This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
Whenever preachers get up to speak about the topic of love, they usually go to passages like 1 Corinthians 13. They are apt to do so — for there, under the Spirit’s design and influence, the apostle Paul gives the Christian the most complete view of love we’ve ever been given. The chapter covers all the facets of love, leaving us to forever plumb the deep meanings of this beautiful passage.
The preeminent theme of 1 Corinthians 13 is undoubtedly that love is the prime directive of all true believers. The opening verses of the chapter make this abundantly clear, reiterating that without love we are and have nothing. “And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:3) I’m all for apologetics and the evidences in history and science and elsewhere that give weight to the validity of Scripture. But all our defenses of Christianity pale in comparison to the mercy, compassion, and care that’s shown to those who don’t deserve it. Nothing rivals the sort of love that’s extended by those who have been first loved, freely and infinitely. The greatest witness of the Christian faith is the Christian’s love.
Yes, indeed, love is our greatest testimony. Compassion, care, kindness, tenderness — these are our most compelling demonstrations to the world that the One who is Love, loves them. As Preston Sprinkle writes, “All of our analytical apologetics and robust defenses of the faith will be vindicated by our love.” Christian love is greater than all Christian gifts. (1 Cor 12:31–13:3) In fact, Christ’s summation of the entire Old Testament religious system is one word: “love.” It is the first and second greatest commandment. (Mt 22:37–40; 1 Cor 13:13) There’s no greater way to show our love for God than by loving our neighbor. The truest mark of a Christian is the uncanny neighbor love inspired by the gospel of love. Indeed, love is the seminal trait of those who believe in the good news of Christ crucified for them.
Without love, we are nothing. “What the sun would be without light,” writes William Romaine, “such is a Christian without love.”1 I would even venture to say that believers without love for others and hearts full of grace have forgotten what it means to be “believers” in the first place. They’ve forgotten the picture of love. The truest mark of a Christian is the uncanny neighbor love inspired by the gospel of love.
You see, the truly remarkable fact about 1 Corinthians 13 is that more than just being a description about what love looks like, it’s more of a divine portrait of who Love is. In thirteen verses, the apostle paints in vivid color a fresco of the person of love. Every time you see the word “love” or “charity” in these verses, you ought replace it with “Jesus.” And thus you will find that what appears to be another list of nearly impossible traits to emulate is, instead, a beautiful portrait of the God who is love. “God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.” (1 Jn 4:16)
Rather than seeing this chapter as another Christian to-do list, it should first and foremost spawn reflection on God’s love for us. This type of love is most vividly displayed in his Son on the cross. (Jn 15:12–13) The supreme act of kindness shown by Jesus at Calvary outweighs all the blessings of life combined. (Ps 63:3) And as you reflect on this portrait of love, you will find it to be the best way to worship God himself. Remembrance of God the Father’s kindness and compassion for you will fuel your love for others. God’s love breeds neighbor love. It’s the foundation upon which all our loves rest. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13 ought to drive all our deeds and acts of kindness. Not because it contains the secret formula for love perfected, but because it is the description of him who is Perfect Love.
Paul concludes by declaring, “Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love — but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13) This famous climax to the “love chapter” is full of promises that seem exorbitant but are only hints and shadows of the reality of God’s love, which very often works precisely opposite of how we’d naturally expect. It’s subtle, whispering and wooing the sinner to the Savior’s side. And yet it’s so strong that nothing and no one can ever sever its hold of us. The love of God is infinitely more rich and deep and wide than we make it out to be. (Eph 3:17–19) It goes far beyond our lowest depths of rebellion and spreads father than our wandering takes us. It works in ways we can never understand nor were made to. The love of God takes us in just as we are, and showers us to the core in heart-warming grace.
William Romaine, Twelve Discourses Upon the Law and the Gospel (London: Book Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge, 1835), 207.