The Superiority of Love

By Mac Deaver

Have you ever wondered why Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 said that love is greater than faith and hope? In this article I want us to explore at least a few reasons why that is true. We know that no one can be saved without faith (Heb. 11:6; John 8:24), and we know that a person in his becoming a Christian is expressing his hope (Rom. 8:24-25). There is a sense in which hope is surely the anchor of the soul (Heb. 6:17-20), and faith is absolutely essential to a person’s pleasing God (Heb. 11:6), and yet in some way love surpasses these two essentials. In context, Paul is showing in 1 Corinthians 13 that while the miraculous gifts characteristic of the early church would in time pass away, the characteristics of faith, hope, and love would be the permanent characteristics of the faithful church for all time. And yet in the abiding permanent characteristics of faith and hope and love, somehow love would always be the superior trait. How could that be? Let me identify a few of the reasons.

The first reason why love is superior to faith and hope is that nothing a man does that is not motivated by love is of any value to himself at all. In fact, this is the point that Paul is making in the context of the 1 Corinthians 13:13 passage. This is the message of verses 1-7. Others may receive benefits from things done by unloving people, but the people who do things without love are not in any way improved or benefited by the deed. There are various awful reasons (perhaps pride or guilt or even spite) why on a given occasion, a person might do something that is of benefit to others, but love is the necessary element to self-benefit in all things, including eloquence (v. 1), in revealing information or in the demonstration of the power of faith (v. 2), and even in benevolence (v. 3).

The second reason for love’s superiority over faith and hope is that love must be present before faith can obey and before hope has a basis for its existence. Love is ontologically prior to the existence of faith and to the reason for hope. A man must love God first before he can obey God. There is no such thing in scripture as divinely accepted faith that is founded on non-love for God. Even faith that works is not acceptable if the work done is not motivated by love (1 Cor. 13:1-3). No man can be saved without loving God since God is fundamentally love and light (1 John 4:8; 1:5). In Gentile-ism (under moral law—Rom. 2:14-15), Gentiles had to love God (cf. Isaiah 17), and in Judaism the Jews had to love God (Deut. 6:5). And in Christianity we must love God, too (Matt. 22:37-40). It is worthy of emphasis that no man ever went to Paradise following life on earth who did not love God. Love for God is essential to the implementation of any other obligation that we have toward God and neighbor. Consider 1 John 4:20 thoughtfully, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen.” We are to love the brotherhood (1 Pet. 2:17), most of whom we will never see. The incapacity to see cannot cancel the obligation to love.

We love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:10, 19). One cannot now be saved without having faith in God’s word (Rom. 10:17; Heb. 11:6), but faith in truth can exist without love for that truth, and without love for truth no man can be saved by truth even if it is believed (2 Thess. 2:10).

Remember Jonah. After being deposited back on land by the big fish, Jonah finally went to Nineveh (Jonah 2:10-3:3). But he still didn’t want the people of Nineveh to be forgiven by God, and he was afraid that his preaching would bring them to repentance. He had plenty of trust in God and absolutely no love for the people to whom he was being sent. His preaching did the Ninevites good but, according to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, it was of no value to Jonah whatever. So, we can say that Jonah finally “obeyed” God only in the sense that he carried out his overt assignment, but his “obedience” was not complete and, thus, not acceptable because of his terrible attitude. The overt act of going and preaching did not negate the sinfulness of his attitude. He did not fully comply with God’s will in the assignment. In fact, he got very angry following the successful results of his preaching. He even asked God to kill him (Jonah 4:1-3). Later, God tried to get him to see how bad his attitude was (Jonah 4:4-11).

If a person objects and affirms that faith can in some cases precede love, for faith when it arrives produces love, we respond by saying that surely faith can produce more love, and people of faith are under obligation to grow in love (2 Pet. 1:5-7), but any faith whatever not already grounded in love is unacceptable to God and is in no position to comply with the will of God. In the Warren-Ballard Debate, Warren called upon Ballard to give the order of things in his concept of the plan of salvation (p. 17). We usually give it as faith, repentance, confession, and baptism. But in answer to Warren’s question, where in the order do we find love? As Warren showed Ballard, it is not always mentioned in texts where other obligations are specifically given, including passages requiring faith.

I ask the reader just here: Is it possible that the faith that leads to other acts of obedience first exists in hearts that have no love for God? If we say, yes, we are saying that the other acts are not being fully or completely or adequately performed since they are not based on love. Again, remember Jonah. Repentance is certainly acceptable before baptism (Acts 2:38), and confession of faith is certainly acceptable following faith and before baptism (Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Tim. 6:12; Acts 8:37 in KJV). But is faith acceptable before love? Not according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Did Jonah please God simply by going to Nineveh and preaching? No. The overt act was not based on love for those to whom he was sent. Love for the people was absent. Therefore, his action was not complete compliance with God’s will.

Third, love’s superiority to faith and hope is seen in the fact that since obedience must always follow faith, and faith must follow love, then obedience must follow love, too. No one can come to faith or any other act of obedience and that act be pleasing to God without those acts growing out of or being produced by a heart of love. Obedience never precedes love. If all that a Christian does is to be done in love (1 Cor. 16:14), and if all that anyone does is to be done in love (1 Cor. 13:1-3), then all that is done by men is to be done in love. No act of seeming “obedience” is actually obedience unless love is present. Conversion becomes coercion without love. If a person attempts to become a Christian while not loving God, he does so for some unauthorized reason. He may be trying to escape hell, but without love, he cannot become a Christian. He is not converted; he is intimidated! It is a contradiction of concepts to think that one can become a child of God without loving God. Every act of compliance with God’s will, including coming to faith, is an act of compliance by virtue of the fact that it is prompted by love for God. Faith without love is without value to the one with the love-less faith just as faith without works is without value to the one who has life-less faith (Jas. 2:14-26). Sampson had great faith (Heb. 11:32), but the writer of Judges never attributes to him any love for God or even any regard for morality (cf. Jud. 16:1-3).

Fourth, the superiority of love over faith and hope is seen in the ease with which love for God can grow. Read Luke 7:36-50 very slowly and carefully, and be staggered by the lesson that the Lord is attempting to get the Pharisee to understand. The Pharisee had asked Jesus to come and eat with him, so Jesus went. Since Jews ate in a reclining position, Jesus’ feet were behind him. He reclined at the table. A woman approaches the Lord from behind with a cruse of ointment and, at first, she stands there crying, and her tears fall on the Lord’s feet. She then bends down and wipes his feet with her hair and kisses his feet and anoints them with the ointment. The woman has a reputation for much wickedness, and the Pharisee thinks to himself that if Jesus were a real prophet, he would know what kind of woman it is that is touching him and would certainly then disallow such activity. Jesus, knowing both the woman and the Pharisee, then presents to the Pharisee, Simon, the story of the two debtors. In the story one debtor owed five hundred shillings and the other fifty. Neither could pay, so the lender forgave both men of their debts. The Lord then asks, “Which of them therefore will love him most?” Simon correctly responds: “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most.”

Jesus then compares the absence of any loving attention from Simon with the great care extended by the woman from the moment she arrived. And then in verse 47 we read, “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” Now, dear reader, be careful. Notice what Jesus is and is not saying about the woman. The illustration of the two debtors teaches that the one who is forgiven most loves most because he was forgiven most. The forgiveness precedes the love and produces it. He does not say that because she already loved most, that she was then forgiven most. That point does not fit the illustration. The illustration teaches that forgiveness produces love. If the Lord had wanted to emphasize the fact that God forgives most someone who already loves him most, he could have done so. However, it is not always true that the one who already loves most is forgiven most because the one who loves most in most cases needs less forgiveness!

The illustration of the two debtors teaches that forgiveness can produce love. And much forgiveness can produce much love. The second crucial point in understanding the force of the whole scene is given in verse 47 when Jesus says, “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” And that verb translated “are forgiven” is a perfect tense verb which indicates completed action with a resulting state of being. In verse 48 we come to the words that Jesus now speaks to the woman, “Thy sins are forgiven.” Do you see the picture? The woman had followed the Lord into Simon’s house because he had already (perfect tense verb—v. 47) promised her forgiveness for her many sins! She was loving much because he had already promised much forgiveness! And then in Simon’s presence, he repeats his promise to the woman (v. 48), “Thy sins are forgiven.” It was her faith which made possible her forgiveness (v. 50). It was her much forgiveness that produced her much love!

Now let me make my point regarding why love is superior to faith and hope in the light of this passage. Love for God grows partially in proportion to the forgiveness that God grants! As God continually forgives us of our sins, he doesn’t give up on us and we do not have to despair. We love God more as we are forgiven of more. This means that this aspect of love grows proportionately to sins forgiven. So, our perpetual weakness (Matt. 26:41) with its resultant perpetual lapses (1 John 1:6-10) cannot destroy us since the forgiveness of the sins committed because of that weakness can and should produce in our hearts more love for God. That is absolutely incredible! It reminds us of Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 12:9. Just as divine power is perfected in human weakness, just so love for God continually grows and is being completed in the hearts of those whose momentary sins are continually being forgiven!

Fifth, love’s superiority to faith and hope is seen in the fact that faith can trust that God will keep his word even in cases where the person of faith does not love God and does not want God to keep his word. If a demon can believe and tremble, then certainly a man can tremble at the thought of his own eternal prospects if he believes scripture but has no desire to obey scripture (Jas. 2:19; cf. Heb. 5:8-9). We read of some Jews who believed Jesus but would not confess him (John 12:42-43). It is certainly possible today for a person to be brought to faith and yet not be brought to repentance. But how can a man love God without trying to please God? It is impossible. This is why Jesus could say, “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus came to do the Father’s will (John 6:38). And since God is love and since Jesus is God, Jesus is love. Before the Word became flesh, the Word as God was love. And in the incarnation, Jesus as the son of God continued by his divine essence that maintenance of love characteristic of divinity. He learned obedience by the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8-9). He didn’t learn love; he was love. Going back to Jonah, we see that he knew that God was “a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2). But he did not want that mercy extended to Nineveh. His confidence in God that God would not destroy Nineveh if she turned from her evil was well placed, but extension of that mercy to the Ninevites was not something that Jonah desired.

Sixth, love’s superiority over faith and hope is seen in the fact that love is basically what makes us most like God. God is never described, and for good reason, as “faith” or as “hope” or even as “obedience.” But he is described as “love” (1 John 4:8). This is not the only infinite characteristic of God, but it is one on which God wants man to focus as he thinks of his own duty to God and other men (Matt. 22:37-40). It is a trait of God to be implemented always even to the point of including our enemies. If we would intend to be like God, we must love all men (Matt. 5:44-48; Rom. 12:20-21). We are not under obligation to trust all men or to place any hope in all men, but we are to love them. God is also described as “light” (1 John 1:5). In this case, light stands for purity and knowledge. There is no impurity and no ignorance in God just as there is no weakness (Psa. 147:5; 1 Cor. 1:25). God’s own personal love infinitely coexists with his knowledge and his moral goodness. A man’s love cannot be expressed through impurity or ignorance. A man’s finite knowledge is not worthy to be compared to God’s omniscience (and it is knowledge that gives rise to faith and, thus, to hope), but when a man has love that encompasses even his enemies, the degree of that love and the quality of that love makes him like his Father (Matt. 5:44-48; Gal. 5:22).

Seventh, love’s superiority over faith and hope is seen in the fact that coming to faith in God and obeying God (which gives us hope) are expressions of our love for God. Obedience is the expression of love just as work or some kind of effort is the demonstration of faith (1 John 5:3; Jas. 2:14ff). As actual existent characteristics, love is ontologically prior to its actual overt expression just as faith is ontologically prior to its demonstration. Obedience is the proof of already existent love and an effort or work is the demonstration of the already existent faith. But love without expression cannot save any more than faith without work can.

Let me note in passing that there is great danger in attempting to “read” people at the expense of “reading” scripture. Alexander Campbell found it almost impossible to deny that a man was a Christian even if the man had not been immersed for remission of sins, as long as the man’s life seemed to be morally and religiously in harmony with the character that is demanded in scripture. Listen to him. This quotation comes from an article entitled “Any Christians Among The Sects?” which was published in the 1837 volume of the Millennial Harbinger on pages 561-567:

The case is this: When I see a person who would die for Christ; whose brotherly kindness, sympathy, and active benevolence know no bounds but his circumstances; whose seat in the Christian assembly is never empty; whose inward piety and devotion are attested by punctual obedience to every known duty; whose family is educated in the fear of the Lord; whose constant companion is the Bible: I say, when I see such a one ranked amongst the heathen men and publicans, because he never happened to inquire, but always took it for granted that he had been scripturally baptized; and that, too, by one greatly destitute of all these public and private virtues, whose chief or exclusive recommendation is that he has been immersed, and that he holds a scriptural theory of the gospel: I feel no disposition to flatter such a one; but rather to disabuse him of his error. And while I would not lead the most excellent professor in any sect to disparage the least of all the commandments of Jesus, I would say to my immersed brother as Paul said to his Jewish brother who gloried in a system which he did not adorn: “Sir, will not his uncircumcision, or unbaptism, be counted to him for baptism? And will he not condemn you, who, though having the literal and true baptism, yet dost transgress or neglect the statutes of your King? ( p. 565).

I say that Campbell’s position just made is absolutely false! Furthermore, he has distorted good scripture in wrong application. There is great danger in taking the position that one can read a person more clearly than he can read a divine proposition! I warn us all that it is easier to understand the proposition of scripture than it is to “read” correctly the character of some religious people. God who knows the hearts of all men (Acts 1:24) wrote scripture in the light of his own “human heart knowledge.” And God knows exactly what genuine love and genuine obedience are. We cannot afford to dismiss plain scripture in order to credit human claims. We evaluate men in the light of God’s word; we do not evaluate God’s word in the light of any human claim. We must “let God be found true” in all cases of human evaluation (Rom. 3:4).

We must be content with the conclusion that truth reveals to us: genuine love leads to obedience (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). The seeming moral harmony that exists at times in the lives of some religious people with the commands of scripture cannot at all be taken as justification for a claim of their alleged attachment to Christ. Only Christians can produce Holy Spirit fruit (Rom. 6:20-23; Gal. 5:22-24). Moral “likenesses” must not mislead us into devaluating plain and obvious scripture while elevating alleged claimants to the status of real Christians. It is true that we can know people by their fruits (Matt. 7:16), but there are times when what we think are genuine fruits are but imitations. We remember that Paul tells us that if we have great faith but no love we are nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). Love that believes and obeys is something, however. John said it like this: “Hereby we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and do his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:2-3). Obedience is the way that we express our love for God. There is no other way to express it! Neither is there another way to demonstrate our faith in God other than through our actions (Jas. 2:18). Love can be merely claimed by the lips, but it is shown in the life. John wrote, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

Eighth, love’s superiority to faith and hope is seen in the description of love as “the bond of perfectness.” Paul wrote, “Put on therefore, as God’s elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do you: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:12-14). The word for “bond” is sundesmos and means, “that which binds together; a ligature (Col. 2:19); a band of union (Eph. 4:3; Col. 3:14); a bundle, or, bond (Acts 8:23)” (Harper’s Lexicon, p. 387). The word for “perfectness” is teleiotatos from teleiotas which means, “completeness, perfectness (Col. 3:14): ripeness of knowledge or practice (Heb. 6:1),” (Harper’s Lexicon, p. 401). It is love, then, that bundles everything together in one unified and complete package of Christian character that makes it all acceptable to God.

Ninth, love is superior to faith and hope because it is love that finally is able to cast out all fear from the Christian’s heart and make his hope complete. With his eye on the judgment, John writes, “Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment; and he that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:17-18). And the Hebrews writer having already assured the brethren that God is well aware of their work and love, then says to them, “And we desire that each one of you may show the same diligence unto the fullness of hope (ASV footnote: full assurance of hope) even to the end: that he be not sluggish, but imitators of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:11-12).

The immature young heart of the one obeying the gospel and the immature heart of the saint are partially (and rightfully) motivated by fear of punishment and hope of reward. N. B. Hardeman said in his great sermon entitled “Repentance,” that “Men are moved by motives. The fear of punishment, on the one hand, and the hope of reward, on the other, are the strongest incentives to our action in the more serious concerns of life” (Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, Vol. I, p. 199). And as he well pointed out, in the scriptures we have divine threats meant to move us to repentance as well as, according to Paul in Romans 2:4, the goodness of God. But we add just here that John assures us that in mature love, the fear of punishment once characteristic of the Christian’s heart becomes history.

Let me conclude this article with this argument:

The Fear and Love of God

  1. If (1) fearing God and keeping his commandments constitutes the whole of man, and if (2) keeping the commandments of God expresses one’s love for God, and if (3) perfect love casts out the fear of punishment, then the proper abiding fear of God is respect (or reverence) which entails the love of God.
  2. (1) Fearing God and keeping his commandments constitutes the whole of man (Ecc. 12:13-14), and (2) keeping the commandments of God expresses one’s love for God (1 John 5:3), and (3) perfect love casts out the fear of punishment (1 John 4:18).
  3. Then, the proper abiding fear of God is respect (or reverence) which entails the love of God.

“But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”