We consider in this message just the first phrase in verse 8: “Charity never faileth.”
We live in a world of failure. What is there in your world that you can depend on? Everything fails. Everything will fail. It is the world that we live in.
Just consider what is around you in the natural sphere, the sphere of science and the creation. God’s curse is on this creation as the result of the sin of Adam and Eve. So we deal with death in our lives from day to day. Just think of the season of the year that is Fall. The leaves fall to the ground. You pick a piece of fruit and you leave it sitting on the table for just a few days and it rots. We have perishable items. And these things that we deal with in our day-to-day life are a part of a broader principle that is at work in the whole universe. This universe is under a curse, and under a state of death, and is failing. And you can look more closely at material possessions. What does Scripture say about your possessions? They are treasures where thieves break through and steal and where moth and rust corrupt. So, you have a car and after ten or fifteen years it is rusty and broken down and hardly usable. And you have a house that was new and you have remodeled it and it wears out. Riches take wings and fly away, the Scriptures tell us. So, you set your heart on money and it fails you.
And what is true of the created world around us and of our possessions is even true of our relationships. Earthly relationships are not for ever. A young man and a young woman marry, they build a life together, they have children, and sickness comes and takes one of them away in death and there is an end. Or sin comes into the relationship and the one whom you love fails you. What is there that you can depend on?
Or just consider yourself, your own life. What is your life? The Scriptures say it is a vapor that lasts a little while and then vanishes away—a vapor, a little wisp of fog in a pothole in the road. The sun comes out and it is gone. Our minds deteriorate, we cannot depend on our memory. Our flesh deteriorates, we cannot depend on human strength. Everything is passing away.
Now, in this world of things that pass away, this world of failure, this world in which you cannot depend on things, there is one thing that never fails. Charity never faileth.
The word that is used here for “fail” in the original Greek has two different senses or ideas that help us get at the real meaning of this word. The first idea of fail, and probably the most common use in the Bible, has the idea of falling off or decaying. You can think of the leaves that fall off the tree. They are dead and they decay and disappear. That is the way Scripture uses this word, for example, in James 1:9-11: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted; but the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away. For the sun is no sooner risen with the burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth.” There is the word: the flower withers under the heat of the sun. So, you think of a daylily and it comes out in the morning brilliant and a strong petal, full color, and it is gone before the day is done.
Charity never faileth. Its root meaning is to be hissed or booed off a stage as a bad performer. Love is not like that. Love is dependable. It always has a place. We could say it is on the stage of what God is doing, not only in time but also into eternity. It never fails. I think what captures the idea best in the English language is the expression “holding one’s own.” We may say, “She can hold her own in any argument.” Or we say, “He was very sick, but now he is holding his own.” And the meaning is to maintain your position or your condition and strength in spite of difficulties. That is the idea here. It is not so much saying something of what love does. We have seen what love does in the previous verses. That includes that love bears all things and that love endures all things. But now we are being told why love does this. It is because love is everlasting in its character. Love is unfailing in its character. That is the character of love. And that, in contrast to the other two verbs that are used in the text.
There are three things here: prophecies shall fail, tongues shall cease, knowledge shall vanish away. In contrast to that, love never faileth.
That, of course, raises a question in our minds, especially from our lives and our experiences, and that is, How can love be said to be unfailing and eternal, when we have all experienced the failure of love. And, I dare say that the deepest pain and hurt that we experience comes from the failure of love—so much so, that it is the case for some that it is hard to ever love again, or especially to love the one who has failed you in love. I think even the Scriptures acknowledge that. Think about what God says about marriage. There is one biblical ground for divorce, and that is the failure of love—the unfaithfulness of the spouse. It does not dissolve the marriage bond, which is till death. But God allows the one who has been failed to put away the unfaithful spouse. That is God’s way of acknowledging the pain of failed love. So, we ask the question: How can it be said that charity never faileth?
The answer is, and has to be, this, that the love that never fails is the love of God. The only human love that will last to eternity is the bond that we have together in the love of God. The Scriptures tell us that even our marriages are not for eternity. Jesus says that in heaven there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. But there is a love eternal. And that is our love for one another in Jesus Christ, the love between believers. That is part of what Colossians 3:14 means when it says that we should put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. Perfection is heaven. And this is the perfect bond that will be ours in heaven. That is also the key to love in marriage as well. Think of what Peter says in I Peter 3 to husbands who are to dwell with their wives with understanding. He says, “Considering that you are heirs together of the grace of life.” Here is what holds a godly couple together, that they are one in the Lord, that they are equal recipients of the grace and the gift of God in salvation. There is a love that never fails. That is the eternal love of God.
Now, as we have gone through this chapter, I have warned against our waxing eloquent in admiration of love. This is not a poetic admiration of love, but it is a call to action. And it is a rebuke of where love had failed in the Corinthian congregation. He calls them to be patient, to be kind, not to be envious, not to be proud but humble, to behave appropriately, not to be self-seeking. That is the way we are to understand the confrontation of this Word of God with us. But now we have moved on from the activity of love to the character of love. We can stop and we can exalt love. We can praise love because the love that we are talking about here is God’s perfect love. Or we could say that, as we exalt love, we are exalting God Himself who is love.
Why is love unfailing? Why is love eternal? Because God is love. And God is eternal and unfailing. That is the basis now for the eternal, the unfailing character of love. Love is one of the attributes of God.
And when we speak of the attributes of God, it is important for us to remember the attribute that we could say defines all the other attributes. That is the attribute that we call the simplicity of God. The simplicity of God refers to two things. First, that God is His attributes. So, God is love. The attributes of God are more than simple characteristics of God. We might say of someone: “She is a loving person,” or “He is a happy person.” But we are just ascribing a characteristic to that person. That person is not entirely defined by that. We are just saying that they are like this. God, however, is His attributes. So, all love has its source in the character of God Himself. If you want to know what love is, you have to consider who God is. No one can love without first loving God. No one can love without first knowing God’s love. John writes things like this in I John 4: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God [it comes from God]; and every one that loves is born of God and knoweth God.” We cannot love without being born of God, and knowing God. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” Here you see that intrinsic to the character of God, descriptive of who God is, is love, and to know God is to know love. So, the love that we speak of here is the eternal love of God.
I said that this characteristic called the simplicity of God means first that God is His attributes. It also means that when we talk about one of the attributes of God, we must remember all the other attributes of God, because all of the attributes of God are complementary. They are all one in Him. So, as we talk about the love of God, we must remember that God is just, and that God is immutable, and that God is holy, and so on. So, the love of God is just. The love of God is holy. The love of God is immutable. And now, specifically, God’s love is eternal because God Himself is eternal.
What does that mean? Eternity is more than an extension of time backward and forward. Eternity is more than just an existence that goes on to perpetuity, that never ends. Rather, that God is eternal means that God is self-existent and that He lives outside of the restrictions of time that come on the creature; that He has His existence from Himself and from no other; that He can and does exist on His own, apart from the creature. So, we read in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created.” There is a great contrast between what is created and God. We have a beginning. Everything that we know in this world and universe has a beginning. But God already was. God is not bound by that beginning. “In the beginning God….” God was there and God created the beginning. Before He made the world, He existed. So we speak of the attribute of the aseity of God, His self-existence, which is captured in the beautiful covenant name of God, which refers not only to His immutability: “I am Jehovah, I change not,” but also to His eternal self-existence: “I AM THAT I AM,” the God who is life in Himself. God is eternal.
Now, in relation to love, we have to say that love eternally existed in the nature of God. He did not become a God of love after He had created the creature and man as the object of His love. It was not the case that after man fell into sin God suddenly had someone on whom He could bestow His pity, and so He began to be a God of love who showed His pity after man fell into sin. No, from eternity God is love. That is the basis for what we are saying here, that charity never faileth.
That, of course, raises a question: How could it be that God is eternally a God of love? The answer is twofold. In the first place, God is a God of love in His triune life. That is an eternal, perfect fellowship of love—the Father and the Son and the Spirit, three persons in one being. Augustine said that there are three persons but there is one mind. He spoke of the unity of the will of God. And in their eternal life together, the Father and the Son behold one another and hold one another in love. John 1:18: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” And I Corinthians says of the Holy Spirit that He, like none other, knows the mind of God. So we think of Jesus’ words in John 17 that He speaks of the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me before the foundation of the world. You have the eternal, covenant life of the godhead. God is love.
As the eternally existing God, as the self-existing God, as the One who has life in Himself, He does not need man to love. Yet He is pleased to do that. And we see that also in eternity. God’s love is eternal, not only in regard to His love for Himself, but also in regard to His eternal decree to manifest and to show that love to the creature in Jesus Christ. And that is a particular love for His elect in Christ Jesus. So, we speak not only of the covenant of the Trinity, but of the covenant of redemption. God eternally loved the Son and eternally loved Him, not only as the second person of the godhead, but as the second person of the godhead who would become man, as the Mediator. And He loved us in Him. Here we understand election and foreknowledge as the eternal love of God. In Romans 11:5 election is spoken of this way, as election of grace, that is, of love. Ephesians 1 says that He has chosen us in love, before the foundation of the world. God does not just love us as we are, but He loves us in Jesus Christ. He loves us as those who are united to His Son. He has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, and His love for us is rooted in His eternal love for His Son.
And we can say this, too. Not only does God love us in the Son, but the Son loves us eternally. We see that in what I have called the covenant of redemption, in His eternal willingness to be the One who would come into our flesh and bear our sin and reproach and the curse and the judgment of God on our sin. There was never a reluctance in the second person of the Trinity to do this. He willed it. He desired it from eternity. And that willingness we see in the ministry of Jesus. This is called the “mind of Christ” in Philippians 2, a mind in which He humbled Himself and became obedient to the death of the cross. This is what the Gospels describe as the setting of His face like a flint to Jerusalem, determined to do the will of the Father for Him, which was the suffering and the reproach of the cross. And Jesus said that nobody had the authority to take His life from Him. He lay it down of Himself. You see the eternal willingness of the Son in His love for us coming out in those expressions in His earthly ministry.
So God’s love is eternal. And God’s motivation to redeem us, to send His Son, from eternity, was His own perfect love. So, we see that we are not necessary for God to love. But, at the same time, we could not be and would not be redeemed apart from that eternal love of God. Charity never faileth. Why? Because God’s love is eternal.
And, being eternal, that love is immutable. It is from eternity to eternity the same, as God is from eternity to eternity the same. That eternal, unchanging love of God comes into time. And it comes into time in this way; that God, as He reveals His love, reveals His love as an immutable, unchanging, and everlasting love towards us—a love that will never change. So, God’s love is the unfailing love that we read of here.
This is, is it not, a deep subject—the eternal love of God. I think that in our descriptions of God’s eternal love we barely scratch the surface of the depths and the riches of God’s love. Think of these descriptions of the love of God from the Scriptures: John 17:23, Jesus says, “Thou hast loved them as thou hast loved me.” God has loved us with the same love that He had for the One who dwelt eternally in His bosom. In verse 26 Jesus says “that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Romans 5 says that the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. That love is not just the capacity to love and the experience of love, but it is the eternity of God’s love by the eternal Spirit shed abroad in our hearts.
Then, you have also that beautiful prayer of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 3 for the church, that Christ may “dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge.”
There is a contradiction there, is there not? That you may be able to comprehend what? Something so deep and so high and so wide and so tremendously magnificent that it passes knowledge. That you might be able to comprehend that which passes knowledge. What is that? It is the love of God, the eternal love of God for us in Jesus Christ. The depth! How unsearchable is His love!
Yet we know it, because God has manifested His love towards us. He has revealed the eternity of the love of God, the immutability of the love of God, the depth and the riches of the love of God. And as we are forever plumbing the depths of the amazing love of God, it becomes more and more evident to us that this love is unfailing, stronger than death, immutable. God has manifested this love. John 3:16: God so loved, He loved in such a way, He loved with such greatness, God so loved…that He gave His only begotten Son. I John 4:9: “In this was manifested the love of God towards us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.” The gift of His Son. This is the manifestation of the love of God.
Now, not just a general gift and not just a “He is My Son in your flesh,” but it is the gift of His Son as a sacrifice and an atonement for sin. Romans 5:8: “God commendeth his love towards us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” That is not general. It is specific. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
God loves us with an eternal love that causes our faith. His eternal love is the fountain and the source of our faith. He does not love us because He foresees that we will believe, but He chooses us in love unto faith. Perhaps the greatest passage in all the Scriptures on the unfailing love of God and an extended discussion of this is Romans 8. That is expressed for us in verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” Here is God’s unfailing love in His providence. Later in the chapter, the apostle asks: “Who shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” And He concludes: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The love of God for us in Christ Jesus our Lord is an eternal love that supersedes time and supersedes every creature. So, this beautiful expression in verse 32 really sums it all up and brings together the love of God in the gift of His Son and the love of God in His providence and care: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”
Is there anything that can separate us from the love of God? There is not, because when we speak of God’s love, this is true: Charity never faileth. Amen.