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The third wheel

The third wheel

The nature of hope and why it is one of the Big Three

Here’s the final instalment in the little series I’ve been running on faith, love and hope, as the essential nature of the Christian life. So far we’ve had:

And now we come to hope …

Hope feels a bit like a third wheel in the Big Three Christian virtues.

We all appreciate the foundational importance of faith as trust in God and his Son and his promise. The Christian life starts with us gratefully grabbing hold of God and his promise in Christ. Faith is our trusting, outstretched hand that grabs hold of the Lifesaver’s hand, and is drawn out of the waters of death into a new life.

Love is the basic character of that new life. Faith sets free from the darkened mind of our inwardness and pride. The lights go on in our brain, and we see the goodness of God and through him the goodness of all that he’s given us to love—including most especially the people around us. Love summarizes not only our ongoing relationship with God, but our essential stance towards everyone and everything in our world.

But what about hope? Would we miss it, if it wasn’t in the Big Three?

I suspect many contemporary Christians wouldn’t particularly. And I suspect that this is because we under-appreciate just how future-focused the Christian gospel is. We tend to see the gospel as mainly about the forgiveness and salvation that we receive now by faith; and the blessed new life we start living now in love.

Which of course is true.

But it’s only half true—or should I say two-thirds true. What we receive by faith now and live out in love now is a guaranteed place in God’s future. It’s a faith and love that are exercised in hope.

Many Christians don’t grasp this. Nor did everyone in New Testament times.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, the thing he wanted them to really grasp—to have the eyes of their hearts opened up to see—was just how extraordinary their future was. He wanted them to understand the ‘hope’ that awaited them, and to live accordingly. If I can paraphrase the rather complicated paragraph in Eph 1:11-22, Paul says something like this:

By being ‘in Christ’, we Jewish believers (who were the first to believe in Jesus) have become what God destined us to be—his very own possession, the people whom he will gather around his Son for all eternity. And it’s even more extraordinary, because it’s now become clear that his eternal plan was always to include you Gentiles in this as well. That age-old plan of God has now come to fruition—because when you heard the gospel that came to you, and trusted in Jesus Christ, you too became united with him, and therefore with all of us as well. You too are now redeemed. You too are now part of the fellowship of love that we ‘saints’ all share in Christ. And you too have received the Holy Spirit as the guarantee and downpayment of the inheritance that is to come, when God finally makes us his own for all eternity.

But if there’s one thing that I would pray for you, it’s that you would come to appreciate just how massive and glorious and mind-blowing that future hope is—the one that you now share with all of us. I pray that God would open up your heart to see and know and grasp and long for what lies in store for all of us, because of our union with the majestic risen Lord of all, Jesus Christ.

Or words to that effect. He wants them to lean into their future—to grasp it, and understand it, and long for it, because that’s what the gospel is about. It’s the guaranteed promise of having a place in the eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ.

The logic of the first chapter of Colossians is much the same (it’s funny how often Colossians and Ephesians line up). Col 1:3-5 speaks of a gospel that came to them, that spoke of a hope laid up for them in heaven—a gospel that they trusted and that gave them a new love for all ‘the saints’ (probably, again, the original Jewish believers that they have now joined up with in Christ). In 1:9f., Paul then prays that their spiritual wisdom and understanding would grow so that (among other things) they would endure with patience and joy until they receive the glorious inheritance that they have been qualified for—that inheritance being a place (with all the saints) in the eternal kingdom of the risen supreme Son, Jesus Christ.

Paul prays this way because the more they grasp and understand the glories of the coming kingdom of his beloved Son, and their place in it, the more they will endure now with patience, joy and godly living. When Paul gets down to what godly living means in chapter 3, he continues along the same line of thought. You’re already crucified and raised with Christ, he says. Your life is with him. Your future is with him, and that will one day be made clear to all. So set your hearts and minds there, on Jesus Christ and your eternal future with him, and as a consequence put to death everything that belongs to this current earthly age (3:1-5). In light of what is to come, get rid of the vices of the earthly now, and put on instead the virtues of the heavenly then—the ultimate of which is love (Col 3:14).

In other words, the gospel announces the extraordinary future of the crucified and risen King, Jesus Christ, and invites and calls everyone to enter his kingdom, and to live now as kingdom citizens. This is the sense in which the gospel offers a future ‘hope’—a ‘living hope’ as Peter calls it, because it is essentially the expectation of one day living and reigning with the living, reigning Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:3f.). It’s the ‘hope of righteousness’—of standing justified and blameless before God on that great future day, because we trust in Christ Jesus (Gal 5:5); it’s the ‘blessed hope’, the appearing of our great and Saviour Jesus Christ (Tit 2:13).

We can sometimes get confused about hope, because it has two senses—and perhaps you’ve already noticed this in some of the verses I’ve been quoting. ‘Hope’ sometimes describes the thing in the future that I’m waiting for—like the “blessed hope” of Jesus’ return (in Titus 2), or the “hope of righteousness” that we are waiting for (in Gal 5:5).

But the noun ‘hope’ also often describes my present experience of waiting for it (as does the verb ‘to hope’). Suffering breeds endurance which breeds character which breeds hope—a confident waiting for what will be ours, a hopeful waiting and expectation that won’t be disappointed because God has already demonstrated his love for us by justifying his enemies now by the blood of Christ (Rom 5:2-11).

It’s in this second sense that ‘hope’ is one of the cardinal virtues of the Christian life. Hope is something we do and experience in response to the gospel (like having faith, or loving others). In response to the gospel, we wait and expect and long to receive the inheritance that is stored up for us. We hope.

Hope flows out of faith. Faith grabs hold of the truths of the gospel and trusts them—Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord; we are justified now by his blood; we are raised up with him now in the heavenlies. Yes, I believe and trust in these things.

Hope is the necessary consequence of that trust or conviction. It is the patient, joyful longing and waiting for the promised inheritance in Christ to arrive.

Here’s one last NT example that illustrates the connection. It’s seen in the Thessalonian response to the gospel (recounted by Paul in 1 Thess 1). The Thessalonians heard the word of God about his Son, the saving, reigning Lord Jesus Christ. They trusted this word with full conviction and joy by the work of the Holy Spirit, so much so that their faith was famous everywhere. It was famous because everyone saw how they turned away from their idols and began a new life, of love and service of the true and living God. And how they waited, even in the midst of affliction, with a joyful steadfastness of hope, for Jesus to come from heaven, to rescue them from the wrath to come.

This experience of confidently waiting and longing for the glorious future that we are guaranteed to inherit—this is the sense in which ‘hope’ is one of the three great Christian virtues.

We enter the Christian life through the door of faith; it’s a new life of love for God and for others; but it is an inescapably future-oriented life of hope. It stretches out like a road before us, with a glorious inheritance at the end of it. That forward lean, that keeps its eye on the glorious future that the gospel promises, that strains towards it, that seeks to live now in light of it, that joyfully endures suffering in the meantime—that’s hope.

When our Christian lives lack hope, they stop leaning forward and become overpowered by the present.

The sufferings of the present dumbfound us and dismay us. We don’t see them as part of a future-oriented plan that builds endurance and character and hope, but as catastrophic interruptions to the blessed life of now. When hope is weak, we respond badly to suffering and trials—we either descend into bitterness, doubt and despair, or else we try to wish our troubles away by insisting that they should not be part of our experience now (which is what the prosperity gospel in all its forms essentially does).

But it’s not only suffering and troubles. When we lack hope, the goods and blessings of the present are also a problem for us. They dazzle and distract us. We forget who we are and where we’re going. We become obsessed with the comforts and possibilities of now, and lose sight of the infinitely greater joys and glories of then.

I suggested at the beginning that many people today don’t grasp how significant hope is as one of the three pillars of the Christian life. Our difficulties in dealing with both suffering and blessing are symptoms of this.

Let us keep teaching and reminding each other to hope in the glorious future that the gospel promises, and keep praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to know it.


I’ve finished each of these little pieces on the faith and love and hope with a strong sense of how brief and inadequate they are. In the case of hope, an excellent way to explore the ideas further would be via Bryson Smith’s fine little book, Hope (subtitled ‘The best is yet to come’). And in a useful coincidence—and yes it really is a coincidence!—the good people at Matthias Media are offering 20% off that book (and a bunch of others) at the moment. Grab a copy or three.

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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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