Good Things Come in Threes
by Derek Thomas
The triptych—faith, hope, and love— appears ten times in the New Testament. Of particular interest is 1 Thessalonians 1:3, where Paul speaks of “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.” Three qualities of mature Christian discipleship are singled out: work of faith, labor of love, and patience (steadfastness) of hope.
A Faith That Works
Paul is not thinking here of a work, which is faith—faith is not a work. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works” (Eph. 2:8–9). Faith is an outstretched hand, a look at a crucified Savior. Faith is saying, “I cannot work, for no work of mine is ever sufficient to rescue a sinner like me.”
But true faith is always accompanied by work: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (Westminster Confession of Faith 11:2). James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14). Without corroborating, vindicating work, any claim to faith is disingenuous; it is “dead” faith (2:26). The “work” is not the cause of justification but its consequence. Vacuous talk about one’s faith is hot air unless Jesus-like acts of kindness and love adorn our profession. No amount of faith may be reckoned justifying faith unless it is accompanied by a vital principle of obedience.
Labor of Love
Paul elsewhere employs the word labor when he speaks of his own spiritual journey “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Cor. 11:27). The word speaks of difficulty, effort, and pain. Strange, then, that it should be juxtaposed with love. Surely, love is instinctive and reciprocal? Not always, and perhaps rarely. Love requires self-denial and mortification on our part. We are called to love the unlovely—those who cannot, will not, return love. Truth is, some Christians are hard to love.
Patience of Hope
Hope speaks of the future, when the present seems dark and foreboding. Hope suggests a sovereign hand in the affairs of providence that ensures a brighter tomorrow (perhaps not in this world, but the next). Hope speaks of covenant promises that say “yes” (2 Cor. 1:17–19) when the present is more about “no.” So patience is called for, a waiting upon God, trusting His promises no matter what the present may seem to be saying. Do you see the faith that works, the labor of love, and the patience of hope in your own heart?