Theme: The Importance of Love
In this week’s lessons we learn how Jesus perfectly carries out the biblical understanding of love, and how we, as his disciples, are called to show that same kind of love to others.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13
Paul teaches the importance of love by contrasts. He says that if he could speak with the tongues of men, or even angels, but without love, it would be nothing. Or prophecy: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge” but if I do not have love, it is nothing. Or faith: “If I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Finally, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
That is really hard for us to take, because when we evaluate ourselves, it is in those terms that we measure how successful, great, or spiritual we are. We say, “Ah, if I could only be eloquent when I speak! You know, if only I had a supernatural gift for communication, then I could make a real mark!” Or we say, “If only I were wise, if only I were smarter than everybody else, then people would seek me out and say, ‘I have a problem. What should I do? Tell me what to do.’ And I could say, ‘This is what you ought to do.’” Or we might wish we had great faith. “If I had the kind of faith that can move great mountains of opposition, then I would be a leader!” Or, “What if I were noted for my good works? What if people would say, ‘There is someone who gives generously to the poor. That person must be very godly.’”
But Paul says, “No, that is not the way to evaluate your spiritual progress or greatness. You should ask instead, ‘Is my life characterized by love?’”
You say, “Well, isn’t it good to be able to communicate well?” Yes, of course, it is. In chapter 12 Paul called communication ability a gift, along with wisdom, knowledge, faith, and good works. These are all important. But the reason why love is more important than those other things is that love is the one thing that cannot be counterfeited. If you are talking about eloquence, there are many people who are eloquent but who do not have the faintest idea what the Christian faith is all about. There are also many wise, unbelieving people, some of whom have actually become theologians. They dazzle some by their wisdom. Or there are people who are models of charity, yet are unregenerate. They can be all these things and yet not actually be in the kingdom of God.
If you are evaluating yourself on the basis of those things, if you are saying, “I am eloquent; I am wise; I am charitable,” you are making a big mistake. It is possible to be all those things and still not belong to the family of God. The way you can know that is by love.
At a Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology John Gerstner talked about the nature of revival in the Puritan age—under men like Jonathan Edwards. He pointed out that, far from approaching evangelism with the superficiality so characteristic of our own time, the Puritan preachers went to extreme lengths on the other side, because they did not want to give people the impression that they were saved when they may not have been.
Being Calvinistic in their theology, the Puritans stressed that regeneration is the work of God. But they did not conclude from this that there was nothing for the unregenerate person to do. They would say, “You should come to worship. You should listen to the preaching of the gospel. You should live an upright moral life. You should do good works.” As a result they had unconverted people in their churches, sometimes for years, who did all a Christian would normally do. Indeed, they became the kinds of models of Christian life and piety that should shame most Christians today.
Well, in the question-and-answer period after this address a number of people asked, “If that is the case, if a person like this could be a model of piety—know the creeds, do the right things, pray, be in church, observe the Sabbath—and yet not be born again, how in the world was he ever to know if he was born again?” Gerstner answered, “By love. It was whether in his or her heart the person had come, first, to love God and then, second, to love others.” Without love, all these other gifts and achievements are nothing. But when motivated by love they all become useful for the edification and building up of God’s church.
What are some of the ways Christians today try to evaluate how spiritual either they or someone else is?
Why is love considered to be more important than these other things?
How does love make these other Christian practices useful for edification in the church?
Application: What are some practical ways you need to show love to others around you, as a biblical demonstration of your salvation?