Question: 1 Corinthians 13 says that love keeps no record of wrongs. We also know that God is love. How then can he reveal a person’s wrongs at the final judgment?
Answer: Greetings friend. I will be happy to help you resolve this apparent conflict today…and it is only an apparent conflict, because the Bible never contradicts itself. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as readers of Scripture that whenever we feel that two or more passages are in logical tension, to examine our handling of the verse’s context, and also, to ensure that our embedded understanding of the terms is correct and not askew. As for your specific Scripture references, since you see them in contradiction, you have (very likely) not properly considered the context of 1 Corinthians 13. You have also made an assumption that love and judgment are mutually exclusive. Additionally, you might assume that there is only one final judgment for all people combined. We shall address these three issues. What we will not do is dispute your facts. God is indeed love (1 John 4:8). 1 Corinthians 13 teaches that love does not keep a record of wrongs (v5, NIV), and that the final judgment does rely on records of sorts (Rev. 20:12). Let us see how these are all congruent in God’s cohesive will.
The most common error that people make when interpreting the Bible is to ignore context. Many people seem to freeze-up when they approach the Bible, hanging-up their reader’s common sense at the door. Perhaps they assume that language works differently in such a holy book, and that it does not follow the same rules as those in common writing. But this is not at all true. God used common language to teach us uncommon things. Therefore, all the regular rules of language apply to the Bible. And what is more regular or more basic to writing than context? Let us note this well at the outset: No word, no sentence and no paragraph has any meaning outside of its context, and with that in mind, let us consider 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen, the Bible’s “love chapter.”
What is the context of this chapter? A look at Paul’s motivation will tell us. So, what drove Paul to give this teaching on love? To find out we need to read 1 Corinthians from the beginning, because right after his salutation Paul introduces his overarching theme by identifying the chronic problem in the Corinthian church—divisions!
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.”
(1 Corinthians 1:10–11, ESV).
Please understand that although divisions were the problem, an even greater problem, immaturity, was the primary cause of these divisions. So, Paul’s immediate audience and his immediate problem were the same—an immature church. These people were involved in celebrity worship, in-your-face sexual immorality, lack of discipline and the like, but it is Chapter six’s unique spiritual crime that shows us Paul’s motivation for penning, “…it keeps no record of wrongs.” Believers were taking each other to civil court! And this particular sin required that believers write down their grievances and present them to the civil magistrates rather than settling things within the church body.
“I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” (1 Corinthians 6:5–8, ESV)
Paul was targeting this specific infraction with “… [Love] keeps no record of wrongs.” So, the primary audience was limited to these few believers. We are an audience too, but a secondary one. How, then, does this apply to us today? These particular descriptions of love are instructive for us (2 Tim. 3:16), but they were not written to us. As such, they will not have that same edge and nuance as they would for the Corinthians. Make no mistake, Paul brought us some wonderful Christian lessons about love in 1 Corinthians thirteen, but behaviorally, they are not on the same level as “Thou shalt not kill…” (Ex. 20:13). With the latter, it is a clear behavioral command. With the former, it is a description of purity…for your education and for your emulation. Additionally, this list of love’s attributes is not exclusive; love is much more than items on a list. So, how does the list serve us? As a measuring tool—softer than the Law, though—and with no legal penalties. What you cannot do is take an item like “…it keeps no record of wrongs,” and make that teaching rigidly applicable to all lists at all times, and this is what you have done. Why can’t you do that? Because love frequently requires us to keep lists! (See paragraph 4.) And, yes, God keeps them too.
At this point we have established Paul’s motivation for writing his love chapter, and we know which particular people he was writing to, but should we add another person to that audience list, like say…God? I realize that this sounds silly because God is not in need of such instruction. Yet that is one of the premises in your question. 1 Corinthians 13:5 was not written to God, it was written by God. Yet your question posits that God must either never keep track of sin or never be love because of this particular verse. In this you have applied a restriction to God that is neither intrinsic to this verse nor targeted to his person. As the logic of language goes, it has nothing to do with him! And what is the wash? You have taken a teaching that was custom-crafted for the most immature Christians in the Bible and have determined that God must work love according to their lessons to be congruent. Nothing of God works that way. You must release your stranglehold on the language. Let it breathe. Let it say what it says—no more, no less.
Your question posits another incorrect notion, that a God of love cannot punish. I realize that you had linked that logically to 1 Corinthians thirteen and that we have just repudiated that connection. So, what remains is dispel the notion that love and punishment cannot be served on the same plate. Let’s lower the bar and use me for an example.
I am a father, and I love my children. If I did not hold them accountable to my standards (which are lists—real or imaginary), I would not be truly loving. I would be indulgent. Indulgence may look like love—but it is not. Now, some indulgence is a fun and necessary component of a workable life, but it should never be the defining characteristic of parenting. Love, that is real love, is hard work. It involves helping your children grow into honorable adults through the agency of earnest achievement. They must constantly be measured against age-appropriate standards, rewarded where appropriate, and punished where appropriate…and appropriate is the operative word. Just as it is indeed appropriate for a loving person to punish his children according to their performance, so it is appropriate for God to do the same (Heb. 12:6). No list, no punishment! No punishment, no love. The fact that I subscribe to the teachings of 1Corinthians chapter thirteen, but all the while keep lists and judge appropriately, is both congruent and scriptural…for me and for God.
As a final point we must remember that there are two classifications of people, and judgment is different for each class. So far we have been talking about those whom God loves, his children, we who have been born again by faith in Jesus Christ. We will never come under the punishment of condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Instead, we will appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ to review our stewardship. (Lists again!). And then there is everybody else, and these are the people you have in focus via your question. These are not God’s children and they are not the targets of God’s familial love. All that 1 Corinthians 13 stuff? That’s for family only! Therefore, your complaint that God was saying one thing but doing another has lost its third leg.
It looks to me like you are picking a fight with God. There is no reason for that. If you become a child of God, he only sees one item on the list: Saved! Please visit the following link.