Faith is tied to righteousness. Or, by another name, to justification. As in, “The righteous shall live by faith,” and, “without faith it is impossible to please him [God] …” Faith establishes a believer’s righteousness. And not, by the way, as a choice of the will but as a heartfelt response to God’s love. For “with the heart one believes and is justified” (Romans 10:10; following 5:5 and 8:37-39).
It can be helpful to think of how love, with faith, defines a spiritual life. Paul did this in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “So, now faith, hope, and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
Why is love greatest here? Is it by the innate quality of this virtue over the others? More likely it comes in the priority of love as the motive force behind faith and hope. So, if God’s love is a soul’s defining motivation, love then establishes our assurance based on God’s character as the one who “is love.” Faith relies on his promises as he loves us. And our assurance of promises for the future—our hope—is the same. Our caring, reliable “promiser” shapes our responses.
In God’s ways his love is always a present reality, anchoring both the past and the future. With God it would be nonsense to say, as humans might, “I loved you once, but I don’t love you now.” Or, “I may love you in the future.” God’s everlasting love is secure.
As we puzzle over these terms, we also realize that talk about “spiritual” matters—as in loving an unseen, intangible, non-talking God—can seem foggy. Faith, hope, and love may be true but still remain intangible. Like an equation from high school algebra. The teacher explains the logic and we endorse it for our exam, but it’s not a heartfelt part of life—only so much information. While a spouse’s embrace or a child’s happy response to a mother’s smile is real.
And it’s here, in the human relations of the Bible, that God locates faith, hope, love, grace, truth, and more. Jesus lived among us in the first century as a resource for these qualities. And in the varied New Testament Gospels we read of Jesus sharing his love in lively narratives—with various signs and wonders—that captured the disciples who followed him. Yet only some people responded to him—not all—despite the evidence of his tangible love offered to all.
These contrasting responses ultimately represent the separate directions of faith and unfaith. And two underlying elements help explain the difference between the two.
The first is the active, caring presence of the Spirit. Jesus called him “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father” and who “will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). His work is to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8). In this cryptic promise Jesus explains why some trust him and many don’t.
In John’s gospel “world” is used for the collective whole of humanity who reject Jesus. As we read in John 3, God “loved the world,” but the world “loved darkness rather than light.” Yet some still turned to the light—to Jesus—by a work “carried out in God” (3:21). And in this chapter’s context we find the Spirit bringing about new life: at first a foggy idea for Nicodemus but later a life-changing reality.
If we link the “Spirit of truth” who convicts people of sin, and who also affirms Jesus, people are assured that love is birthed by the Spirit drawing hearts to Jesus. Paul spoke of this as “Having begun by the Spirit…” in Galatians 3:3 and of “faith working through love” in 5:6.
The second element is the link between love and trust. An axiom of life is that love and trust go together. In common experience we find the world divided between those who love us and those who don’t. And with that divide comes a crucial corollary: we’re ready to trust those who love us; while distrusting those who could care less. Faith and trust are synonyms here.
A salvation awakening in Jesus, then, links truth and trust. Both emerge through love as the Spirit moves love from the realm of foggy truth into heartfelt assurance. This is his miracle of sharing God’s love in hearts that can change a “lover of self” into a “lover of God.”
All that to say, a living faith will come by hearing the biblical words about Jesus—as in John’s gospel for one—even when the words may at first seem like a distant story. And ask God, “Is this for me? Do you really love me?” Then bow your heart and wait for the Spirit to do his work of bringing the narrative to life. Eternal life.