There’s a quiet little Scriptural principle about faith and love that encourages me. Let me see if I can explain it here in a way that makes sense.
I’ll start with my own experience today. This morning, driving into work, I was thinking about 1 John 4:7-21. It talks about God’s nature being love, and how that love is manifested to us and in us. First and foremost, God’s love is shown in the historical fact of Jesus becoming a man and dying for our sins. Second, it is shown as we let Him love others through us.
I began praying that I would show enough love to my students today that it would be a witness of God’s love for them, but as I thought about it, that seemed to assume that my own personal acts of love were somehow more important than the gospel itself. I decided the focus of my prayers shouldn’t be that people would be impressed by my love, but that they would be impressed by His.
Sure enough, just after my first class, I failed in a small but definite way to demonstrate love to one of my students. I tried to get past my own embarrassment and dismay to remember that it’s far more important that students see the love of God demonstrated in the gospel, than that they be impressed by me.
An hour later, in a time of worship and Bible study, several Christians confirmed this (without knowing it) by reminding me of the importance of simply remembering how much God loves me.
1 John 4:7-8 says,
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Verses 11-12 say,
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.
Clearly, we are told to love one another, and that doing so displays the nature of God to others.
But right in between those two verses, we have these:
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
In other words: Love others, and expect that to help them see God. But the most important thing isn’t what you do; it’s what God has done for you.
That brings me to the quiet little principle I promised at the beginning.
Scripture refers to faith and love as all-important elements of the Christian life, but they are important in different ways. Faith is where we must always start. Love is where we must always end up.
- 2 Peter 1:5-8 describes Christian growth as a process which begins with faith and leads step by step to love.
- 1 Timothy 1:5 says the goal of Christian teaching is love which springs from a sincere faith.
- Galatians 5:6 says that the Christian life is characterized by faith working through love. In context, the point is that it must start from faith rather than self-effort. Faith sets to work and keeps working until it has worked its way all the way to love.
1 John makes the same point, but it describes faith specifically as faith in God’s love. In receiving the gospel,
… we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. (1 John 4:16.)
This is where all our love starts:
We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19.)
Ephesians 3:14-19 is similar:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.
Paul prays for believers to have the faith to see God’s love for them.
So the quiet little principle is this: Faith first, then love. Receive first, then give. Trust first, then obey. My first response to God, even before I give anything to him in ministry, is to receive what He gives me in the gospel. That way I’ll have all I need to give to others, and the focus will be on God’s grace, rather than on my obedience.