God’s gifts are never meant to be a reason for pride.  Sin uses them as an opportunity to cause divisions within the Church when they are meant to unite.  Paul gives a number of reasons why this ought to be so.

First, we are part of the Church because of grace and mercy alone.  The Corinthians in particular had been actual idolaters prior to knowing Christ.  All men, however, were once pagans and enemies of God.  No one is able to actually confess that Jesus is the Lord apart from a real and living faith which can only come from God.  Using God’s gifts as an opportunity to set ourselves apart within the body and cause division is to imagine that we are owed something, which even our very salvation shows that we are not.

Second, distinctions within the Church by no means divide its unity, because distinctions between the Persons of the Most Holy Trinity by no means divide His unity.  God has revealed Himself as three Persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–yet there is only one God.  The mystery of who God is translates also to His Church, because she is in Him.  Our different gifts all flow forth from the same source.  One God, one Church, one faith.

Third, all of these gifts come from God according to His will.  They do not belong to us so that we may use them as we please.  If one person has a particular gift, that is according to God’s will, not to some innate ability.  No one therefore has a “right” to express themselves within the Church.  God gives all gifts according to His plan for His Church, both in kind and in degree.

Fourth, God’s gifts are meant to build up the Church according to His good pleasure.  If they come from God in the way He desires, then He also desires them to serve a specific purpose.  God may choose to deliberately limit how much a particular gift serves the Church, because it will do what He has sent it to do.  God’s gifts are never wasted or neglected, because they are His and His alone.  If we exercise them, we do so according to His pleasure and purpose.  In that way, no gift ever destroys the unity of the Church, because no gift is ever used contrary to God’s will.

Fifth, the spiritual gifts of God are individual and particular.  No man ever possesses all of them at the same time.  We depend on each other just as much as we depend on God, because we are His body.  There can be no room for pride when we recognize that we are not individuals before God.

Finally, as Paul will go on to say especially in 1 Corinthians 13, because all of these gifts belong to God and are given according to His will, we should not expect any of them.  Some of these gifts have passed away, because they have served the purpose for which God sent them.  Speaking in tongues and miracle working, for example, may still arise if God so wills it, but using them in a way which causes division misunderstands why they were sent in the first place.  God’s gifts are not a cause to boast, but a way to build up in love.  When they pass away, and they will pass away (1 Corinthians 13:8), the partial will give way to the perfect.  Love will abound even as the gifts which built it up pass away, because God gives them so that we may love one another.

John writes to Christians struggling with the assaults of separatists. While it is not clear exactly what caused them to leave, John tells his hearers that “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). Perhaps they denied the divinity of Christ (1 John 2:22) or claimed to be sinless in some way (1 John 1:8). Whatever the cause, their spiritual fruits ripened into hatred for their Christian brothers. Despite their high-sounding theology, the tree was dead and hollow inside. Right doctrine produces a living fruit, because it is of God.

But there can be no peace between the world and those who belong to Christ. “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Cain, as John says, proves this point: Cain murdered Abel because Abel was righteous (1 John 3:12).

Yet how can one tell the difference? How is it possible to distinguish between those who belong to the world (even if they claim to belong to God) and those who belong to Christ? John clearly and emphatically says here that the distinguishing mark is love. “Whoever does not love abides in death.” Love, however, in the present context, has become a weasel word. The world defines love according to a generic and all-embracing tolerance. Yet this sort of love by the world’s standards is self-serving. Even in its claim to embrace diversity, it either puffs up in self-righteousness or desires to protect itself by giving all an equally valid claim. Because it belongs to the world, it can tolerate all that is like the world, but it cannot abide that which belongs to God.

Christian love, however, is self-denying. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Christ died for us while we were still His enemies in order to make us into a new creation. While even the world knows a kind of selflessness, so that there have been noble sacrifices, Christ laid down His life for His bitterest enemies who wanted nothing to do with Him. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same” (Matthew 5:46)? Christian love, therefore, is not about embracing those Christian brothers we personally like, but all who have come to know Christ.

Therefore, as John says, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him” (1 John 3:17)? On the one hand, it should be said here that the Bible does not advocate for wealth redistribution in the modern sense. It is not evil to be rich or poor. Even the Church after Pentecost was not aiming for an economic middle. “They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). In other world, the money raised from selling property was used for the relief of the poor, not to put everyone in the middle. Christian charity is not about social leveling, but using what has been given to us in trust as a means of helping our neighbor. What we have belongs to God (Psalm 50:10-11). “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

On the other hand, what John warns against is seeing such a need and having the opportunity to take care of a brother, yet doing nothing. Worse still is the one who claims to love God while neglecting those closest to him! “Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat” (Amos 8:4-6)? Such a one, despite all his claims, actually belongs to the world, because he does not show love to his brothers.

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). A living confession is not found only in words, but also in action. A living faith cannot help but produce the fruits of the Spirit. While it may seem odd to point to these fruits in the midst of division, this is what John does. They are the evidences of faith and a sure sign of who belongs to God. Yet John also points us to God “who is greater than our heart” which condemns us and to the indwelling Holy Spirit. The fruits of faith do not produce faith. The fruits of faith prove that God is at work among His people.

Christian love, as John tells us, is not a nebulous concept, because it expresses itself in tangible ways.  The one who claims to believe in God and yet fails to express such love toward others, especially other believers, does not actually love God.  “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Christ Himself provides the supreme example of such love, because He has become our propitiation, the sacrifice that atones for our sin (1 John 4:10).  “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

When Christian love is properly defined, it guards against two temptations.  The first is to define love in terms of feeling.  Love is not a warm feeling toward fellow Christians; love is action.  “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that” (James 2:15-16)?  The Lord does not simply express love for His creation, but sends His Son to redeem it through His suffering on the cross.

The other temptation is to define love in terms of acceptance.  Seeking to confirm someone in error or sin is not love, even if the world defines it this way.  Jesus did not die on the cross to receive people as is into the kingdom, but rather to re-create them in the image of God.  Love transforms the other and lifts them up.  “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).  ““And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!'” (Ezekiel 16:6).

Being in Christ means being perfected in love, so that we become like God.  Nor is this a feigned love that derives from fear.  “Fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18), so that one shows love toward others begrudgingly.  Christians are not called to love one another because the Lord simply says so.  Christians love one another because of what the Lord has done for His Church.  We are not called to put up with other people for the time being, but to recognize Christ in His Christians.

While there is certainly strife now, we will have “confidence for the day of judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).  Christian love is a present reality, not merely a future hope.  The one who lacks such love cannot be said to be a Christian.  John frankly calls him a liar.  Nor is this merely hyperbole.  There is a fundamental difference between struggling with sin and refusing to show love toward others.

Finally, the forms this love takes vary by necessity.  The Lord sets us into different callings, and the needs of that calling will also differ.  The rich man in the Gospel parable of Luke 16 failed to provide for Lazarus’ specific needs, such as his health, his poverty, or even his homelessness.  No amount of rationalizing could defend the rich man from the Lord’s verdict.  Nor could he make up for the fact afterward, even if he sought to warn his brothers from a similar fate.  Christian love is not about tomorrow or good intentions.  Christian love expresses itself in the present for present needs.