The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3 says that the tongues of men and of angels, gifts of prophecy, understanding into the mysteries of God, all knowledge, faith enough to move mountains, constant care for the poor, selling of possessions, and martyrdom count for nothing if the virtue of charity is not present in him. A Christian man, a minister of the gospel, may have all of these good works abounding, but without love, it is a grand exercise in futility. Along with the apostle, this short treatise will argue that the virtue of love and of charity supersedes all qualities and works that may be exercised by the professing Christian. Moreover, in relation to myself as an aspiring minister of the gospel, this paper will demonstrate how I intend to live by this rule of love as a servant in the church.
Before one can live out charity, he must first understand what charity is. First, with 1 Corinthians 13 in view, it will be necessary to consider the proceeding chapters and the historical context of the church of Corinth. Throughout the epistle, the apostle addresses several matters in this consistent pattern: “Now concerning…” (1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1). Indeed, each chapter of 1 Corinthians addresses a different problem that was present in this particular congregation. Early in the epistle, Paul writes, “For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you” (1 Cor. 1:11). Contentions and division are the issue. In light of 1 Corinthians 12, where the apostle addresses spiritual gifts and their various operations within the body of Christ, we understand that Paul is giving a correction and exposing plainly that there are many members in the body with different functions to serve God’s purpose. The gifts that God poured out abundantly upon the Corinthian congregation were bein taken advantage of in a negative fashion by the members. Instead of communal edification and charity, factions and individualism were promoted.
What is the answer to such a conflict? The apostle shows us the “more excellent way” in chapter 13, namely, that of love. The noun ἀγάπη (agapē) is quite ambiguous and may apply in a variety of situations. Interestingly, the apostle was inspired by the Holy Ghost to employ ἀγάπη rather than φιλαδελφία, which refers directly to brotherly love, that kind affectionate love that is toward a fellow believer (1 Pet. 1:22). Thus, to understand this Christian virtue more fully, we must have an example. The charity Paul commends is the kind of charity that is directed first towards God because God himself is the example of charity. Without God’s love, 1 Corinthians 13 would not exist. In what chief way did God display his love? God loved a wretched, vile, and sinful world, sending and giving his Son to that world so that those same sinners in the world who believe on him are granted everlasting life as a result of God’s love toward them (Lenski 547). The world to which God gave his Son was filthy and drenched in sinfulness. Did this prevent him from sending his Son who died for the sins of those who believe? No, for if this were the case, the words written by the apostle Paul in Romans 5:8 would not be true, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” And thus, our example of charity is Christ himself, for indeed he possessed the qualities of 1 Corinthians 13 in righteousness, all of which were done and accomplished in love for his people.
Truly, charity is the “first and last word in Christian theology and ethics” (White 1357). This essential virtue is the capstone of the Christian faith. John Calvin, with respect to charity in 1 Corinthians 13 says, “The main truth in the passage is this—that as love is the only rule of our actions, and the only means of regulating the right use of the gifts of God, nothing, in the absence of it, is approved of by God, however magnificent it may be in the estimation of men” (Calvin 421). All things that God gives for the edification of the body are to be applied with fervent charity, for without such charity Christ is not honored.
We have seen in the previous section what charity is and what it looks like, but yet another question remains, what does charity do? The apostle gives us this answer in verses four through six of chapter thirteen. He writes,
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, endureth all things (vv. 4–7).
As a pastor, many things are required, many duties are to be accomplished. Being in the position of an aspiring minister in the PRC, temptations to slack in forbearance, to be unkind, to envy other ministers, to boast in one’s spiritual gifts, to self-seek, to be easily provoked to anger at disobedience and to think evil are besetting sins that could certainly corrupt the office that God might be pleased to place me in. Also, it may be possible to be commended for eloquent speech, great wisdom and knowledge, suffering for Christ’s sake and the like, but what does the apostle say to such a one that has all these things, but has not charity? His works and gifts are useless, a vain show and an abomination in the sight of God (cf. Luke 16:15). This quality, as John Calvin said earlier, is the only virtue that God commends as it is joined with all good works. The Belgic Confession corroborates well with this in regards to sanctification, “…we do not speak of vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith that worketh by love, which excites a man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in his Word” (Belgic Confession Art. 24). To this standard, according to the word written in 1 Timothy 1:5, “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” I will seek to apply in the ministry—the keeping of God’s commandments by love.
To be a true minister of the gospel, I must resolve to apply what is taught here in 1 Corinthians 13, to live according to the virtue of charity. The qualities of charity may not be easily applied, but are set forth in clear and unmistakable terms. Charity makes no room for laziness, cold-heartedness, envy, boasting, arrogance, selfishness, and resentment. On the contrary, love rejoices in truth, is longsuffering, hopes until the end and believes the precious promises of God. John Owen, preaching on the duty of a pastor once said, “There is required love of the truth. We shall never contend earnestly for the truth, we shall never “buy it and not sell it,” whatever we know of it, unless our love and value of it arise from a sense and experience of it in our own souls” (Owen 459). I intend to live by this rule of love in all things, for charity is not reserved for a special office in the church but is to be lived out by all true believers in Christ. The only way I may truly apply what is taught concerning love in 1 Corinthians 13 is by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, “for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor” (Heidelberg Cat. LD 2), and therefore because I cannot conjure up this divine charity of myself, I must first acknowledge the truth that, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us…” (1 John 4:8). From believing that God loves me for his Son’s sake, and learning from Christ as my Lord and example, then may I be enabled to live out of charity in my future calling, may God so graciously grant. Amen.
Calvin, John, and John Pringle. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the
Corinthians. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010. Print.
The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville:
Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005. Print.
Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963. Print.
Owen, John. The Works of John Owen Vol. IX: Sermons to the Church. Great Britain: Banner of
Truth Trust, 1965. Print.
White, R.E.O. “Love.” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Baker Book House Company, 1988.
*Elijah Roberts is a member of Covenant of Grace PRC in Spokane, WA. He is a junior in college and aspires to the gospel ministry.