John begins to summarize and conclude this section on loving one another (4:7-21). He continues his point from verse 17 regarding judgment and the believer’s perspective on it. He then reiterates what he said before about love coming from God and why if we are in Him we WILL love the brethren – and if we do not love we are NOT in Him.
John states a similar premise to what he said in verse 17, but states it from the other side. He said in 17 that when we love we can face judgment with confidence. Here he says we can face judgment without fear because perfect love casts out fear. When we love we show that we are His – we show it to others and we show it to ourselves. When we know we are His we will not fear judgment. We will anticipate judgment WITH confidence and WITHOUT fear.
Remember that John said our love for others perfects God’s love for us (verses 12 and 17). Here he says that perfected love casts out fear. When we love others we know it is because God’s perfect love is in us – and if God’s perfect love is in us we know we are truly His child. And if we know we are truly His child we do not fear judgment. Thus, perfect love casts out fear.
So what does this say about the one who does not love? He should fear judgment. He has no confidence when facing the great day. Not loving others is evidence that he is not perfected in love. And the one not perfected in love should fear because he has no promise, no assurance, and, ultimately, no hope.
This means our perspective on judgment says much about where we stand. If the thought of appearing before Him causes us dread and fear it very well could be that we are not truly His. Since perfect love casts out fear, then our fear of judgment shows we lack the assurance that comes from loving others. And if we lack that assurance perhaps we are not His child.
There is no better test that we can ever apply to ourselves in order to discover the quality of our Christian life and the very nature of our standing in the sight of God than to examine ourselves in the light of the great fact of the Day of Judgment. The way to tell whether you are all right at the moment is to test what you feel like when you contemplate yourself at that great Day. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 537-538.)
This does not mean we approach judgment flippantly or without concern. The Bible is full of warnings about standing before God and the effect the expectation of judgment should have on the believer’s actions. We should be motivated to good works (and to flee sin) by the thought that we will one day give an account. For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God (Rom 14:10). But we should not think of standing before Him with a trembling and hopeless dread. We should not fear punishment. We are children, not enemies.
Our status as children brings up the last point about verse 18. Since perfect love casts out fear, should we then not fear God at all? From a certain perspective the answer seems to be “no.” The fear of God is mentioned as part of the believer’s life throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Moses told the Israelites at Mount Sinai that God wanted them to fear Him so they would keep the commandments (Ex 20:20). The writer of Hebrews says we approach God with reverence and awe because our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28-29). A child in a healthy and loving relationship with his father still fears the ramifications of disobedience. John’s point is that we should not fear judgment – we should not fear the wrath that will be poured out on God’s enemies. But he does not say we should not fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). We are not subject to His wrath but that does not mean we do not fear the One who is able to pour out that wrath. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Prov 9:10).
That we should fear God does not take away from the amazing promise John gives us here. We get to come to judgment in confidence and without fear. The most dreadful day of all – the day that is used even today to symbolize the ultimate accounting and the ultimate time of fear – will be for the believer a time of joy (Jude 24) celebrating the glory of Jesus and the glory of redemption.
In verse 19 John reiterates and simplifies his statement from verse 10. We did not love God first – we love only because God loved US first. As we have mentioned numerous times – God did not love us because we were lovely and He did not love us in reaction to our love. He loved us because He IS love and because He chose to. God’s love is never reactionary.
Along those same lines, when we love others we show the love of God in us. We cannot love others unconditionally and unexpectantly without first having the love of God ourselves. And if we do NOT love others in that way, we cannot claim to have the love of God in us. If we love BECAUSE He loved us, we must love others in the same way that He loves. This means our love is based in God just as God’s love is.
That is the meaning of verse 20. Verse 20 is really the summary statement of this whole section on brotherly love. If someone loves God they WILL love others. If they do NOT love others they do not love God. We cannot claim to love God – who we cannot see (12) – and then refuse to love others we can. If we do not love the ones who are physically in our lives then our claim to love God is false – we are liars. It is easy in many respects to say we love God – but the proof of that love is our love for God’s children.
[John likes to use the words lie and liar. In 1:6 he said if we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie. In 2:4 he said if we say that we know Him and yet do not keep His commandments, we lie. The one who denies that Jesus is the Christ is a liar (2:22). And the one who says he loves God while hating his brothers is a liar (4:20).]
He again – as he did in 3:10-15 – equates not loving our brother to hating our brother. John does not like gray areas. If we love we are a child of God and if we hate (if we do not love) we are like Cain who was a child of the devil. The one who does not love abides in death and is not of God.
Do not miss what John says about loving an invisible God versus loving the brethren. Does it not make sense that it is hard to show love to a Being we have never seen? Said another way, how do we KNOW we love One we have never seen? How would we prove that we love a man or woman we have never laid eyes on? John’s statement is incredibly down to earth. It is easy to SAY we love God, but tangibly showing that love is much harder to get our arms around. It is more straightforward to show love to humans we can see and physically serve. And in the end this is how we know if we actually love God or are just deceiving ourselves. Our love for the ones we can see proves the love we have for the One we cannot.
So how do we show love to God who cannot be seen? If we compare scripture with scripture we see that we love God by loving others (Matt 25:31-46) and keeping His commandments (Jn 14:21). This means our love for others is both the proof of our love for God AND the means of that love.
Note that he says we cannot love God if we do not love others. It is actually impossible to split the two. If we love God we will love man. If we do not love God we will not love man. And if we do not love man we do not love God. This is just another way of stating the two greatest commandments. We will never love God with all of our heart, soul, and strength without also loving our neighbor. And if we do not love our neighbor then we do not love God. Neither commandment ever exists without the other – it is not possible.
This is the thought he reinforces in verse 21. John defined the commandment of God in 3:23 – believe in the Son and love one another. We cannot love the Son – believe in Him – without loving the brethren. And we cannot love the Father without loving the Father’s children (see 5:1).
Verse 21 is really a restatement of verse 11 from a different angle. In verse 11 John gave us the motivation of God’s love for us (expressed in the redemption) to make us love one another. Here he says if we love God we should love one another. So either way – whether it is the love of God for us or the love we have for God because of His love for us – both should motivate us to love our brothers.
Think how practical this makes our walk. If our lives are not marked by loving reactions to the daily challenges and frustrations of interacting with others then we cannot claim to be children of the God who is love. If we cannot love the difficult and irritating and unlovely people in our lives then we cannot love the God who loves those very same people. Our love for God is not shown only in our devotion – our love for God is shown in our love for others. Children of God love children of God (more and more as they progress in their sanctification).
When we love one another (4:7-21)
- It means we are born of God and know God (7) because God is love (8)
- It means we are living through Jesus (9)
- It means we understand the love behind our redemption (11)
- It means we have God’s love perfected in us (12,17)
- It means we are the proof of God’s presence in the world (12)
- It means we abide in love and thus abide in God and He in us (12,16)
- It means we have His Spirit (13)
- It means we have confidence without fear at the day of judgment (17-18)
- It means we are as He is in the world (17)
- It means we love God (20)
- It means we obey His commandment (21)
Being the object of God’s love, we are to love our neighbor in Him and Him in our neighbor; and that is what it is to remain in His love. – CH Dodd