His love toward us
John returns now to his theme, and we have next a remarkable setting forth of the Love of God. This section of the epistle describes the dual activity of that love. It operates towards us as sinners, and in us as children of God, until every responsibility is fulfilled and we can no longer be brought into judgement. This is stated in a verse which comes fairly late in the section but which we will look at first. “Herein is love made perfect with us; that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, even so are we in this world” (4:17).
Note this important verse carefully. John speaks of God’s love being perfected in us and shows that this is so because what is true of Christ is also true of us. As a result, fear is cast out for ever, for “perfect love casteth out fear” (4:18). The steps of his argument are as follows. Because Christ was identified with us in His incarnation He came under judgment. Now that He is risen and exalted, He is beyond judgment for ever. When by faith we are identified with Him, we too come under judgment—the judgment of the cross. There the old life is judged, and there we are delivered from it. As a result we are said to be “as He is”, in that, like Him, we are beyond judgment now. It is past for Him; therefore it is past for us too. and the fear of judgment is removed. But what has done it? It is Love: the love of God toward us, expressed in the giving of His Son unto death; the love of God in us demonstrating convincingly, by our love for others, that we are the children of God. With this as summary, we return now to the beginning of the section before us.
His love in us
The passage begins with an appeal: “Beloved let us love one another: for love is of God”; and this is then followed by a statement of great importance: “Everyone that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God” (4:7). Everyone that loves on the divine plane is born of God. It is impossible to love as God loves without the love of the Holy Spirit, because it is by the Holy Spirit of God that His love is shed abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5). We must be born again in order to partake of divine life and, as we have said, the first breath of that life is love. John is again confronting us with what he has already said repeatedly, namely, that children of God possess divine life, and that whenever that is present it will manifest itself in righteousness and love.
“Everyone that doeth righteousness is begotten of God” (2:29) and “Everyone that loveth is begotten of God” (4:7). These two statements match; and they reassure us that whatever we may encounter here of demand or appeal in respect of this divine love, it is something of which we are made fully capable by the gracious provision of God. We are only being called upon to be true to our title as ‘children of God.’ “Beloved, let us love one another” (4:7) in joyful obedience to the old commandment referred to (2:7), in thankful embrace of the new conditions under which we can now fulfil it (2:8), in trustful reception of the message which we have heard from the beginning (3:11) and in earnest endeavour to do that which is well-pleasing in our Father’s sight (3:22, 23).
John is occupied with the divine affections: with our knowledge of them and with their manifestation in our souls by the Holy Spirit. For if they are not thus known and manifest, we must conclude one of two things: either that we are not born of God, or that we are overtaken in something by the evil one (4:1-6). To help us further, therefore, in the direction of our responsibility toward one another, John now appeals to the divine manifestation of that love as it has been expressed in the giving of Christ.
The ground of the appeal
“God is love” (4:8). In these words the greatest of all truths is revealed in the briefest compass. We have read that God is a Spirit (John 4:24) and that God is Light (1:5), but this statement is the sweetest of all: “God is love.” It is something without parallel, something unique. We do not read that God is grace but that He is gracious; nor that He is mercy, He is merciful; nor yet that He is Might, He is mighty. But we do read here that “GOD IS LOVE.” Divine love is the harmonious exercise of mercy and truth, of righteousness and peace, of justice and grace; and He manifests it all according to the counsels of infinite wisdom and accomplishes it by the working of almighty Power. He is love. Creation revealed His wisdom, history reveals His providence, but redemption has manifested His LOVE. Of this the apostle now proceeds to speak. The love of God is seen revealed in one consummate act—the gift of Christ.
“Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (4:9). Heaven was temporarily robbed of One Who was its centre and sun. We cannot easily grasp what that meant. We know how an absent one is missed. There may be ten at home, and sometimes no doubt the mother will feel the burden of so many children; yet if one is away, how that one will be missed! Wherever they sit for food, or kneel for prayer, or go to bed, the mother’s heart will always be going out to the absent one. He will constantly be in her thoughts. Yet the Father had only One, and it was this One, “His only begotten Son”, John reminds us, that He sent into the world that we might live. Into the world—how far from the Father’s presence, into what an alien atmosphere, into the midst of what dark and terrible conditions was He sent “that we might live through Him”!
“That we might live…”. This is now stated to be the first object of His coming. For we were dead—dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:2); dead and without hope of life. And it was a costly remedy. Life for life is the divine principle. It is the only principle upon which we may become alive unto God: life through His Life.
The phrase, “His only begotten Son” must be noticed. There is no thought of ‘generation’ here. Christ is five times referred to in this way in the New Testament, and we must know its significance. Abraham is quoted as having an only begotten son (Heb. 11:17), but clearly not in the sense of there being only one, for in fact Isaac was not his only son: he had other sons besides Isaac. ‘Only begotten’ means in Scripture, ‘unique’, ‘miraculous’. Isaac was not born according to nature; he came when both Abraham and Sarah were past age. That is how he can be a figure of Christ. “Christ Jesus came into the world” (I Tim. 1:15) and His coming was unique. He was not begotten of Mary, nor was He One whom God created. He is from eternity to eternity—God’s unique Son with whom none can compare. It was this One—God’s only begotten Son—He who was the Father’s continual delight and who had been in counsel with Him from the beginning—whom He now sent into the world that we might live through Him. What love that One so precious should be committed, for our sakes, to this scene of shame and death.
Again, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10). Not even was He sent to those who loved Him, or who sought or wanted Him, but to those delighting in their own shame and folly, and having by nature no affinity with Him whatever. He was sent, yes indeed, to guilty sinners. Here in two verses (4:9, 10) two things are thus brought together. We are reminded that we are both dead and guilty; and Christ is shown to be the remedy for this two-fold condition. ‘To be the propitiation’ means ‘to become a covering.’ He is to be a covering for the guilty. All our transgressions are blotted out by the death of Christ. We hated Him; we loved our own. We did not want to submit to His holy will; yet He yearned over us and did this for us. It is God who came out to us; we did not seek after Him; yet He has given us a unique life through the death of His Son whom He sent into the world.
“GOD IS LOVE.” These words are written twice here, in verses 8 and 16. Many believe this and find comfort in it in a general sense, but they do not know it as it is here in its setting in the Bible, largely because they do not honour the Bible enough to read and study it. Theirs is thus a sentimental conception of God, and not based upon the great sacrificial fact of His giving of His Son. Many will say “God is love.” Those who understand it in any real measure are those alone who have submitted to the revelation of that love in the death of Christ.
The strength of the appeal
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (4:11). First we should note the emphasis that must be felt to belong to the little word ‘so’. If God so loved us … If that great love made such unlovely ones its object and delight; if for some unexplainable reason He so loved us—He so holy and we so vastly different—if that is so (and there is no room left for doubt when He has taken it upon Himself to explain the reason for the death of Christ) then “we ought also to love one another.” We are all alike foolish, sinful, stubborn and unclean. We can boast of no virtues and no merit above our brethren; we were all dead in trespasses and sins; we were all guilty and inexcusable; we are all still so full of faults that any thought of superiority is groundless and profane. And we have all been recipients of the same undeserved favour; we have all been received back to God by the same grace and mercy; we have all been “so loved”. Ought we not then also to love one another?
Twice in this passage John urges this upon us. Referring to what should be the outcome of the divine life given to us in the Son he says first, “Let us love one another” (4:7) and then, “We ought to love one another” (4:11). He views this love as a debt, and this fact need not cause us alarm. It is a debt, but it is one of those debts we are so happy to pay because we have ample with which to pay it. For John does not say “we ought to love …” (4:11) without showing us how God has made it possible for us to fulfil that demand. “God abideth in us” (4:12). “He hath given us of His Holy Spirit” (4:13). It is because “the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Ghost which was given to us” (Rom. 5:5) that we are so abundantly rich in this grace.
It is as an eye-witness that John thus appeals to us. This is made clear by two verses. “We have beheld and bear witness that the Father hath sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (4:14). Again, “We know and have believed the love which God hath in us” (4:16). With the other apostles he could say with confidence, “We beheld … we know … we have believed.” Together they had had personal experience. Their lives and their ministry gave support to this. The outcome of their experience was, for example, the Gospel according to John. It is the apostle of love that is expounding to us the love of Cod, and doing so with a heart aflame with that love and a life fully yielded to its claims.
“If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (4:11). No doubt this is one of the first things that a believer knows when he is born again. He loves those who were strangers to him before: those for whom previously he never had a second thought. His love goes out now to all believers, whatever their background or race, and he will love those of other communities or lands more than his own natural human relations who are not in God’s family. Yes, as God’s children, we have thoughts in common, and affections intimately engaged, even with those we have never seen, more than with the companions of our youth. It is because in us there is a source of affection, and of community of thought, that is not human. God is governing our relationships because God dwells in us.
“No man hath beheld God at any time” (4:12). This is the second occurrence of this statement in the New Testament. See John 1:18: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared Him.” Men want to see God.
Men must see God. Yetman may not see God and live (Exodus 33:20). How then is this need met and the difficulty overcome? God has ,a twofold way of overcoming it. First the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who is in the bosom of the Father, has revealed Him. It is not said that He was in the bosom of the Father, but that He is there. Always, eternally, without interruption by time or distance or circumstance, He is in that blessed place near the Father’s heart, and He says to us, “If ye have seen me, ye have seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Secondly, God, who has been revealed in Christ, now dwells in us. “God abideth in us” (4:12). And if God dwells in us, then God should be seen in us. What a stupendous thought, that now we should be God’s answer to man’s need to see Him! “Which thing is true in him and in you” (2:8). God was in Christ, and now Christ is in us, so that “God abideth in us” too. Hence, John goes on to say, “the true light already shineth” (2:8). Oh, what a high privilege is ours to give the world what it needs; to give the world a revelation of our God who is light and love! Such is the unique calling of the redeemed, and it is alone possible in those who are “the children of God.” “If we love one another, God ahideth in us, and his love is perfected in us” (4:12). Because the object of God’s Love, is to reach others also through us, love cannot be said to be perfected until this love shines forth through us in testimony to Him who is its source and origin.
“Hereby know we that we abide in Him; and He in us because He hath given us of his Spirit” (4:13). Thus John amplifies his statement that God dwells in us. He hath given us of his Spirit. This is the result of our abiding in him, and incidentally the proof that we do so. If the branch of the fruit tree is bearing leaves consistent with the nature of its parent trunk, then it is abiding in the tree and partaking of the roots. A believer cannot go out of touch with Christ if his life consistently displays the virtues and likeness of Christ.
Now look again at the wording of this verse: “Hereby know we that we abide in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit” (4:13). In the earlier passage the apostle said, “Hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gives us” (3:24). Here he says, “He hath given us of his Spirit.” Let us be clear that this does not mean that we have only a measure or portion of the Holy Spirit, as though this gift were rationed to believers. It is rather to remind us that the indwelling of the Spirit will result in a growing and progressive conformity to Christ. The Holy Spirit is given in full measure to conform us to Christ and to reveal Him progressively in us. If we do not love there is something lacking in our conformity to Him. When we do love one another, then it is evident that we are partakers of His Spirit.
“Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he in God” (4:15). It is the confession of experience that Jesus is the Son of God, and not the empty profession, that brings salvation. (See Romans 10:9.) The fact that we do thus confess Him is the indication that we have such a personal experience of Him. It is the one true indication of whose we are.
John is evidently still thinking of what he has said in verse 9 when, speaking for himself and the other apostles, he now says, ‘’We know and have believed the love which God hath in us. God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in Him” (4:16). To confess that Jesus is the Son of God means that we have effectually grasped the truth of the greatness of God’s love in the gift of His Son. It means that we have not only fellowship with Him in light but also in love. We abide in love. Love has so won and mastered, and now so fully engages and absorbs our hearts, that we say, like Ruth to Naomi, “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). Such an attitude illustrates what is meant by dwelling or abiding in love. It is an example of the perfect love to which John refers in verses 12 and 18, when he speaks of those who are “made perfect in love” and of God’s love being “perfected in us.”
The effect of love
When love wins like this, there is no fear at all, and certainly none in respect of the day of judgment, because not only has love judged us in the cross of Christ, but that love has won our hearts, and we have judged ourselves. Hence judgment is now past, not future. It is finished, and not to come for us, “because as he is, even so are we in this world” (4:17). Although for the present His place is different from ours—He above and we here—yet in righteousness and love we are so truly identified together that we have already passed through judgment with Him, and therefore have no longer cause to fear. “There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment: and he that feareth is not made perfect in love” (4:18). When love rules fear goes out, because we are properly adjusted to God and to our brother. We are walking now not only in the light, but also in love.
In concluding this section, John does two things. First he traces all we have back to God, as its source, and thus secures for Him all the glory: ‘’We love, because he first loved us.” (4:19). It is because, in the first place, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost that we are now found loving Him. And secondly, he makes it clear again that this same love is shed abroad in our hearts for the sake of our brothers. “This commandment have we from Him, that He who loveth God love his brother also” (4:21). If we entertain any hatred or bitterness towards any child of the heavenly family, we are not beyond judgment. We are either making a false claim in calling ourselves children of God, or else, as His children, we are quenching the Spirit within, and thus depriving our brother of the very thing for which that love was shed abroad. May the Holy Spirit make us very sensitive in this matter.