This pericope falls under the locus of sanctification. In preaching this text, you will want to preach the increase of love (from childhood in the faith to full manhood of Christ) right into Paul’s eschatological proclamation: “For now we see in a mirror dimly [ἐν αἰνίγματι — an enigma!], but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (13:12). Christians long to love perfectly and are constantly derailed from a life of love by their sinful flesh. Therefore, the admonition to love more and more is needed as long as we live with our old Adam, and until we see Love Incarnate face to face, and know even as we are already known by God in Jesus.
The pericope is broken down into three major parts. You might find this to be a very logical progression through the text for your sermon. First, Paul sets love above all other virtues and depicts it as essential for the Christian life, both individually and as the body of Christ (1-3). Paul calls love the hyperbolic way (ὑπερβολὴν ὁδὸν) compared to the gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, teaching, and interpreting the word of God (1 Cor. 12). But love, as Paul praises it here, is also greater than faith, even faith that justifies and can move mountains of sin into the depths of the sea and cast out demons (Matthew 17:20-21). You won’t be preaching directly on justification by faith from this text, though it is implied throughout, you will most certainly preach on the effect of our justification, as the Spirit has His way with us.
The Lutheran Confessions state concerning this passage from 1 Corinthians 13, “Paul requires love. We also require it. For we said earlier that the renewal and incipient keeping of the law ought to exist in us. Whoever throws away love will not retain faith, however strong it may be, for that person does not retain the Holy Spirit” (Ap IV:219). But the Confessions (in the quarto edition of the Apology) also warn us not to preach this text as if our love gives us access to God or propitiates us to Him:
However, it does not follow that love justifies, that is, that on account of love we receive the forgiveness of sins, that love conquers the terrors of death and sin, that love ought to be set against the wrath and judgment of God, that love satisfies the law, and that once we are reborn, we are acceptable to God on account of the fulfillment of the law and not freely on account of Christ. Paul does not say the things that our opponents nevertheless imagine. Now if we overcome the wrath of God by our love, if we merit the forgiveness of sins before God by our love, if we are acceptable by our observance of law, let the opponents destroy the promise of Christ. Let them abolish the gospel that teaches that we have access to God through Christ, the propitiator, and that we are accepted not on account of our fulfilling the law but on account of Christ” (Ap IV:219).
While it is true that there is no faith without love and there is no real love without faith, Paul is not trying to work out the relationship between faith and good works as he does elsewhere and as Lutherans are wont to do. He simply takes it for granted that we have the Spirit, are in faith, abide in hope, and have the love of God poured out on us. See Romans 5:1-5 for a parallel to this relationship between faith, hope, love, and the Holy Spirit. Regardless of the sin that still clings to us, Paul preaches the love of God as the reality of the Christian life. Let your people see that they have been born again into this love.
Notice also that Paul is pointing out very specific tasks in the church, some which apply specifically to preachers and other that apply to all the faithful as new creatures in Christ. This is not a command to the world, but very directly to the church. Therefore, to preach the gospel, to interpret rightly the word of truth, to have all knowledge, and to have all faith, even to suffer martyrdom does not make us anything without love (love not merely as our action, but as a gift of the Spirit [Rom. 5:5]). The contrast Paul gives is not love versus knowledge or faith, as if these were opposed to each other, but rather all knowledge and all faith are contrasted by the nothingness of those who do not have love.
One is compelled to say here that faith is not less faith without love. He is not speaking of faith as some doctrinal principle that is lacking when love is lacking, but he makes clear that we are nothing without love. What are human beings after all, if not those who were made to participate in God who is in Himself love? As the Father loves the Son and the Spirit, so we were made to love God and one another intimately and perfectly. This communion in God’s love is what the Beloved has restored for us. So why do we need such apostolic admonition to love? It is because sin has devastated our human nature and, even in those who have the love of God poured out on them by the Spirit, its effects break out in the form of lovelessness in the church.
Our lovelessness is revealed in contrast with the second part of the pericope, Paul’s song of love in verses 4-7. As you preach the law, there is plenty to draw on here. Without love we are impatient, cruel, envious, boastful, rude, etc. At the same time (simul!), Paul’s praise of love is the praise of love manifested in Love Incarnate, Jesus Christ. He alone bears all things, believes all things, hopes in all things, endures all things (13:7) for our sake. Paul’s repetition of “all” (πάντα στέγει, πάντα πιστεύει, πάντα ἐλπίζει, πάντα ὑπομένει) stands in contrast with our οὐδείς. Yet it is exactly through Christ that His all becomes all for those who were nothing. Sanctification ought to be preached by preaching the love of Christ that is already ours in Him by faith and not yet fully realized in us.
The third part of the pericope leads us into the hope of the beatific vision (as our Catholic friends call it). Don’t get bogged down in pointing out all the ways that people should love one another in this life, as if that was the final goal. The final goal is to see the face of the Beloved, our Savior Christ the Lord. It is that hope that we have in the Spirit that causes us to love one another here and now. Christians are caught up in the love of God in Christ. In this love they grow together as the body of Christ into mature manhood. And in the struggle and despite all the sin that clouds our eyes, we will see clearly Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. The more we fix our eyes on Him, the more we grow in His love.
Concordia Theology: Addition resourced from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to help you proclaim I Corinthians 12:31b-13:13.