Tuesday, December 19, 2023


So far in this study of virtue we have looked at faith, hope, love, and piety. The first three are grouped together by Paul and have traditionally been known as theological virtues. They are directed toward God. It is important that we have faith, not just in anything, but in God, that we not merely have optimism, but a hope fixed on God and his promises, and a love which is also for our neighbor, but above all with our whole being for God. Piety fits very well among these virtues, as something that is first and foremost directed towards God as well.

In the rest of this series, I want to look at four more virtues that have been called the cardinal virtues. Usually they have been known as prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (you might notice that those are all Latin-based names). I am going to use other words but cover the same areas: wisdom, righteousness, steadfastness, and self-control. 

What is Wisdom? 

The Bible says a lot about wisdom and contains a rich vocabulary of words that are related to wisdom: insight, prudence, knowledge, instruction, discretion, good sense, and understanding. I am thinking about this whole category of related terms concerning the right use of the mind for a good and godly life. 

What is contrary to wisdom? Folly and foolishness. What is wisdom? We might call it the right use and application of knowledge. We might use the word to refer to a sound mind. A professor of mine defined wisdom as skill in the art of godly living. Wisdom involves deliberation, understanding, and sound judgment. A wise person is able to take in the facts, figure out what the right thing is to do in a given situation, and then do it. 

Wisdom involves figuring out what is true and right and good. It also discerns what is the good and right thing to do in a particular situation. It also includes the ability to then fix upon that course of action. If you are always deliberating and get stuck there, you might have an active mind, but not wisdom. 

To be wise, you must have a thorough understanding of the principles of God’s law and godly goals, a perceptive understanding of the world and particular situations within it, and the ability to come to sound applications and conclusions, so that one acts wisely. A wise person perceives the principle behind the command so that he is able to apply it in other situations. A wise person perceives how the world works and the nature of his specific situation. What are the dynamics at work in this particular situation? What principles are relevant here? What course of action will be effectual in this case? Job's friends were not wise, despite knowing many things, misjudging his situation. The person who thinks everything is a nail because he has a hammer is not wise. We need an understanding of God's word, the world, the situation, and then the ability to come to a conclusion so that one acts wisely. 

Wisdom is important for all people and it is especially something that one should look for in decision makers. When the Bible speaks of appointing judges or rulers or elders or deacons, often one of the qualifications is that of wisdom. "Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads" (Deut. 1:13). Leaders like these need to be able to understand the cases that come before them and make the right decision.

Wisdom in Proverbs

Now there are several books in the Bible known as wisdom literature. Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are most commonly put into this category. All of them teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10, Job 28:28, Eccl. 12:13, see also Psalm 111:10). Jesus' teachings echo some of the wisdom literature as well and is wisdom himself. The book of James has been called "the Proverbs of the New Testament" and has many similar topics and emphases. But let us start with Proverbs. 

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). The fear of the Lord is fundamental to being wise. First of all, it is the height of folly to ignore God or rebel against him. He is the most fundamental thing to take into account in any decision that needs to be made. He is the most important factor in any equation. How can you ignore him who made heaven and earth, who will bring everything into judgment, who sees all things? Secondly, by the fear of the Lord, a person turns away from evil and the way of destruction, the way of folly and death (Prov. 16:6). By the fear of the Lord, one turns away from evil and to the way that is good. Thirdly, by the fear of the Lord, you are taught humility and teachableness before the Creator, the one who designed your world (Prov. 15:33). In Proverbs, there is a cycle where the fool rejects instruction but the wise person is teachable and grows in wisdom. So how does a person begin to be wise? How do you get started on the right track? The beginning is the fear of the Lord. Then you will begin to benefit from instruction and grow wiser through instruction and experience.

Proverbs teaches that wisdom must be prized and pursued to be obtained. “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Prov. 4:7). Wisdom must be sought out. A person must want it enough that he is willing to receive instruction and correction. Solomon, as a good teacher, spends nine chapters persuading his readers to love and seek wisdom before teaching it (read chapter two for an example of this). He describes its goodness and advantages and the danger of being without it. God made all things by his wisdom. It is wisdom that can preserve you from the strange woman and violent man and the ways of death. Wisdom is more valuable than silver and gold. Wisdom comes to those who seek it and no one else. In this way you will understand justice and righteousness and every good path and turn aside from the way that ends in destruction. Therefore, wisdom should be sought out from God, from his word, from parents, instructors, and friends, through instruction and correction and attentiveness. 

A God-fearing person will grow in wisdom through this training. This training is a combination of instruction, practice, and correction. A God-fearing person embraces this training. The old are expected to be wiser because they have had more opportunity for this training, although too many people neglect this opportunity. This is also why we expect there to be wisdom in tradition. Tradition is a repository of lessons learned over the generations, although it is not above critique or reform. 

One important tool of instruction in wisdom is that of the proverb. These short and pithy sentences make you think. Biblical proverbs usually use parallelism, saying something in two different ways or making a contrast between two things. They can be simply descriptive, observing how the world works, provoking you to think how you should live in light of this observation.  

Proverbs covers many areas in which wisdom should be applied. One big emphasis is that of speech. It takes much wisdom to communicate well. Words are small but powerful. They can be useful, but they can also be quite destructive. Proverbs also covers things like work, wealth, sex, marriage, child rearing, politics, and friendship.

Proverbs also teaches that virtue is wise. Righteousness, diligence, self-control, humility, and generosity are wise qualities. Diligence is wise, not sloth or theft. Self-control is wise, not sexual immorality or pugnacity. These wise virtues are home-building virtues, which we see especially in the last chapter of Proverbs. The vices that Proverbs describes are those that tear down homes, that tear down kingdoms, and leave destruction in their path. 

Wisdom in the New Testament 

We could also go to Ecclesiastes and Job and some of the complexities of living in a fallen world and the delay between now and the final resolution of all things in the judgment to come. But let us go to the New Testament. In Colossians 1:9-10, we have Paul's prayer for the saints in Colossae. “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God...” It should be our desire and prayer to know God's will in all wisdom and understanding, so that we can walk in a manner worthy to him. 

Not only does Paul pray for this, but he also works hard for it. In describing the work of Christ's ministers, he says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). 

In Colossians 2:2-3, Paul writes of the aim of his struggles, “…that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ. The Proverbs often talk about wisdom in a personified way and much of this language is picked up in the New Testament and applied to Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). As Proverbs describes wisdom being begotten of God before anything was created, so Jesus is eternally begotten of the Father before all ages. As all things were made through wisdom, so all things were made through Christ. Where do we find wisdom and take hold of wisdom? In Jesus Christ. It would be utter folly to reject him. But in him, we become truly wise and are reconciled with our Maker. 

In Colossians 3:10, Paul describes the image of God that is being renewed in the saints. We “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Compare this to the parallel passage in Ephesians 4:24 where he emphasizes holiness and righteousness. In Colossians, with it emphasis on wisdom, he brings out the fact that this divine image is being renewed in knowledge. 

How do we grow in this knowledge and wisdom? “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” (Col. 3:16). If Christ has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, we should want his word to dwell in us richly. This takes place through instruction in wisdom and also by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. 

Then Paul exhorts the saints in Colossians 4:5, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” Live wisely, redeeming the time, making good choices, especially before outsiders. Do not bring disgrace upon the gospel. Set a good example. Be a light to the world and refute the slander of the ungodly by your behavior. Be wise in how you speak to outsiders. "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (4:6). 

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus says, "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." The Greek word used here for wisdom is the more specific word for prudence, shrewdness, or sensibleness. Jesus does not want his people to be simpletons or naive. You are sheep among wolves, so beware of men. Look out for the danger that comes. You should be like children in humility and teachableness, but Scripture also says, "Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature" (1 Cor. 14:20).

On the other hand, does prudence sometimes get used as an excuse to compromise? Sometimes cowards and sluggards appeal to prudence to excuse their vices (Prov. 26:13). Sometimes well-meaning apologists foolishly think they might win over their opponents by giving up less important doctrines. Many errors and heresies have begun as misguided strategies for defending the faith. Sometimes sins and cruelties are excused under the pretense of prudence, as if the ends necessarily justify the means. It is with good reason that Jesus adds, "innocent as doves." The devil was crafty, but he was not innocent as a dove. He was using that wisdom to do harm. We ought to be as wise as serpents, but in such a way that we do not become like the wolves we dwell among. All the virtues need each other. 

Let me finish then with the epistle from James. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). This is what true wisdom looks like. It is contrary to contention and selfish ambition. It is open to reason and impartial with a readiness to understand the situation rather than stubbornly sticking to assumptions. This true wisdom comes from above, from God, and it leads to peace and harmony. 

How does one receive this wisdom from above? Not only by instruction and practice, but also through prayer. In James 1:5 he says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” So lift up your voice and call out for wisdom. Pray to God that he might give it to you. Seek wisdom from the Lord, in the fear of the Lord, for he gives generously to those who seek it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023


“Piety,” like the word “religion,” is not an especially popular word today. Both words strike some as overly formal and sanctimonious and get unfairly associated with hypocrisy or formalism. It is possible to have the appearance of piety but to lack its power, but that is a distortion. Like religion, piety is a good word and concept. To others, piety is simply another word for private devotions or Bible reading and prayer. But piety is more and deeper than this.

Now, where do you find it in the Bible? If you looked in your Bible and you just searched for the word piety, you might not come up with a lot, and that is due to a matter of translation. The Greek word for piety is εὐσέβεια. In our English translations, it is usually translated as "godliness." So when you see the word godliness or godly in the New Testament, that is the Greek word, εὐσέβεια, which is the Greek equivalent of the Latin pietas, which is where we get our word piety. As with most concepts in English, we have two words for the same basic concept, one Latin-based (piety) and one Anglo-Saxon-based (godliness). You can use either word, godliness or piety, but the concept is the important thing.

What Is Piety?

So what is εὐσέβεια? What is piety? People have talked about this over the years. John Calvin uses the word a lot in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and he defines it too. He says, 
I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him - they will never yield him willing service. (1.2.1)
From a knowledge of God and his benefits, we therefore revere and love him. This reverence and grateful love producing willing service. Noah Webster in his 1828 dictionary has a similar definition of piety. He says, 
1. Piety in principle, is a compound of veneration or reverence of the Supreme Being and love of his character, or veneration accompanied with love; and piety in practice, is the exercise of these affections in obedience to his will and devotion to his service. 
2. Reverence of parents or friends, accompanied with affection and devotion to their honor and happiness.
Like Calvin, Webster describes piety as a combination of reverence and love and as the exercise of these affections in obedience and service. Webster also speaks of what is called filial piety, piety directed toward one's parents. 

Building on these other definitions, piety can be briefly defined as dutiful devotion that springs from gratitude and reverence. Reverent fear and grateful love unite to produce dutiful devotion. A godly, pious life is marked by a devout diligence to fulfill your God-given duties, fulfilling them with gratitude and reverence. 

As a side note, while there is not a Hebrew word exactly equivalent to εὐσέβεια, the Old Testament does speak of these elements of piety: wholehearted love and godly fear of God, resulting in devoted service and obedience (Deut. 10:12-13). 

Piety in 2 Peter and 1 Timothy 

There are several books of the New Testament where godliness/piety is especially prominent, such as 2 Peter and 1 Timothy. In 2 Peter, we are taught that we have received all things that pertained to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us (1:3). Then Peter goes on to exhort us to make every effort to supplement our faith with several virtues, including godliness (1:5-6). Near the end of this epistle, after speaking of the second coming of Jesus Christ, he exclaims, "Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness...!" (2 Peter 3:11). 

Paul speaks of godliness throughout 1 Timothy. For example, in 4:6-8 he writes, 
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
There is, first of all, a connection between the good words of the faith and its outworking in godliness. The truth "accords with godliness" (1 Tim. 6:3, Titus 1:1). There is also a connection between being trained in the words and training yourself in godliness. Two different Greek words for training are used here. In verse 6 the sense is “being nourished/fed/educated in the words of the faith,” while in verse 7 the sense is “train/exercise yourself for godliness.” Just as you eat properly and exercise your body to be healthy, so spiritual health is produced by being fed by good teaching and by exercising yourself in godliness. Notice that just as in 2 Peter, you are called to activity. You are called to train yourself for godliness. Just as you also train your body in physical virtue, so train yourself in the spiritual virtue of piety. Piety is of value in every way.

In 6:5-6, Paul speaks of false teachers who imagine that godliness is a means of gain. They are just practicing it to get some money out of you. Then he says in verse 6, "but godliness with contentment is great gain." And so, there is promise in godliness. In fact, that is what he had spoken of in 4:8, that godliness is a value in every way as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a win-win situation. Win now, win later. But this is true of godliness with contentment, not hypocritical godliness as a means to money, because the love of money is not godliness, but the root of all kinds of evil. And then in 6:11, exhorting Timothy, he says, "But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness." Flee vices, but pursue after true piety.

Piety Described 

Piety is preeminently directed toward God. It is expressed in dutiful devotion to him, springing from grateful love and reverent fear. Piety is directly expressed in worship, but it is also expressed in willing obedience in everything. As Cicero put it, “piety gives both duty and homage.” It is also an inner attitude that is expressed in these ways. Do not neglect the inner attitude, its expression in worship and devotions, or its expressions in obedience throughout life.

Piety toward God is born of faith. It is by faith that we learn gratitude and reverence, beholding the grace and majesty of God. 

Piety shows reverence rather than flippancy and irreverence. The false teachers described in 2 Peter were impious: they carelessly despised authority, blasphemed, and despised God’s judgment.

Piety shows gratitude rather than self-centeredness and ingratitude. Those who receive much from God but do not give thanks to him or serve him are impious. Secularism is thoroughly impious. 

Piety is exercised by dutiful devotion rather than unfaithfulness and lawlessness driven by sinful passions. In 2 Peter, Peter uses the word “ungodly” to describe: (1) the world of the ungodly destroyed in Noah’s flood, (2) Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of what will happen to the ungodly, and (3) the destruction of the ungodly on the day of judgment. But those who are rescued, like Lot, are “the godly” (2:9). Today there is a great temptation to adopt an attitude that is irreverent, ungrateful, and lawless. The atmosphere we breath is impious. Swim against the stream! 

In a secondary way, piety is also directed toward other superiors to whom you have reason to be grateful, such as your parents and country. They have given you much, so be grateful and reverent toward them and therefore dutiful and devoted to them, giving back by your service. This is called filial piety (or patriotism in the case of your country). This is part of our piety toward God, especially in light of the fifth commandment. Paul spoke of piety/godliness in this way in 1 Timothy 5:4, “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” Make return - in other words, as you received life from them, as you were brought up by them, as they cared for you when you could not care for yourself, so show this reverence and gratitude toward them by caring for them in their old age. We also show this filial piety for our parents by also honoring their children (your siblings). You show this piety towards your country by also honoring your fellow citizens for its sake.

Two Examples of Piety: Aeneas and Cornelius 

A popular example of piety in the ancient world was pius Aeneas, the hero of the Aeneid, the legendary founder of Rome. In that story, Aeneas demonstrates pietas by his devotion to the gods and his father by showing reverence to them and embracing the duty they gave him of founding the city of Rome for his people and descendants. The classic image of Aeneas was of him carrying his father and household gods out of the fall of Troy, leading his young son by the hand behind him. He introduces himself in the Aeneid by saying, “I am Aeneas, duty-bound. I carry aboard my ships the gods of house and home we seized from enemy hands. My fame goes past the skies. I seek my homeland - Italy - born as I am from highest Jove.” (The Aeneid, 1.457-460). The force that is opposed to pietas in the Aeneid is not only impiety, but furor (the Latin word for passion, frenzy, or rage). In the Aeneid, this frenzy and passion is personified by Juno who stirs up storms, the lust of Dido, the Trojan wives who seek to burn the ships, and the hostile forces and civil tumult in Italy, all of this to turn aside pious Aeneas from the path of duty. 

As in the Aeneid, the Bible describes εὐσέβεια in opposition to impiety and evil passions. The passions of the flesh “wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11) much as they waged war against Aeneas to turn him aside from his duty and destroy him. But this deliverance from frenzy comes through Christ, who is “the grace of God” who “has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness [impiety] and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly [pious] lives in the present age…” (Titus 2:12).

It is interesting that Luke, a Gentile, recounts the healing of a lame man named Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35) just before introducing a pious Roman centurion (Acts 10) in a book that ends with the gospel of the kingdom coming to Rome (Acts 28). Perhaps Luke included the account of Aeneas’ healing to indicate that pagan Rome and its piety was helplessly disabled, in need of Christ the Savior. 

In any case, in Acts 10 we come to a good example of a pious man who served the true God. Cornelius, the Roman centurion from Italy, is described by Luke the same way Aeneas is described by Virgil: “a devout [εὐσεβής] man” (Acts 10:2). Consider how Luke described this pious man. 

Cornelius feared God (10:2). I have already mentioned that the fear of God is an essential element of piety. And not only did he fear God, but he did so with all his household (10:2). That is, he practiced it with them in family worship, cultivated it through instruction and by example, and applied it in their way of life. This influence extended to the soldier who attended him, who is also described as pious (ESV: “devout,” 10:7). 

Cornelius gave alms generously to the people (10:2). Alms were gifts to the needy and were given in the synagogue and on the street (Matt. 6:2). Cornelius also prayed continually to God (10:2-3). Not that he prayed every minute of the day, but consistently throughout the day (such as at “the ninth hour”). His alms and prayers were like sacrifices to God (10:4, see also Heb. 13:15-16).

Cornelius was a just man (“upright,” 10:22). Piety itself is an aspect of justice - God deserves our reverence and devotion - and it moves a person to justly fulfill the rest of his obligations to God and man as service to the Lord (Col. 3:23-24). Piety is not only practiced in worship, but also in dutifulness before God in all of life. 

Cornelius sent for Peter so that he might hear Peter's message from God and he invited his household and friends to hear it (10:7-8, 24). His piety was evident by his regard for God's word. Cornelius received the gospel that Peter preached (10:44-48, 11:17-18). I believe Cornelius was already regenerate, believing in God's old covenant promises, but here he and his household received the gospel of Christ's finished work and were brought into new covenant blessings, being filled with the Spirit and baptized. A pious man receives the word of God, repents of his sin, believes the gospel, and receives baptism with his household. 

Cornelius is a biblical example of a pious man. We should all be training ourselves in piety. May we live in this way, living before the face of God. May we remember what we have received from God - his generosity and  kindness - that we might be loving and grateful to him. May we remember his presence and power and authority, that we might revere him. And with this gratitude and reverence, may we therefore live lives that are devoted to him, attending to our duties, turning aside from evil passions, and repenting when we go astray.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023


In addition to faith and hope, Paul speaks of "the love that you have for all the saints," your "labor of love," and "the breastplate of faith and love" (Col. 1:3-5, 1 Thess. 1:3, 5:8). Love is one of the virtues that we are to practice and exercise as we grow to reflect the character and excellency of our God.

The Importance of Love

Consider first the importance of love. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:5, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” In context, he was warning against teaching that was unprofitable and speculative. He reminded Timothy that this love was the aim of their charge as ministers of the gospel.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he answered in terms of love, quoting two passages from the Old Testament. 
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)
Not only are these the greatest commandments, but they are foundational for the rest, a summary of the law. 

Another place where Paul uses the triad of faith, hope, and love is in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Here he writes, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is greater than faith and hope. We might say that faith is the most foundational virtue. It is usually listed first because by it we receive Christ. Yet love is the most important as the highest virtue and the most enduring. Certainly faith and hope abide, but they also culminate in the age to come in such a way that faith gives way to sight and our hopes are realized. But love will continue as love in glory as we dwell with God and one another. 

In 1 Corinthians 16:22, Paul says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” Not only is love for one another important, but so is love for the Lord. It is essential. Paul anathematizes those who do not have it.

The apostle Peter also spoke highly of love. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Do not stop, but keep on loving one another, and do so earnestly!

What Is Love? 

If love is so important, we should figure out what it is. The New Testament primarily uses two Greek words for love, agape and phileo. Sometimes when people teach about love, they overemphasize the contrast between different Greek words for love. In the Bible, these two words often overlap without a strong contrast. Sometimes they are used interchangeably within a passage. Phileo can emphasize the aspect of friendship a bit more than agape. In fact, a form of phileo is used as the word for friend, as when Lazarus is described as Jesus' friend. Agape is used more commonly, but phileo is more common in compound words (love of money, love of God, love of husband, brotherly love).

The Greek lexicon defines agapao (the verb form of agape) as “(1) to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love; (2) to have high esteem for or satisfaction with something, take pleasure in” (BDAG). It defines phileo as “(1) to have a special interest in someone or something, frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend; (2) to kiss as a special indication of affection, kiss” (BDAG).

Both of these Greek words can be used for bad loves. Not every exercise of love is good. The love of money, for example, is strongly condemned in Scripture. Both Greek words are used for it. There are also good loves, like the love of Jesus. Both Greek words are used for that too. So the object of love and its proportion is important. That is also true of faith. Is all faith saving faith? Are some faiths bad? If you put the faith in a false god, that would be a bad faith. Faith is a virtue when it is exercised in the true God and his gospel. The same with hope. You could have vain hopes. You could have hope in the wrong thing. You could hope for bad things. But there is a Christian hope. The same is true with love. Properly ordered love is a virtue. In fact, it is the highest virtue.

Can you think of what would just be the opposite of love? Hatred is an opposite of love. Think of how John commonly contrasts love and hatred (1 John 3:11-15). Related to hatred is envy. Other alternatives contrary to love include neglect, contempt, and apathy. A person who loves another will care about that person. 

One Reformed writer says, “Spiritual love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. We show this type of love by loving God for His sake and our neighbors for God’s sake” (Godefridus Udemans). It is very common to define the virtue of love in this way, and with good reason. Love for God is preeminent. The love of neighbor ought to flow from it. 

Love for God

Thomas Watson (1620–1686) has a section on love in his book on the Ten Commandments. He says, “What is love? It is a holy fire kindled in the affections, whereby a Christian is carried out strongly after God as the supreme good.” I think that is a good description. Love is an inner affection, a holy fire kindled in the affections. It has an object, God. It also carries you out after the object, that you might participate in him. It fixes on God as the supreme good. And it is a vigorous affection. 

Watson goes on to say, “Wherein doth the formal nature of love consist? The nature of love consists in delighting in an object … This is loving God, to take delight in him.” Watson also points out that our love for God ought to be with a whole and undivided heart, that we ought to love him for himself, not just because he might do something for you, but because he himself is the supreme good. We should seek to enjoy him, to love him above all else, to love him as much as we can, with all our ability, to love him constantly, and to exercise this love in every sphere. “Love to God must be active in its sphere. Love is an industrious affection; it sets the the head studying for God, hands working, feet running in the ways of his commandments. It is called the labour of love. 1 Thess. 1:3.” 

Love for Your Fellow Man

If we love God, we will also love those who are made in his image, for his image in them. That is why we should not kill them, because they are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). But more than that, we ought to love them, as fellow image bearers of our Creator. 

We have all the more reason to love those who have been born of God, those who have been adopted and regenerated and are being renewed after his image. As Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34). In view here is love for your fellow disciples. This is plain from the following verse, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Among fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, we are able to mutually participate in this Christ-like love and Christ-motivated love. 

There is also a love for family that Scripture exhorts us to as an aspect of this virtue. They are some of your closest neighbors. In Ephesians 5, Paul says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. In Titus 2, he says that older women should train younger women to love their husbands and their children. The Song of Songs describes the mutual love of its groom and bride as something strong and enduring, as "strong as death" (8:6). 

The love of neighbor also extends beyond fellow saints and family members to the person in front of you, even the stranger (Lev. 19:34). Jesus taught this in the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was good because he acted as a neighbor to the wounded Jew that he found on the side of the road. 

Love is even to be extended to your enemy, as Jesus taught in Matthew 5:43-48. Why should you love your enemy? Because God is benevolent and merciful toward his enemies and you should imitate your Father. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust ... You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:44–45, 48). Not only did God love us when we were his enemies, choosing us and bringing us to salvation, but he even shows kindness to the reprobate in this life, giving them good things that they do not deserve. He is long-suffering and patient. He shows kindness not only to those who love him, but also to the wicked and ungrateful (Luke 6:35). Therefore, you who are his children should imitate him and love your enemies. 

Characteristics of Love 

In describing love, one cannot forget Paul's description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. It was written in the context of a church that needed love, having been divided by rivalries and party spirit. It had been divided and disordered in its practice of the Lord's Supper as well as in its practice of certain spiritual gifts. Paul not only insists on love's necessity, but also describes its true nature. 
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4–8a)
These are characteristics, qualities of love, the love that Christians ought to exercise toward one another, resembling their Savior. Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that while knowledge can puff up, love builds up. That is a characteristic of love as well. It is edifying. It builds up other people. 

There are also related virtues to love, such as generosity, kindness, and mercy. Mercy is love exercised towards those who are in misery or danger. When you see the distress of those whom you love, love turns into mercy as you lay their misery to your own heart and desire to help them. Another related virtue is hospitality (Heb. 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9). Scripture also speaks of natural affection in Romans 1, or to be more precise, the lack of natural affection (translated by the ESV as "heartless"). Fallen mankind usually continues to exercise a basic natural affection, but sometimes even this is corrupted. While the Gentiles usually love those who love them and greet their brothers (Matt. 5:46-47), sometimes they do not. While unbelieving mothers and fathers will often have natural affection for their children, there are times when even this love fails and parents turn cruel to their own flesh and blood. So even natural affections can be undermined by sin and should be purposefully maintained by the believer. 

God's Love for Us

God's love is primary in several ways. Not only should we love God more than anything, but his love is the original love, the model of love, and a motive for our love. God's love was the first love that ever existed. The Father loved the Son in eternity past before creation (John 17:24), and even his love for us existed in eternity (Eph. 1:4-5). God has a general mercy towards all. He has a love for his elect in Christ. The Triune God loves us. Not only did the Father love us by sending the Son (John 3:16), but the Son himself also loved us and so gave himself for us (Eph. 5:1-2). He laid down his life for his friends. There is no greater love than that. 

So in this redemptive work, the love of God was expressed. As 1 John 4:8-9 says, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” This is how we know love and it is also our motive for love. We learn from his demonstration of love that someone who loves another will seek the good of that person, delight in fellowship with that person, and be willing to sacrifice for that person. And we love because he first loved us. We love him who has loved us. We love him for himself and we love others because of him.

The Source of Love

This virtue of love comes from God. He produces it in his children. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). It is founded upon knowledge and faith. When a person perceives the goodness of God and God's grace toward him, he seeks God and delights in him as his supreme good. If you did not know anything about God, why would you love him? It is by knowing God, by knowing his goodness, by knowing that he has loved you, that we love him. We know him by reading Scripture and by receiving him in faith. Therefore we love. Remember, our aim is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. As Paul says, what matters is "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). 

Love in Action

Love expresses itself in good works, acts of charity to others and obedience to God's commandments (1 John 3:16-18, 5:3). Like the woman at Jesus' feet, we love much because we are forgiven much, and therefore we show that love by acts of devotion to him (Luke 7:44-50). In fact, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:14 that we should do all things in love. Do everything out of a motive of love and therefore in a loving manner. Love is the inner affection that produces loving deeds. 

Love should not be primarily defined as the behavior it produces. Primarily, love is the motive that produces good deeds for others. It is the motivation of loving behavior. But the deeds of love can be called love. You can see love in the form of loving words and deeds. After all, the world is supposed to see the love that Christ's disciples have for one another. 

The Maintenance of Love 

I want to conclude with the maintenance of love. Love is like a fire that needs to be kept aflame, otherwise it might grow cold. Remember the Ephesian church, which had lost the love they had at first (Rev. 2:4). They had declined in their love and their fervor. Jesus speaks in Matthew 24 of the love of some growing cold. So Thomas Watson exhorts us, 
You who have love to God, keep it flaming upon the altar of your heart … As you would be careful to preserve the natural heat in your body, so be careful to preserve the heat of love to God in your soul. Love is like oil to the wheels, it quickens us in God’s service. When you find love abate and cool, use all means to quicken it. When the fire is going out, you throw on fuel; so when the flame of love is going out, make use of the ordinances as sacred fuel to keep the fire of your love burning.
Remember that you are responsible to maintain and to exercise this love. Peter exhorts us to make every effort to add brotherly affection and love to your faith (2 Peter 1). Ponder the glory and excellence and goodness of God displayed in his word and his world, so that a sense of these things might inflame that love. Then exercise it in service, in song, in worship, and in prayer. The same goes for your love for the saints and your love for other people. Grow in love by consistently exercising love and inflaming it through a meditation upon the love of your God.