“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “but the greatest of these is love.”
Really? More than faith and hope?
It’s a strong Bible claim on love’s behalf. But for many today it’s not strong enough! One major Bible scholar, Leon Morris, noted the low status of love among Bible scholars in his Testaments of Love: A Study of Love in the Bible: “I find it astonishing that so many scholars can write so much about the Old Testament with so little formal recognition of the place of love in it” (p.5). He goes on, “they find that they can dispense with love altogether….” The same is true of New Testament studies, Systematic Theology, and Apologetics. Of course, love is never totally dismissed by theologians and pastors, but it often remains a sidebar topic at best. And pastors rarely go where their seminary instructors refuse to lead them.
Let’s return to Paul’s text and ask how 1 Corinthians 13 is received in our own day.
At weddings, of course. It’s a favorite marital nudge, with the newlyweds called to live with selfless love. Then it’s stored away until the next wedding. Yet if we read the chapter in context it deals with love as the crucial motive for living out spiritual gifts. Both adjoining chapters address spiritual maturity in applying gifts, so there’s no such thing as a sound faith without love as the motor!
Jonathan Edwards got this point when he preached a sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13, later published as Charity and its Fruits. “Charity” meant “love.” The work is seen today as the basis for all Edwards’ teaching on ethics. He held that love in 1 Corinthians 13 points us to life in the Spirit who brings God’s transforming love into hearts. This, of course, fit with Christ’s call that, “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love is the ultimate measure of authentic faith.
So, let’s be stronger in affirming love. Elevating it is biblical and should be personal. Both of the Bible testaments look to the “Shema”—the Deuteronomy 6:5 call to love God with all we are and have. Jesus pointed to this verse, with Leviticus 19:18, as the “greatest commandment” in Matthew 22:37-40. “Greatest” is big when Jesus uses it. And, personally, in my first ever reading of the entire Bible—in six weeks—one impression stood out above all others: God loves us, and he calls us to respond to his love! It jumped off the pages and set up my avid promotion of bold Bible reading. We won’t get the primacy of love—sound love as compared with cultural clutter—unless we’re “abiding” in the Scriptures.
We also get to see the importance of love when we see that God’s eternal Triune communion consists in love—so that “God is love” (1 John 4:8&16). This was certainly the point Jesus made to his followers just before his crucifixion as he invited them—and us—to eternal life with the Father: “to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). God is a lover who invites us into his eternal communion of love.
We should ask, then, why love isn’t elevated by Christians? Even among strong academics?
The answer, I’m sure, starts with Adam. His reversal of order in Eden—in making self-love greater than his love for God—is still alive in the world and the church. The DNA of “what’s in this for me?” is still lively. Therapeutic sermons, for instance—as in “how God makes us feel better” or how we can “be better”—always fall short of God’s big question in Psalm 2: “Do you love my Son?”
Leon Morris sounded the alarm. And all of us will do well to listen. Be wary of any theology or training that ultimately features human concerns as primary. And question forms of faith that fall short of treating our response to God’s love in Christ as the integrating focus of life.
Because, “the greatest of these is love.”