[K:JNWTS 28/1 (May 2013): 3-10]

Something From Nothing

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Lawrence Semel

I was born and raised in Philadelphia and attended public school in that city. These were the days when Bible reading was a regular feature of school life. As I remember, the Bible reading consisted mostly of the reading of certain passages over and over again. Passages like Psalm 23, the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5 and 1 Corinthians 13 were regular favorites.

Why is the unbelieving world so attracted to certain passages of the Bible? Why this popularity with the world, for example, with the Sermon on the Mount? Geerhardus Vos offers us an answer. He writes about what he calls the "commonly held view" of men concerning a passage like the Sermon on the Mount. "It flatters [them] by taking for granted that [they] need no more than the presentation of this high ideal, and that Jesus does [them] the honour of thinking [them] capable of realizing [this high ideal] by [their] own natural goodness . . . it is not so much what people find in the Sermon on the Mount, it is what they congratulate themselves upon not finding there, that renders them thus enamored of its excellence. It is because they dislike the story of the helplessness of sin, of manís utter condemnation in the sight of God, and the insistence upon the necessity of the cross . . . that they . . . adopt as their exclusive creed a portion of the gospel from which in their opinion these offensive things are absent."[1]

What Vos says here about the popularity of the Sermon on the Mount with unbelief is the same reason they like 1 Corinthians 13. When the world uses 1 Corinthians 13 as an example of the Bible as literature or read it at their wedding ceremonies or print it on their greeting cards, it is used in a way that rips the passage from the gospel context in which it appears in Paulís letter and from the whole gospel story of the redemption of fallen sinners by Godís grace in Christ. And since this famous chapter makes no mention of Christ, the gospel, sin or repentance or any such things, they think they find the apostle in 1 Corinthians 13 appealing to their own innate goodness and to their own ability †to love as this chapter describes. The way they read it, Paul flatters and honors them in 1 Corinthians 13 by assuming that they are able to love as this passage directs.

For the world, 1 Corinthians 13 declares that man is someone of worth before God. He is someone that God must reckon with. When God asks us to love, man is able from his own nature, from his own inherent abilities, to love as the passage describes. And when man by his own ability loves as described, God then becomes indebted to him and owes him a reward. Man in his sin and rebellion, ever since the fall, insists before God that he is "something." My religion, my ethics and my deeds are things that I perform before you O God. I am really "something" and you must reckon with me and pay me what you owe me for the "something" that I am.

Is man "something" before God as described above or is he "nothing" as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13? In 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul writes, "Öif I do not have love, I am nothing." †Do our own good works merit or earn Godís favor? Are we really religiously and ethically impressive in Godís sight? Are we "something" before God?† Or before God, are we "nothing"?

Something from Nothing

Now you would think that after these many years since the Reformation, the Reformed branch of Protestantism at least, would have the relationship of faith and works clear. But as recent confusion of such movements as the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision demonstrate, confusion is still with us. For example, for some, salvation by grace alone and by faith alone properly dominates their thinking, but to the extent that good works seem hardly to be a concern. They are clear on Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you are saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast." But they forget the following verse, Ephesians 2:10: "For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared before hand that we should walk in them."

But then on the other hand, the confusion takes this form. We correctly see that our justification is an act of Godís free grace in Christóa gift from God. But when it comes to holiness, our sanctification is viewed as work that we do in gratitude for our salvation. Now we must not remove the aspect of gratitude from our sanctification, but when we think this way, then salvation by works that is blocked at the front door of our thinking by the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is allowed to gain entrance into our thought through the back door so that folks begin to see their good works as originating with them.

This is a great error. The fruit of good works originates from God not from men. Again, it is Vos who has reminded us of the great Reformed principle: "All of manís work has to rest on an antecedent work of God" ("The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology," in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, p. 242). Vos further explains: "When the Reformed takes the obtaining of salvation completely out of manís hands, he does this so that the glory which God gets from it might be uncurtailed" (ibid., p. 247).† Ultimately then, in the deepest sense, for Paul our good works are not ours but Godís. They are the result of Godís imprinting upon us his own character and virtues so that we reflect his glory back to him and reflect his glory out before others. Our works in sanctification are his work begun and continuing in us. They are his work in us, both to will and to do what pleases him. Both faith and good works are Godís gift of grace to us in Christ, received by us by faith alone. Both are aspects of the believerís union with Christ. If we donít see it this way, we will begin to see good works as outside of Christ and as outside of the grace of God.

The Westminster Standards are brilliant on this whole matter. The Shorter Catechism, Question 33 states that "Öjustification is an act of Godís free grace;" while Question 35 states that "Ösanctification is the work of Godís free graceÖ" Therefore, our salvation in all of its aspects is all of grace. It is Godís work not ours. It is all rooted in Christ and in our union with Christ and nothing of our Christian faith is outside of him. If we forget this, then the church is in danger of adopting the same attitude that the world has about itself. That on account of our works, we are "something" before Godóthat we are "really something." No! There is nothing of our salvation by grace through faith that is outside of Christ or that is separate from our union with Christ. Calvin agrees with this speaking of the way of salvation: "First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us" (Institutes, 3.1.1). †

The "love" that Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 13 is rooted in the love of God in Christ for lost sinners. Paulís comments about love are grounded in the great gospel statement of Godís love in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that who so ever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." It is only after we observe Godís love for us in Christ that we know what love is. And only then does 1 Corinthians 13, or any other Biblical passage, call upon us to reflect that love of God to others. And in the call to reflect that love to others, we are at the same time assured by this same gospel of grace that this love of God for us in Christ will then also lead to Godís love in Christ at work in usóto enable us to love others as Christ loved us. In John 13, Jesus washes the discipleís feet and he then tells them to follow his example and love one another as I have loved you. Christ is the example of love we are to follow. But also we must never forget what Jesus says in John 15:5: "I am the vine you are the branches; he who abides in me and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing."

This all comes before us in 1 Corinthians 13. Though this passage is often referred to as a command from the apostle for us to love, there are no imperatives in 1 Corinthians 13. The whole passage does not in the first place command us to love.

Rather the passage is in the indicative. It describes love and in so doing, it becomes clear that when Paul talks about love in this chapter, he is really talking about Christ; he is calling upon us as those united to Christ to love after the manner of Christ and to look to Christ to indwell us by his word and Spirit to love others as he loved us. Christians can only exhale love toward others after they have first have inhaled that love from God in Christ.

So, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2, "Without love I am nothing," in fact he means, "without Christ I am nothing." In 1 Corinthians 13, "love" stands for Christ. In some of the verses, a certain personification of love is taking place. Paul speaks of love as acting like a person. "Love is patient, love is kindÖetc." (vv. 4-7). Paul personifies love. And the person being referred to is Christ. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is explaining "the more excellent way" and we know that Christ is "the way, the truth and the life."† In certain passages Paul will say put on loveÖ"(Col. 3:14), while in other passages he says "Öput on ChristÖ" (Rom. 13:14). Christ and love are used interchangeably. For Paul, love is a place in which we stand and Romans 8:39 assures us that "Önothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus." Therefore, "love" is no mere human capability as the world likes to think. Rather "love" describes Godís love for sinners in Christ. It describes Christ and the new life that arises from being in Christ.

The Christian faith is all about union with Christ and Scripture is teaching us that anything outside of Christ is nothing and is worthless before God. Outside of Christ and his work, we are nothing before God. Any good deeds that I do that are outside of Christ profit me nothing. They gain me nothing in the sight of God. Outside of Christ and union with him, I can never merit anything from God.

The religion of the world is one that trusts in manís own efforts, his own works, to save him. Worldly religion, the religion of fallen mankind, shares the common view of how religion works. Whether it is Roman Catholicism or Mormonism or Islam or modernism, the view of salvation is the same. If you do more good stuff than bad stuff then God owes you a reward. It is a religion of human achievement that leads a person to conclude "Iím something." Iím something before God and God owes me a reward for the "something" that I am.

But in 1 Corinthians 13:2 , we have Paulís confession of faith and the confession of faith of every true believer. He insists that without love, without Christ, we are nothing before God. All manner of giftedness, all manner of good deeds, apart from Christ, profit me nothing. This is the basis of a true Christian confession that as a sinner, without love, without Christ, outside of Christ and his saving work, "I am nothing." No one gains access to the kingdom of God apart from this humility. And it is only Godís redeeming grace in Christ that can make something out of nothing. "Without love, I am nothing." Apart from Christ, outside of Christ, "I am nothing." It is only redemption in Christ that takes the "nothing" that I am and makes me into "something" in Godís sight.

The Corinthian Problem Ė Boasting

Paul disciplines himself to see the Corinthians as "Öthose who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by callingÖ" (1:2). In Christ, they have been sanctified. They have been separated from the world and consecrated to God. Their testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in them (1:6). They are not lacking in any spiritual gift (1:7).They enjoy fellowship with Godís Son (1:9). Paul believes their confessions of faith in Christ and he takes them at their word.

But the church in Corinth has all sorts of problems too. Having been separated from the world and consecrated to God, they keep bringing the world back over into the church. They are saved by grace, but the Corinthians have fallen into the trap of boasting before God. They have begun to see their religious giftedness, their religious service, their religious life, as works that they do, as things that make them "something" before other men, that make them something to be recognized in the church, and worst of all that make them something before God.

Therefore, the Corinthians are becoming rather impressed with themselves, impressed with their giftedness, with their knowledge, with their wisdom, with their Christian lives. They are impressed with what they do and with all that they have. Therefore, in this letter, Paul has to rebuke them for their pride and for their boasting. He has to remind them that their salvation is all of grace. In 1 Corinthians 4:7 he writes: "What do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? They have spiritual gifts and they have good works, but they have begun to view those gifts and good works as things they do, things that originate with them apart from and outside of Christ. They are pointing to themselves and they are boasting about themselves.

Worldly religion boasts of itself and its own ability to save itself by its own works. It needs no Savior, it needs no Christ and it sees man as "something" before God who can earn Godís favor. And like the world, the Corinthians are becoming boastful in themselves. They begin to look at and see their religious gifts, their religious faith, their devotion and sacrifice, as their efforts, viewed apart from Christ, viewed as outside of Christ and outside of Godís grace. They see the things they do as things that originate with them. They are boastful, proud and arrogant. They believe that they are really "something" before God. They think highly of themselves, that they are wise, mighty and noble. Again, Paul has to rebuke them.1 Corinthians 1:26ff.: "For consider your calling brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosenÖthat no man should boast before GodÖ but by his doing †you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."† In their boasting about themselves, they are contradicting the basic Christian confession, that as fallen, wicked and undeserving sinners, we are "nothing."

But letís be clear. Do we, as Christians,practice good works? Yes! We must be diligent to practice good deeds, but we must never point to ourselves as the root and origin of such deeds, but always and only point to Christ. Christ in us is the producer of love. He is the producer of the good works in us, so that the glory is his. Yes indeed, we get a reward. We are crowned with the crown of life. But the church knows that the basis of her reward is Christ and his work (for us and in us). In Revelation 2:10, Christ tells the church: "Öbe faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." †In Revelation 4:4, John sees the church in heaven with crowns of gold on their heads. But in Revelation 4:10, the twenty-four elders representing the whole church "Öfall down before him who sits on the throne and they worship him who lives forever and ever and they cast their crowns before the throne saying, worthy art thou, our Lord and our God to receive glory and honor and power." The church casts its crowns at the feet of Jesus because she knows that apart from Christ she is nothing and that even the good deeds she pursues are the result of Christ in them, working the will for good deeds and the power to perform them. It is only Godís grace that takes the "nothing" that we are and turns us into "something." But even though God in his grace in Christ treats us as "something," still, the essential mark of true believers is their confession that apart from Christ and his work for us and his work in us, we in ourselves are "nothing."

The Corinthians thought they were "something" before God because of their spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy and faith (1 Cor. 13:1-2). In verses 1-2, Paul uses exaggeration to make his point. I could have tongues even to the point of angel speech (there is no such thing). I could know all mystery and all knowledge (only God knows all) and I could have faith to the extent of being able to move mountains (to unmake the creation, which only God can do). I could be that supernaturally gifted, but if I have not loveóif I have not Christ, then "I am nothing" before God and such giftedness profits me nothing with God.

Furthermore, in verse 3, Paul asks, What about acts of charity? Surely, doing acts of charity makes us "something" in the sight of God. But, Paul writes: "And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor,...but do not have love, it profits me nothing." †He is still using exaggeration. Does the Bible direct us to be charitable? Yes! But does the Bible direct us to dispossess ourselves of all possessions? No! If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, then I become one of the poor in need of charity. But here Paul says that even if he were charitable to the point of renouncing possessions altogether, even if he practiced charity to this exaggerated extent, without love, without Christ, I am nothing.

The Corinthians are concerned to do acts of charity. But they are beginning to boast in their acts of charity to others as though they originate with them. And they think that such acts of charity make them "something" before God. †Paul says that even the most costly and dramatic charity towards others, if done without love, if done without Christ, apart from faith and union with Christóthese are nothing and profit me nothing before God.

J. Gresham Machen

In the 1930ís, J. Gresham Machen objected to the Foreign Missions publication entitled "Rethinking Missions." In this publication, the committee was favoring a missions program for the church that moved away from preaching the gospel of salvation of lost sinners to the nations, to a program of social and economic aid. For Machen, this was nothing less than another gospel. It was mere moralism. Such efforts, Machen said, are nothing before God and they profit the doer nothing. Christianity is not moralism and moralism is no gospel. It cannot save!

By all means, we must have deeds of charity. But they must be done in love. They must be done out of our faith in Christ and seen and understood that they result from Christ at work in and through us. Indeed, genuine faith in Christ is no dead faith, but is a working faithóa faith working through love. But if they are done without love, outside Christ and the kingdom of salvation, then we are nothing before God. They profit me nothing! They do not earn or merit anything from God.

Paul adds in verse 3, what about acts of sacrifice? "Öand if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing." †There are people, who, out of devotion to their religion or to their cause, are willing to sacrifice much. A few are even willing to sacrifice to the extent of dying for their cause (Islamic terrorists). And those willing to make such a sacrifice would certainly boast about it before God and expect that it would earn a reward from him (the seventy virgins). A person, Paul says, might even have such dedication to a cause. But such sacrifice that is outside of Christ and his redemptive kingdom is nothing before God and of no profit before him. They merit nothing from God. They earn nothing from him.

Machen served in World War I with the YMCA. After the war, he expressed his concern about the chest thumping pride and boasting of the nation. Our army had beaten the Huns. Many had sacrificed to achieve that victory. But the nation was saying of that sacrifice that everyone one of us by such sacrifice can do more than enough to secure our souls before God. Now Machen meant no disrespect to the returning troops or to their service or to their sacrifice. But he knew another gospel when he saw it. He agreed with Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:3, when the apostle says that there is no self-sacrifice that we can perform that achieves such a thing. Even if I deliver my body to be burned, even if my sacrifice were to that extentóif it is done outside of love, outside of Christ and union with him, it profits me nothing.


Here is Paulís point in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. Gifts, acts of charity, acts of sacrifice, done without love, done without Christ, done apart from faith in Christ, profit me nothing. They are nothing in Godís sight and they gain or merit nothing from him.

You and I come into the kingdom of God when we confess that we are "nothing". In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, new members confessing Christ are asked: "Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before GodÖ" Far from maintaining before God that we are something, instead we abhor and humble ourselves before him. O Lord, we are nothing before you and we can boast of nothing in ourselves. The new member further confesses that he does "Önot trust in himself for salvation but in Jesus Christ alone." This confession that we are nothing before God and that for my salvation Christ is everything is the requirement of a true confession by which we gain entrance into the kingdom of God. It must be your confession!

You gain entrance into the kingdom by confessing that you are nothing. But then as a citizen of that kingdom by Godís grace in Christ, you rejoice in the knowledge that God has taken you and me who are "nothing" and made us into "something" most wonderful and glorious in his sight. In Christ, in the kingdom, you are a child of God and you are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. But the nature and character of the kingdom that we belong to now confronts us. God has made us into "something" in Christ and now our calling as citizens of his kingdom is to make ourselves "nothing" before him and before others.

This is what God himself does. He is the greatest "something" there is. But he loves his people and makes himself nothing in the interest of helping and serving them. In the garden for instance, God says of Adam, "Öit is not good that man is alone, I will make him a helper" (Gen. 2:18). Here God makes Adamís good, his mission. God, who is the greatest something, makes himself nothingómakes himself the servant to others. This is the nature of God and the character of his kingdom. This is the more excellent way! This is the new mode of existence in Christ! This is the way of love, the way of the kingdom of God! This is the way of Christ!

Jesus observes the love of the Father and the love character of the kingdom, and he emulates it. And he who is "something" makes himself nothing in service to God and in service to his people. In† Philippians 2, Paul puts it this way: "Öthat though he existed in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant," he emptied himself. The KJV says: "he made himself of no reputation." Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, has all the rights and prerogatives of deity. But he who is the greatest "something," makes himself to be "nothing" in the interest of serving his Fatherís will and serving for the redemption of his people. That is the nature and character of God and his kingdom. It is the more excellent way. It is the place called love, where those who by grace have been turned into "something." They now make themselves to be "nothing" in this service for the good and blessing of others.

What about you? You gained entrance into the kingdom by confessing you are nothing before God. Christ is everything to you. You now belong to that kingdom where God in his grace in Christ has made you to be something. But now in that kingdom, in that realm, in that place called love, what do you do with the "something" you have become in Christ? Following the pattern of the Godhead itself, you and I make ourselves to be "nothing" in the interest of the good, blessing and betterment of others. Adam was the head of his wife in the garden. He was "something." By observing God, he learns to make himself "nothing" in the interest of her good and blessing. It is that lesson that every Christian husband must learn and emulate.

And in the church, let every church member who confesses that they are "nothing" remember that they are, by Godís grace, wonderful "somethings" in Christ. And let the church be the place where those who are "something" make themselves "nothing" in the interest of serving God in Christ and serving the good and the blessing of others. Redeemed by the grace of God in Christ, we are a kingdom of "somethings," who make ourselves "nothings," in the interest of serving God, serving the church, serving one another and serving even a lost and dying world. When we do that, by Godís grace in Christ, well now, thatís really something!!!

[1] "Hungering and Thirsting after Righteousness," Grace and Glory (1994) 27.