Faith, Hope, and Love

In the opening of his first epistle to the church of the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes 1.2-3). You might recognize a familiar formula in the three things that Paul says he remembers before God: their “work of faith,” their “labor of love,” and their “steadfastness of hope.”

Faith, hope, and love are most often remembered from Paul’s famous text on love, where Paul uses faith and hope to amplify his message about the importance of love: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13.13).

The combination appears elsewhere, too. For example, Paul introduces his epistle to the Colossians similarly to 1 Thessalonians: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col 1.3-5a). In fact, faith, hope, and love are so commonly seen together that they are sometimes called the “Three Theological Virtues.”

In Romans, Paul makes clear that these heavenly virtues come into us from the Father through the Son and the Spirit: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5.1-5).

In Ephesians, Paul explains that the virtues are part of the unity of the church: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.1-6). (Notice also how Paul again invokes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when he invokes faith, hope, and love.)

The Hebrew writer uses the formula in another famous passage: “…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10.22-25). The Hebrew writer draws our attention to the three virtues by repeating the phrase “let us” before each one.

All of these passages share something else in common other than the use of “faith, hope, and love.” In each context, Paul attaches his message about faith, hope, and love to a warning about the Second Coming of Christ and the Judgment. In 1 Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13.12); in Colossians: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Col 1.21-23); in Romans: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5.9); in Ephesians: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4.30); and in Hebrews: “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10.25).

The message is present in 1 Thessalonians as well: “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night…. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thes 5.2, 8). We will have more to say about this as we progress through the letter, but for now we should fix in our minds the essential nature of these three virtues. Faith, hope, and love are our preparation for the Lord’s coming. May the Lord find us awake and prepared at His coming!