Virtues: Faith, Hope & Love
Faith, hope, and love are the primary virtues of the Christian life. To follow Jesus is to trust in God, to know that he has a good future for us (cf. Jer. 29:11), and to cherish him and those around us. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul of Tarsus wrote:
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:9-13).
When the author of Hebrew said, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (11:1; emp. added), he used the Greek noun hupostasis (G5287). The early church later used this word to describe the "hypostatic union" of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in tri-unity. In Hebrews, the author defined faith in God as an underlying substantial reality that we may confide and believe in. He followed up by warning, "And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb. 11:6). In other words, God requires us to have faith in order to be saved.
There is no such thing as a "secret Christian" whose beliefs are only known to him. Faith is a public confession that God exists and that he is just. This fact inspired the Lutheran philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) to realize,
If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith (p. 182).
Likewise, the Lutheran philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965) said, "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man's ultimate concern" (p. 1). An ultimate concern is whatever we spend most of our time doing—the things we prioritize each day that must be completed. For the Christian, God should be this "thing" we are most ultimately concerned about. We always tell others about what is most important to us, whether it is our family, loved ones, work, achievements, etc. Faith in Jesus is like that—it must be deliberate and existential. Paul of Tarsus emphasized the public confession of faith when he taught, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9). Any other ultimate concern is, by definition, an idol (G1497; eidōlon, "image")—a counterfeit likeness of the one true God.
The biblical Greek word for "faith" is pistis (G4102, "trust" or "confidence"). This noun comes from the same etymological root as epistemology, the study of knowledge sources. To have faith in God is to trust, know, and confide in him.
In biblical Greek, the word for "hope" is elpis (G1680). Paul taught, "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Rom. 5:3-5). Even when we suffer and things are not going well for us, we endure through these trials because we have hope. Jesus promised, "But the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Matt. 24:13).
Simon Peter wrote, "Always be ready to make your defense [apologia; G627, "verbal defense in court"] to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15b). In a world where unbelieving people view skepticism, cynicism, and despair as marks of intelligence, we Christians must defend our hope in Jesus. However, this is not just the apologetic defense of Christianity as the highest truth, but also the confidence we have in a bright future. We hope for salvation from death and resurrection in the life to come, through Jesus our Lord and Messiah (cf. 1 Cor. 15). Some people feel tempted to see the end times as darkness and the end of the world. However, to us it is the dawn of God's kingdom made complete in faith, hope, and steadfast love. Oftentimes, in English we say "I hope" synonymously with "I wish." For us, hope is eschatological, a real anticipation of end things both now and not yet.
When a scholar asked Jesus which commandment is the greatest, he answered,
The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." The second is this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31).
Jesus was reciting the Shema (H8085; "hear" or "listen"), the creed that Jews still confess to this day: "Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart" (Deut. 6:4-6). So, when Paul said that love is the greatest of scriptural virtues, he was also calling it the greatest commandment. Likewise, he wrote, "The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet'; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:9-10).
The New Testament writers all used two different words for "love." The first, agapē (G26; verb form is agapaō; G25), refers to a steadfast relationship based on empathy and compassion. Many church leaders mistakenly interpret agapē to mean "unconditional love." However, God does set conditions for us to be right with him. Even the well-know evangelism verse John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life") belongs to a larger passage that includes conditions of belief and correct behavior (cf. John 3:18-21). Likewise, John son of Zebedee said, "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). He also clearly defined a "child of God" this way: "The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters" (1 John 3:10). Warning: If a trained church leader tells you that God's love is unconditional and that everyone is a child of God, they are a false teacher. Scripture bases these definitions on our belief and trust in God. This is a major detour that modern Christendom takes from genuine first-century faith.
Whenever the New Testament writers referred to God's love, they chose agapē to encompass all of his divine attributes. However, they generally used philia (5373; verb form is phileō; G5368) when alluding to friendship. For example, if we compare John 15:13 ("No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends") with John 11:3b ("Lord, he whom you love is ill."), we see this. Though philia seems to have a mostly positive connotation about love between friends, it is imperfect and falls short of God's long-suffering kindness. Luke of Antioch used phileō to describe how the Pharisees "loved" their long robes and respectful greetings (cf. Luke 20:46). John Mark chose phileō to represent the kiss Judas Iscariot used to betray Jesus (cf. Mark 14:44). Not so friendly!
John's gospel features an epilogue in which Jesus meets with Peter after the resurrection. In their early morning chat, Jesus asked Peter three times "do you love me" for each one of his betrayals. Note the usage of agapaō versus phileō:
Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love [agapas] me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love [philō] you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love [agapas] me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love [philō] you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love [phileis] me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love [phileis] me?" And he said to him,"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love [philō] you" (John 21:15-17d; McReynolds, pp. 418-19).
Twice, Jesus asked Peter if he loved (agapaō) him without reservation. However, Peter responded with "I love you dearly like a brother" by choosing the verb phileō. The third time, Jesus capitulated, allowing Peter to express his true feelings. However, Jesus also knew that Peter's love for him would mature into agapē, even to the point of certain death—martyrdom (cf. John 21:18-19). Jesus himself knew the meaning of this steadfast love when he died on the cross (cf. Phil. 2:5-8).
In The Four Loves (HarperOne, 2017), the Anglican writer C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) mentioned two other Greek words for "love." Following the more biblical terms agapē and philia, the others are storgē and eros. The word storgē ("family love") only appears in the compound adjectives astorgos (G794) and philostorgos (G5387) in scripture. However, the New Testament writers never used eros—not even once. It referred to sexual love and romance, today serving as the etymological root of our word "erotic." This was not because they viewed eros as sinful per se. However, even marriage covenants should be based on God's permanent agapē rather than our temporary feelings of eros.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, give us the increase of faith, hope, and love; and, that we may obtain what you have promised, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019. pp. 618-19. http://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BCP2019.pdf.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lourie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969.
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McReynolds, Paul R., ed. Word Study Greek-English New Testament. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1999.
Moreland, J. P. Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul, Revised and Updated. Ed. Dallas Willard. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012.
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