We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).
1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.
2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.
3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another
This is the last post within strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people to God’s prior love. In this post I want to sketch the connections between faith (pistis) and union with Christ. The role of the Spirit is critical here. And the ‘outworking’, or we may even say ‘purpose’, of being united in Christ through faith alone is seen in a life of love.
The gospel calls for a response of faith which results in believers being joined together ‘in Christ’. This is a remarkable image when you think about it. It speaks of Paul’s high christology that is some cosmic / spiritual sense all believers are united together within the ‘body of Christ’ – the church.
To be ‘in Christ’ is therefore an eschatological concept – believers ‘in Christ’ belong to God’s new creation (Gal 6:14-15; 2 Cor 5:14, 17). Elsewhere Paul talks about them being baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection.
A tight connection between faith, the Spirit and love is typically Pauline. It is the Spirit through whom God’s love is poured out into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) and through whom God is known (1 Cor 8:3; Eph 3:19). Indeed, faith and love are often mentioned alongside one another (Eph 6:23; 1 Thess 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; 1 Tim 1:14). The primary evidence of the empowering presence of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:6, 13).
It is important we see the apostle’s pastoral concerns here. So often we get lost in technical theological debates about justification and soteriology that we miss how Paul’s priorities are primarily ethical – that believers would be living lives of love and holiness pleasing to God. This is his heartfelt plea to the believers to whom he writes.
Paul leaves some things unsaid – he doesn’t really explain how someone ‘in Christ’ is transformed by the Spirit into a person of love. The NT scholar Michael Gorman lists different biblical images or ideas that various scholars have argued captures how union and moral transformation ‘work’ in Paul: participation, incorporation, identification, (mutual) indwelling and even (Christ-) mysticism (Gorman, 2019). Volker Rabens (2014) has done outstanding work on unpacking the relational role of the Spirit within the community of the church.
Most recently, Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (2020) gives five chapters to love within the theme of ‘Formation’. For Campbell love explains everything important about Pauline ethics – he calls this ‘agapeism’. And I’m inclined to agree with him on that point.
Two points to note – and these are absolutely crucial for understanding the theology and pastoral mission of the apostle Paul. Both, I think, are too often missed or marginalised in teaching and preaching today
1) Christianity is a Communal Faith
Or, to put it negatively, Paul knows nothing of individualism. The idea that a believer would or could try to follow Jesus apart from a community of believers would be incomprehensible to the apostle. Faith, the Spirit, and union in Christ brings a Christian into a new community – and it is within that new community that he / she is live and love and forgive and serve and teach and care. And it is in doing so that the Spirit works to effect moral transformation. That doesn’t happen on your own.
If you are reading this it’s likely that like me, you are a Western individualist – shaped and formed by an individualist culture that says follow your own dream, do your own thing, be yourself, you’re worth it etc etc. It is easy to frame the gospel around this sort of narrative – it’s about me and my happiness, or my experience of God’s love, or my assurance about the future and so on. Of course the gospel is personal and individual – it has to be real for each person. It requires personal faith and repentance and a turning around to follow the Lord. But it’s a reduced and distorted Christianity that makes it all about individual experience or individual salvation.
Yes, church can be the hardest place to be a Christian. Yes, churches can be toxic. Yes, any community is going to be difficult. But this was nothing new to Paul – just read 1 Corinthians! His passion is to see renewal and reform – the idea of opting out to go my own way was inconceivable.
2) Every Christian is in a spiritual battle – and love is God’s weapon in the war
Second, love lies at the heart of an eschatological conflict between forces belonging to the old age and the new.
In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 love is both the goal of God’s salvation and an eschatological foretaste of God’s new creation in the present. Within the present believers are to ‘pursue love’ (1 Cor 14:1) and are later exhorted ‘Let all that you do be done in love’ (1 Cor. 16:14).
In Galatians love grows and matures in opposition to attitudes, desires and actions that belong to the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) or ‘kosmos’ (world). It is only the empowering presence of the Spirit which can transform uncontrolled ‘desires of the flesh’ (Gal 5:16, epithymia, ‘desire’) that lead to destructive ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal 5:19). In contrast, ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions (pathēma, ‘passion’) and desires’(Gal 5:24).
In the ancient world it was not unusual for the passions to be seen as obstacles to a virtuous life. What is of profound importance in Paul is how the Spirit and love is the means by which the battle is fought and won. Love in this eschatological perspective is God’s ‘weapon’ in a cosmic battle against destructive forces opposed to his good purposes.
Think about this for a moment. This is the heartbeat of the Christian faith. It takes us back to the previous post on Stanley Hauerwas and the way of Jesus being love and non-violence. The radical core of Christian faith is love – not force, not selfish power, not exclusion, not human reason, not Torah obedience. It is the way of the cross. And this all flows from God’s own loving nature – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.