Recently, I was driving behind a car whose bumper sticker caught my attention. In large white lettering on a solid black backdrop, it read, “If you can read this—” The sentence continued underneath that in smaller black lettering on a solid white backdrop. I expected it to read, “You’re driving too close.” Instead, it read, “I’m not impressed. Most people can read.” “If you can read this, I’m not impressed. Most people can read.” It gave me a good chuckle.
Some bumper stickers are quite clever. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case with Christian bumper stickers. Bumper sticker Christianity—those short, pithy religious statements captured on bumper stickers—are usually rather anaemic. Some aim for humour: “In case of the rapture, this vehicle will be empty.” Others display a poor grasp of Scripture: “This car is protected by Psalm 91.” The problem is, it is exceedingly difficult to capture meaningful biblical truth in just a few words.
That doesn’t stop us from trying, of course. We create all sorts of Christian paraphernalia with pithy phrases and out-of-context verses. Some texts or biblical truths are more commonly used in this way than others. The words “God is love,” for example, decorate all manner of Christian curiosities. Sadly, without giving proper thought to the biblical context of those words, their real significance can be easily overlooked.
Those who do not wrestle with the full biblical revelation of God’s love often have difficulty understanding it. If God loves me, why did my child or my spouse die? If God loves me, why has he not answered my prayer? If God loves me, why did he allow me to face this dread disease? If God loves me, why did he not save my marriage? Our theology tells us that God is love, even if we don’t deserve his love; our experience sometimes leads us to wonder if God really is love, given the bad things that might happen to us.
The apostle John has long been called the apostle of love. The text before us in this study shows why that is. In 1 John 4:7–21, John uses the word “love”—or some form of that word—no fewer than 29 times. Douglas Sean O’Donnell notes, “To put that into perspective, love is addressed here more than in the four Gospels. With 1 Corinthians 13 a close second, this portion of 1 John is the most highly concentrated section on the theme of love in the whole of Scripture. Of all the biblical writers, John loves to talk about love.”
John is unapologetic. He tells us twice in this section: “God is love” (vv. 8, 16). He doesn’t say that God is loving or that God loves or that God shows love but that God is love. Love is the very essence of who God is. This is not the only “God is” statement in the New Testament, or even in John’s writings, but it is the focus of this particular section and is a truth we must understand and embrace. Even when we don’t feel it, even when we are led to doubt it, even when sceptics deny it, the claim of Scripture stands: God is love.
In Scripture, love is more than a feeling. Biblical love moves us to action. John understands and highlights this truth in three stages. He begins by making a declaration of divine love (vv. 7–8). He then shows that God’s love moved God to action as he highlights the ultimate manifestation of divine love (vv. 9–11). Finally, he shows how God’s love moves him to action in a twofold indication of divine love in his people (vv. 12–21). Throughout, he reminds us that, as God’s love for us produced loving action toward us, so our love for him will produce loving action toward those who are his. Let’s consider the threefold movement of this text together.
The Declaration of Divine Love
John begins by straightforwardly declaring truth about the essential nature of God: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (vv. 7–8).
The central declaration is encapsulated in the last three words: “God is love.” But John begins, as he will end, by showing that God’s love for us necessarily produces love in us for those whom God loves. As Lloyd-Jones says, “Those who are born of God must love one another—they cannot help it.” The truth that “God is love” is not simply a truth we affirm. It is not merely a slogan we print of coffee mugs and slap on bumper stickers. It is a truth that necessarily moves us to love those whom God loves. This is true for at least three reasons.
First, Christians must love one another because “love is from God.” He is not saying that if you happen to love, understand that it comes from God. He is saying that love is God’s very essence and that love necessarily flows from God. If you are therefore connected to God, his love will flow to and through you. Those who belong to God cannot help but love because they are intricately connected to the very one who is love itself.
It is helpful at this point to remember that John was writing to combat the Gnostic heresy. It was important, therefore, for his readers to understand the true nature of love. In Gnostic thought, love was highly self-seeking. Gnosticism taught that you only needed to love yourself and pursue what you wanted. Love was primarily about what made you feel good. Since the flesh was inherently evil, love could fulfil every fleshly desire with only (if at all) passing thought to God or others. If it made you happy, that was all that was important. Does this sound familiar?
The unbelieving world has a similarly warped view of love. Worldly love knows no bounds and has no restrictions. Worldly love is primarily about what makes you feel good. Worldly love does not take into account that which God defines as good. Worldly love is about your own comfort and your own desires. This stands in stark contrast to the love that is of God.
Godly love is holy love. The same writer who here declared that “God is love” earlier declared that “God is light” (1:5). Godly love pursues truth and is careful to avoid that which dishonours God. In fact, it is no mistake that John sandwiched his exhortation to test the spirits (4:1–6) between sections on love (3:11–24 and 4:7–21). Truth and love are intricately connected.
To the unbelieving world, love is a feeling. We fall in and out of love depending on how we feel. To the Christian, love is an act of the will and a response to truth. We choose to love even when we don’t, in the moment, feel like it because God’s truth tells us that we must love. To the unbelieving world, love is about what pleases me. To the Christian, love is about what pleases God. To the unbelieving world, love casts off all restraint. To the Christian, love operates within the constraints that God has placed in his word.
Worldly love, for example, says that the commitment you made to your spouse is valid as long as you remain “in love” with him or her. Godly love says that that lifelong covenant must be honoured even when you don’t feel like it. Worldly love casts off every restraint for sexual pleasure. Godly love understands that sexual pleasure operates within the parameters that God has set.
If we belong to God and therefore recognise that love is of God, we must be guided by holy love.
Godly love is also sacrificial love. Worldly love pursues self-pleasure as its highest goal. Godly love recognises that, as Christ sacrificed for those he loved, so we are called to sacrifice for those we love. Paul addressed this in the famed love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. Speaking in the context of spiritual gifts, he argued that our gifts are not meant to be used to pursue our own ends or build our own reputation. Our gifts are to be used—or sometimes withheld—as a sacrificial act for the greater good of the church. Godly love considers what is best for others and acts accordingly.
Sacrificial love likewise guides our approach to Christian liberty. When he addressed differing convictions about eating meat offered to idols, Paul urged the Corinthians and the Romans to act out of love. Those whose conscience allowed them to eat must not despise those whose conscience prevented them from eating. Those who conscience prevented them from eating must not judge those whose conscience allowed them to eat. Each should hold tightly to his or her own convictions while acting in love toward those whose conscience led them differently—even if that meant foregoing one’s own liberties out of deference to the weaknesses of another.
Second, Christians must love because “whoever loves has been born of God.” Love, in other words, is a cardinal evidence of the new birth. If we do not love one another, we have no good reason to claim that we have been born of God.
When God saves a person, he produces in them love for his people. Christians are characterised by affection for their brothers and sisters in Christ. They are characterised by desire to fellowship with one another. They are characterised by desire to serve one another. They are characterised by the ability to bear with and forgive one another. They are characterised by a sense of compassion and pity for one another. They are characterised by the burden to pray for one another. These things are the sure evidence of love and therefore the sure evidence that one has been born of God.
Third, Christians must love because “whoever loves … knows God.” Christians are called to manifest fruit that is consistent with repentance. That is, Christians cannot simply profess to know God; they must show that they know him. According to John a primary way to show that we know God is to display love.
Let us remember that this love is commanded. We cannot command feelings, but since Christian love is more than a feeling, we can be—and we are—commanded to love one another. We are commanded to do good to others, to act in their best interests, and to show them genuine affection. As we do this, we display to the world that we know God. We show that we are Christ’s disciples as we love one another (John 13:35).
The Manifestation of Divine Love
The second major truth in this text is the way in which God manifested his love toward us.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
(1 John 4:9–11)
God’s love is not mere theory. To the contrary, his love was “made manifest.” The word translated “made manifest” means to render apparent—to make unmistakably plain and clear. And how did God make his love unmistakably plain and clear? When he “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Observe carefully: God’s love is made unmistakably plain in his Son. Not in that his Son healed people or taught people, but in that he became “the propitiation” for our sins. “Propitiation” is a theological term that describes the act of satisfying God’s anger and thereby reconciling God’s people to him.
Observe that it was love that moved God to provide a propitiation for our sins. We sometimes portray the gospel as if it was pure anger that moved God to send his Son—as if John 3:16 read, “For God so hated the world that he killed his Son.” But the testimony of the New Testament is clear that God was moved by love to provide a propitiation for sin.
These verses contain riches of theology that can never be exhausted. Lloyd-Jones suggests that these verses offer “a perfect summary of the gospel” and indeed “a perfect and complete synopsis of Christian theology.” Consider four truths implied by these verses.
First, something is implied here about the character of God. If something needed to be done “so that we might live,” it implies that we were under a sentence of death. That sentence came from God. If it was necessary for “propitiation” to be made, it implies that God needed to be appeased. As much as God loved those he wished to save, he could not merely overlook their death-deserving sin. Because he is holy, something needed to be done to satisfy his righteous anger against sin and reconcile us to him. And yet, incredibly, the same God whose wrath secured the death sentence for our sin was moved by love to provide “propitiation” for our sin!
Second, something is implied here about the character of humanity. God’s Son became the propitiation for our “sins.” Sin made propitiation necessary. Sin alienated humanity from God. Sin was sufficiently evil that it required a sacrifice. Sin made humanity subject to death and, since we are all sinners and all subject to death, the only way to be freed from the sentence of death was for someone to take that sentence upon himself in our place. Jesus died so that those who believe in him may live. God’s wrath against sin was satisfied in Christ’s death so that we might be reconciled to God by repentance and faith in Christ.
Third, something is implied here about Christ. Only Christ could satisfy God’s wrath and reconcile us to him. If there was any way for us to earn God’s favour, Christ’s death would be unnecessary. But Christ came because no one else could possibly achieve propitiation. No one else could appease God’s wrath and reconcile us to him. In Christ, sinners can be counted righteous and their sins forgiven because he paid the penalty for the sins of all who will believe in him.
Fourth, something is implied here about a required response. To receive the benefits of Christ’s work, we must believe that we are sinners and that his death was sufficient to secure our forgiveness (see v. 15). We must, in faith, confess our sins and trust in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, for forgiveness and cleansing. Only then can we be reconciled to God.
As we reflect on these great truths—that Christ died and rose so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to God—it surely must move us to love. And not only to love for God, but also to love for those who have similarly received forgiveness in Christ. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (v. 11). How can we possibly not love those whom God so dearly loved? How can we possibly refuse to sacrifice for those for whom Christ sacrificed? How can we decline to show grace to those on whom Christ showered grace? It reveals something deeply troubling about us if we do not love those whom God loves.
The Indication of Divine Love
Finally, John addresses a twofold indication of God’s love. That is, he shows two things that God’s love produces in the lives of his people. He introduces these two indications in v. 12 and then expands on them, respectively, in vv. 13–16 and vv. 17–21. He writes, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (v. 12).
These words seem a little jarring at first. Having addressed the manifestation of God’s love in the cross, and having exhorted us that his love should produce in us love for one another, why does he suddenly say, “No one has ever seen God”? These words seem out of place.
It is possible that he is reminding us, as he will toward the end of this section, that love for our visible fellow Christians is the tangible evidence of our love for the invisible God. I think he’s doing something different. In addressing these two indications of divine love, he is helping us to evaluate whether or not we truly know God’s love. This is important precisely because we cannot see God.
If we could see him and touch him and ask him questions with direct verbal answers, we could simply ask whether we are the special recipients of his love. Since we cannot see him, we must look elsewhere for certainty of his love. John says that certainty can be found in at least two ways: “God abides in us” and “his love is perfected in us.”
Have you ever heard the message of God’s great love and wondered whether you are a recipient of his love? Have you known the story of Jesus on the cross but wondered whether God really loves you? Have you asked, how do I know that I am a recipient of God’s love? Consider two indications of divine love.
God Abides in Us
First, divine love is indicated in the reality that “God abides in us.” The concept of abiding is the central theme of vv. 13–16:
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
(1 John 4:13–16)
The first indication that we are recipients of God’s love is the indwelling Spirit. Jesus promised that he would not leave his disciples as orphans but would send another Comforter to be with them always. The promise of the indwelling Spirit is the seal of God’s love for his people. One evidence that we love someone is that we want to spend time with them. We want to be with them. Similarly, the indwelling Spirit is a seal of God’s love and commitment to his people.
The Spirit is given to every believer—to all who believe the apostolic testimony about Jesus Christ, sent by God to be the Saviour of those who believe (v. 14). Those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God—and onlythose who believe that Jesus is the Son of God—have an abiding relationship with God, sealed by the indwelling Spirit.
But how do we know that we have the Spirit? He is not visible and those indwelt by him are not marked in some visible way. The evidence of the indwelling Spirit is, once again, love (v. 16). Those who abide in love—love for God and love for God’s people—can be confident that they are indwelt by the Spirit, which is the evidence of God’s love to them.
Do you want to know whether God loves you? Then ask yourself a simple question: Am I indwelt by the Spirit? If you have believed the apostolic testimony about Jesus Christ and can identify within you an affection for God’s people, take heart. That is the first indication that God loves you.
Love is Perfected in Us
Second, divine love is indicated in the reality that “his love is perfected in us.” John picks up on this theme in vv. 17–21.
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
(1 John 4:17–21)
In his love, God perfects love in his people. We should not understand “perfected” in the sense of flawlessness. Our love in this life will never be flawless—neither our love for God nor our love for our neighbour. “Perfected” here means to be brought to maturity. As Stott explains, “John is not suggesting that any Christian’s love could in this life be flawlessly perfect, but rather developed and mature, set fixedly upon God.”
Here, then, is the second evidence that John offers, in this context, that we are recipients of divine love: He produces his love in us. As we see evidence of growing God-like love in our lives, it assures us of God’s love for us. John states this both positively (v. 17) and negatively (v. 18).
Positively, perfected love produces “confidence in the day of judgement, because as he is so also are we in this world” (v. 17). In other words, if God-like love is evident in our lives, we can stand before God on “the day of judgement” with “confidence.” That confidence is not rooted in our own goodness or ability, but in the fact that “as he is so also are we in this world.” As recipients of God’s love, we are sons and co-heirs with Jesus. We are accepted by God as Jesus was accepted. We are beloved as he was beloved. God-like love is evidence that God loves us as he loved his Son. And those whom God loves can face the final judgement with confidence.
Negatively, perfected love “casts out fear.” Specifically, it casts out fear of “punishment” (v. 18). The word translated “punishment” is used only one other place in the New Testament: in Matthew 25:46 where it deals with final punishment. There, Jesus said that, at the final judgement, believers will be separated from unbelievers. Believers will enter eternal life, while unbelievers will enter eternal punishment. John is here saying that those in whom God-like love is evident have confidence that they will not face eternal punishment. God-like love is evidence that God dwells in us, which gives us confidence that we will not face the punishment of eternal destruction.
John then reminds us that this confidence-producing, fear-banishing love is the result of God’s initiative, not ours. “We love because he first loved us” (v. 19). If God-like love grows in your life, it is only because God started that work and put that love there.
As with the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, however, perfected love is not something that can be seen and touched and tasted. How do we know, then, that God’s love is perfected in us? John closes by pointing, once again, to the practical manifestation of God-like love perfected in us:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
(1 John 4:20–21)
God-like love, produced in the children of God, manifests itself in love for others.
Throughout this text, John has driven home the reality that those whom God loves must love. And they must not only love God but must also love each other. As we close, therefore, let’s ask a simple question: What does love for others look like? How can I practically display love for my fellow Christian? It doesn’t necessarily take extraordinary gifting to love others. Loving others is profoundly simple. Consider a few practicalities.
First, talk to people. Get to know them. Be a good listener. We can only grow in our love for others to the degree that we build relationship with them. Don’t immediately rush off after the church service to get home. You are in the presence of brothers and sisters in Christ. Spend time fellowshipping with them.
Second, try to go a little deeper than superficial conversation. Don’t despise small talk. We don’t learn by diving immediately into the deep end. But as you build relationships, build them with the goal of going a little deeper. Find out how others are doing spiritually. Ask how you can pray for them. Strengthen one another in the things of God. Ask about their fears and worries and doubts and joys and hopes and disappointments. Asking questions can be awkward, but it displays genuine interest, which is evidence of true love.
Third, affirm others. Let them know why you are thankful for them. Look out for their strengths and encourage them that you have noticed. Take note of significant events and acknowledge them. Wish people for their birthday. Let them know that you are praying for them on the anniversary of a tragedy. Show them that you are interested in the things that interest them.
Fourth, find ways of practically serving others. Can you offer to watch the kids so Mom and Dad can spend some time together? Can you make a meal for them in a particularly trying period? Can you possibly help them with the move to a new house or offer assistance with some other practical task?
Fifth, pray for people when they request prayer and follow up. Ask a week, or a month, or a year later how they are doing and let them know you’re still praying for them. Let them know that you are rejoicing with them in answered prayer. Also pray with others. It’s wonderful to pray for people but it is equally special to pray with them.
Sixth, have the courage to do hard things. Love may cover a multitude of sins, but it does not overlook every sin every time. We all struggle with sin and we need each other’s help to overcome sin. Help others even as you invite them to help you. Confess sin to others and invite them to speak into your life.
I trust you’ve can see that “God is love” is more than a bumper sticker. It is a crucial reality that has intensely practical implications for Christian living. Will you today embrace the reality that God is love and allow his love in you to produce love for others?