1 John 4:15-21 – 2023 Aug 31

Often, theologians tend to get very focused on what we do in terms of our own interests in Scripture to the exclusion of important things.  Although we try to always keep the gospel in view as the most important thing, at times it is easy to get lost in issues like eschatology, or pneumatology, and ignore the central doctrine of the gospel and the person of Christ.  John here brings us back to it by reminding us that we are to be operating in agape love, the very love of God, and that is simply not possible without the Christ operating in us.

None of the fruit of the Spirit is present without Christ’s life operating through us.  Salvation came to us by Grace alone, through Faith alone, in Christ Alone, and as the Scriptures (alone) tell us, this is God Alone glorifying Himself in and through us as His chosen people.  Here, John connects it all for us as a powerful and stirring reminder that we need to walk in agape or we are doing it all wrong.

I broke up the text into thought units as follows:

KV19:  The Order, Duty, and Test of Love (agape)

19:  We love, because He first loved us.

15-16:  God is agape, therefore live in God

17-18:  The Love – Fear dichotomy

19-21:  The commandment to love completed by deeds not words

John details a great deal, but his main focus here is on the Gospel as it drives us to the love of God for all men, especially of believers.

KV19:  The Order, Duty, and Test of Love (agape)

19:  We love, because He first loved us.

What I mean here is that there is a specific order in which love drives the believer, and it is stated in verse 19–He loves us, and then we love Him in return.  After that, we have a duty to live in His love flowing through or operating in us (synonymous ways of saying the same thing) toward all men, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ., and it includes a test to verify to ourselves that we are walking with Christ.  If we can do so, we are living in and according to the Gospel.  If we cannot, then we do not have Christ in us.  If we find ourselves in the state where Christ is NOT in us, then we are called to repentance with all mankind, and for those who turn from their sins and to God, these will discover the deep, deep love of God demonstrated toward us in Jesus Christ.  This is a great place to jump into our first thought unit.

15-16:  God is agape, therefore live in God

God is love (agape) by His very nature, contrary to what we may believe.  I used to think of God as a giant “cosmic killjoy” sitting up there in heaven, waiting just to send a lightning bolt into my affairs just to deny me pleasure or any good or safety at all.  I know where some of that comes from as an abused child, but some of that is just my own rebellion against God.  I was a good boy according to people who saw me, but that is because I am a great actor.  The Greek word for that is hupocrites, or as we say in English, hypocrite.  In my heart, all kinds of anger and vengeful thoughts drove me, all under a perfect mask of congenial fellowship.  And then on a fateful day in June of 1985, I met a guy reading a large leather-bound book on his lunch break.  Gee, wonder what book that was?  But rather than me reminiscing about how I came to Christ, let’s get into the text.

15:  Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.

  • Here, John is defining salvation in the Gospel.  Look for a moment at Romans 10:9-10–“that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”  The confession to which John and Paul refer here is a verbal one, and that verbalization of the gospel is an admission of a reality that God accomplishes at regeneration in the life of a believer. 
  • That’s what I mean when I say there is an order to this.  I know that not everyone agrees, it is kind of a hot-button issue, but this is what I have come to believe is supported by Scripture.  I’ll give the short version here, but I am willing to clarify later.  God regenerates His chosen person at a time that is perfect for Him.  He takes this soul that He foreknew, predestined to be like His Son, and called it to Himself.  At that moment, that soul WANTS to turn to Him and repent, and given the smallest opportunity does, and is thus justified by the work of His Son on the cross, and in the future for that soul will be glorified at the time God has chosen for that.  That HUMAN does NOTHING in this entire process.  It is a true birth from above, and this is what God desires that all men come to, though not all will, because not all have.  Men like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol-pot, and sadly others, all must face justice for the atrocities they have committed against God, just as we will if we do not turn when God calls us, and God calls us at every opportunity.
  • Assuming those specific events happen, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God, takes residence within the newly regenerated believer and begins to teach them.  The Holy Spirit’s job in all of this is to convince and convict men of their sin, and then to purify them and make them alive to God.  After that, He is ever with us, having baptized us into Christ (Rom. 6:3, Gal. 3:27).  His ministry to us is to build and strengthen our relationship with Christ our Lord and King.  That’s what John is describing here.  Let’s read that verse again.
  • Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and He in God.  Truly amazing.

16:  We have come to know and have believed the love which God has  for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

  • John confirms to his audience that he considers them all believers.  “WE have come to know…”  That word “know” is a form of the Greek word ginosko, and it here means to know in an absolute sense.  Not only do we know it in an absolute sense, but we pisteuo, that is we believe, that is hold a firm persuasion or opinion strongly enough to move us to action, the agape God has for us.  The knowledge of God’s love drives us to live accordingly!
  • “God is love.”  Amen.  That is to say, that by His very nature, God is agape.  It is central to everything else, including His justice, His discipline, and even His wrath, even if we do not understand the concept.  All of this and everything that God is and expresses is summed up in His love for us.  It should be noted, however, that this does not form some kind of reversible equation.  God is love, but that does not necessarily mean that love is God.  People doing things in the name of “love” does not necessarily mean they are doing things in the name of God.  Thinking like this leads to the deception that “love is love is love is love,” and we already KNOW that isn’t accurate.  Besides, people who try to turn this into an equation aren’t really interested in God’s love for us.  They’re interested in whatever it is they covet, or that they are lusting after, not the love that places all other interests before its own or sacrifices itself for the benefit of others.  THAT’s God’s love, and frankly is above and beyond comparison.  Don’t believe me?  God bled for us.  Jesus died on the cross and then rose again.  He became sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
  • Assuming we understand that God is love, John tells us that the one who abides in THAT love, who walks in it, who lives in, and who practices it abides in God, and if we abide in Him, He also abides in us, as it says in John 15:4–“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.”  Do we really need further encouragement to walk with Christ, friends?  Jesus Himself, God the Son, spoke these words.

John is putting things in exceedingly concise terms for a reason.  As this set of letters was being written, a violent Roman persecution arose that scattered the new movement of God, all with His divine knowledge and permission for the spread of the gospel.  John writes in a sort of code to hide or obscure some of the things he wrote about and spoke in the most general terms to obfuscate names, places, events, and other details that would have told the Romans where to find the people of God, and possibly to give them “religious-sounding phrases” to throw them off the scent of the people of God, but that’s just my theory.  However, it is a great spot to transition to our second paragraph.

17-18:  The Love – Fear dichotomy

The opposite of love is NOT hate.  Hate and love share a different relationship, much like they are two sides of the same coin in Scripture.  God hates, did you know that?  He hates sin.  He hated Esau and loved Jacob.  No, the opposite of love, which is the thing that draws us all closer, especially to God, is fear.  Love adds and multiplies in a spiritual sense.  Fear subtracts and divides, and that’s the mathematics of it, so to speak.  Fear has its uses, we are to use it to motivate us to right behaviour, for example.  When I was just about to step onto the mat for a Judo match as a teenager, I was always afraid, but I used it to make me sharper, faster, and better than my opponents, many times winning the match because of it.  Also, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  It carries in that sense a connotation of reverence and respect, but at times, and this is permissible as well, an absolute terror of who God is and what He can do to me.  However, that usually gives way to heartfelt worship and recognition of what He has done for me.  With that, let’s look at the text.

17:  By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.

  • What is the “By this” referring to here?  That comes from the context of the surrounding statements.  This refers to abiding or remaining in the love of God.  That walking with Christ that is really the desire of all real Christians is what perfects love in us, according to John in this verse.  John is touching here on something I know a good many people, particularly believers struggle with.  It is called “assurance of salvation.”  There are several sources for it including the Holy Spirit assuring you directly, but every believer I know sometimes wonders about their salvation.  John is saying that our assurance comes from our knowledge of the love of God that comes from our walk with Christ and will give us confidence in the day of judgement.  I remember Alex showing us one night the end of a sermon by Alistair Begg.  It was essentially a conversation between the angels at the gate of heaven and the thief on the cross beside Jesus.  After some conversation, the angel finally asked the thief why he was there and he replied, “The man on the middle cross told me to come.”  The confidence we have comes strictly from the fact that Jesus told us to come.  All who answer that call should have that confidence.
  • Where does that confidence come from?  See the last statement in the verse.  As He is, so are we in this world.  It means that God the Father looks at us the same way as He looks at His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  He looks on us with that abiding agape that His Son always has from the Father, and that He gives us when we become justified before Him through His Holy Spirit and He welcomes us into His family.  What a beautiful and amazing thought!  Amazing Love!  How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?  And yet that is the Love that we are to live in and share with everyone He brings across our path.

18:  There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

  • As believers, we do not need to be afraid of what will happen.  Beloved, I understand the damage that can be caused by those around us.  Love can overcome that.  I know our past can influence our present like I know my own name.  The love of God overcomes all of that.  Our God can deliver us, just like He did Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego).  And even if God chooses NOT to deliver us, we still get to be with Him forever after that.  Think of all the Christians who died under Roman persecution, by wild animals in the arena, or by lighting Nero’s garden as a literal human torch.  All these also died in faith that He was able to bring them safely to Himself.  The ones that fear are not perfected in the agape love of God.  He is not punishing us, because there is no need to fear.  He looks at His chosen saints in the same way He looks at His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, remember?  This is a direct result of having believed the gospel and having been justified by faith in Christ.

It seems clear that the Love – Fear dichotomy is a complicated one, and doesn’t always mean bad or evil things, but if it paralyzes you from acting in faith, doing the right thing, or keeps you from giving your life or resources for others, maybe it is.  And there is more.  Let’s look at the last paragraph we will consider in this study.

19-21:  The commandment to love completed by deeds not words

Sometimes, for reasons of fear or other reasons, we talk a good game but don’t really follow through with our actions.  We can SAY we love someone, but not really love.  What we see in the last paragraph here is that we need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  Let’s see what John says.

19:  We love, because He first loved us.

  • There is a very specific order to this, as we have previously said, and I hope repetition makes the point.  We love [agapao] because He [Christ] first loved [agapao] us.  This is a gospel reference because of the use of the verb agapao.  Recall that without God first putting this character in us, we are not capable of having this kind of love.  And the only reason we are able to love in the divine sense is because God in His great benevolent mercy placed it within us.  If we were to say that God had left that part of His nature in us from the fall, we deny the consequences of our original sin and partake in the heresy of Pelagianism.  Pelagianism is a 7-point heresy that has huge implications for believers if they yield to it.  For the record, this comes from Strong’s Systematic Theology:  “(1) Adam was created mortal, so that he would have died even it [sic] he had not sinned. (2) Adam’s sin injured, not the human race, but only himself. (3) Newborn infants are in the same condition as Adam before the Fall. (4) The whole human race neither dies on account of Adam’s sin, nor rises on account of Christ’s resurrection. (5) Infants, even though not baptized, attain eternal life. (6) The law is [as] good a means of salvation as the gospel. (7) [E]ven before Christ, some men lived who did not commit sin.”  I know, none of that is Biblical, and this is the root of a lot of false religions today and has its fingerprints all over Arminianism.
  • First, Adam was created in Genesis with what I will call conditional immortality.  The condition was not eating a certain fruit.  He ate the fruit and death entered the world and the human condition as a whole.  Adam’s sin injured ALL humans, otherwise only Adam would have died (also Eve, who was the first to eat the fruit).  Do I really need to point out the denial of Christ’s resurrection and its power in the believer?  Baptism in water does not communicate salvific benefit, regardless of the age of the one being baptized.  Salvation cannot come from the law (ever), and ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God.  The problem humans have is not that we must choose to do better, it’s that we are spiritually dead!  Only Christ through His atoning sacrifice on the cross and His subsequent resurrection can make us alive to God!  And He had to act first, so He did.  And because of that, we must act in response to His wonderful love for us.  John continues.

20:  If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

  • To that end, John tells us that there is a kind of “test” (for lack of a better word).  John tells us that a person’s words are less important than their acts because their acts will reveal what they really believe.  Don’t we see too much of the kind of statement John made as an example in the church today?  “Oh, Yeah, I love God, man!”  Meanwhile, they speak in favour of immorality of all sorts that God specifically says in His word is offensive to Him, and even encourage the saints toward sin.  A specific mark of this kind of person is that they hate their brothers and sisters in Christ.  They are not just going to come out and say that, by the way.  John’s whole point here is that their deeds will betray their actual belief system eventually.  Such may take time, but eventually the truth will come out. 
  • There is a greater principle that John is using this example to outline.  If such people who make claims of faith cannot deal with their brothers and sisters in Christ who are right in front of them, how can they walk in truth before a holy God who will not look on sin?  If you can’t deal with what you know is real in a godly fashion, then how can you possibly deal with God, who is as real as it gets?  Jesus Himself said we could know false teachers by their fruits in Matt. 7:16-20:  “You will  know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”  We are supposed to walk in a display of the fruit of the Spirit:  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23)  And Christian, if you see deficiencies in your life when you hold that up to your own walk with Christ, don’t be discouraged.  Think of it as an actionable prayer and a to-do list.
  • You must understand that it is an impossibility to have a love for God and then speak evil or mistreat His chosen people.  If you want to claim to be a Christian, you must be demonstrating your love for God through kind acts toward your brothers and sisters in Christ, not calling them out on trying to live a righteous life before God.  John counters that with the commandment he gives in the last verse.

21:  And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.

  • Beloved, agape love seeks nothing in return for itself.  Rather, it is patient.  It is kind and is not jealous.  It does not brag and is not arrogant.  It does not act unbecomingly.  It does not seek its own.  It is not provoked.  It does not take into account wrongs suffered.  It does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  Agape love has never and will never fail.  (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-8a)  That’s the kind of love we should have for God, and that we should have for our brothers and sisters in Christ at the very least.
  • Beloved, that list covers everything from gossip to false teaching if you read the passage that I took that from, and that description wasn’t even the point of that passage, although every wedding I have ever been to has read that because it is true.  Christ isn’t just telling us that it is a good idea, He is making it a commandment to all of His people.  May we take that seriously and yield to our Lord on this, because it can be seen by anyone who cares to look, and that should make most of us, including me, extremely uncomfortable.

It is critical that we understand that John wrote his first letter to real believers.  There is a concept that we have become familiar with over time called “the visible church.”  It is the organized group that we see when we attend a church meeting, for most people that would be Sundays.  This group has existed almost since the very beginning of the church.  Jesus even spoke about that group ahead of time, using imagery such as the wheat and tares, or the sheep and goats, and the differences between them.  The Scriptures themselves tell us of a group of people who are either deceived and think they are Christians but are not or are deliberate false converts with an agenda (we call those folks false prophets, false teachers, like that, although many of them are deceived, but just go along with the show).  John’s, Jude’s Peter’s, Luke’s, and Paul’s admonitions against having fellowship with these individuals are loud and clear.  These people populate the visible church along with the real followers of Christ.  They don’t understand what John is saying because they are not able to understand.  The real problem comes when you consider that a lot of the language is similar, and a lot of the religious behaviour is similar, and has similar visible results. 

To truly be discerning and test the spirits as we saw at the beginning of this chapter, one must always be watching and awake to what people are saying and what the Scripture says about it, and if their lives line up.  Generally, we need to start with ourselves, but we do need to watch when truth claims are made, especially claims made about Christ or involving Christianity.  There are helpful discernment sites like protestia.com that can help with that.

However, in all our discernment efforts, we need to realize that our motivation must be God’s love for such people, and let Him express it through us.  This will as a necessary effect make the world hate us because the world also hated our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.  Let us do it anyway, because God has given us great mercy, and we cannot help but try to share it with those who will be lost if they do not repent of their sins and turn to Christ in faith.

That’s what I saw in the text this evening.

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