‘The greatest of these,’ writes Paul, ‘is love.’ (1 Corinthians 13:13)
John Stott (The Contemporary Christian) poses the question, ‘What is the chief distinguishing mark of a Christian?’ Various answers might be given:-
1. Truth. Certainly, sound doctrine is vital to the health of the church. See 1 Tim 6:12,20; 2 Thess 1:14; 2 Thess 2:15; Jude 1:3. But ‘if I…can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,…but have not love, I am nothing’ (1 Cor 13:2).
2. Faith. Paul wrote in very strong terms about the importance of faith, Rom 3:28. The Reformation watchword, Sola fide, should be our watchword too. Nevertheless, ‘if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have nt love, I am nothing’ (1 Cor 13:2).
3. Religious experience. Again, there is truth in this response. A first-hand relationship with God in Christ is essential. However, even ‘if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels’, and ‘if I have the gift of prophecy, but have not love, I am nothing’ (1 Cor 13:1f).
4. Service. Works of kindness and compassion, especially to the poor, disadvantaged, and suffering, are of huge importance. Faith without works is dead. Our Lord himself led the way in this regard. How can the love of God dwell in us if we disregard the plight of the needy (cf. 1 Jn 3:17)? Still, ‘if I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing’ (1 Cor 13:3).
So then, knowledge, faith, religious experience, and service, are all eminent, but love is pre-eminent.
Briefly, we may say that this is so because love
- provides evidence of salvation, 1 Jn 4:7ff.
- follows the example of Christ, Eph 5:2.
- unites us, Col 3:14.
- covers a multitude of sins, Jas 5:20.
- fulfils the law, Rom 13:8.
- witnesses to the world, Jn 13:35.
J.C. Ryle writes:-
‘This expression is very remarkable. Of all the writers in the New Testament, none, certainly, exalts “faith” as highly as Paul. The Epistles to the Romans and Galatians abound in sentences showing its vast importance. By it the sinner lays hold of Christ and is saved. Through it we are justified, and have peace with God. Yet here the same Paul speaks of something which is even greater than faith. He puts before us the three leading Christian graces, and pronounces the following judgment on them,—”The greatest is love.” Such a sentence from such a writer demands special attention. What are we to understand when we hear of love being greater than faith and hope?
We are not to suppose for a moment, that love can atone for our sins, or make our peace with God. Nothing can do that for us but the blood of Christ, and nothing can give us an interest in Christ’s blood but faith. It is unscriptural ignorance not to know this. The office of justifying and joining the soul to Christ belongs to faith alone. Our love, and all our other graces, are all more or less imperfect, and could not stand the severity of God’s judgment. When we have done all, we are “unworthy servants.” (Lk 17:10)
We are not to suppose that love can exist independently of faith. Paul did not intend to set up one grace in rivalry to the other. He did not mean that one man might have faith, another hope, and another love, and that the best of these was the man who had love. The three graces are inseparably joined together. Where there is faith, there will always be love; and where there is love, there will be faith. Sun and light, fire and heat, ice and cold, are not more intimately united than faith and love.
The reasons why love is called the greatest of the three graces, appear to me plain and simple. Let me show what they are.
(a) Love is called the greatest of graces because it is the one in which there is some likeness between the believer and his God. God has no need of faith. He is dependent on no one. There is none superior to him in whom he must trust.—God has no need of hope. To him all things are certain, whether past, present, or to come.—But “God is love:” and the more love his people have, the more like they are to their Father in heaven.
(b) Love, for another thing, is called the greatest of the graces because it is most useful to others. Faith and hope, beyond doubt, however precious, have special reference to a believer’s own private individual benefit. Faith unites the soul to Christ, brings peace with God, and opens the way to heaven. Hope fills the soul with cheerful expectation of things to come, and, amid the many discouragements of things seen, comforts with visions of the things unseen. But love is preeminently the grace which makes a man useful. It is the spring of good works and kindnesses. It is the root of missions, schools, and hospitals. Love made apostles spend and be spent for souls. Love raises up workers for Christ and keeps them working. Love smooths quarrels, and stops strife, and in this sense “covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet 4:8) Love adorns Christianity and recommends it to the world. A man may have real faith, and feel it, and yet his faith may be invisible to others. But a man’s love cannot be hidden.
(c) Love, in the last place, is the greatest of the graces because it is the one which endures the longest. In fact, it will never die. Faith will one day be swallowed up in sight, and hope in certainty. Their office will be useless in the morning of the resurrection, and like old almanacs, they will be laid aside. But love will live on through the endless ages of eternity. Heaven will be the home of love. The inhabitants of heaven will be full of love. One common feeling will be in all their hearts, and that will be love.’