Paul’s greeting in his first epistle to the Corinthians (which according to custom in the first century occurs at the end of the letter) contains one of the most striking sentences to be found anywhere in the Word of God. Since it is profound and fundamental in nature, it is noteworthy that few commentators expound on it extensively. Some ignore it altogether; others satisfy their responsibility to analyze it simply by defining the main terms. Few (at least among those I consulted) seem to grapple seriously with the meaning or application of the text. The sentence to which I refer? “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed” (I Cor. 16:22a). Though I make no pretense of a thorough exposition of the text, let’s consider the following questions provoked by the statement.
What does it mean to “love” or “not love” the Lord? It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for love Paul used here is not the one we might anticipate, agape, the term used to express the highest form of love possible, but phileo, a term describing strong affection. In other words, we might say that the bar is not set as high as we might expect. The objective for the believer is to love the Lord Jesus Christ with agape love, that self-forgetful, self-sacrificial attitude that desires and labors for the sake of another regardless of cost. It is expressed succinctly in the command: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). But Paul does not start there. That love is the ultimate goal; the essential benchmark, however, is phileo love for the Lord. Though believers sin, though we can be carnal, though we often succumb to self-interest and put our desires and ambitions ahead of serving the Lord, Paul is stating in so many words that every genuine believer possesses a strong and unbreakable affection for the Lord. Again, our selfish old nature may override that strong affection from time to time, but it cannot extinguish it.
Can we say that this term phileo (love) is synonymous with the word Christian or believer? Probably not. But it is an accurate and ample description of a genuine believer. Furthermore, it makes clear the nature of saving faith. That is, the faith that saves is not merely intellectual knowledge of facts, nor even mental assent to the truth of the facts. Saving faith always, always results in love—love for the Lord Jesus Christ. This description eliminates false hopes and beliefs. It eliminates good works, church membership, and participation in rites, ordinances, or sacraments as efficacious in salvation. Not those who want to go to heaven, nor those who join a church, nor those who do their best, nor those who have performed some ritual qualify for heaven. Only those who love the Lord.
Can you say more about this love? Though still not agape love, the love Paul mentions entails more than just a strong feeling. The term implies a personal relationship with the object of that love. Jesus Christ is not just a noble ideal to be admired from afar by a genuine believer. He is a living, breathing God who is very near, an acquaintance with whom there is fellowship, One with whom believers can and do engage in reverent dialog.
And what about this “accursed” thing? Our English word is an accurate translation of the Greek word anathema, which may also be defined as “devoted to judgment.” Those who do not love the Lord are lost and on their way to hell. Their end is fixed and sure; there is no alternative. Paul is iterating in other words what John will write later in his gospel: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Every person is born into this world on his way to hell and with the wrath of God abiding on him. That wrath continues to abide unabated upon those who do not believe, or “obey the Son,” or “love the Lord.” The message is stark, clear, and unequivocal. “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30b). Do you love the Lord, or are you among the accursed of God? Our text is not merely a curiosity to consider, it is a line drawn in the sand between eternal life and eternal damnation.
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