28For we determine that a person is made right by faith, without the works of the law. — Romans 3:28
An inattentive reader might almost conclude that these two verses were not written by the same author. In the first, one is made right with God (justified) by faith. What could possibly be more important and powerful than the means by which one becomes a child of God, avoids hell, and gains heaven? Surely faith is the crowning virtue! Whether they intend to or not, many Christians certainly speak as though faith was, in fact, the greatest. Some have called faith the greatest virtue, and its absence the greatest sin.
I started thinking about this passage after Lectionary at Lunch with Rev. Geoffrey Lentz (First UMC Pensacola), when he mentioned the interaction of the two verses today, Romans 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 13:13. I might have chosen quite a number of verses from Paul that emphasize faith as the means of our salvation. You can blame him for planting the seed, but the rest of this is my own; don’t blame him for it!
I believe Paul was quite serious about his statement in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is the greatest. In the modern world, when love is often treated as something cheap and empty, it is sometimes hard to make love the center of our belief, our preaching, and our practice. People make love, fall in love, overlook wrongdoing because of love, and indeed sometimes love another person to death. Yes, I know that’s an expression, but it is quite possible, when love is misunderstood, to quite literally love someone to death.
Read the whole of 1 Corinthians 13, however, and you will get a different picture of love. This isn’t the kind of love that you â€œmakeâ€ or â€œfall inâ€, and I don’t mean that to disparage romantic love. In fact, I believe that one’s passionate love for one’s spouse is the greatest example of God’s passion for us that we have. But that passion is not a casual â€œmaking love.â€ People fall into and out of love every day. Sometimes it is the real, God-given passion. At other times it becomes just an expression. Our love for one another in marriage should be what Paul describes here, and so should our love for God.
But still, how can love be greater than faith, that is the means of bringing us to God in the first place? Well, I’ll give you a hint. I’m subtly misstating that, but in a way that I hear it misstated all the time.
Love is —
- The driving reason why God made salvation possible in the first place.
- The reason Jesus carried through his mission on the cross.
- The drawing force that brings us to the point of putting our faith in Christ.
- Expressed in the world through grace, which is accepted by faith.
- The goal to which our salvation leads, if we take seriously â€œGod is love.â€
Faith is an essential, it’s part of the package, but love is the package itself.
Should we be afraid to preach love? Not at all, though we must make sure that we preach a love that is worthy of the good news about (and brought by) Jesus Christ.
Three remain: Faith, hope, and love. Love is the greatest.