True Christian Love
1 John 4:7–21
If one thing is glaringly missing in the life of many Christians today, it is the expression of Christian love. Throughout the First Epistle of John, the apostle John emphasized true Christian love (1 Jn. 2:7–11; 3:10–19).
The third section of his letter (4:7–21) provides a fuller analysis of God’s love. It explains how love relates to God’s nature, the Christian’s redemption, and the importance of obedience in following God’s New Testament commandment to love one another.
The Priority of Love
John expressed his own love and aﬀection to readers by calling them “beloved” before exhorting them to love others (v. 7). He prepared them for what follows by reminding them that he, too, was a recipient of God’s love.
The apostle exhorted them, “Let us love one another” (v. 7). Then he explained why. He referred not to a natural, human love but to a love rooted in the self-sacrificing nature of God Himself.
The reason to love is twofold: (1) “Love is of God” and (2) showing love to others proves a person “is born of God and knows God” (v. 7). True believers will have inner assurance of being born again and intuitive insight that God is true.
Conversely, someone who does not habitually practice such love “does not know God” (v. 8). The absence of a loving attitude proves an individual has never personally known God, who is love. God does not merely possess love; “God is love” (v. 8); His nature, essence, character, and personality are love. The definite article the before the word God in the Greek indicates the phrase refers to God’s essence, not His activity.
It would be impossible to know God’s redemptive love had He not revealed it to mankind through Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion: “The love of God was manifested [made visible] toward us, that [when] God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (v. 9; cf. Jn. 3:16).
First John 4:9 encapsulates the entire gospel. At Christ’s incarnation, God’s love was made visible as never before. Jesus Christ was “sent” from the presence of God the Father to this sin-cursed world to provide redemption for humanity. He is the Father’s “only begotten Son.” The phrase only begotten Son does not mean Jesus had a beginning but, rather, that He is unique: He has no equal.
Jesus is coequal with God the Father, enjoying intimate, face-to-face fellowship with Him. The divine purpose of Christ’s coming was to unveil God’s redemptive love, so people could “live through Him” (v. 9). All who are dead in sin can become alive by putting their faith in God’s Son as their Redeemer, enabling them to obtain eternal life.
Clearly, God loved believers before they loved Him: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us” (v. 10). It is impossible for sinners to know God’s love before God reveals His love to them. Thus God took the initiative and spontaneously revealed His love to people who are spiritually dead in sin. God acted in redemptive love for sin-cursed humanity “and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (v. 10; cf. 1 Jn. 2:2).
First John 2:2 succinctly sums up the redemptive purpose of Christ’s incarnation: He Himself was literally the “propitiation” for sin, meaning His propitiatory ministry continues from its inception into the future for the sins of mankind.
Propitiate means “to appease, expiate, or make atonement.” It is used in Scripture to describe a sin oﬀering that satisfies the righteous demands of a holy God and assuages His divine wrath regarding sin. It is a sacrificial term denoting the means by which sins today are remitted and removed through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, thereby making it possible for God to show mercy to a sinner.
This section of 1 John 4 concludes with an admonishment: “Beloved, if [since] God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). Because God loves believers, we are obligated to love one another. Our motivation is God’s love for us.
In fact, love is at the heart of the Christian faith. We did not deserve God’s love because we were dead in sin and headed for eternal damnation. Yet He abundantly shed His love on us and redeemed us. This is a strong admonishment: It reminds Christians that we have a conscious obligation to share the love God bestowed on us with believers and unbelievers alike.
The Proof of Love
John emphasized, “No one has [visibly] seen God at any time” (v. 12). No one has physically beheld the Father’s essence and majesty because humans do not possess this capacity. Scripture clearly states no one can see God and live. Though believers have never seen the invisible God, their love of other Christians provides evidence of their abiding relationship with Him: “If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us” (v. 12).
The phrase has been perfected does not imply God’s love in a believer is imperfect. Rather, the love He has placed in the believer’s heart has accomplished its purpose and achieved God’s intended goal in a person’s life.
“By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (v. 13). The indwelling Holy Spirit provides experiential assurance that one is born again into the family of God (cf. Rom. 8:16).
First John 4:14 confirms that God the Father sent Jesus Christ into the world to redeem man: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world” (cf. vv. 9–10). The word we refers to John and the other apostles who experienced Christ’s entire earthly ministry personally. They saw the incarnate Christ over an extended time, heard His message, and saw the miracles He performed. They witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection and the salvation of 3,000 Jewish people on the Day of Pentecost, confirming Him as “Savior of the world.”
John confirmed the fact of redemption: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (v. 15). The individual who confesses, or acknowledges, Jesus as the divine Son of God has entered into fellowship with God, and God with him. This confession is not a rote recitation of a creed but a personal faith in Christ as the incarnate Son of God, which gives inner assurance that “God abides in him, and he in God” (v. 15).
The phrase Jesus is the Son of God (v. 15) is not a general statement about Jesus as God but an explicit confession that He is the incarnate God-Man––the only Savior of the world, who provides redemption to all who put their faith in Him.
John summarized the believer’s experience with God: “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (v. 16). The words known and believed emphasize the experience of coming to Christ by faith and confessing Him as Savior (cf. Jn. 6:69). Believers dwell in the sphere of God’s love, enjoying the intimate, life-changing relationship that conforms them to the image of Christ.
The Perfection of Love
First John 4:17 explains the goal of God’s love for believers: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.” Love accomplishes its goal when Christians show love to others. Christians whose lives are full of God’s love and live Christlike on Earth will have no guilt or shame and be able to stand with confidence before the judgment seat of Christ when their works are judged (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11–15).
Believers who abide in God’s love will be without fear because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). Love and fear cannot coexist. You cannot have a love relationship with God and live in fear of Him. Fear is not the same as reverence for God and holding Him in awe. Someone who lives in fear has no tranquility and is not “made perfect [complete] in love” (v. 18).
Verse 19 summarizes the command to love: “We love Him because He first loved us.” God’s redeeming love is the source of any love Christians possess. We do not possess it innately or naturally, nor can we create or merit it. God manifested His love to humanity when we were dead in sin. It was this love that provided for our salvation through Christ (cf. Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:1–10). Thus we love God “because He first loved us.”
The opposite is also true: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20). There are a number of truisms here:
- A person cannot love God and hate his brother; this is a contradiction in terms. The word liar connotes possessing a false character. Such a person is either blind to his lack of love or living a lie.
- If someone truly loves God, he will love his brother because he dwells in God’s love.
- And, if he loves God, whom he has never seen, he will love a brother in Christ whom he has seen and knows.
Finally, God commands believers to love their brothers: “And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (v. 21). The word must reveals that loving one’s brother is not optional but an ongoing obligation. Loving God and one’s brother are inseparable. The whole Law is fulfilled on one admonition: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). Having received God’s love, we are to love our brothers in return.