This verse, and the whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, teaches us about the generosity of holy love. The abundant, overflowing, willingness for good. In it, we can see that God is the great Spring, the great Source, of such love. God is so abundant in His willingness for our good—that we’d be saved, believing in Christ, obeying Him, repenting of sins, walking in truth and holiness—and He will do all to help us in these things. His love is overflowing with such goodness. And as His children, this is precisely the goodwill that we should be filled with. These streams of living water that flow through us (John 7:38) come from this Source—the abundant generosity of God’s love.
Within our understanding of this, we need to be clear on many things that hinder such love. To be clear, selfishness, laziness, and worldliness are a few of the great hindrances to it. But the specific point we hope to make more clear today is the need to see this love and generosity within its purity, and how essential purity is to this love. Namely, that God’s love and godly love are rooted in the upholding of His will—it is rooted in His purposes of bringing us out of all sin and into holiness. The center of God’s love towards mankind is “to bless [us] by turning every one of [us] from [our] wickedness.” (Act 3:26) This is the center of God’s heart, and it is the center of all His goodwill and love towards us. If we fail to see that holiness, repentance, and the fear of the Lord are entirely one with God’s love, defining it, the source of it, and the aim of it, then this will hinder us from walking in God’s love just as much as any selfishness or laziness. What is perhaps even worse within this condition is that we will run ourselves ragged in the name of God’s love, yet be fruitless because our very efforts have actually been opposed to God and what He defines love and goodwill to be.
Many of the hindrances to such holy love revealed in 1 Corinthians 13 are most certainly selfishness, pride, laziness, unkindness, covetousness, envy, pride, rudeness, etc. We are in real need of contending against such sins. But often we think that these alone will be our hindrance to walking in love, and we miss a more covert issue—that of walking in a wrong doctrine about what love is. We may even assume that our lack of love is rooted in selfishness, impatience, etc, and this thinking can actually drive us more furiously after these wrong ideas of love, depriving us of the opportunity to access the real reasons for our weakness: our opposition to God’s holiness and His requirement that we step in and also become holy (1 Pet 1:15-16).
To go forward in God’s love rightly we must understand that God’s love is holy, that His love is defined by His holiness and a right fear of Him, and this definition is often missing in our interpretations of love. We must come to see that many of the ideas we take up about His love are actually opposed to Him, and do not come from God, but the world. These ideas weaken our faith, and no matter how “hard” we seek them, they can never strengthen it. The ideas of love from the world are a compromise to the truth and can even lead to outright apostasy and falling away from Christ. They can also embitter us against God because, after serving these ideas for a time, we begin to think that God is unjust (rather than our ideas of love being unjust). This issue is no small concern for us, as these ideas can have far greater effects than we were ever prepared for. Therefore it is essential that we look at the differences between what we will call God’s holy love, and the world’s counterfeit of it.
Running After the Wrong Love
One of the reasons we take in wrong ideas of love is because we do not perceive or acknowledge that there are significant differences between the world’s ideas of love and God’s definition of it, and that there is great danger in taking on the world’s definition. When we try to understand God’s love based on what the world believes love is supposed to be, we frequently try to take up the command of God to love but carry it out in worldly methods. We hear the call to love and we say, “I know what that is!” And we run fast in the very worldliness we are meant to be cleansed of. Rather than becoming evangelists of God’s love, we become evangelists of a “love” that may have some influences from God, but is actually very different both in nature and expression.
The sin here is that we think these ideas of love are good, and we are too easily impressed with the world's ideas about goodness, love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, etc. We do not realize how lacking they are in holiness and justice, and how incompatible they are with God’s righteous law and His judgement. Nor do we realize that our lack of such understanding and desire for such things reveals the unrighteousness in our hearts, and that we do not actually understand what good is; more, that we actually oppose what is good with our ideas of goodness. It matters a great deal what we think love is, not just that we strive after it. Our very striving can prove how much we love worldly ideas of good, rather than God’s.
This is why it is so essential as believers that we have our minds transformed (Rom 12:2). We must have our thinking, ideas, beliefs, desires, affections, and understanding completely transformed by God. Too often Christians do not understand how essential this work is in their sanctification, and that if this work is not being done in them, then all their efforts, even in God’s name, can be foolish, sinful, and actually oppose the will of God.
When we are not seeking to have our minds transformed by the Word and the Spirit, we are too quick to accept our natural ideas of what is “good” to be what God means for us to walk in. We do not have the ability to discern the difference. And as the Lord fills our hearts with peace, His presence, or a zeal for Him, we often actually think this is somehow an approval of our ideas about love, goodness, mercy, etc. Too easily we think that God’s goodness filling our hearts means He approves of our ideas, thinking, and affections. As if, because we’re born again, and receiving life from Christ, this means that we can now discern what is of God through the natural person, rather than being accountable to grow in spiritual discernment: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor 2:14) Many run full speed in their ideas about things, imagining God’s Word supports them in this.
But how do I have my mind transformed? Oh dear believer, if you are only faithful to God, it is quite possible. God will do it as we are faithful to Him—as we press in, daily, sincerely, after His Word, as we daily seek Him in prayer to change us and uphold us to do His will, and as we are faithful to follow His direction in all His providence in order to build holy character and better understand God’s will. If only we are faithful to God, He will do this great work. Or does He not promise that those who seek Him will find Him? This is the exact reward of faithfulness: godliness. Your only concern needs to be living according to a true, abiding faithfulness to Christ, and He will faithfully do the work of transformation in you.
At the beginning of our faith especially, but at any point along our walk, we often do not realize just how sinful we actually are. All of our ideas, thinking, affections, desires, and ambitions are corrupted with sin, and all of them must be sanctified in Christ for our efforts to be truly godly. And this most certainly includes “good” things too, like love.
Man’s Idea of Good
As our minds are transformed, we will begin to see that the world’s love is entirely contradictory to God’s love. It does not bless man by turning them from their wickedness, redeeming man from sin, and lifting him up into redemption, salvation, and holiness. Rather, it removes the standards of God altogether and teaches that this is a “mercy”. This “mercy” is all about removing the call for repentance, obedience to God, submission to God, worshipping Him, thanking Him, and serving Him. And this is the “good news” they preach! “‘Do not preach’—thus they preach— ‘one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us.’” (Micah 2:6). There is no intention of turning mankind away from his rebellion back to obedience to God; rather, the intent is precisely the opposite, working to provide him the perverse “right” to sin against God and man.
Man’s great idea of goodness is rooted in Psalm 2:1-3: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’” Mankind’s idea of good is to be free of God and His Law. They believe it is evil for God to command man in how to live, and to judge man for his sins.
The world has many false ideas about love that are completely contrary to God. The world wants all the blessings of God without any obedience to Him, wants peace but also to walk in sin. It wants people to be fair to each other, but not to be fair to God. It wants to have and to offer the greatest sense of happiness with one’s self without having to confront one’s cherished sins. It wants to be liked and admired by people, even if it means smiling upon despicable things. It wants to authorize each person to trust their own selves to know what is right, but it refuses to accept that God knows what is right. It wants to demand that God “blesses” them with whatever they demand, without any responsibility to respond rightly to Him. It wants to be “happy” without any responsibility to be holy towards God or man. The world believes that this deep selfishness against God and man is without fault and that love is to indulge people within these desires. It will “break out” of this selfishness in order to grant the same selfishness to others as some perverse form of morality, but it will never break out of this rebellion against God and turn back to Him, the only true morality.
Man also thinks the way to love him most is to flatter him. Consider how this is true. Though he is “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”, he believes it is good to call him, “rich, prosperous, and needing nothing.” (Rev 3:17) He will be more happy with himself and with you if you do not tell him of his sins, or the need to repent, but simply tell him he is good. To him, it is right to honor him with a “good” he is not worthy of, and he delights in this. To not tell him he is blind and foolish, but to tell him he’s wise, mature, and gifted. To not tell him his ways are shameful and wrong, but to call him beautiful and innocent. To not tell him of God’s judgement against sin, but to remove the truth of sin, holiness, God’s wrath, and eternity altogether. To deny the great reality of God’s Law and His judgement and to let him “sleep” and remain “drunk” until that great day comes upon him suddenly (1 Thess 5:3).
Man also believes that if they are merely loved or favored in all the ways they believe are necessary, they will then walk within what is good. And that the “lack” of this love or nurturing is the reason for sin. They do not believe their own self is corrupted with a sin nature, but that it is merely a lack of being loved that creates sin or evil, and that this “love” is the cure for humanity. But God reveals that this thinking is foolish: “If favor is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly and does not see the majesty of the LORD.” (Is 26:10) Compare this with Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” God reveals that it is not favor that changes a person, but submission and obedience to the Lord. Man wants to believe that his sin is really proof that he needs to be given favor, that giving him this love he deems right is what will do good to him and will cause him to do good. But the Lord knows that it is only obedience to Him that will ever work real good. Man does not understand that his efforts do not produce the righteousness that he imagines, but actually this “favor” often produces more sin and pride in a person, not less. God’s Word alone shows mankind the path to life and salvation: believing in Jesus Christ and obeying Him. (See: “Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’” John 14:23. “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Isaiah 32:17)
This is the love that man wants, having no idea just how empty, lifeless, and deadly their desires actually are. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 14:12) How evil their good is, and how good are those that they think are evil (God and His Law). “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Is 5:20) It is true that man is very convinced of his ideas of what is good, but it is untrue that they lead anywhere “living” or good. In reality, a great part of mankind’s self deception is here: he cannot see that the very good he insists upon is actually evil. We must come to see how evil our efforts after goodness actually can be.
If we are intent on being faithful to God, then we will see that all of these ideas come from a sinful heart and not a redeemed one, that these are the ideas that come from the flesh. And that God hates all of the ideas and shows how they are opposed to Himself and true goodness. In reality, they are born of a wicked heart.
Why Man’s “Love” Is Not Good, and “Goodness” Is Not Loving
We must come to see that God knows what man refuses to know, and thinks is cruel: that there is no peace for the wicked (Isaiah 57:21). That man can go on in his sin and rebellion for a time, but that he can never prosper in it, not ultimately—he will never get away with his sins. Therefore God’s great Gospel to mankind is sending our Lord Jesus to save us from our sins. This is a rescue! This is the greatest love!
God knows that the day of the Lord is approaching in which He will judge all of mankind for all that they have done in this life (Rom 2:6-8, Eccl 3:17, 12:14, Acts 17:30-31, Rom 14:12). And God’s Gospel is to save us from such a day by atoning for us and raising us up out of sin, into holiness.
The world’s gospel is to deny the day of judgement, leaving people entirely unprepared for it. Regardless of their reasons, this is ultimately the outcome of all their efforts, the true “end” of the way that looks right to them, but leads to death (Prov 14:12). It is the Lord’s mercy that is real mercy, because He makes a way for all who come to Him for salvation from such a great day. He cleanses us from our sin and is able to set us before Himself, blameless on the day of Christ (Jude 1:24, Col 1:22). This is what actual goodness and love look like. Man’s mercy is cruel because it ultimately drags people’s souls to hell. “... the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Prov 12:10) “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.” (1 Thess. 5:3-4)
The world is very fooled by their own morality because they think that what is moral is allowing man to live however he wishes without consequence, to “tolerate” his sins, failing to see that the center of the issue is that man is still living in rebellion against God and His ways. And there are great consequences to such ambitions. It is wickedness against God in this life, and it is utter destruction in the next life. All of mankind's ideas of goodness or love are rooted within an illusion, and are entirely empty of power for reality (2 Tim 3:5).
Within this, mankind does not understand a very important truth: that sin is anything that is rebellion against God. And that only what is truly of submission to God is good. This is key for understanding what is moral and what is not. Only by this will we know what is good or evil, light or darkness. Too easily mankind trusts in defining morality by much lower definitions of good, and this is always measured by what seems right in his eyes, rather than what is right in God’s eyes (Judges 21:25). And as we have seen, our ideas do not actually lead where we think that they do. In reality, what motivates us, this rebellion or submission that is at the center of our hearts, is what defines righteousness or sin. Therefore, regardless of what man thinks is moral, his very efforts are sinful and deadly because they are motivated from opposition to God. And any effort rooted in this will always be sin.
The Bible reveals what mankind's true issue actually is: his unbelief, and his refusal of the truth. “Because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thess 2:10) Man runs fast after all his ideas and remedies, and if he is not careful he will be deceived into thinking his efforts are virtuous, rather than rooted in rebellion and unbelief against God. Our turning and submitting to God is the very center of righteousness. This alone will be what is holy, good, and right.
All of these efforts reveal what a great many actually trust in: lawlessness. They trust in this to be their goodness, freedom, and salvation. They even create their own “laws” to uphold this lawless rule—“Thou shalt not judge any sin… Thou shalt not preach God’s Word or the truth of His judgement (Micah 2:6)… Thou shalt not be intolerant of or unhappy with the sinful choices of others… etc.” But all of their laws are rooted in this rejection of right law, God’s law, and all their “love” or “goodness” are based within this lawlessness against God. It demands that “goodness” and “love” be based upon the lie that we have no responsibility to submit to God’s commands or righteousness, the lie that God will not judge us by His Law, and the lie that we can prosper without God, Him alone guiding us within the truth of what is good and evil (Gen 3:5).
Mankind lives in this great self deception, and his morality, like everything else springs from such a place.
God knows what is actually true, and His love is intended to turn man from his wickedness, saving man from his sins and rebellion and bringing him back into obedience and service to Himself. (Rom 2:4) God loves is to save man from all of his sins and self deception, bringing him out of lies and darkness, and into the truth (John 8:12, 1 Pet 2:9, 2 Cor 4:4-6, 1 John 1:5, John 1:1-14). God’s love is in knowing that man is granted to live out his choices for a time (and within boundaries) and yet he will be called to account for all of them (Rom 2:6-8,16, Acts 17:30-31, Eccl 12:14, Rom 14:12, Matt 16:27). God gives time and grace for repentance and maintains mercy and justice by being sure to judge all sins that people have refused to turn from.
God knows that we will all face His judgement, and His solution to this is not to remove His judgement (lawlessness), but to save us through Jesus Christ. His solution is to atone for our sins and sanctify us, preparing us for that day of judgement (Eph 1:4). To not just save us from the consequences of our sins, but to save us from our sins themselves. To turn us back to God and back to holiness. This is the redemption of God through Jesus Christ. It is not a freedom from holiness, but raises us up to it.
For the Church
Many Christians today are deceived by the world’s ideas of love and goodness, failing to realize that the spirit within them is entirely contrary to Christ. Because these ideas are so often presented as being Christian, confusion abounds and many are hindered in obeying God. We both walk in these ideas ourselves and also command others to walk in them, with no thought in our mind of the devastating effect such beliefs cause.
It is because so many Christians try to take the great, amazing things of God’s love but try to apply it within these ungodly beliefs that so much Christian love is naive, powerless, burdensome, unrighteous, and downright foolish. We need to see that what we believe has great effects upon our lives, the lives of others, and on the Gospel going forward in wisdom, meekness, and power.
The church today has great need of seeing just how dangerous the world’s ideas of goodness and love actually are. Many of us experience the painful ways in which this ends so badly. If we don’t experience the pain of it, then the sad truth is that we are simply blind to its effects. It means that we will never rightly understand God’s love for us, walk in the right love we are meant to have for each other, declare God’s Gospel rightly to the world, or glorify Christ as we should. God is faithful to His Word, to declare it in spite of us, but it means that we are never truly right with God.
These beliefs will lead to our harm. And yet the devil works through many Christians to obligate other believers to obey these ideas, making them feel that to reject these ideas is one and the same with rejecting true godly love and goodwill towards man.
This means that we can easily become obligated to serve a false gospel. When these ideas fail these people, as they inevitably will, then they will believe that it is God who failed them, rather than these false beliefs.
It is very important that we realize how much power and obligation can get behind something when its heading is “goodness” and “love”, and how this can powerfully drive people to do the devil’s will, because he has hidden his agenda under the guise of “God’s will”.
Falling prey to such agendas comes from not being discerning as to what is of the spirit of Christ and what is not: “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:14)
And this discernment is only developed by “constant practice” in giving ourselves to the Word of God, having our minds transformed, our affections renewed, and our beliefs changed. It cannot be stated enough how essential our devotion to the Word of God is, and how our failure to keep God’s Word diligently and with sincerity is the very reason we drift away from what is true (Heb 2:1).
All of these things are very important for us to recognize because there is much today that goes on in the very name of love, redemption, forgiveness, truth; all of which are contrary to Christ and the Gospel precisely because they set themselves up as false gods against Him, trying to steal the very things that belong to Him and His Gospel alone. And we as believers are very often deceived today to walk contrary to true love by things that call themselves by these very names.
When we try to pervert God’s grace in such a way, we actually make God’s love void and enslave ourselves to much lower motivations for love. Rather than being rooted in the incredible dignity of being God’s servant, we become subjected to the devil and the mere gratifications of man. There is a great cost when love is no longer defined by holiness and motivation to kill sin and to serve God.
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Heb 2:1)
Church, we have much more work to do than we admit to. I do not mean a work of frantic evangelizing, but the work of truly giving ourselves to the study of God’s Word and prayer. This is the greatest need of every Christian, to have our thinking and beliefs transformed by the Word of God. If we truly want to be kept safe from these errors, and other ones, then let us give careful attention to God’s Word. “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” (Psalm 119:9)
As stated, we need to realize that what we believe has far greater effects than we imagine. As believers, we must continually be on guard against ideas and beliefs, because these corrupt us just as much as any sinful desire! What you believe matters! And we must continually set a watch to guard our hearts and minds and ensure that what we are believing aligns with the truth and is not merely a product of our own hearts, the world, or even the ideas of other Christians. What you believe sets the course for your entire life. Guard it, fiercely.
There are so many ideas in the church today that come from the world, and are in enmity with God. We have set out in this article to try to explain how the beauty of 1 Corinthians 13 is only beautiful when set in its right place within the whole picture of God. This beauty is ruined if it is set within the world’s rebellion against God. As believers, may we be equipped to reject the foolish idea that the removal of holiness is the way to view God’s love. It is precisely the opposite; it is through holiness that we see God’s love rightly.
The world is very ignorant of what the true standard of love is because they choose to not know God, His Word, and His ways. They refuse to come to Him that they may have life (John 5:40). Are we to then take up the world’s methods of love? Do we also resist the Gospel by our rejection of God’s definition of goodness and love? How sad that we so often resist God in who He is, and His Gospel in its work, by foolish ideas that we think are unique and enlightening, failing to realize that we are just obeying the world and the devil.
We may use the same words—goodness, love, grace, mercy—but we need to become clear on what God means by them, and understand how wildly different this can be from others who use the very same words.
We cannot be filled with God’s overflowing, generous love if we are not united with God in what He defines love to even be. And it is precisely what He reveals in Acts 17:30-31: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” God’s love is not in removing such a day, but is preparing mankind for such a day. What a great difference there is between the two. God is loving you by making you holy! Why do you “kick against the goads”? (Acts 26:14) May the Lord give us a deeper understanding of His love for us, of what goodness truly is, and may we join with him in this preparation.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
1 Corinthians 13:7
God’s Holy Love and the World’s Counterfeit
Why All Our Efforts for Goodness Outside of God Are Evil
Running After the Wrong Love
Man’s Idea of Good
Why Man’s “Love” Is Not Good and “Goodness” Is Not Loving
For the Church