“But that isn’t loving,” is an objection often offered to undermine clear biblical teaching. “A loving God wouldn’t punish anyone with eternal judgment,” is an evil hermeneutic that attempts to gut the justice of God. Love has become unmoored from its biblical foundation, is set adrift in culture, and now passes for the new religion of cultural niceness. But even when we step out of culture and into the pages of Scripture, we can still misinterpret the biblical meaning of love. And one of those misinterpretations is drawn from what is arguably the most popular chapter in the Bible on the topic of love: 1 Corinthians 13.
In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul writes, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” leading some Christians to conclude that love is more important than faith or hope. This might not seem to be a problem, unless, of course, these three attributes—faith, hope, and love—are designed by God to be mutually reinforcing, built in such a way that to diminish any one of the three is to undermine the integrity of them all. A baker will tell you that the critical elements of bread are yeast, water, flour, and salt. If we agree that unsalted bread is rather bland and conclude that salt is the greatest of these four, then we will run into problems with our bread as we pay less attention to adding flour, yeast, and water. Likewise, love that is not balanced by faith and hope undermines the very definition of biblical love.
While we wait for the return of Jesus, we need faith, hope, and love in equal and increasing measure.
Love, without the counterbalances of faith and hope, becomes unloving. When we consider faith, briefly and generally, we see that the Bible uses the word faith in three ways. Faith can be the instrument of our salvation (Eph. 2:8), a steadfast trust in God and His works (Matt. 16:8; 17:20; Heb. 11:1), or orthodox doctrine (Jude 3). The context of how Paul uses faith in 1 Corinthians 13 and the rest of the book most strongly supports an understanding of faith in this passage as the Spirit-given trust in God’s person and work, especially as revealed in Jesus (2 Cor. 5:7). Biblical faith, as it is used in this chapter, balances love by defining the object of the Christian’s love—the glorious God. When love is prioritized over or to the exclusion of faith, love loses its object—the blessed God.
The same problem occurs when we consider hope. Hope is the perseverance of faith, the firm expectation that the God who can be trusted will fulfill all He has promised. So, now imagine a hopeless love. If our love for God has no expectation that all things will end up for God’s glory and our good (Rom. 8:28), then that love becomes a fickle and momentary thing, a mere subjective emotion, detached from commitment and covenant, devolving into shallow well-wishes and general niceness.
This, then, is the problem. If we read 1 Corinthians 13:13 in a way that places greater importance on love over against faith and hope, biblical love itself is lost. Love needs faith and hope to survive, to thrive. We see this clearly when we consider 1 Corinthians 13:13 in the context of the whole chapter. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul moves from considering love as the necessary ingredient of Christian living (vv. 1–3) to considering the definition of biblical love (vv. 4–7) to considering faith, hope, and love on a time line spanning our current moment as Christians all the way to the culmination of all things at and after the return of Jesus. Considered in terms of importance, faith, hope, and love are equal. Considered in terms of longevity, “the greatest of these is love.” Put simply, faith and hope aren’t needed in heaven. If faith is a present trust in God and His works, often running contrary to what we currently might conclude in this fallen world without faith (2 Cor. 5:7), then we will no longer need faith in heaven because we will finally and clearly see God as He really is (1 Cor. 13:12). In the same way, we will no longer need hope because we will be in full possession of that for which we had hoped. We will have everything we could have ever hoped for because all of God’s promises will be accomplished. However, love will continue and grow ever stronger in heaven as Christians fully love their great God forever. As seen on an eternal time line, love outstrips faith and hope in a way that honors the purposes of all three.
While we wait for the return of Jesus, we need faith, hope, and love in equal and increasing measure. We must allow each to be defined biblically and to counterbalance the others. We cannot allow a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:13 to tempt us to prioritize love to the destruction of all three. But we must also, by faith and hope, look forward to heaven, the fulfillment of all things, when we will finally have our hearts’ desire: to love Christ fully and finally to all eternity.
Rev. Joe Holland is an associate editor for Ligonier Ministries and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.