1 Corinthians 13 is more often romanticized than thoughtfully studied. You hear it at weddings and see it on wall-hangings as if it were some kind of ode to love. But in at least two ways this chapter actually is devastating. One, it describes love in such a way that it becomes patently obvious that “everyone talking about love ain’t practicing it.” We have all witnessed godless, hateful speech and actions coming from people who think that by merely saying the words, “I love you,” they are fully justified in what they are doing. The next time you find yourself harboring resentful or mean thoughts toward someone, or you assume the worst about someone, measure your attitude by these descriptions in the love chapter: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (4-8a). By this standard I am forced to admit that often I am not nearly as loving as I assume I am.
But a second way this chapter devastates is in its analysis of any expression of Christianity that focuses on good things to the exclusion of the best thing. Verse 3 says that it is possible to give everything you have–money, house, car, IRA, 401K, clothes, everything!–to feed the poor and it will be of no spiritual value to you whatsoever if you are without love. Further, you could give your body to be burned, presumably for your convictions, and yet have that self-sacrificial act be of absolutely no spiritual value, if you are loveless.
Verse 1 makes the same point about eloquence. It is possible to be the greatest preacher in the world, esteemed by people far and wide and yet (even be crowned an American Idol) in reality be of no more spiritual worth a clanging cymbal.
But the verse that is most devastating for Calvinists is verse 2. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, one of the strengths of Calvinism is that it loves truth. When you find a genuine Calvinist you have found someone who is not afraid of the truth of God’s Word. We value truth and want to grow in our understanding of truth. Well, verse 3 sounds like every Calvinist’s dream then, when it speaks of “having the gift of prophecy [we will leave the debate about what constitutes biblically defined prophecy for another time and simply recognize that it certainly includes proclaiming truth]” and understanding “all mysteries and knowledge.” What lover of truth does not salivate over that prospect? Imagine it! Finally, the lapsarian question fully resolved! The Trinity completely comprehended! The book of Revelation clearly understood! What lover of truth would not desire that?
Yet, the wake-up call comes when Paul goes on to write that it is possible to have such knowledge and understanding and still be “nothing.” The greatest theologian in the world is NOTHING without love. That truth is one that we who are so openly committed to loving the truth must not gloss over. Instead, we need to meditate on it and let its truth sink deep into our minds and affections. A loving Arminian is of greater spiritual value than an unloving Calvinist. Being loving is far more valuable than being right.
Love for whom? Both God and people. I say this because of what Paul writes in Galatians 5:14, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” We might have expected him to say that loving God fulfills the law, but he says that loving neighbor as yourself does it. How can that be? Because loving people in this way is impossible without loving God. You cannot love people sincerely if you do not love God supremely. And if you love God supremely, you will love people sincerely. So Paul can say that loving your neighbor fulfills the whole law.
An unloving Calvinist should honestly face heaven’s evaluation of him. The devastation of such a critique should humble all of us and make us plead with the Lord to work in us deeply by His Spirit so that we might become more and more filled with that love that is so evident in our Lord Jesus.
When the English Puritan pastor, Joseph Caryl died in 1673, his congregation merged with the church which John Owen pastored. Owen was the greatest theologian of the Puritan era–an era that was marked by great theologians. On the occasion of their first worship service as a newly merged church, Owen preached on Col. 3:14, “Above all these things, put on love which is the bond of perfection.” In that sermon, he said this:
A church full of love, is a church well built up. I had rather see a church filled with love a thousand times, than filled with the best, the highest, and most glorious gifts and parts that any men in this world may be made partakers of. (Owen, Works, Volume IX:268)
Isn’t that the right attitude? We should be quick to repent of our lack of love. And determine, by God’s grace, which He has abundantly showered on us in the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, to pursue love above everything else.