 'sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.' Without this, the boldest prophecy, the most comprehensive knowledge, and a power of faith which could call the impossible into being, have no abiding worth or practical importance. Without this, the other gifts would separate, pass into the service of ambition, and thus ruin themselves and the whole church. Without this, the gift of tongues fosters vanity and enthusiasm, knowledge puffs up (1Co 8:1-3), and the gift of government degenerates to despotism. As faith lies at the bottom of all the charisms, and forms their common root, so also love is properly not a gift by itself, but the soul of all gifts, binding them together like the members of a body, making them work in for each other, and directing them to the common good. It maintains the unity of the manifold divine powers, subordinates everything individual and personal to the general, and makes it subservient to the interests of the body of Christ.
"For another reason, love transcends all the other gifts. It never ceases. In the future world the other gifts will disappear, at least in their present nature. The mysterious tongues will cease in the land, where all understand them. Prophecies will be lost in their fulfillment, like the aurora in the moon. Knowledge, which on earth is but partial, will merge in immediate, perfect intuition. Nay, faith itself will be exchanged for sight, and hope for fruition. But love, by which even here we have fellowship of life with God through Christ, remains love. It changes not. It rises not out of its element. It passes not into another sphere. It only deepens and expands. It can never gain higher grounds, never reach another and better form of union with God; but only continues to grow stronger, fuller, more lively, and more blissful (1Co 13:8-13). 'Charity,' says Bishop Warburton somewhere, 'regulates and perfects all the other virtues, and is in itself in no want of a reformer.'
"Hence Paul exhorts the Corinthians, who were inclined to place an undue estimate on the more striking and showy charisms, to strive after charity, above all, as the greatest and most precious gift, the cardinal and universal Christian virtue, of which heathenism had scarce the faintest notion. 'Heathenism,' observes Olshausen (Comment. in, p. 698), 'did not get beyond ἔρως. It knew nothing of the Christian ἀγάπη. In the Old Testament nothing but the stern δίκη reigns. Eros, even in its purest, noblest form, is but the result of want, the longing for love, springing from the consciousness that we have not what is worth loving.
But the Christian ἀγάπη is the streaming forth of positive love, God himself dwelling in the believer, so that streams of living water flow out of him (Joh 4:14).' And he commends it, in the most glowing and attractive description ever uttered by tongue of man or angel, in language which comes to the heart with perpetual freshness, like music from the bowers of eternity, and is of itself enough to put beyond all doubt the divinity of Christianity and its infinite superiority to all other religions. 'And now (in the present earthly life of Christians) abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity' " (Schaff, Apostolical Church, § 120). See also Watson, Theol. Institutes, pt. 3, ch. 4; Fellowes, Body of Theology, 2:64, etc.; Barrow, Works, vol. 1, ser. 27, 28; Fletcher, Works (N.Y. ed.), 3, 156 sq.