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1 John 4:7-12: Getting Love Right Print E-mail
1, 2, 3 John
Sunday, 20 December 2009

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We live in a day when people make all sorts of spiritual claims.  People profess faith in everything from crystals to aliens to themselves.  Although it may not be popular to be too certain about your spiritual beliefs, we are told that ‘spirituality’ is making a comeback.  We have leaders like certain talk-show hosts to particular movie actors, who encourage spiritual health through various means.  Even in the Church, we have some who claim to be hearing ‘new things’ from the Spirit.  We have leaders who have spiritual ‘visions’ that we are to follow without question.  After all, who are we to question the Spirit’s leading?  To complicate matters even further, we are now enjoying the ‘Christmas Season,’ a time when secular artists are singing about the birth of Christ on the radio and people are saying all sorts of things about just who was born in that manger to Mary and Joseph.

The doctrine of God’s love is a very difficult doctrine.  That might sound strange to us at first.  Yet, when you try to look at all the Bible has to say about God’s love and then reconcile that with our current misunderstanding and misapplication of love in general and God’s love in particular, then it is not hard to come to the conclusion that the doctrine of God’s love is indeed difficult.  This truth was pointed out to me in a little book by D. A. Carson entitled appropriately: ‘The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.’  (Available as a free download here)  He provides five reasons why this doctrine is so difficult in his opening chapter ranging from the fact that everyone believes that their ‘God’ is loving to the fact that many professing Christians oversimplify the biblical teaching on this subject.1  Due to the cultural misunderstanding and the Church’s often mishandling of the doctrine of God’s love, it has become more and more difficult.

One passage that people often abuse in seeking to understand the doctrine of God’s love is 1 John 4:8.  John says in the second part of that verse that God is love.  He says this again in 4:16.  Many have taken these statements, divorced them from their context, and built whole theologies around their misinterpretation.  They figure that if God is love, then they do whatever they want and not worry about it because God will forgive them.  After all, He is love.  Yet, John has already taught us in this same letter that God is also light (see 1:5) and that His children will walk in the light.  Thus, to use the phrase ‘God is love’ as an excuse for a sinful lifestyle is a gross misunderstanding of the text.  The same could be said for those who use this passage to try and defend pluralism (‘many ways to God’).  These interpretations are not faithful to what John is actually saying in these verses.  Therefore, we must avoid them by seeking to understand what John is saying.  We must labor to understand correctly the doctrine of God’s love.

John begins this passage with the command to love.  Look at verse 7a.  John exhorts his readers to love each other just as he has done before.  He has taught us that we cannot walk in the light and hate our brother (2:7-11).  He has taught us not to love like Cain who murdered his brother, but to love like Christ who laid down his life for us (3:11-24).  Our love is to be real and practical.  Once again, he returns to the command to love.  And in this passage he goes on to give us some reasons why loving one another is so important.  These reasons can help us better understand what John is telling us about the doctrine of God’s love.  So then, what are they?

First, we should love one another because God’s children are characterized by love (v. 7-8).

Going on in verses 7-8, we see this first reason why we should love one another.  Look at those verses with me.  John tells us that whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  He also tells us that the reverse is true as well: Anyone who does not love does not know God.  Thus, to claim to know God and be His children while not loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is a false claim according to John.  God’s children are characterized by love for one another and love for the lost.  Why is this the case?  John answers at the end of verse 8: because God is love.  The very character and substance of God is love.  If we want to know what true love is then we can simply look to God, for He is love, an idea that we will return to in just a moment.

Again, as we stated above, we must not misapply what John is saying here.  He is not saying that as long as you ‘have love in your hearts for people’ then you are Christian.  That is an oversimplification of the message of 1 John.  Yes, sacrificial love for our brothers is a test that can evidence whether or not we have been born of God.  But in order for us to use this test biblically, we must keep in mind all that John has to say about love.  It is one thing to say that we love people, it is a whole different deal to actually love people in the same way God has loved us.  To do the latter faithfully and biblically, we must be born of God, for we simply cannot do it in and of ourselves.  Yes, lost people can love each other, but not in the same way that God has loved us in Christ.  Thus, Christian love sets us apart from the world just as Jesus taught (see John 13:35).  If we are going to understand what John is teaching us about God and love, then we must meditate on how John actually defines love.  This leads us to our second reason to love.

Second, we should love one another because God sent us Christ (v. 9-10).

If we want to know what type of love that John is talking about we simply need to look at verses 9-10.  Look at verse 9 with me.  The greatest manifestation of the love of God that the world has ever seen and will ever see is the sending of Christ.  Christians set aside this time of year to celebrate and marvel at the birth of Christ.  We consider the angels and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph.  We think about their being no room in the Inn and the baby being placed in a manger.  Yet, the reason why all of these details are significant is that the baby that the angels spoke of and the Shepherds worshipped and Mary and Joseph cared for is none other than God Himself in the flesh.  God the Son humbled Himself and took on flesh to live and die in our place.  God sent us his only Son…so that we might live through him.  Christ lived as a man so that men might live through Him.  God did this to manifest His love among us so that we would really know what love is.  Yet, this is not all…

Jesus showed us what true love is by what He came to do.  Look at verse 10.  Not only did God send His Son to live as a man, but He sent Him to pay the price for our sins.  The Holy wrath of God that justly burned against us was born by Christ on the cross.  He came to be our substitute, the propitiation for our sins.  And even further, God did all this while we were still His enemies.  Paul marvels this fact in Romans 5:6-8 where he says: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would even dare to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  We do not look to our own ‘love’ to find a true definition of love.  No, all true love begins with the Lord.  We love Him simply because He has first loved us in Christ (see 4:19).  And as Stott notes: “He loved us and sent his Son to rescue us, not because we are lovable, but because he is love.”2  He does not love us because of our character but because of His own.  Brothers and sisters, this is love: God graciously sending His Son to die for His own enemies.  There is absolutely nothing about any of this that we deserve and this is what separates the love of God from other types of ‘love.’  We should lay our lives down for others because Christ has first done this for us (see 3:16).  We sit here this morning as adopted sons and daughters of God because of His love for us.  How can we claim to grasp such love if we are unwilling to show that same sacrificial commitment to others?

Third, we should love one another because God’s love will be perfected in us (v. 12).

We will come back to the exhortation in verse 11 in just a moment, but first let’s look at the third reason why we should love each other found in verse 12.  Look at that verse with me.  John begins this verse in an odd way, or at least in a way that we might not expect: No one has ever seen God.  The statement is simple enough and we can readily affirm what he is saying.  Yet, what does not being able to see God have to do with us loving each other?  He tells us in the second part of the verse: if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.  As we love one another in the same sacrificial way that God has loved us, then we can be assured that God abides in us (as we have noted above) and we know that his love is being perfected in us.  In other words, we are loving others with His type of love, which is true love.  As we do this, people begin to ‘see’ God for they see His love.  The world is desperate to ‘see’ God in this way and we are called to faithfully demonstrate such love by caring for each other.  His love is put on display through us.  Thus, we should love one another because His love is being perfected in us.

John has commanded us over and over in this letter to love each other.  He gives us three reasons to do that in this passage.  We love each other because God’s children are characterized by love.  We love each other because God has sent us Christ.  And we love each other because as we do we are displaying the love of God to the world.  These are reasons to be loving one another. 

So then, what do we do to fan into flame such love among us?  I think the best answer to this question is to simply meditate on the person and work of our Savior.  We must remember the humility that He showed to us in coming to the earth.  We must remember that He left His Father’s throne to take on flesh and dwell among us.  We must remember the grace that He has shown us in dying for us while we were still sinners and still enemies.  If we are going to love like Him, then we must spend time at the foot of the cross.  Stott writes: “No one who has been to the cross and seen God’s immeasurable and unmerited love displayed there can go back to a life of selfishness.”3  Oh God, grant us grace to see and comprehend the great love that you displayed to us in sending us Christ.  Forgive us for ever being selfish or self-serving when Christ was so selfless for us.

In J. I. Packer’s book “Knowing God” that we are studying in Sunday school, he devotes a whole chapter to the incarnation of Christ.  He wonders and marvels at the fact that Jesus was both God and man.  He speaks about how belief in the incarnation is critical for understanding the claims of Christianity.  It is a good chapter on the coming of Christ.  Yet, Packer gripped me with how he ends the chapter.  He speaks of how we often fail to really understand the true spirit of Christmas.  He speaks of what it is not: “Nor is it the spirit of those Christians…whose ambition in life seems limited to building a nice middle-class Christian home, and making nice middle-class Christian friends, and bringing up their children in nice middle-class Christian ways, and who leave the submiddle-class sections of the community, Christian and non-Christian, to get on by themselves.”  He continues: “The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob.  For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor—spending and being spent—to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others.”4  May the Lord grant us grace to live on the principle of making ourselves poor to enrich others, just as Christ did for us when he was born in that manger so many years ago.  He came and died for our sins.  May we love like that.  May we love people not because they are lovely or unlovely, but because God has so loved us.  Indeed, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  Amen.

1 D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), p. 9-15.
2 John Stott, The Letters of John TNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p.165-66.
3 Ibid., p.166.
4 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 63-64.

~ William Marshall ~

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