Continuing in our study of 1 John, we come to a section in chapter four (1 John 4:7-12) in which John once again takes up the topic of love, specifically, a call for believers to love one another. In fact, that phrase, “love one another,” is repeated three times in these verses. In verse 7, it is an exhortation: “let us love one another.” In verse 11, it is a duty: “if God loved us, we ought to love one another.” And, in verse 12, it’s part of John’s main point of this section: “if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.”
In order to better understand the importance of what it means for believers in Christ to love one another, it’s important to first comprehend both the origin and the revelation of this love that we are to have for one another.
The Origin of Love: God’s Nature (1 John 4:7-8)
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
There are at least two questions that arise out of these verses that we ought to answer.
What about when unbelievers love?
First, if “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” is true, does that mean that unbelievers are incapable of love? Aren’t all expressions of love – by believers and unbelievers alike – manifestations of God’s love in one way or another?
Well, there’s two ways to answer that question. On the one hand: yes, because God is love, and all mankind is created in God’s image, when a person loves, whether they be a born-again child of God or not, it is an expression of God’s love. On the other hand – and I think this is what John has in mind here – when unbelievers express love of one kind or another, they are not expressions of the true love of God in that they do not flow from a heart of faith – a heart that believes in God and seeks His glory. For the Scriptures tell us, “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
So, yes – there is something good in the expressions of love by those who don’t know God and who are not born of Him. And, yes, those manifestations of love can have positive effects. But what is of the utmost importance (and the topic at hand in these verses) is the true love that is an expression of the love of God that is worked out through the love of His children, those who are born of God and who know Him. That’s why John follows immediately in verse 8 by saying, “The one who does not love does not know God.” He’s speaking in absolutes. Either you’re a child of God who loves, or you’re not a child of God who cannot love. John is not talking about things that look like love, but things that are actual expressions of true love, that which can only be accomplished by those who know and love Him, personally.
What does it mean that God is love?
The second question that arises out of these verses is: what does it mean that “God is love”? Simply put, it means that the origin of love is God’s nature. Love is from God because that is who He is. If God is love, then that means that everything that God does is an expression of His love. Love is not just one of the expressions of God’s character, it is God’s character. Therefore, there is nothing that God does which is not an expression of His love.
When God judges, He judges in love – as an expression of His loving nature. When the Bible declares that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), that is not the opposite side of God – as if He were some yin-yang kind of God, sometimes loving and sometimes wrathful. No, even God’s judging of sin and consuming fire is an expression of His very nature – which is love.
In the words of John Stott… “He who is love is light and fire as well. Far from condoning sin, his love has found a way to expose it (because He is light) and to consume it (because He is fire) without destroying the sinner, but rather saving Him.” In fact, Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross in which He bore God’s wrath and judgment on our behalf is also the ultimate manifesting of God’s love. This revelation of God’s love is what John takes up next in these verses.
The Revelation of God’s Love: Embodied Love (1 John 4:9-11)
9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.
10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
In verses 7-8, we learned that the origin of God’s love is God’s nature: God is love. Here we learn that the revelation of God’s love “embodied” or “enfleshed” in His Son, Jesus Christ. And, here again, we should note two important things that we learn about the revelation of God’s love.
The uniqueness of the Son of God
First, we should note the uniqueness of the Son of God. The Son of God was “sent” by God the Father. And, if God has sent Him that means that the Son was in the presence of the Heavenly Father before He became man; He eternally existed with the Father. Also, notice that the Son of God is called the “only begotten Son” of God. You and I may become children of God, adopted by God’s redeeming love and power, but Jesus Christ is the only One of whom it may be said that He is the “eternally begotten Son of God.” There never was a time when the Son of God did not exist in relationship to the Heavenly Father as His one and only Son.
Lastly, with regard to the uniqueness of God’s Son, we read in verse 10 that God sent Jesus Christ to be “the propitiation for our sins.” This is the second time that John uses this phrase to describe Jesus. The first was in chapter 2, verse 2. The word propitiation means “to appease” or “to satisfy.” Propitiation for our sins…to God. Propitiation describes the appeasing of the wrath of God and the satisfying of His holy, righteous demands for justice. And, the thing that’s unique about Jesus’ propitiation for our sins is that it is effectual. It works; it works for you and for me.
Imagine if you were drowning in a lake. You’re flailing about, unable to swim, and about to go under. You’re completely helpless. Just then, someone sees you, and in order to show his love for you, he jumps into the lake and drowns himself in order to show how much he loves you. Did that person show his love for you? Maybe. But, what good did it do you? Absolutely nothing!
But, suppose that this person who wanted to show his love for you actually jumped into the lake in order to rescue you. And, in so doing – he saves you, but he himself drowns. Does that person love you? Definitely. And, what’s more, his act of love was effectual – it worked.
That’s what’s unique about Jesus’ death and sacrifice. It wasn’t merely an expression of love. It was an expression of love that actually accomplished the forgiveness of the sins of His people. If you are a child of God, He didn’t just open the way to heaven, He actually secured the way and carried you through it. That’s the fuller meaning of propitiation – He satisfied God’s wrath and punishment for all those who are born of God and who know Him.
The direction of God’s love
If I were to ask, “Where was the love of God manifested or revealed?” Most would probably say, “On the cross of Calvary, when God punished our sins in His Son, Jesus Christ.” And you would be right. But consider how that is described in verse 9, “By this the love of God was manifested *in us*, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”
The direction of God’s love was to you and to me, more precisely: “in us.” I find it fascinating that God would put it that way. It sounds so strange to put it that way, and we have to ask: “What do the Scriptures mean in saying that the love of God was manifested in us.” Well, there are several clues in these verses.
In verse 9, we learn that the purpose of this manifestation of God’s love in us – was “so that…we might live through Him.” God’s love is revealed in us, in that His love gives us eternal and abundant life! No longer under the death sentence that we deserve! Verse 10 tells us that God’s love was revealed in us, in that even though we didn’t love Him, He made atonement for our sins despite our lack of love: He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins; God revealed His love in us by forgiving we who did not deserve to be forgiven. And, verse 11 tells us that God’s love is manifested in us through a command – “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
So, yes, it would be right and proper to say that God’s love was manifested or revealed on Calvary. But, more to the point, God’s love was manifested or revealed as a directed, effectual love in us! Jesus’ death was a directed, embodied love, unlike any other.
So, the origin of love is God’s nature: God is love. The revelation of God’s love is the sending of His Son: through the death of the only begotten Son of God, He atoned for our sins, and God’s love was directed or manifested in us – the object of His affection. In the last verse of this section, we learn of the final terminus or perfection of God’s love.
The Perfection of Love: our love for one another (1 John 4:12)
12 No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.
Watch how this works and follow the flow. Love originates in God’s very nature, in His being: “God is love.” Love is revealed in us, through the sending of His Son to be the propitiation for our sins and giving us new life. And, now in verse 12, we see John’s ultimate point more clearly: since God is spirit and no one has seen Him at any time, the perfection (the telos, the conclusion and complete expression) of God’s love is accomplished…when believers love one another – when you and I love one another!
Of course, this does not mean that God is dependent upon us in order to love other people. It does not mean that God has voluntarily limited His own sovereignty and ability to do what He pleases. What it does mean, however, is that God has so loved us, and condescended to those who are born of Him and know Him, that He has chosen us as the “terminal conduits” of His love.
The way that God has chosen to use His people as the means by which He expresses His love is very similar, actually, to the way that God has chosen to bring people to saving faith through the preaching of the gospel. In Romans 10:13-15, we learn of the ordinary means by which people are saved: God has purposed to save people – to redeem them from their sins – by using we, His people, to bring the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to them.
Does that mean that God cannot save someone apart from this methodology of sending preachers of good news? Of course not! God is still God. He is still sovereign, and He can do whatever He chooses to do. Yet, God has condescended and esteemed us so much, that He has actually purposes to use us to proclaim His good news in order to bring others into His kingdom.
What’s true about God’s saving people through the proclamation of the good news through human agents (Romans 10:13-15), is also true of God’s loving people through the love of human agents: “No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).
The implications of all this are staggering. If God is going to save someone, the primary and ordinary way in which He is going to save them is through human agents: bearers of the good news. And, if God is going to love someone, the primary and ordinary way in which He is going to love them is through human agents: bearers of His love. In this way, God’s love is manifested – and indeed, perfected(!) – in us!
In essence, John is saying: “If God wants to love someone, He’s going to do it through us, in whom He already lives.” How awesome – how gracious – how amazing – is our God?! Our God, who has chosen for us to be the agents through whom His love is perfected!
The world is a sin-sick place in great need of God’s love. God is love. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the embodiment of love. And, God’s love is perfected in us, when we love one another.