At the heart of the Christian life is love. It’s a specific kind of love – not that generalized anemic definition of love so popular in our culture. It begins with the love God has shown us in Christ, and the love Christ has demonstrated in His sacrifice for sinners. It continues from this starting point, however, as Christians actively love others. The centrality of love in the Christian life is evidenced by the frequent references to it in John’s first epistle to the church. As he writes to encourage believers he spends a great deal of time speaking about love, God’s love for them and their love for others. Believers can have confidence about their relationship with God by looking at the kind of love they demonstrate towards others.
1 John 4:7-21 constitute the third spiral in John’s tests of true salvation. The letter John writes develops two tests of genuine faith: a doctrinal and a moral test. The tests are constantly reiterated in what appears like a spiral of widening significance in the letter. In these verses, we see the third moral test, not dissimilar to earlier tests, which revolve around our demonstration of love. In particular, here, John wants his readers to see that their love is rooted in God’s love, and because of that we can have assurance and confidence. So he begins by stating plainly:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
Love issues from God, John says. God is love, he tells us (v. 8, 16). To love another, then, truly love them, we must be born of God. John states it even more matter-of-factly in verse 19, “We love because he first loved us.” There is no love without God’s work in our hearts. To love is to be born of God.
A question arises at this moment for many: don’t non-Christians love too. It’s a fair question because, after all, we see plenty of noble, philanthropic, and gracious people who are not in fact Christians. So, what can this statement from John mean? Again, we want to emphasize that we are not talking about a generic statement on love. John has a very specific idea of love, one that is ultimately rooted in God’s love for the world. John makes a connection, then, between our “confession that Jesus is the Son of God,” and our coming to know and “believe the love that God has for us,” and finally, our demonstration of love (v. 15-19). So, others may love, non-Christians may love, but they cannot love in this way. They cannot love one another with the love of God, that is unique to believers.
Our love for others is like God’s love for us. So, John says:
“By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” (v. 17)
Believers are, then, the reflection of God’s love in the world. We model His love uniquely. There is a perfect love, a love that “casts out fear,” and a love that reflects God. This is the love we are seeking to attain; this is the love we are seeking to demonstrate. It comes only as we relate rightly to God through Christ (v. 9-10).
This love is foundational to our Christian profession. Do you want to have confidence that you are rightly relating to God? John says to examine your love. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother he is a liar” (v. 20a). Where there is no love there can be no true profession of faith. We cannot say we love God and also hate those whom God loves. John gives us the foundation for this point when he says:
“for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (v. 20b).
It might be easy for a man to say, “I love God.” He doesn’t see God; he doesn’t interact with God in the same tangible ways as he does his neighbor. If we can’t love those whom we see, John says, then what right have we to claim that we love Him whom we don’t now see.
Think about your relationships, friends. Think about those whom you struggle to love. Think about what your relationship with them may be saying about your relationship with God. John says, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (v. 21b). Are you ready, willing, and working hard to love these difficult people in your life? If so, you can rest assured that God is at work in you. If not, it’s time to take stock and evaluate your relationship with the Lord, because love is at the heart of the Christian life. This is never easy, I know that. And I am thankful for all that John says to us about forgiveness and cleansing in Christ (1 John 1:9) when we fail, but our efforts matter. The centrality of love in the Christian life reminds us that we must make every effort to love as we have been loved, because love is from God and those who abide in love, abide in God (v. 16).