The following is excerpted from two homilies by the saint and encompass what he had to say on verses 17-24. .
Whence beginneth charity, brethren? Attend a little: to what it is perfected, ye have heard; the very end of it, and the very measure of it is what the Lord hath put before us in the Gospel: “Greater love hath no man,” saith He, “than that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Its perfection, therefore, He hath put before us in the Gospel, and here also it is its perfection that is put before us: but ye ask yourselves, and say to yourselves, When shall it be possible for us to have “this” charity? Do not too soon despair of thyself. Haply, it is born and is not yet perfect; nourish it, that it be not choked. But thou wilt say to me, And by what am I to know it? For to what it is perfected, we have heard; whence it begins, let us hear. He goes on to say: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have hunger, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how can the love of God dwell in him?” (1 John 3:17). Lo, whence charity begins withal! If thou art not yet equal to the dying for thy brother, be thou even now equal to the giving of thy means to thy brother. Even now let charity smite thy bowels, that not of vainglory thou shouldest do it, but of the innermost marrow of mercy; that thou consider him, now in want. For if thy superfluities thou canst not give to thy brother, canst thou lay down thy life for thy brother? There lies thy money in thy bosom, which thieves may take from thee; and though thieves do not take it, by dying thou wilt leave it, even if it leave not thee while living: what wilt thou do with it? Thy brother hungers, he is in necessity: be-like he is in suspense, is distressed by his creditor: he is thy brother, alike ye are bought, one is the price paid for you, ye are both redeemed by the blood of Christ: see whether thou have mercy, if thou have this world’s means. Perchance thou sayest, “What concerns it me? Am I to give my may not suffer trouble?” If money, that he this be the answer thy heart makes to thee, the love of the Father abideth not in thee. If the love of the Father abide not in thee, thou art not born of God. How boastest thou to be a Christian? Thou hast the name, and hast not the deeds. But if the work shall follow the name, let any call thee pagan, show thou by deeds that thou art a Christian. For if by deeds thou dost not show thyself a Christian, all men may call thee a Christian yet; what doth the name profit thee where the thing is not forthcoming? “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how can the love of God dwell in him?” And then he goes on: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
I suppose the thing is now made manifest to you my brethren: this great and most concerning secret and mystery (sacramentum). What is the force of charity, all Scripture doth set forth; but I know not whether any where it be more largely set forth than in this Epistle. We pray you and beseech you in the Lord, that both what ye have heard ye will keep in memory, and to that which is yet to be said, until the epistle be finished, will come with earnestness, and with earnestness hear the same. But open ye your heart for the good seed: root out the thorns, that that which we are sowing in you be not choked, but rather that the harvest may grow, and that the Husbandman may rejoice and make ready the barn for you as for grain, not the fire as for the chaff.
My brethren, this sentence does behoove to abide in your heart, seeing it was the last ye heard. “My little children, let us not love only in word and in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” Then he goes on: “And herein we know that we are of the truth, and assure our hearts before Him.” “For if our heart think ill of us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” He had said,” Let us not love only in word and in tongue, but in work and in truth:” we are asked, In what work, or in what truth, is he known that loveth God, or loveth his brother? Above he had said up to what point charity is perfected: what the Lord saith in the Gospel, “Greater love than this hath no man, that one lay down his life for his friends,” Jn 15:13 this same had the apostle also said: “As He laid down His life for us, we ought also to lay down our lives for the brethren.” 1 Jn 3:16 This is the perfection of charity, and greater can not at all be found. But because it is not perfect in all, and that man ought not to despair in whom it is not perfect, if that be already born which may be perfected: and of course if born, it must be nourished, and by certain nourishments of its own must be brought unto its proper perfection: therefore, we have asked concerning the commencement of charity, where it begins, and there have straightway found: “But whoso hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of the Father in him?” 1 Jn 3:17 Here then hath this charity, my brethren, its beginning: to give of one’s superfluities to him that hath need to him that is in any distress; of one’s temporal abundance to deliver his brother from temporal tribulation. Here is the first rise of charity. This, being thus begun, if thou shalt nourish with the word of God and hope of the life to come, thou wilt come at last unto that perfection, that thou shalt be ready to lay down thy life for thy brethren.
But, because many such things are done by men who seek other objects, and who love not the brethren; let us come back to the testimony of conscience. How do we prove that many such things are done by men who love not the brethren? How many in heresies and schisms call themselves martyrs! They seem to themselves to lay down their lives for their brethren. If for the brethren they laid down their lives, they would not separate themselves from the whole brotherhood. Again, how many there are who for the sake of vainglory bestow much, give much, and seek therein but the praise of men and popular glory, which is full of windiness, and possesses no stability! Seeing, then, there are such, where shall be the proof of brotherly charity? Seeing he wished it to be proved, and hath said by way of admonition, “My little children, let us not love only in word and in tongue; but in deed and in truth;” we ask, in what work, in what truth? Can there be a more manifest work than to give to the poor? Many do this of vainglory, not of love. Can there be a greater work than to die for the brethren? This also, many would fain be thought to do, who do it of vainglory to get a name, not from bowels of love. It remains, that that man loves his brother, who before God, where God alone seeth, assures his own heart, and questions his. heart whether he does this indeed for love of the brethren; and his witness is that eye which penetrates the heart, where man cannot look. Therefore Paul the Apostle, because he was ready to die for the brethren, and said, “I will myself be spent for your souls” (2 Cor 12:15), yet, because God only saw this in his heart, not the mortal men to whom he spake, he saith to them, “But to me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you or at man’s bar” (1 Cor 4:3). And the same apostle shows also in a certain place, that these things are oft done of empty vainglory, not upon the solid ground of love: for speaking of the praises of charity he saith, “If I distribute all my goods to the poor. and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). Is it possible for a man to do this without charity? It is. For they that have divided unity, are persons that have not charity. Seek there, and ye shall see many giving much to the poor; shallsee others prepared to welcome death, insomuch that where there is no persecutor they cast themselves headlong: these doubtless without charity do this. Let us come back then to conscience, of which the apostle saith: “For our glorying is this, the testimony of our conscience” (2 Cor 1:12). Let us come back to conscience, of which the same saith, “But let each prove his own work, and then he shall have glorying in himself and not in another” (Gal 6:4). Therefore, let each one of us “prove his own work,” whether it flow forth from the vein of charity, whether it be from charity as the root that his good works sprout forth as branches. “But let each prove his own work, and then he shall have glorying in himself and not in another,” not when another’s tongue bears witness to him, but when his own conscience bears it.
This it is then that he enforces here. “In this we know that we are of the truth, when in deed and in truth” we love, “not only in words and in tongue: and assure our heart before Him” (1 John 3:19). What meaneth, “before Him?” Where He seeth. Whence the Lord Himself in the Gospel saith: “Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward with your Father which is in heaven” (Matt 6:1-3). And what meaneth, “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:” except that the right hand means a pure conscience, the left hand the lust of the world? Many through lust of the world do many wonderful things: the left hand worketh, not the right. The right hand ought to work, and without knowledge of the left hand, so that lust of the world may not even mix itself therewith when by love we work aught that is good. And where do we get to know this? Thou art before God: question thine heart, see what thou hast done, and what therein was thine aim; thy salvation, or the windy praise of men. Look within, for man cannot judge whom he cannot see. If “we assure our heart,” let it be “before Him.” Because “if our heart think ill of us,” i.e. accuse us within, that we do not the thing with that mind it ought to be done withal, “greater is God than our heart, and knoweth all things.” Thou hidest thine heart from man: hide it from God if thou canst! How shalt thou hide it from Him, to whom it is said by a sinner, fearing and confessing, “Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? and from Thy face whither shall I flee?” (Ps 139:7-8) He sought a way to flee, to escape the judgment of God, and found none. For where is God not? “If I shall ascend,” saith he, “into heaven, Thou art there: if I shalldescend into hell, Thou art there.” Whither wilt thou go? whither wilt thou flee? Wilt thou hear counsel? If thou wouldest flee from Him, flee to Him. Flee to Him by confessing, not from Him by hiding: hide thou canst not, but confess thou canst. Say unto Him, “Thou art my place to flee unto” (Ps 32:7); and let love be nourished in thee, which alone leadeth unto life. Let thy conscience bear thee witness that thy love is of God. If it be of God, do not wish to display it before men; because neither men’s praises lift thee unto heaven, nor their censures put thee down from thence. Let Him see, who crowneth thee: be He thy witness, by whom as judge thou art crowned. “Greater is God than our heart, and knoweth all things.”
“Beloved, if our heart think not ill of us, we have confidence towards God” (1 Jn 3:21) —What meaneth, “If our heart think not ill”? If it make true answer to us, that we love and that there is genuine love in us: not feigned but sincere; seeking a brother’s salvation, expecting no emolument from a brother, but only his salvation—“we have confidence toward God: and whatsoever we ask, we shall receive of Him, because we keep His commandments” (1 Jn 3:21-22)—Therefore, not in the sight of men, but where God Himself seeth, in the heart—“we have confidence,” then, “towards God: and whatsoever we ask, we shall receive of Him:” howbeit, because we keep His commandments. What are “His commandments”? Must we be always repeating? “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.” Jn 13:34 It is charity itself that he speaks of, it is this that he enforces. Whoso then shall have brotherly charity, and have it before God, where God seeth, and his heart being interrogated under righteous examination make him none other answer than that the genuine root of charity is there for good fruits to come from; that man hath confidence with God, and whatsoever he shall ask, he shall receive of Him, because he keepeth His commandments.
Here a question meets us: for it is not this or that man, or thou or I that come in question,—for if I have asked any thing of God and receive it not, any person may easily say of me, “He hath not charity: “and of any man soever of this present time, this may easily be said; and let any think what he will, a man of man:—not we, but those come more in question, those men of whom it is on all hands known that they were saints when they wrote, and that they are now with God. Where is the man that hath charity, if Paul and it not, who said, “Our mouth is open unto you, O ye Corinthians, our heart is enlarged; ye are not straitened in us:” 2 Cor 6:11-12; 2 Cor 12:15 who said,” I will myself be spent for your souls:” and so great grace was in him, that it was manifested that he had charity. And yet we find that he asked and did not receive. What say we, brethren? It is a question: look attentively to God: it is a great question, this also. Just as, where it was said of sin, “He that is born of God sinneth not:” we found this sin to be the violating of charity, and that this was the thing strictly intended in that place: so too we ask now what it is that he would say. For if thou look but to the words, it seems plain: if thou take the examples into the account, it is obscure. Than the words here nothing can be plainer. “And whatsoever we ask, we shall receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” “Whatsoever we ask,” saith he, “we shall receive of Him.” He hath put us sorely to straits. In the other place also he would put us to straits, if he meant all sin: but then we found room to expound it in this, that he meant it of a certain sin, not of all sin; howbeit o[ a sin which “whosoever is born of God committeth not:” and we found that this same sin is none other than the violation of charity. We have also a manifest example from the Gospel, when the Lord saith, “If I had not come, they had not had sin.” Jn 15:22 How? Were the Jews innocent when He came to them, because He so speaks? Then if He had not come, would they have had no sin? Then did the Physician’s presence make one sick, not take away the fever? What madman even would say this? He came not but to cure and heal the sick. Therefore when He said, “If I had not come, they had not had sin,” what would He have to be understood, but a certain sin in particular? For there was a sin which the Jews would not have had. What sin? That they believed not on Him, that when he had come they despised Him. As then He there said “sin,” and it does not follow that we are to understand all sin, but a certain sin: so here also not all sin, lest it be contrary to that place where he saith, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us:” 1 John 1:8 but a certain sin in particular, that is, the violation of charity. But in this place he hath bound us more tightly: “If we shall ask,” he hath said, “if our heart accuse us not, and tell us in answer, in the sight of God, that true love is in us;” “Whatsoever we ask, we shall receive of Him.”
Well now: I have already told you, my, beloved brethren, let no man turn toward us. For what are we? or what are ye? What, but the Church of God which is known to all? And, if it please Him, in that Church are we; and those of us who by love abide in it, there let us persevere, if we would show the love we have. But then the apostle Paul, what evil are we to think of him? He not love the brethren! He not have within himself the testimony of his conscience in the sight of God! Paul not have within him that root of charity whence all good fruits proceeded What madman would say this? Well then: where find we that the apostle asked and did not receive? He saith himself: “Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to buffet me. For which thing I besought the Lord thrice, that He would take it from me. And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:7-9). Lo, he was not heard in his prayer that the “angel of Satan” should be taken from him. But wherefore? Because it was not good for him. He was heard, then, for salvation, when he was not heard according to his wish. Know, my beloved, a great mystery (sacramentum): which we urge upon your consideration on purpose that it may not slip from you in your temptations. The saints are in all things heard unto salvation: they are always heard in that which respects their eternal salvation; it is this that they desire: because in regard of this, their prayers are always heard.
But let us distinguish God’s different ways of hearing prayer. For we find some not heard for their wish, heard for salvation: and again some we find heard for their wish, not heard for salvation. Mark this difference, hold fast this example of a man not heard for his wish but heard for salvation. Hear the apostle Paul; for what is the hearing of prayer unto salvation, God Himself showed him: “Sufficient for thee,” saith He, “is my grace; for strength is perfected in weakness.” Thou hast besought, hast cried, hast thrice cried: the very cry thou didst raise once for all I heard, I turned not away mine ears from thee; I know what I should do: thou wouldest have it taken away, the healing thing by which thou art burned; I know the infirmity by which thou art burdened. Well then: here is a man who was heard for salvation, while as to his will he was not heard. Where find we persons heard for their will, not heard for salvation? Do we find, think we, some wicked, some impious man, heard of God for his will, not heard for salvation? If I put to you the instance of some man, perchance thou wilt say to me, “It is thou that callest him wicked, for he was righteous; had he not been righteous, his prayer would not have been heard by God.”The instance I am about to allege is of one, of whose iniquity and impiety none can doubt. The devil himself: he asked for Job, and received (Job 1:11-12). Have ye not here also heard concerning the devil, that “he that committeth sin is of the devil”? (1 Jn 3:3; 1 Jn 3:8). Not that the devil created, but that the sinner imitates. Is it not said of him, “He stood not in the truth”? (John 8:44) Is not even he “that old serpent,” who, through the woman pledged the first man in the drink of poison? (Gen 3:1-6). Who even in the case of Job, kept for him his wife, that by her the husband might be, not comforted, but tempted? The devil asked for a holy man, to tempt him; and he received: the apostle asked that the thorn in the flesh might be taken from him, and he received not. But the apostle was more heard than the devil. For the apostle was heard for salvation, though not for his wish: the devil was heard for his wish, but for damnation. For that Jb was yielded up to him to be tempted, was in order that by his standing the proof the devil should be tormented. But this, my brethren, we find not only in the Old Testament books, but also in the Gospel. The demons besought the Lord, when He expelled them from the man, that they might be permitted to go into the swine. Should the Lord not have power to tell them not to approach even those creatures? For, had it not been His will to permit this, they were not about to rebel against the King of heaven and earth. But with a view to a certain mystery, with a certain ulterior meaning, He let the demons go into the swine: to show that the devil hath dominion in them that lead the life of swine (Luke 8:32). Demons then were heard in their request; was the apostle not heard? Or rather (what is truer) shall we say, The apostle was heard, the demons not heard? Their will was effected; his weal was perfected.
Agreeably with this, we ought to understand that God, though He give not to our will, doth give for our salvation. For suppose the thing thou have asked be to thine hurt, and the Physician knows that it is to thine hurt; what then? It is not to be said that the physician does not give ear to thee, when, perhaps, thou askest for cold water, and if it is good for thee, he gives it immediately, if not good, he gives it not. Had he no ears for thy request, or rather, did he give ear for thy weal, even when he gainsaid thy will? Then let there be in you charity, my brethren; let it be in you, and then set, your minds at rest: even when the thing ye ask for is not given you, your prayer is, granted, only, ye know it not. Many have been given into their own hands, to their own hurt: of whom the apostle saith, “God gave them up to their own hearts’ lusts” (Rom 1:24). Some man hath asked for a great sum of money; he hath received, to his hurt. When he had it not, he had little to fear; no sooner did he come to have it, than he became a prey to the more powerful. Was not that man’s request granted to his own hurt, who would needs have that for which he should be sought after by the robber, whereas, being poor, none sought after him? Learn to beseech God that ye may commit it to the Physician to do what He knows best. Do thou confess the disease, let Him apply the means of healing. Do thou only hold fast charity. For He will needs cut, will needs burn; what if thou criest out, and art not spared for thy crying under the cutting, under the burning and the tribulation, yet He knows how far the rottenness reaches. Thou wouldest have Him even now take off His hands, and He considers only the deepness of the sore; He knows how far to go. He does not attend to thee for thy will, but he does attend to thee for thy healing. Be ye sure, then, my brethren, that what the apostle saith is true: “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered: for He maketh intercession for the saints” (Rom 8:26-27). How is it said, “The Spirit itself intercedeth for the saints,” but as meaning the charity which is wrought in thee by the Spirit? For therefore saith the same apostle: “The charity of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us” (Rom 5:5). It is charity that groans, it is charity that prays: against it He who gave it cannot shut His ears. Set your minds at rest: let charity; ask, and the ears of God are there. Not thatwhich thou wishest is done, but that is done which is advantageous. Therefore, “whatever we ask,” saith he, “we shall receive of Him,” I have already said, If thou understand it to mean, “for salvation,” there is no question: if not for salvation, there is a question, and a great one, a question that makes thee an accuser of the apostle Paul. “Whatever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do these things that are pleasing in His sight:” within, where He seeth.
And what are those commandments? “This,” saith he, “is His commandment, That we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another (1 John 3:23). Ye see that this is the commandment: ye see that whoso doeth aught against this commandment, doeth the sin from which “every one that is born of God” is free. “As He gave us commandment:” that we love one another. “And he that keepeth His commandment” (1 John 3:24) —ye see that none other thing is bidden us than that we love one another—“And he that keepeth His commandment shall abide in Him, and He in him. “And in this we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us. Is it not manifest that this is what the Holy Ghost works in man, that there should be in him love and charity? Is it not manifest, as the Apostle Paul saith, that “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given us”? (Rom 5:5). For [our apostle] was speaking of charity, and was saying that we ought in the sight of God to interrogate our own heart. “But if our heart think not ill of us:” i.e. if it confess that from the love of our brother is done in us whatever is done in any good work. And then besides, in speaking of the commandment, he says this: “This is His commandment, That we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” “And he that doeth His commandment abideth41 in Him, and He in him. In this we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us.” If in truth thou find that thou hast charity, thou hast the Spirit of God in order to understand: for a very necessary thing it is.
A full online edition of St Augustine’s homilies on 1 John can be found at New Advent.