The Gospel and adjusted math: Taking gospel love seriously
Perennial Bible scholar D.A. Carson, calls it “divine mathematics.” And that sounds about right to me. Although the New Testament is not a mathematics textbook, when it does speak to the issue it doesn’t follow conventional theorems or formulas. Under normal convention, five minus one equals four – obviously. Not necessarily so with God’s math.
Look at 1 Corinthians 13:1-3:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3).
Paul presents five specific gifts. Subtract love, and he concludes that equals zero. Paul presents an example of divine mathematics: Five minus one equals zero. It doesn’t follow conventional wisdom, but is wisdom supreme?
The Corinthians had a problem – okay, a lot of problems. Perhaps the most ominous issue was that they had big heads and little hearts. You remember the Ephesians had the same problem. They were steadfast, always toiling and doctrinally accurate – a church many of us would hasten to join. But Jesus accuses them of leaving their first love. This is exactly the case in Corinth.
From 1 Corinthians 1:7, we see that the Corinthian church lacked no gifts. But the church didn’t couple the gifts with grace. The church did not understand what New Testament love looks like. The Corinthian church didn’t understand that the Gospel calls believers to love one another.
In response, Paul crafts 1 Corinthian 13. This is a profound chapter, and probably the most important chapter on Gospel love in the New Testament. Jesus said we are to love one another, and God takes love seriously. And He expects Christ’s followers to demonstrate what it means to love one another.
We know that God commands us to love. The question is, “How?” And this question is the subject the first section in 1 Corinthians 13 addresses. The reader should think through what this Gospel love looks like. How does love impact the believer’s life?
Remember Paul also said that the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). And so it’s my case that one of the chief implications of the Gospel is the expectation for us daily to represent what it means to love one another.
Paul takes five highly esteemed gifts, creates hypothetical scenarios and then applies an identical principle to each. He looks at the top five things prized in Corinthian culture. He brings them to the forefront and he creates these hypothetical situations, areas that are matchless in value. He uses the word “if,” and it’s interesting why he uses that word. He is creating the hypothetical and trying to get you to pause and think about this topic of love. So he’s saying, “Just suppose for a minute,” and he repeats it with each of the five (see graphic below).
We like to use these verses at weddings as a kind of biblical mushy talk, but I think that’s missing Paul’s point. He makes these statements to correct and instruct the Corinthian church as to the importance of Gospel-centric love. Love is the implication of God’s love shed in the believer’s heart. Every single day of our lives, God expects us to live out this personal self-sacrificing, living-for-others kind of love.
Jesus said that same thing in John 13, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, when you have love for one another” (v. 35). We preach the Gospel with our lives when we love one another, and when we have that kind of affection and understanding and deep love. It affects everything we do. Paul strongly emphasizes the necessity of this love because of the confusion and misinterpretation surrounding the gifts in the Corinthian church.
A man or a woman with great gifts, a supreme intellect, an ultimate giver, is nothing without love. So if I write the greatest article in history, but I do it without love, Paul says it profits nothing.
Five minus one equals zero when God does the math, because He sees the heart. Without love, all we do is offend others. Without love, I’m nothing. Five minus one equals zero.
Dan Dumas is senior vice president for institutional administration at Southern Seminary. He is a church planter and pastor-teacher at Crossing Church in Louisville, Ky. You can connect with him on Twitter at @DanDumas, on Facebook or at DanDumas.com. This article originally appeared in A Guide to Adoption and Orphan Care.