Faith, Hope, and Love

The theological virtues are faith, hope, and love. This trio of attributes, drawn from the very pages of Scripture form the rubric of Augustine’s famous On Christian Doctrine. They are the backbone of a hermeneutical method, which is designed to help people read Scripture more faithfully.

In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul writes, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

http://ow.ly/izBE3033jed

http://ow.ly/izBE3033jed

What can he mean? If these three virtues describe the goal of the Christian life, then how can one really be greater than the others?

I believe the answer is that the love is the only one of the three virtues that we will still live out in the new heavens and the new earth.

The point could be made from other texts, but there are two places that limit faith and hope to the present life.

Faith

The author of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)

There are a number of important conclusions that could be drawn from Hebrews 11, but one of them is that faith is something for this present life. It’s not that we won’t have conviction in the new heavens and the new earth, it’s that we will see the very object of our faith.

Once we see the glory of God in person in heaven, then we won’t have to rely on faith to sustain us. That which we know is real, but believe will no longer be believed, but known.

That isn’t to say that we don’t have confidence in God’s attributes now, but that the nagging doubts we experience and the obscurity of our understanding will be eliminated when we see Christ face to face. It’s a glorious picture of a wonderful day. But is a day when faith, as we know it now, will be no more.

Hope

In a famous passage discussing the renewal of creation that will come when Christ comes again, Paul writes, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom 8:24-25)

Following much the same logic, hope is an important virtue that Christians should work to develop. It isn’t an ultimate virtue, though, because it will pass away. We hope for what we do not see. We hope for Christ’s soon return. We eagerly and confidently expect it, but we do not see or have it. That is hope.

Once creation is renewed, we won’t need to have hope anymore. That is because the very thing we hope for will have happened. Sin will be eliminated. We will be glorified in Christ. God will be glorified in us. Everything will be right in the world.

At that point in the space-time continuum, we won’t need hope anymore. It will be an artifact of our earthly past.

Love

The greatest of the theological virtues is love. Paul tells us that clearly, and the transience of faith and hope help explain the supremacy of love.

There is, however, another explanation. 1 John 4:8 tells us that “God is love.”

Certainly God is more than simply love. However, the identification of God with one of the theological virtues shows us that love is both permanent and supreme among the three theological virtues.

Conclusion

So what does this mean? Are we supposed to focus on love and neglect faith and hope?

That can’t be, since we see that grace comes through faith, which is a gift of God. (Eph 2:8). We are also called to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).

No, we’re to pursue all three, but the permanence of love helps to remind us that this world isn’t all there is to life. Good theology is important, but someday there won’t be arguments about theology because we’ll get to meet God himself face to face. 

Pursue all three, but understand that God is the perfect embodiment of the one that matters most and will last forever. It’s not our works, it’s his gifting and glory that matters.

Raising Faithful Kids in a Skeptical World

It’s a lot easier to raise a skeptic than a child with a mature faith.

This is not a statement about behavior, but about true fidelity. That is, faithfulness that includes both a profession of faith and a solid foundation for that faith.

It is much easier to teach a child to poke holes in the ideas of others than to hold fast to cogent, explanatory truths.

As a result, there is a constant temptation to build buttresses of truth around our kids without exposing them to challenges to the faith. This is good when they are young, because it prevents confusion. It is a dangerous thing over time because it builds a false sense of confidence.

The Place for Honest Doubt

Comprehensive, absolute certainty is a dangerous thing. There is little doubt about that.

Being entirely certain about every detail of one’s own understanding of Scripture, the veracity of the traditions of one’s youth, and the methodology appropriate to determining truth can lead to pain and difficulty over time. Much of that is unnecessary.

There is a fundamental difference between holding a position with absolute certainty and holding it in faithful confidence.

This is because being faithful does not require abandoning the intellectual task of asking questions and considering alternatives. Issues such as the proper mode of baptism, the right style of worship, the way the salvation is explained are all points where legitimate questioning is warranted. After all, a lot of faithful people in the history of the Church have stood on each side of those questions.

Photo used by CC license: Hans Splinter, Parenting,  http://ow.ly/10gV84

Photo used by CC license: Hans Splinter, Parenting, http://ow.ly/10gV84

But there is a place for asking even more significant and sensitive questions. Is there a God? Certainly, a fool says in his heart there is no God (Ps 14:1). However, this doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t ask the big questions and honestly pursue truthful answers. Helping kids ask those in a space where they have the emotional and spiritual resources to struggle through the mire of doubt is important.

It’s also much easier to teach fideistic adherence to dogma than to teach kids to think through doctrine rightly.

In the end, fideism presents an anemic form of Christianity that skeptics can punch holes through with ease. Then, when faced with intelligent, cogent challenges to their faith, an untried faith system will fall apart.

Always Another Question

As I said, it is easier to raise a skeptic than a faithful child.

Much of contemporary culture trains children to expect a higher degree of certainty and a greater volume of proof for questions of religious significance than anything else. For example, people choose their presidential candidates without knowing everything about them and whether everything in the candidate’s worldview meshes. People take jobs without knowing in gross detail every possible work responsibility, the date of future promotions, and whether the company’s corporate office in Paris might have spent too much on cognac last year. Folks use electricity without understanding where exactly it came from or how it was generated.

In contrast, some critics of religion seem to expect an unassailable record in all of history from the religion itself and also each adherent of the religion. They demand that every possible question be asked and meshed with every other solution offered for all of time. Variety in such responses over history—even to secondary and tertiary questions—is considered evidence that the central truths cannot be true.

Many of these questions are fair to ask and Christians should be prepared to discuss them, even if in general terms. Christians need to be prepared to admit that the history of every religion is tarnished by error and insincerity. Christians need to be willing to communicate that there are some doctrines about which reasonable people can debate.

The reality is that every religion, even Christianity, has open questions about some aspects of it. This is a function of the human conduits of the religion and our finiteness. Every religion has a checkered history with abuses. This is because religions have humans involved and humans tend to be self-centered and imperfect.

This means that for someone looking for objections, there are always additional questions to be asked. If the standard of acceptance for religion is that every question is answered, that standard can never be met. There is always one more question to be asked.

The world is training children to be skeptical, if not agnostic. The Church—especially the parents of children—need to be prepared to help develop a curious, cautious, but not incredulous demeanor in their children.

We need to teach our children to seek the best answer, not the perfect one. We need to demonstrate the power of the gospel to transform and redeem. Once a child understands the reason for the hope within us, they will be better able to ask questions without losing their faith.

We need to teach and demonstrate to our children that the Christian faith has integrity and is founded on the absolute objectivity of God not the absolute certainty of our positions. We can have a high degree of certainty about what we believe without dismissing questions. We can demonstrate confidence in our faith by chasing down answers to difficult questions and admitting when we have more investigation to do.

Retooling Parenting

In some day gone by it may have been possible for kids to pick up enough of a basis for their faith by osmosis. Probably not, though, since the failure to present a credible, cogent faith for generations helps to explain the radical rejection of the trappings of a Christian ethic.

The present culture is one that will not accept Christianity without a great deal of explaining. It also will not allow Christians to live consistently with a robust Christian faith without challenging every inch. We do disservice to our children if we do not equip them and assist them to wrestle with the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

Parenting will look different in our present age than it has in the past if we are to give our children what they need to live as faithful pilgrims in the world. That isn’t to say that it will look different than what it always should have been. In fact, the external pressure on the Church may be a benefit to our sanctification as it forces us to return to our proper responsibilities.

Passing Along Thick Christianity

Most people try to pass along their beliefs to their children. Even the atheists that claim that all religious education is child abuse are, by virtue of making such a claim, demonstrating a dominant worldview claim that they hope their children will latch onto.

Used by Creative Commons License. Via Flickr: http://ow.ly/YEqPy

Used by Creative Commons License. Via Flickr: http://ow.ly/YEqPy

The rationale for this is simple. If someone actually believes his religion is true in an objective way, then it follows that he will hope his child will also believe that the same religion is true. This is because truth about the world tends to make the world easier to live in.

For the sincere Christian believers, the content of their belief may be passed to their children either as thick belief or as thin belief. Surely there is room on the spectrum between these points for degrees of each, but the ends of the scale are useful to illustrate my point.

What is Thick Christianity?

Thick Christianity is a doctrinally sound, ethically rich, gospel saturated faith. This is not to say that it is overflowing with systematic theology (though it may be), or that every choice made is moral (which it certainly won’t be), or even that conversion will occur in the children. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, thus even when thick Christianity is communicated some children may never be born again. However, children who have been exposed to thick Christianity will be able to explain the content of and rationale for the Christian faith whether they have personally accepted it or not.

I have heard it said, though I no longer remember by whom, that in one generation the gospel is loved and known. In the second it is assumed. In the third it is forgotten and abandoned.

This pattern can be witnessed in the fall of once boldly Christian institutions into a malaise of unbelief within a few short generations. A prime example of this is Oberlin University in Ohio. Once it was a robustly Christian institution, but a search of the website now reveals that the gospel is no longer central to their mission. The same phenomenon can occur in churches and denominations. A congregation that was once vibrantly faithful can so easily fall into cultural Christianity in a few years if the central message of the gospel is assumed for a while. Later it will likely be neglected and changed or forgotten. At that point a church becomes a social club and a university becomes just another non-profit educational establishment. There is still some value for society in these mediating institutions, but the transformational power of the gospel is lost.

Thin Christianity is more subject to this sort of generational attenuation than is thick Christianity because thin Christianity lacks the substance that would sustain it. We should expect this, because early in Scripture we get evidence of the importance of living thickly for the propagation of faithfulness between generations.

In Deuteronomy 6, which is part of Moses’ farewell to the Israelites, he affirms the important theological truth of the oneness of God. (v. 4) Then he commands them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (vv. 5-6) In other words, theological truth must result in right ethical action for the believer. The oneness of God led to worship both through adoration and through action. This is part of living a thick Christianity and not merely being a hearer of the word. (cf. Jas. 1:22)

But there is more to the story. Immediately after this Moses gives another command to his audience, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (v. 7)

The significance of verse 7 is not that teaching should be done when sitting, walking, lying down, or rising, but rather that all of life is teaching opportunity for communicating a thick Christianity to our children. Teach them not just the “what” of Christianity, but the “why.” This is what makes a Christianity thick. It is a form of Christianity that is lived, authentic, and grounded in substance. This is the sort of Christianity that has a hope of being sustained across generations.

Ultimately, God does the work of salvation in our children. However, if our Christianity is true, it makes sense to live it in such a way that our religion cannot be reduced to a weekly routine or a set of prohibitions.

What is Thin Christianity?

Despite what some might expect, a thin Christianity is not necessarily unorthodox. Someone can be a faithful Fundamentalist with (mostly) biblical doctrine and live a thin Christianity before their family. There are many faithful Christians that have the right doctrine, but they often do not know why. In other cases, they do understand the basis of their doctrine, but fail to communicate it effectively to their children.

The difference is the depth of living in Christ. Our kids are with us all the time and they can tell when we’re going through the motions. Thin Christianity may have all the right motions, but it is often missing the most important emotion: joy.

A Call to Live Christianity Thickly

Thankfully, sometimes God takes thin Christianity and uses it to make Christians that live thickly. Grace is a wonderful thing.

But it is a much better thing to pass on a thick Christianity to our children. That way they get the benefit of doing the right things for the right reasons, of being faithful and experiencing the joy of knowing Christ richly, and of being able to reference a heritage of thick Christianity when they live well before their children. And by living well I don’t mean getting everything right, I mean pursuing the joy of the Lord in all things.

This is, I think, what Paul was getting at when he wrote Colossians 3:12-17:

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.