This is the final post in 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
We’ve covered a lot of ground. The evidence is overwhelming that love is central within Paul’s own experience and plays a determining role within his entire theological framework.
That’s a significant claim, but the supporting evidence is strong. Too often love in Paul has been overlooked, downplayed or marginalised as some sort of ‘second order’ doctrine.
There are reasons for this – not least the dominance of soteriology in Pauline theology. Centuries of polemical debates about justification – whether RCC/Reformers, New versus Old Perspectives – have tended, particularly within Protestant/evangelicalism, to make one’s position on justification a touchstone of ‘soundness’ or orthodoxy.
E.G. – if you like N T Wright over John Piper you’re suspect on ‘the gospel’ of justification by faith alone. And therefore suspect (not to be trusted) in general.
But, ironically, this passion for orthodoxy can miss the wider purpose of justification in Paul’s thought. Love is not a nice ‘by-product’ of justification – it is the entire point (Galatians 5:6).
What would it look like I wonder if there was equal passion for ‘soundness’ regarding ‘faith working in love’ as in a correct understanding of righteousness by faith alone?
Paul is first and foremost a missionary-pastor. His priority is the moral formation of believers in the fledgling Christian communities that he planted or helped to grow. And that moral formation is framed within a comprehensive theology of love.
For Paul love does the following:
> His understanding of who God is is revolutionised in light of Jesus Christ. God demonstrates his love in the cross. Out of love the Father, Son and Spirit work together of effect salvation.
> The Spirit works to transform believers into the likeness of Christ – a process that has love at its core
> Believers living in communities of love fulfil the Law
> Christian freedom takes the form of self-sacrifical love
> Christian worship revolves around love for God and love for one another
> Love is God’s ‘spiritual weapon’ in an eschatological conflict between the realm of the flesh and the Spirit
> Love is the ‘oil’ which enables the church to function. The apostle knows that without love communities made up of diverse social, ethnic and religious groupings will fall apart.
> Communities of love are missional in that they form a counter-story to the hierarchies of power that shaped the Greco-Roman world
> Love is inseparable from Paul’s theology of financial giving to help fellow brothers and sisters in need.
> Love for God and being loved by God give a robust framework to withstand suffering, persecution and even death
> Love is the primary motive for Christian mission
> Echoing Jesus, love for enemies is to mark a Christian’s response to injustice
> Without love, all Christian ministry is worthless
> Love describes ultimate eschatological hope for believers – it is love alone which will endure forever
In other words, theology and ethics in Paul must not be divorced. They are inseparable.
A Love Audit of Our Lives
Reflecting on this final list again I’m challenged to think about what a ‘love-audit’ of my – or any Christian’s – life would look like
Perhaps something like this: and feel welcome to add your own comments or suggestions – this is very much a thought experiment.
- Consider honestly and self-critically each point above and reflect on your own life in light of them.
- Move to prayers of confession and repentance (if you have nothing to do here may I suggest you haven’t done point 1 very well!)
- Ask the Spirit’s help to deal with areas of un-love in your life – grudges; unforgiveness; arrogance; lack of action; selfishness; disobedience; lack of generosity; bitterness; despair; greed; where unloving means have justified even good ends.
- Be accountable – a life of love is a corporate journey. It is to be shared with others – our failures and weaknesses as as well as successes. Have a friend / mentor who can ask you the hard questions and expect truthful answers.
- Write down some concrete actions in light of your reflections and act on them
- Repeat 1-5 on a continual basis. In this way make love central to your Christian faith and life since this is God’s agenda for his people.