LOVE: The Greatest of These

Covenant Young People of our Protestant Reformed Churches, and parents and friends of these Young People:
Let me at the outset tonight speak a word of commendation to you young people for your courage, your zeal and enthusiasm and your willingness and readiness to work hard, when there is a call for it. Let me then commend the Redlands Society for its courage in accepting the role of being host to this convention and in inviting us all to Redlands. Your resources are very limited as far as lodging is concerned; and you are hundreds of miles from the closest Protestant Reformed church. And yet, you invited us from Washington and Colorado, from the Dakotas and Minnesota, from Iowa and Wisconsin, from Illinois and even Michigan. It took courage to do this and likewise real enthusiasm and hard work to keep at it till now when you are ready for the convention. Our hats are off to you, because what last August was only a dream is now a pleasant reality.
Let me also commend the Federation Board for its courage, enthusiasm and real hard work. Here we have a group of unmarried young people whose financial experiences are yet quite limited, and who never had too many hundreds of dollars pass through their hands as that which they earned and spent carefully and wisely for needs. And yet they go and charter a million dollar fan-jet plane to bring 150 of us over here! I do not know…! I do not know what to say. I do not believe that in the church there is a spiritual generation gap. But when I think of what the generation to which I belong had courage to do along these lines with Young People’s Outings and conventions, then it takes a good deal of my breath away. And we in Michigan do know all the enthusiasm that this Board displayed and the hard work which they performed so that we all could be here tonight for this inspirational mass meeting and for the whole convention.
In fact, all of you are to be commended for your courage to plan on attending a convention down here in California, and for your enthusiasm and hard work required to make you part with, as well as earn the money for such a trip so far away from home and so expensive for you. It was indeed a big venture; and all of you are to be commended for your courage, zeal, enthusiasm and hard work performed to bring you here tonight.
I do want to say something about this, however, before I get into my speech. Let it be uppermost in your minds that although we may speak a word of commendation to each other and encourage one another, when we have striven and shown such courage and zeal, the praise must always be God’s. Without His blessing you could not have succeeded. In fact, He could have turned this whole convention into a disaster. Let us, therefore, now and throughout the entire convention render to Him the praise due to His name for all His mercy upon us. What is more, all these, courage, zeal, enthusiasm and willingness and readiness to work are good. But remember that these must always be exercised first and last for the kingdom of God. All our talents, all our abilities must be dedicated to Him Who gave them to us. And I know, this convention is not a carnal, worldly get-together for the flesh. It is for our spiritual well-being; and therefore we ought to remember that all through the convention.
And now I want to say something yet to the host society and to all of you gathered here. Although this convention has just begun, and there are more hours to come than have been spent, and more days of this convention ahead than are behind, I want to tell you all that now already we can say that this convention is the greatest! It is. It is held in the greatest State in the union, that is, the greatest in length, reaching from the southeast corner at the Mexican border in a straight line to the northwest corner at the Oregon line, some 900 miles of California soil! It is also the greatest because gathered here tonight is the assembly of some of the greatest young people in the world today, the covenant young people with the richest and greatest heritage of truth that any group of young people ever had before. There is a constant development of the truth and a clearer and clearer conception of that truth. And you live in the day of the greatest development of the truth that this world has ever seen. Appreciate that fact. Further, the theme of this convention is the greatest; in fact, it is literally, The Greatest of These. And I have been asked to speak to you under the subdivision, The Greatest Virtue. To do so I like to call your attention first of all to the group in which love is the greatest. We all understand from the chapter which was read a moment ago that Paul is speaking here of love—which is a better translation than our word charity. In verse 13 of this chapter, Paul says that now abide these three, faith, hope and love. And I call your attention then to these three as an ever-abiding triad. Then I would zero in on this greatest of these, namely, love, and call your attention to the fact that Paul calls it “the more excellent way” in the last verse of chapter twelve. And then we can come to the point where we can show you why love is this greatest virtue, or, if you will, why it is the superior gift.

1. An Ever-abiding Triad
It is well for us to bear in mind that in the preceding chapter, chapter 12, Paul is speaking of the special spiritual gifts which God gives to some in the church. These he mentions in verses 4-11. And they fall into two categories. There are offices in the church which God gives to some; and there are powers of abilities which He bestows upon some. These latter gifts are those of knowledge, wisdom, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking with tongues and interpreting tongues. Now the point I want to make is that God gives these only to some. Thus we read that “to the one” He gives this power by the Spirit and “to another” He gives this other ability. This He does sovereignly, for verse 11 says that He does this “as He will”. But it ought to be very obvious to all of us tonight that these gifts are special. How many of us here tonight have the gift of an office in God’s church? None of you young people have one yet; and many of you never will receive that gift. Is there any one of us that has the gift of healing? How many of us—if indeed there be even one—has the gift of speaking in tongues? No, these are special spiritual gifts which God gives only to some and at certain times for the well-being of His Church.
But now in chapter 13 Paul speaks of spiritual gifts which God gives to every single one of His children; and which He has been pleased to give to every single one of you reborn, converted young people of His kingdom. These gifts are faith, hope and love. And I would like to call them a set of triplets. I do that because they are all three born in us the same day and by the same Parent. The moment we are reborn, the moment we receive the life of Christ in us, we have all three of these powers in us, even as the roots, the trunk and the leaves of the oak tree are all in that acorn. We do not receive faith first, then hope and finally love. They are all given in the moment of our rebirth. None of us has only one or lacks one while having the others. All who have faith have hope and love as well. They are not identical triplets, for love is the tallest (the greatest of these), but they surely are “blood brothers”, having, as we said the one Parent, our Father Who is in Heaven. And Paul mentions them elsewhere in his epistles as being found in every child of God. Thus, we find these together in I Thessalonians 1:3 and 5:8, and again in Colossians 1:4 and 5.
I cannot go into detail on all of these, but I do want to make just a few remarks about each in order that we may see why love is the greatest. Faith, according to the Heidelberg Catechism is a certain knowledge and hearty confidence. We may also say that although knowledge is an essential part of faith, the chief idea in faith is that of confidence or trust in God. If you believe in God, you trust Him. Hope, we may say, is an expectant longing. It is not wishing, even though it has in common with wishing a desire or longing. But hope is always an expectant longing. It is longing for that which we are sure that we shall receive because the Almighty and Unchangeable God has promised it. Love is called the strongest emotion in man and has many aspects such as mercy, grace, longsuffering and the like.
And at this point I want to emphasize that all three of these abide forever and will be found in us in the New Jerusalem. There are some weird ideas as to why love is the greatest. There is one that claims that faith and hope are means to bring us to love. And if that is true, then love is the greatest because it outlasts the others, it is greater in length of time that we have it. For means are always discarded when the goal is reached. The plane which we used as means to get to Ontario we left there. The cars we used to get here for this meeting we left behind. So, if faith and hope are nothing more than means to bring us to love, we will not need faith and hope once our love is perfect in the New Jerusalem. And then love is the greatest because it is forever, while faith and hope are temporary.
There is another incorrect idea that states that love is greater than hope and faith, because it is the only one of these three that is found in God. This certainly is not true, even though it may be granted that Scripture says that God is love and does not say that He is faith and hope. But God certainly has faith. He believes in Himself. And talk about a certain knowledge and a hearty confidence! You certainly find these in God. And where will you find one who expects more perfectly that which He desires? Consider even the alternatives. If God has no faith, He has unbelief, doubt, uncertainty. If God has no hope, He has despair. How could we ever dare to take such a position?
Nay, all three of these abide forever in God but also in His people. It is true that in us faith, hope and love will undergo some change, but they surely will abide forever in God’s people. Paul points out in the verses that just precede the statement that love is the greatest of these, that we shall see face to face and not know only in part, as now we do. This certainly will affect our faith, our hope and also our love.
Let me simply point out to you that Paul says it in so many words that these three abide. The word “now” does not mean that these three abide now, at this time, and not pretty soon. Instead Paul says, “Now, at this time, I want you to understand that faith, hope and love abide for all time and into the everlasting life of the New Jerusalem.” How else shall we explain the cry of the souls under the altar in Revelation 6? Without faith and hope they could not cry for the day of Christ to come. And try once to visualize what the alternative again would be for us. If we do not have faith in God, and have not trust and confidence in Him in the New Jerusalem, we have unbelief, distrust and lack of confidence. Is that possible? If there we do not have hope, we have despair; and how could that be heaven and glory? Nay, these shall be full and perfect and be ours to enjoy and through them to enjoy our salvation forever and forever.

II. A More Excellent Way
Looking more carefully now at this love, which is the greatest of these, I would point out that Paul calls it the “more excellent way” in the last verse of the twelfth chapter. And although I must say something more then about this love, I want to be careful not to trespass on the territory assigned to the other two speakers. Yet, I must point out here that by love in the entire chapter Paul has in mind love for or towards God. He is not thinking of a natural love which the creature may have for the creature. This is a matter of emotions. It is found not only in the unbeliever but also in the beasts of the field. And it is that which makes Valentine’s Day such a commercial success. This Paul cannot mean here in I Corinthians 13. Try it out once: “Love to man is greater than faith and hope in God.” That certainly is not telling it as it is. In no instance in the whole chapter ought we to read the word love that way, as though that is all that it said. Instead we must read each and every time, “and love not God” or “Love to God is…” Try that out once. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love to God, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Go now to verse 3 and you will see that this is the truth of the matter. “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor (that is, if I show this natural love to the neighbor) and though I (in that natural love of the emotions of the flesh) give my body to be burned and have not love to God, it profiteth me nothing.” Let me in parenthesis here point out to you young people that here indeed is the vital point of difference between us and so very many churches that claim to hold to the Reformed faith. Denying total depravity, the churches that put us outside of their fellowship in 1924 have since then maintained a certain “common grace” of God which so restrains sin in the heart of the sinner without regenerating him that he can perform works of “civic righteousness”. Paul certainly does not agree with that! He says that if we do what seems good in man’s eyes, God still calls it unrighteousness. There is no profit in it. It is not anything for which God will give a blessing. It is not righteousness, that is, is not anything that God calls right according to His law.
And now to return to what we began to say, in the verses 4-8, once again, we are to read, “Love towards God suffereth long and is kind, envieth not…” Look once at verses 6 and 7. Certainly natural love of man for man does rejoice in iniquity. Hollywood’s lovers rejoice in iniquity and plot it together. The natural love of man for man does not believe all things and hope all things and endure all things. That would have been the case, if we had not fallen into sin. Adam and Eve had that kind of love for each other. But today it is absolutely impossible for the man who has only natural love to believe all things, hope all things and endure all things.
Of course, there is an aspect of that love towards God that causes us to love men and to deal kindly with them. The love that causes us to keep the first table of the law leads us to keep the second table as well. Let me point out, however, that the love of which Paul speaks in chapter 13 is a matter of the will and not the emotions or the feelings. This is so because our love to or for God is nothing else than His own love for Himself, which He has shed abroad in our hearts. God causes us to love Him, and by doing so He causes us to love the neighbor for His sake. For love always seeks to please the object of that love. And when the love for God has been instilled in our hearts, then we want to do His will, for there is no other way to please Him. And we will want for the neighbor—no matter what a miserable character he may be—what God wants for him. We will not dishonor him when God has honored him with an office over us. We will not take away the life that God is pleased to give. We will not defile him, take his possessions away, say about him what God does not want us to say about him or covet anything that God has been pleased to give to him. But the point is that unless we have this love for God, we will not seek to deal with the neighbor as God wants him to be treated by us.
That is why Paul calls love “the more excellent way”. There can be no doubt about the fact that this is the relation between these two chapters of I Corinthians 12 and 13. Chapter 12 ends with an exhortation to covet the best gifts: because we always covet the more glamorous. In this instance, in the church at Corinth there was a striving for the gift of speaking with tongues. Such a gift would make a big impression upon people. To be able to do that was considered quite an achievement. It was far more glamorous than the work of patient teaching. But Paul says, “No, if you are going to covet one of these special gifts, then covet the best, namely prophecy, that is teaching (he says that in Chapter 14:1). And yet I will show you something more excellent than that. Pray God that you may have love towards Him.” And then he devotes a whole chapter to this more excellent way.
O, the idea is not that we cannot serve God with the gift of tongues or with the gift of prophecy. He surely does not mean that we cannot serve God in the offices to which He calls us. But he does mean that there is a more excellent way to serve God and a more excellent way to covet. Covet love for your God. For without love you certainly cannot serve Him in the office or with tongues or interpretation of tongues or with prophecy or with healing or working of miracles. Love is the special ingredient that enables us to use all the creatures of this earth in all our deeds in a way that pleases God.

III. A Vastly Superior Gift
This quite naturally brings us to the underlying question in that phase of this Convention’s theme which has been assigned to me. Why is love a greater virtue than faith and hope? If love is the more excellent way to serve God than these special gifts in the church, why is it greater than faith and hope? It is suggested by some that this is due to the very nature of love, because love is outward in its activity, while faith and hope by virtue of their natures are always inward in their activities. Through faith and hope we always benefit ourselves. These bring to us peace, confidence, contentment, a warm feeling that all is well. They do not benefit anyone but the one who possesses them. But love always benefits the object of that love. Love always serves the one whom we love. And if we love God, we will serve Him by serving the neighbor for His sake. Love has a farther outreach in its activities.
Now I will not deny that all this is true. It is quite in harmony with the whole sentiment of the two chapters. It explains why Paul urges us to covet the best gifts and then shows us a more excellent way. But I do not believe that this is the basic reason why love is greater than faith and hope.
Rather must we understand that love is that which gives our faith and hope their spiritual, ethical value? Our faith and hope depend upon love to be the faith and hope that is pleasing in God’s sight. Let us remember that all men have faith and hope. All men are believers. James tells us that the devil is a believer. He says in James 2:19, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.” But there surely is no virtue in that faith of the devils. Satan and his host keep on trying to destroy the Church of Christ and they hope to succeed. And they keep on trying exactly because they have some hope that they will succeed. Is there any virtue in that hope? And thus it is with those whom we call unbelievers. They have faith; even though we call them unbelievers because they do not have faith in Christ. They have hope, but they do not hope for the blessings promised in Christ. What virtue is there then in this faith and in this hope? Yea, these will testify against them in the day of days. But what makes our faith and our hope virtues is this greatest virtue of all, love toward God.
Turn now to verse 7 of this chapter and you will see this truth. Paul says that love believeth all things, hopeth all things. The love of God, working in that area of our souls wherewith we believe, causes us to believe in God as He has revealed Himself in Christ as the God of our salvation. The love of God, functioning in that sphere of our souls wherewith we hope, causes us to hope for the blessings promised us in Christ. And very plainly, then, without love we cannot call faith and hope virtues. These become virtues only because of that virtue of love. Therefore, love is the greatest of these and is the greatest virtue.
And it is exactly because of this truth that we come to the heart of the very matter, and that we can see that love is the greatest of these. It is this: Love makes us like God again! God is love; and the love of God shed abroad in our hearts makes us like Him once again! I say, once again, because we were created in His image to reflect in a creaturely way His virtues. The likeness is not physical, for God is a Spirit. But when Adam was yet in his state of righteousness, the virtues of God’s knowledge, righteousness and holiness shown forth in all that which he said and did.
Before he fell, Adam had in his spiritual arteries and veins the love of God. This love of God his heart pumped through his whole being, nourishing every cell and area of his body and soul. That love, nourishing that area of his soul wherewith he believed, caused him to have faith in God as his God and as God alone. That love, nourishing that area of his soul wherewith he hoped, caused him to long and expectantly look for a continuation of the covenant fellowship which he was enjoying with God. As a result, he had a walk in harmony with that faith and hope. And you saw God’s work of righteousness and holiness in Adam’s conduct and behavior.
But you know the story. Satan managed by means of the lie to begin a blood transfusion in us whereby all that love of God was drained out, and in its place hatred towards God flowed in to feed our whole spiritual being. By means of the lie, Satan did manage to get us to hate God. Envy, greed are the root of hatred. And now in place of that faith in God came suspicion, distrust and denial of His goodness. Our hope for His covenant fellowship was turned into hope for the impossible: To be like God essentially so that we could decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil. And the result is today—and I say it reverently—we look like the devil. Today, the veneer is rapidly being torn off and in all the rioting and looting, war and brutality, sexual immorality and open defiance of God in every department of life and in every sphere of our lives indicates our spiritual parent to be Satan rather than God.
But now when God, through His regenerating grace, sheds abroad His love again in our hearts, our faith again becomes trust and confidence in God and our hope becomes a confident longing for life with Him in the New Jerusalem. With the new birth comes new spiritual blood: The love of God. Now our faith and hope are richer, because now we have the love of God in Christ. Adam loved God before he fell. We love Him more richly because of His love manifested in the cross of Christ. And that richer blood makes us more like God than Adam was in his state of righteousness; for we are recreated in the image of Christ.
Talk then about a vastly superior gift! Faith and hope are precious gifts from God. An office in His Church is a gift to be appreciated. To have the gift of prophecy, of healings, of speaking or interpreting tongues are not to be despised. But the gift of love in our hearts makes all these so wonderful, and make it possible for us to serve God consciously and willingly with these other gifts. When the sub-topic, “The Greatest Virtue” was assigned to me, I was puzzled for a few moments. That love is a virtue was plain to me. But to call faith and hope virtues did not seem right. Faith and hope are activities. They are wonderful gifts of God’s grace. Yet the designation, “The Greatest Virtue” under the title, “The Greatest of These” means that we also call these lesser ones virtues. And the solution is exactly there: Love causes the child of God’s faith and hope to be virtues. The faith and hope of the unregenerated are nothing more than vices. Truly, then, of these three, love is the greatest virtue. And love is the vastly superior gift. Yes, we will need more than love. We will also need faith and hope; but love is the vastly superior gift of God’s love that makes these other gifts of faith and hope to be virtues.
Now our appearance is different. We no longer look like the devil. We look like God. We look like God’s only begotten Son. And then we also look upon all things in an entirely different way. The other two speakers will call your attention to this when they speak to you of, “The Strongest Bond” and “The Highest Calling”. That love of God in our hearts will make all things new. We will see God in a new light. We will see ourselves in a different light. We will see our calling before God in a different light. Love is that indispensible ingredient that makes us like God Who is love.
In conclusion, then, let me call your attention to what the psalmist says in Psalm 17:15. “But as for me,” he declares, “I will behold Thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied when I awake with Thy likeness.” Indeed: Man made in the likeness of God and fallen to look like the devil cannot be satisfied until he awakes with God’s likeness. He may try by rioting and revolt, be education and research to find a little happiness. He will not be satisfied until he awakes with God’s likeness. And only God’s elect children shall awake with it, because in this life already God begins to shed abroad His love in their hearts. Love makes us like God. And love satisfies. It is the greatest virtue and the vastly superior gift. Covet it, covenant young people, that you may be like God.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 29 No. 6 October 1969