These three

A summary of the Christian life

  
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Amidst the disorienting sadness of the last week following my mother’s death, gratitude keeps breaking through—not only for her life and faith, but for the messages of sympathy, encouragement and hope that many of you have sent in—so many in fact that I don’t think I will be able to answer them all individually. Thank you for being so thoughtful.   

The funeral has been delayed until next week (for covid/lockdown reasons), and so I have a few extra days to do the job I’ve been given—of drawing together the memories and thoughts of her family and friends into a eulogy. 

As people send me their ideas and memories and appreciations of Mum’s life, three common themes keep emerging: her deep Christian conviction; her warm and energetic practical care for other people; and her indefatigable positivity in the face of life’s sorrows and disappointments. 

Or to use the Bible’s language: faith, love and hope. 

As much as I might be tempted (and she might approve), I don’t think Mum’s eulogy will be quite the place to undertake a deep exploration of the Bible’s teaching on faith, love and hope as the essence of the Christian life. But it is a topic that I’ve had in my ideas file for a while now.

It has often fascinated me that the New Testament’s most common and foundational language for Christian living doesn’t tend to be our most common language. We tend to speak of Christian growth in terms of ‘maturity’ or ‘godliness’ or ‘discipleship’ or perhaps even ‘personal holiness’. We talk quite a lot about the three C’s of conviction, character and competence. 

‘Faith, love and hope’ aren’t nearly as prominent—certainly not in my fairly wide experience of evangelical thinking, writing and teaching over the past four decades. 

Which is strange, because faith, hope and love are very prominent in the New Testament, not only as foundational concepts in their own right, but in combination as a summary of the Christian life. To take some examples (quickly paraphrased):  

  • By faith we wait for the hope of righteousness, for in Christ Jesus the thing that really matters is faith active in love (Gal 5:5-6);

  • Having heard of the Ephesians’ faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for all the saints, Paul prays that the eyes of their hearts would be opened to grasp the hope to which he has called them (Eph 1:15f);

  • Because they are called by the Spirit to one faith and one hope in one Lord, the Ephesians are to maintain that bond by walking in love and peace (Eph 4:1-6);

  • Paul is constantly grateful for the Colossians’ faith in Christ Jesus and their love for all the saints, because of their hope laid up in heaven (Col 1:3-5);

  • Paul is thankful for the work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope that the Thessalonians have in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes 1:2-3); 

  • The shorter Thessalonian version of the armour of God is the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (1 Thes 5:8);

  • Paul thanks God for the abundant growth in the Thessalonians’ faith, and in their love for one another, and in their steadfastness amidst persecution as they look forward to Jesus’ return (i.e. hope) (2 Thes 1:3f.). 

To this can be added the many other places that speak of the central importance of either faith (e.g. Rom 3-4; Gal 2:15-3:29; Heb 11), or hope (e.g. Rom 8:18-25; 1 Pet 1:3-9), or love (e.g. Jn 13:34-35; 1 Jn 3:11-18) as the theological virtues that should characterize our response to the gospel. Then there are the passages that link together faith and love (e.g. 2 Tim 1:13; 1 Thes 3:6), and faith and hope (e.g. Col 1:23; Heb 11:1f; 1 Pet 1:21).

Are there any more central or dominant concepts in the New Testament for characterising the Christian life than these three? (‘Repentance’ is the only other candidate that I think comes close.)

And of course I still haven’t mentioned the most well-known passage in which the three are combined and put forward as the epitome of Christian experience—in 1 Corinthians 13. Particular actions or gifts or ministries or achievements will come and go, says Paul, but underneath them all, and outlasting them all, “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). 

1 Corinthians 13 is a particularly important summary because it presents itself as a summary—as the nutshell of what really matters when all is said and done. The failure of the Corinthian church is their failure to live out these foundational and abiding Christian virtues in response to the gospel of Christ crucified.

What is it about ‘these three’ that encapsulates the response that the gospel calls forth? 

Why are they such an excellent summary not just of my mother’s life, but of every genuine Christian life?

And perhaps most pointedly, what are we missing or neglecting by failing to teach the essence of the Christian life as faith, love and hope? 

This connects with a subject that I’ve banged on about before, namely the importance of being faithful and obedient apprentices to Scripture. Scripture doesn’t give us disconnected principles or rules that we apply here and there. It teaches us an integrated way of thinking and living and being. When we find the thought-patterns and emphasis of our Master differing from our own (that is, the Lord Jesus speaking through Scripture), it should give us pause. Why aren’t we thinking and speaking about Christian maturity in the same categories and concepts as the Bible? Because I think we often don’t. 

If were were going to run a basic series about the Christian life (in Bible study or as a set of sermons) would we instinctively structure it around faith, love and hope? Perhaps more to the point these days, if we were going to have a discipleship pastor or a maturity pastor in our church, would we see the explicit function of their role as being to teach, promote, exemplify and see growth in faith, love and hope? 

I’m not sure we would. Why is that? 

Over the next little, I’ll be exploring faith, love and hope as the essence of Christian living and growth and maturity.

In the meantime, there’s a eulogy to write and deliver next Wednesday morning, August 25. I’d appreciate your prayers. 


PS

The other topic that is burbling along in my mind at present, and that I will return to, is the nature of pastoral leadership. I’ve done one post on it (‘Take heed’), but stay tuned for more on that issue as well over the next month or two. 

One of the characteristics I inherited from my mother (and if only there were more!) was a certain optimism (sometimes over-optimism) about what can be achieved. I’d like to think that I will be back with another post next week, but even my optimistic self wonders whether that will be realistic. If you don’t hear from me next week, you’ll understand why.