Love Never Fails

1 Corinthians

Paul introduced the subject of special spiritual gifts in chapter 12 speaking of their sovereign distribution of them by the Holy Spirit. He emphasized that these gifts were granted, not to isolate individuals from one another, but to increase the health of the entire church and contribute to its unity. In chapter 14, Paul wrote about the relative value of these gifts for the edification of the church and the correct practice of these gifts when the body, the church, has come together. In between, here in chapter 13, Paul distinguishes between the work of the Spirit in communicating his own nature, love, and in granting these special gifts. The first is essential, saving, and permanent; the second is pragmatic and passing. The first is “more excellent,” (12:31) that is, of a superior quality to all the gifts of miraculous knowledge and power. Paul had urged the Corinthians to desire the greater gifts that would advance knowledge and manifest power, but this work of love is more excellent than the greatest of those and superior to all of them combined.

I. Extraordinary operations of the Spirit do not necessarily indicate the fundamental operation of regeneration. Paul established, in accord with the entire witness of Scripture, that that operation of saving grace in the human heart begins with the restoration of love. He goes on to show that the culmination of saving grace is our entrance into a world of love in fellowship with the triune God.

A. The Corinthian church gave prominent manifestation that the new covenant era fulfilled Moses’s hope expressed in Numbers 11:29 (“Oh that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!”) as well as the prophecies of Joel 2:28-32, as pronounced by Peter in Acts 2:17-21). Gifts of prophecy and other evidences of the effusion of the Spirit came to the people of God on a comprehensive scale. In 12:8-10, Paul mentioned 9 variations of extraordinary gifts that the people in the church at Corinth experienced and exercised.

B. Here he compares love to two types of manifestations that may be common to regenerate and unregenerate alike.

  1. First he isolates the extraordinary work of the Spirit in giving gifts of tongues, prophecy, special knowledge, and faith.
  • These are gifts given to Christians in order to give instruction, edification, and confidence in the ways of God to the church. It is a great honor to be granted such gifts. Moses was given them as were the apostles. They were distributed profusely in the church for instruction and as evidence of the outpouring of the Spirit. The Corinthian church demonstrated a peculiarly widespread profusion of spiritual gifts.
  • These gifts, however, may be given to individuals even apart from the preceding and saving work of regeneration. Judas received extraordinary gifts without having a change of heart (Luke 10:17-20). Balaam was granted a gift of prophecy while he was yet an enemy of God (Numbers 22-24; 31:8; Jude 11). Jesus said to give greater value to salvation than to such gifts. Jesus warned that even in the day of judgment when people plead the reception of extraordinary gifts such as prophecy, casting out demons, and performing works of wonder as a reason to enter the kingdom of God Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:22, 23).
  • Gifts of speech and power will profit a person nothing in the absence of the transforming work of the Spirit in the new birth which involves the changing of the affections and the shedding abroad of the love of God in the heart (Romans 5:5).
  • Hebrews 6 gives an outline of how some may fall away even when they have had the highest of spiritual advantages that stopped short of regeneration: These were enlightened, thoroughly instructed in divine truth from the word of God. They tasted the heavenly gift, saw the transforming effects of regeneration and benefited from the goodness and kindness of spiritual people. They were partakers in the Holy Spirit, saw miraculous operations of the Spirit, perhaps even had the gifts of prophecy and tongues. They tasted the goodness of the word of God, heard powerful preaching, received earnest instruction, and were gripped by the transcendent character of Christian truth and the magnetism of the life of Jesus. Even with this, they fall away, and conclude that in spite of all these evidences Jesus is not worthy of trust, thus reenacting the rejection that led to his crucifixion. (Hebrews 6:4-6). The writer, however, was convinced of better things of his readers for he observed their “work and labor of lovewhich [they]showed toward his name.”
  1. Acts of great personal sacrifice may be performed apart from the presence of love.
  • One may give all possessions for benevolent purposes without the act arising from love. Certainly, if one loves he will give. For that reason, John queried, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). Paul uses this example in light of how closely aligned spiritual love is to generous giving. Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all he had, give it to the poor and follow him. He could not part with his earthly possessions. Even this act, however, of parting with all earthly goods may be done for a reason other than love.
  • One may make the sacrifice of life. Surely, if one truly has been converted so that he counts Christ worth more than life, he will be willing to die. Paul said, “For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). If the giving of life, however, is merely a manifestation of courageous self-resolve and does not flow from love for God, it is useless.

C. The Love of which he speaks is the love that is the first operation of regeneration. Since our sin, both internally and externally, amounts to transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4), regeneration restores the substance of the law into the heart (Psalm 119:4-5, 17-18, 33-34, 36-37, 92, 97, 153-155, 166-167,174-176; Jeremiah 31:33, 34).

  1. The first set of the commandments is summarized in the commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” This is the primary commandment and no other commandment can be kept in sincerity without the foundation of this. God is the greatest and best of all beings and is more worthy and lovely than we can conceive even in our most generous conceptions of beauty, excellence, and worthiness. It is both irrational and unethical to hold any object above the triune God in our affections.
  2. The second table of the ten commandments is summarized as, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is clear that we love ourselves, seek to preserve ourselves, seek our advantage; if this is done in a way that shows lack of regard for others or even to the detriment of others, then we live in violation of this command. The goal, in fact, is to “consider others better than ourselves” even as Christ did in his incarnation for the purpose of redeeming his people (Philippians 2:3-5).


II. Paul shows how love expresses itself situationally in human relations. These manifestations are for all men in general but particularly for other children of God and fellow church members.

A. Love expresses all the attributes that God expressed in his saving actions toward us. Love is patient even as God is patient in bringing his elect in spite of their rebellion to himself (1 Timothy 1:16). Love is kind, even as God showed his kindness in sending his Son to save such rebels (Titus 3:4).

B. Love acts with true humility, avoiding jealousy and does not nurse a sense of self-importance. The person driven by love does not conduct himself in a way that portrays indecency but always seeks to reflect virtue, honor, and goodness. Love does not have sharpness of spirit (Robertson) engaging in sarcastic responses or developing a fuming anger toward a person. Love does not put wrongs in a ledger book to be brought back to mind at an advantageous time.

C. Love is so vitally connected with righteousness, purity, holiness, and goodness that it finds no charm in any species of unrighteousness. Love finds little if anything funny or clever about the carping, sarcastic, sex-driven punch lines in much modern comedy and entertainment. Instead, loves finds glory in the truth, particularly the fullness of revealed truth about the goodness of God.

D. Love bears all things—it allows us to embrace every providence with gratitude. Love believes all things—it makes us perfectly compliant with every proposition of divine revelation. Love finds joy in the report of past accomplishments of God, present duties to which we are admonished, and future promises that enliven our hope. Love hopes all things—it makes the power of his presence and future conformity to his image the motivation of life. Love endures all things—it counts, like Moses the reproach of Christ as greater riches than the treasures of Egypt and, with Paul, counts all things but loss, counts them rubbish, in order that it may gain Christ and be found in him.


III. Love is an absolute as a foundation for saving knowledge of God and is the goal of all Christian graces. We might say that love is the single eternal personal absolute. All those things that we partition as attributes of God, employing divinely revealed language to do so, are elements of God’s perfect three-personed love consistently and perfectly binding these three persons into a single essence of deity (See Colossians 3:14).

A. All the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit will pass away of themselves. Our knowledge and our prophecy in this present age all are in part. By the time the perfect comes, the gifts, all those purveyors of the knowledge of the truth “shall have passed away” (verse 10, future passive). At some point prior to the coming of the perfect, when the purpose of these revelatory gifts is complete, they will no longer be operative. Their revelation continues for this age in the written words of Scripture, but even the Scripture, complete in its purpose and unwavering in its truthfulness given by God in this age lets us know only in part.

B. Our knowledge in this age is like the knowledge of a child in preparation for the maturity of adulthood (11). Even as expansive as our knowledge may be here as many precious truths from the written word of revelation that we may eagerly receive and find intoxicating in their profundity, it is still in part.

C. In verse 12, Paul juxtaposes seeing in a mirror dimly with knowing in part. By contrast then, he puts “then face to face,” with “then I will know fully just as I also have been known.” This, therefore, is the time in which we “know in part.” When we actually are in the presence of the glorified Christ, and sense and see the fullness of divine glory we will “fully know” the eternal power and glory and goodness and holiness of divine love.

D. Now abide faith, hope, and love. Faith sustains us presently through confidence in the completed work of Christ by which sin has been forgiven, righteousness has been imputed, and all the promises of God have been believed. Hope looks to the time when Christ returns, and we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2, 3). Love, however, has been the fountain from which all spiritual blessings have come to us (Ephesians 1:4, 5; 2:4). The love of God granted us the Lord Jesus in his completed work and gives an inseparable bond between those whom he foreknew, that is, foreloved, and those whom he finally glorifies (Romans 8:39).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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