This is the last part of this series in which we have been considering what true love is. Enjoy and be edified by these words of J.C. Ryle.
IV. Let me show, lastly, “why love is called the ‘greatest’ of the graces.”
The words of Paul, on this subject, are distinct and unmistakable. He winds up his wonderful chapter on love in the following manner: “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
This expression is very remarkable. Of all the writers in the New Testament, none, certainly, exalts “faith” as highly as Paul. The Epistles to the Romans and Galatians abound in sentences showing its vast importance. By it the sinner lays hold of Christ and is saved. Through it we are justified, and have peace with God. Yet here the same Paul speaks of something which is even greater than faith. He puts before us the three leading Christian graces, and pronounces the following judgment on them,–“The greatest is love.” Such a sentence from such a writer demands special attention. What are we to understand when we hear of love being greater than faith and hope?
We are not to suppose for a moment, that love can atone for our sins, or make our peace with God. Nothing can do that for us but the blood of Christ, and nothing can give us an interest in Christ’s blood but faith. It is unscriptural ignorance not to know this. The office of justifying and joining the soul to Christ belongs to faith alone. Our love, and all our other graces, are all more or less imperfect, and could not stand the severity of God’s judgment. When we have done all, we are “unworthy servants” (Like 17:10).
We are not to suppose that love can exist independently of faith. Paul did not intend to set up one grace in rivalry to the other. He did not mean that one man might have faith, another hope, and another love, and that the best of these was the man who had love. The three graces are inseparably joined together. Where there is faith, there will always be love; and where there is love, there will be faith. Sun and light, fire and heat, ice and cold, are not more intimately united than faith and love.
The reasons why love is called the greatest of the three graces, appear to me plain and simple. Let me show what they are.
(a) Love is called the greatest of graces because it is the one in which there is “some likeness between the believer and his God.” God has no need of faith. He is dependent on no one. There is none superior to Him in whom He must trust.–God has no need of hope. To Him all things are certain, whether past, present, or to come.–But “God is love:” and the more love His people have, the more like they are to their Father in heaven.
(b) Love, for another thing, is called the greatest of the graces because “it is most useful to others.” Faith and hope, beyond doubt, however precious, have special reference to a believer’s own private individual benefit. Faith unites the soul to Christ, brings peace with God, and opens the way to heaven. Hope fills the soul with cheerful expectation of things to come, and, amid the many discouragements of things seen, comforts with visions of the things unseen. But love is preeminently the grace which makes a man useful. It is the spring of good works and kindnesses. It is the root of missions, schools, and hospitals. Love made apostles spend and be spent for souls. Love raises up workers for Christ and keeps them working. Love smooths quarrels, and stops strife, and in this sense “covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Love adorns Christianity and recommends it to the world. A man may have real faith, and feel it, and yet his faith may be invisible to others. But a man’s love cannot be hidden.
(c) Love, in the last place, is the greatest of the graces because it is the one which “endures the longest.” In fact, it will never die. Faith will one day be swallowed up in sight, and hope in certainty. Their office will be useless in the morning of the resurrection, and like old almanacs, they will be laid aside. But love will live on through the endless ages of eternity. Heaven will be the home of love. The inhabitants of heaven will be full of love. One common feeling will be in all their hearts, and that will be love.
I leave this part of my subject here and pass on to a conclusion. On each of the three points of comparison I have just named, between love and the other graces, it would be easy to enlarge. But time and space both forbid me to do so. If I have said enough to guard men against mistakes about the right meaning of the “greatness” of love, I am content. Love, be it ever remembered, cannot justify and put away our sins. It is neither Christ, nor faith. But love makes us somewhat like God. Love is of mighty use to the world. Love will live and flourish when faith’s work is done. Surely, in these points of view, love well deserves the crown.
(1) And now let me ask every one into whose hands this paper may come a simple question. Let me press home on your conscience the whole subject of this paper. Do you know anything of the grace of which I have been speaking? Have you love?
The strong language of the Apostle Paul must surely convince you that the inquiry is not one that ought to be lightly put aside. The grace without which that holy man could say, “I am nothing,” the grace which the Lord Jesus says expressly is the great mark of being His disciple,–such a grace as this demands the serious consideration of every one who is in earnest about the salvation of his soul. It should set him thinking,--“How does this affect me? Do I have love?”
You have some knowledge, it may be, of religion. You know the difference between true and false doctrine. You can, perhaps, even quote texts and defend the opinions you hold. But, remember the knowledge which is barren of practical results in life and temperament is a useless possession. The words of the Apostle are very plain “If I fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).
You think you have faith, perhaps. You trust you are one of God’s elect, and rest in that. But surely you should remember that there is a faith of devils, which is utterly unprofitable, and that the faith of God’s elect is a “faith expressing itself through love.” It was when Paul remembered the “love” of the Thessalonians, as well as their faith and hope, that he said “We know, that He has chosen you” (1 Thessalonians 1:4).
Look at your own daily life, both at home and away, and consider what place the love of Scripture has in it. What is your temperament? What are your ways of behaving toward all around you in your own family? What is your manner of speaking, especially in seasons of irritation and provocation? Where is your good-nature, your courtesy, your patience, your meekness, your gentleness, your toleration? Where are your practical actions of love in your dealing with others? What do you know of the mind of Him who “went around doing good”–who loved everyone, though especially His disciples,–who returned good for evil, and kindness for hatred, and had a heart wide enough to feel for everyone?
What would you do in heaven, I wonder, if you got there without love? What comfort could you have in a home where love was the law, and selfishness and ill-nature completely shut out? Yes! I fear that heaven would be no place for an unloving and ill-tempered man!–Note what a little boy said one day?” If grandfather goes to heaven, I hope that I and my brother will not go there.” “Why do you say that?” he was asked. He replied, “If he sees us there, I am sure he will say, as he does now,–“What are these boys doing here? Let them get out of the way.” He does not like to see us on earth, and I suppose he would not like to see us in heaven.”
Give yourself no rest till you know something by experience of real Christian love. Go and learn of Him who is meek and lowly of heart, and ask Him to teach you how to love. Ask the Lord Jesus to put His Spirit within you, to take away the old heart, to give you a new nature, to make you know something of His mind. Cry to Him night and day for grace, and give Him no rest until you feel something of what I have been describing in this paper. Happy indeed will your life be when you really understand “walking in love.”
(2) But I do not forget that I am writing to some who are not ignorant of the love of Scripture, and who long to feel more of it every year. I will give you two simple words of exhortation. They are these,–“Practice and teach the grace of love.”
Practice love diligently. It is one of those graces, above all, which grow by constant exercise. Strive more and more to carry it into every little detail of daily life. Watch over your own tongue and temper throughout every hour of the day,–and especially in your dealing with children and near relatives. Remember the character of the excellent woman: “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26). Remember the words of Paul: “Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). Love should be seen in little things as well as in great ones. Remember, not least, the words of Peter: “Love each other deeply;” not a love which just barely is a flame, but a burning, shining fire, which everyone around us can see. (1 Peter 4:8) It may cost pains and trouble to keep these things in mind. There may be little encouragement from the example of others. But persevere. Love like this brings its own reward.
Finally, teach love to others. Press it above all on children, if you have any. Remind them constantly that kindness, good nature, and good disposition are among the first evidences which Christ requires in children. If they cannot know much, or explain doctrines, they can understand love. A child’s religion is worth very little if it only consists in repeating texts and hymns. Useful as they are, they are often learned without thought, remembered without feeling, said over without consideration of their meaning, and forgotten when childhood is gone. By all means let children be taught texts and hymns; but let not such teaching be made everything in their religion. Teach them to keep their tempers, to be kind to one another, to be unselfish, good-natured, obliging, patient, gentle, forgiving. Tell them never to forget to their dying day, if they live as long as Methuselah, that without love the Holy Spirit says, “we are nothing.” Tell them “over all virtues to put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14).
May HIS PERFECT LOVE abound!
The first part of this series is here.