The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has rightly been called the Love chapter. But it also highlights what may be described as the paradigm of the Christian life. In verse 13 , Paul identifies what has come to be known as the theological virtues.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.1 Corinthians 13:13
But what are the virtues and why do they matter?
According to Scott Swain, they are “subjective dispositions or qualities of character that rightly orient us toward objective realities, namely, God and all things in God.” They are a profound and biblical summary of the moral direction of the Christian life.
Swain further describes them as:
dispositional requisites of moral excellence that flow from the gospel, by which we are reformed and renewed in the image of God, for lives that glorify God and benefit our neighbors.Paul, the Virtues, and Theological conflict
These three (or in groups of two) come up again and again in Paul’s writings (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8; Ephesians 3:17; Colossians 1:4; Romans 5:2,5; 2 Corinthians 10:15; Colossians 1:23; Galatians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:14;) and seem to represent a touchstone to his theology. Together they give a firm grounding to the believer’s walk in the world. Like a three-legged stool, they are jointly needed for balance.
Romans 5:1-5 show how the three virtues connect together:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Faith, hope and love have been discussed within Christian theology during the centuries. Reflections on them have however been more prominent within the Roman Catholic Church than among Protestant congregations. And perhaps it reflects a preoccupation with the truth of justification through faith at the expense of reflection on the post-justification life.
To quote Swain again:
Virtue has not been an especially prominent topic in modern Protestant thought. Reasons for this are fairly easy to identify: a one-sided emphasis on justification to the neglect of other aspects of soteriology (e.g., sanctification, glorification), worry about moralism and salvation by works, and a generalized sense that virtue is a topic of Catholic rather than Protestant concern.
Nevertheless, this is a vital biblical teaching which should engage our hearts and lives. We consider each virtue in the following paragraphs.
Writing in the New Dictionary of Theology, G.W. Martin wrote:
“Faith, of course, must be understood in a number of ways. It may refer to dogma which is believed (in this sense the expression ‘the faith’ comes to mind) or it may refer to trust in a person, which is essentially relational in character.”
He later adds in the same article:
Faith in its various forms is central to the Christian life.‘Faith’ in New Dictionary of Theology, p. 247
Presently, we walk by faith and not by sight. We trust in all that God is and has done, but we are moving on to a state where we will live in the reality forever. Dwelling in the presence of God means we do not have to analyze the divine attributes or the natures of Jesus; we would see him as he is.
Scripture suggests that faith (and its ally, Hope) in some sense will not continue in eternity (see Romans 8:24; 2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:1). While the Christian life is rooted in trust in God and Christ and so will not ultimately change, we can expect the shape it takes in the new heaven and earth to be somewhat different. The great Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge (1797-1878), also remarked on this in his comment on 1 Corinthians 13:13:
The state of mind indicated by faith and hope now exercised, will not continue in the future life; but the state of mind, so to speak, of the saints in heaven, may be designated by these same terms, because confidence and expectation will continue forever. Faith in one form, ceases when merged in sight; but in another form it continues; and the same is true of hope.A Commentary on 1&2 Corinthians, p. 275
When we have ‘seen’, the need for faith, in that sense of it as the evidence of the unseen (Hebrews 11:1), disappears.
Hope likewise is the certain expectation of future glory. It is the assurance of our future salvation when Christ returns. And it helps us bear present hardship and trials patiently. For we know, as Paul affirmed, that these current difficulties are nothing compared to the bliss which lies ahead (Romans 8:18).
In the words of S.H. Travis,
The believer looks forward to the resurrection of God’s people and the arrival of God’s kingdom confident because Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom and has been raised from death.‘Hope’ in New Dictionary of Theology, p. 321.
And we see that while the believer lives in hope, he still walks by faith. So Hope is not mere wishful thinking; it is undergirded by faith in God’s promises. Without faith there can be no hope.
Love wraps us in the embrace of God and others.
The indispensable mark of Christian life is Christian love. The measure and test of love to God is whole-hearted obedience (John 14:15, 21, 23; 1 John 5:3); the measure and test of love to our neighbours is laying down our lives for them (1 John 3:16; cf. John 15:12, 13).‘Love’ (theological note), New Geneva Study Bible, p. 1818.
In Paul’s great Love chapter, he exhorts the Corinthian church to pursue love (14:1). And he gave clear reasons for that admonition:
1. Every act of spirituality or good deed performed without love is meaningless. It is like a clanging cymbal, making noise without music (vv. 1-3).
2. Spiritual gifts can foster pride and self-centeredness, love however is others-focused. It turns one’s attention in the direction of one’s neighbour. As such, it is superior to other graces or gifts (v. 5).
3. While other gifts and graces have impact and value in this present state of things, they will not survive into the new heaven and new earth. However, love (and the other virtues of faith and hope) will abide forever (v. 8).
While all three virtues will abide into eternity, love is still described as the greatest of them. And the reason is obvious. Hope looks forward to this new, glorious reality when God comes to dwell among his people (Revelations 21:3). Hence hope, as we presently have it, will not be needed when that new age commences. Faith clings to what it does not yet perceive simply on the basis of trust in God’s word. But when we dwell in God’s presence with God’s own glory as the light of the city, that truth becomes not merely seen but lived in. At that time, faith would give way to sight.
Also, love is the very nature of God (1 John 4:8). Before there ever was a need for creatures to trust in their Creator or for redeemed sinners to await their full redemption in hope, the divine trinity existed in a fellowship of holy love. And so it will be throughout all eternity.
As Jonathan Edwards remarked:
…in heaven, dwells the God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is, or ever was, proceeds. There dwells God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, united as one, in infinitely dear, and incomprehensible, and mutual, and eternal love.
For God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light. And therefore the glorious presence of God in heaven, fills heaven with love, as the sun, placed in the midst of the visible heavens in a clear day, fills the world with light.Charity and its Fruits, p. 326-327 (Banner of Truth, 1969)
Love will persist. It is the currency of the new creation. As the eternal bond of the triune God, love will bind together God and his saints forever.
As N.T. Wright also declared:
Love is not our duty; it is our destiny. Love is the language they speak in the new creation and we get to learn it here.‘What is God’s Future for the World?’, 2014 lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary
Faith, Hope, and Love are no mere abstract concepts. They are the substance of the Christian’s life. Saved through faith, we are brought to walk in love, and are preserved in hope. Like a wall of fire, they keep us secure in God’s divine favour and help us grow in Christlikeness. We dare not neglect them.