In the last essay we studied 1 John 4:1-6 in which we saw John teach us how to test the spirits, that is, to distinguish between spirits. As John warned us, we cannot believe every spirit. Some are from God, and some are not. So we discussed which spirits are from God, and which are not from God and how to discern the difference.
In this essay we are taking up 4:7-21 in which John gives us an important discourse on love. In verse eight of this passage (repeated in verse 16) we find one of the most important statements in scripture, perhaps the most important; namely, that God is love. The Bible tells us many things about God, but if this one is true (and I believe it is), then it influences our interpretation of every other revealed fact about God. Indeed every statement in the Bible about God must be understood in light of this statement.
God’s character is love. Everything he is, everything he does, flows out of that essential attribute. Even when he exercises judgment and wrath, he does so out of a heart of love. What could be more important than to know that?
I remember well a friend from North Carolina, whom I will call “Irene,” who did not understand this. Irene freely confessed that she was a good Christian because she was afraid of God. She feared that God would punish her if she ever did anything “bad.” She never grasped the truth that God is love, that he doesn’t enjoy punishing people, and that he is merciful and forgiving.
I’m sure Irene’s attitude had much to do with her religious background. She undoubtedly had been taught as a child, probably by her parents, that if she were “bad” God would punish her, perhaps even send her to hell. And Irene never was able to shake that perverted picture of God out of her emotional life. It is true that God will punish unrepentant sinners. But he will do that only reluctantly, when those persons have left him no option, because he is love!
Turning now to our passage, John, as he so frequently does, returns to a previous theme, this time to the theme that we should love one another. But while he is repeating that theme, he tells us five things about the love of God.
First, he teaches us where love originates, verse seven. It originates in God: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God” (4:7a). Yes, “love is from God.” Thus all love originates in God. It has its source in God.
Then John continues in 7b-8 to draw a tremendous contrast between those who love and those who do not. Those who are born of God consistently will love. Those who do not love will, by virtue of that very fact, declare that they are not born of God; indeed they do not know God at all.
I might mention here, as a digression since John doesn’t speak to it, that the positive side of this matter is not as simple as it might seem on the surface. Although persons without love clearly do not know God, persons who love may or may not be born of God. All of us know non-Christian persons who are quite capable of loving others, sometimes even sacrificially. Thus it is evident that being a loving person does not guarantee that a person is a child of God.
What we must realize is that even the love of non-Christian has its source in God. Non-Christians are capable of loving because of prevenient, i.e., common grace. All human beings have the capacity to love, because all of us are made in the image of God. Thus even cruel, wicked men sometimes genuinely love their families.
The prevenient, or common, grace of God extends to every human being, enabling all to love. But only those who are born of God can be open channels for God’s love. And Christians always will love, because God is love. John’s point here, however, is that all love originates in God.
Second, John teaches us where the love of God is manifested. It is manifested in Jesus, verse nine. God revealed what love is by sending his only Son to become one of us. His name is Jesus. Thus by looking to Jesus we can understand the real meaning of love. As John reminds us in his Gospel, in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only son, who is the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”
Third, we learn in this same verse love’s nature, namely, sacrificial action on behalf of others. God himself made the ultimate sacrifice of love when the second person of the Trinity humbled himself by becoming a human being. The Son of God came into the world to die on the cross in order to take away our sins. That is what love is all about. It is self-sacrificial in nature.
The fourth thing that John tells us about the love of God is its character. It is characterized by forgiveness, verse 10. We studied the concept of atoning sacrifice when we dealt with chapter 2, verse 2. God forgives or pardons us, because on the cross Jesus took the burden of our punishment upon him. Thus forgiveness characterizes God’s love.
Fifth, and last, John gives us three consequences of God’s love. First the love of God causes people to love one another, verse eleven. When we look at Jesus with eyes of faith and become recipients of God’s love, we want to love others. Although John is thinking primarily of our Christian brothers and sisters in this verse, he undoubtedly also has others in mind as well, because the analogy is with the way God loved us; and God loved us while we were yet sinners.
A second consequence of the love of God is that it can be perfected in us. This is seen in the next few verses, where John returns to his much-beloved idea of abiding in God and letting God abide in us. In the next six verses he mentions the abiding relationship four times (vv. 12, 13, 15, and 16) and the perfection of love twice (vv. 12 and 17).
Verses 12-17 contain a fantastic promise. Through the process of mutual abiding, John says that love is “perfected with us.” That is, we become perfected in God’s love by perfectly abiding in God’s love, by becoming a channel for God’s love, by becoming like him: “As he is, so are we in this world,” verse seventeen.
John gives a third consequence of God’s love in verse eighteen. It casts out fear. Do you see the wonderful good news here? If we will abide in Christ and let Christ abide in us, God’s love not only will be “perfected within us;” but that perfect love will drive fear out of our lives.
Fear takes many forms. Some fears are healthy and needed. For example, we save ourselves much pain because we fear the negative effects of acid on our skin, fire in our hair, or being run over by a train. Other fears are deeply psychological and require professional help to overcome.
But many of our fears cause us pain and suffering unnecessarily. Some folks are afraid of the devil. They worry that a demon is going to influence, or even take possession of them. Others fear the future, because they don’t know what terrible event the future may bring. And still others are afraid of the past, because they have secret sins that they don’t wish to come to light.
Fear is powerfully present to many people. And it may indicate that the work of God’s love in us is incomplete and imperfect. Years ago, when I pastored that little church in Washington County, KY, a young woman named Linda who belonged to my church had a common fear of snakes. One morning she was waking up in her comfortable bed. She threw her arm over to one side, and sensed something unusual. That was not her pillow that she threw her arm over. The sensation caused her to come out of her sleep.
As she awoke, she suddenly realized that she was face to face with a huge black snake. Now she was in no danger, but she didn’t know that. She went into a complete panic, and left her bed faster than she thought possible.
Linda went completely to pieces. She couldn’t sleep; she could barely work; and she thought for a while that she would lose her mind. As her pastor I wasn’t sure how to help her. I was rather inexperienced at the time; and I didn’t know any Christian psychologist to whom I could refer her. So I did the best I could.
I took down my concordance from the shelf and looked up every reference in the Bible to fear. I found many passages that dealt with the subject in a positive way, like the one we are studying now: “perfect love casts out fear.” Another one was Proverbs 3:24, which reads: “If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.”
I asked my wife, Tillie, to type all those positive Scriptures onto a single sheet of paper, and I gave the sheet to Linda, with the instruction to feed her mind and soul on those Scriptures every day. She did it; and wonder of wonders, the promises of God in his Word healed her so that she could sleep in peace without fear. That is the power of God’s love!
What a powerful force love is! It originates in God; it is manifested in Jesus; it is sacrificial in nature; it is characterized by forgiveness; it causes people to love one another; it can be perfected in us; and it casts out fear. Love is to be the motivating power in our lives. We are to be like Jesus; we are to be motivated by love rather than hate.