Can a person be a Christian and yet not show the love of God in his or her life? John emphatically says "no" in the verses of this study. Since God is love and demonstrated love to us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, he demands that we love.
John seeks diligently to explain to the early church the nature of being a Christian. He begins by defining God as simply as he can.
In two places, he states plainly that God is love (vv. 8, 16). God's nature is so dominated by love that John insists one cannot know God and not know love. While not precisely interchangeable, John describes God and love as inseparable. You absolutely cannot have one without the other. John is so confident of this fact that he establishes it as the criterion for evaluating God's presence in a person's life. If God is there, so is love. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.
It is important to notice that this concept does not work in both directions. God is love, but love is not necessarily God. To know God is to love, but to love does not necessarily mean to know God. John's argument is that Christians must be loving people. It is not that loving people must be Christians.
John makes this distinction so that there may be no confusion regarding love's nature in relation to salvation. Salvation will always produce love. Love, without knowing God, will not produce salvation.
Lest anyone come away from his discussion with a vague idea of what love is or might be argued to be, John clearly defines it. Love is God sending his Son into the world as an atoning sacrifice so that we might live through him (vv. 9-10). Love is not some nebulous feeling or emotional giddiness. Love has a sacrificial character. Love is not passive; it must be involved.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the perfect example of love. God's sacrifice in becoming human is love personified. The death of the sinless Christ as an atonement for the sins of the world reflects the depth that love reaches. John describes this love as "complete" (v. 17). It is love perfected.
John tells us this is the kind of love on which we can rely (v. 16). We put our trust in God as love. This complete trust leads to the removal of fear from our lives and replaces that fear with absolute confidence.
Most of us who are parents have at least some experience with this notion. My 5-year-old son, Zac, has no reservations at all about leaping off tall things that should certainly lead to his death. At least he has no such reservations when I am around. He has no fear because he knows I will catch him. He has absolute confidence in me because he absolutely knows how much I love him.
Yet even my love for my son is not perfect. I am flawed, and so is my love for him. God faces no such limitation. God's love for us is perfect and is thus completely reliable.
This completeness is displayed for us in the Trinity itself. God the Father, by sending the Son, and now living in us through the Spirit (v. 13) brings the fullness of love to bear in our lives. It is an unmistakable presence.
For John, this presence is an unavoidable consequence of being in God. John is blunt to the point of offense on this issue. If one claims to love God and yet does not love other people, John says that person is a liar. Most of us would not dare speak in such strong language. It does not bother John one bit to do so. If you do not love, you do not know God. Period.
John's directness comes from his love. He cannot bear the thought of people fooling themselves into believing they know God when the truth is so easily discernable. If he needs to startle them into an examination of their lives, he has no hesitation about doing so. That is a far more acceptable course of action than taking the chance that they will die apart from God while thinking they knew him.
A relationship with God must evidence itself in his love working in us. God is love, God lives in us, we must love. Love has been made complete among us so that "in this world we are like him" (v. 17). This similarity is not an option. Even the strength of the word "command" (v. 21) may not be forceful enough. A person may still disobey a direct command. John does not allow for even the hint of that disobedience. To know God is to love. There are no exceptions.
This teaching is difficult for us. We do our best to excuse ourselves and others from this responsibility.
Perhaps the lesson title should have been "I Don't Love. So What?" We may ask if it really does make a difference. John says yes. It makes an eternal difference.
Bible Study: 1 John 4:7-21
Van Christian is pastor of First Baptist Church in Comanche, Texas.
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