1 John 4:7–11
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
Last week several people responded to the message with a question. They heard two things that seemed inconsistent.
An Inconsistency in Last Week's Text?
On the one hand I stressed that our ability to listen to the gospel with receptive hearts (4:6) and our ability to confess Christ with sincere hearts (4:2) were owing to the work of the Holy Spirit so that he should get the glory. But on the other hand I made an urgent appeal to people to call upon the Holy Spirit and to listen with receptive hearts and confess with sincere hearts. Isn't it inconsistent on the one hand to describe a person's condition as helpless without the Holy Spirit (spiritually deaf and blind and dead), and then on the other hand to argue with them and plead with them to see and hear and live?
Isn't it inconsistent to say: You are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1); now awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead (Ephesians 5:14)?
The Life-Giving Power of the Word of God
The answer is yes, it is inconsistent—unless you believe the Word of God has life-giving power. If the Word of God carries the power of God, then it is not inconsistent to say, "Lazarus, you are dead; now come forth from the tomb!" If the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to create out of things that are not things that are (1 Corinthians 1:28), then it is not inconsistent to say to the darkness, "Let there be light!" (2 Corinthians 4:6). If the Word of God is anointed with the power of God, it is not inconsistent to say to the lame, "Walk!" and to the blind, "See!" and to the deaf, "Hear the word of the Lord!"
The apparent inconsistency between the spiritual deadness that is in the world and the demand for spiritual life that is in the gospel is not solved by saying, "The deadness is not really deadness." The apparent inconsistency is solved by saying, "He who is in the word is greater than he who is in the world." "The word of God is living and active!" (Hebrews 4:12). It creates what it demands in the lives of God's sheep: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27).
If the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to cause new birth in those who hear the gospel, then it is not inconsistent to preach the gospel to people who are spiritually dead in the hope that the Word of God will give them spiritual life. It is not inconsistent for Jesus to say, "No one can come to me unless the Father draws him," and then to say, "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden,"—if the command contains the very power by which the Father draws.
The Same Kind of Apparent Inconsistency
The same kind of apparent inconsistency turns up in today's text. For example, verse 8 says: "He who does not love does not know God for God is love." In other words, if you do not love, you show that you do not even know God. This is exactly what 2:4 said, "He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him." And since all the commandments are summed up in love, John can say, "He who does not love does not know God." Not loving is a sure sign that you do not know God.
From this we must infer that knowing God necessarily results in being a loving person. If you could know God and not be loving, then verse 8 would be false, because it says if you are not loving, you don't know God. So one thing is sure from verse 8: a person who knows God will be a loving person.
But (here's the apparent inconsistency) if the one who knows God will necessarily be a loving person, why does John command him to be in verse 7? "Beloved, let us love one another!" There's the same apparent inconsistency that came out last week. Only it's just the reverse in this text.
Last week the question was: why command a person to hear and believe who in himself can't hear and believe? This week the question is: why command a person to love who can't help but love, because he knows God and has been born of God? Why tell a person to do a thing if he can't do it? And why tell a person to do a thing if he can't help but do it?
Understanding How the Apostle John Thinks
The reason I push these questions out into the open is because I want so much for us to understand the way the apostle John thinks. We need to let our thinking be judged and shaped by the way the Holy Spirit shaped the thought of the apostles. We need to let the apparent inconsistencies in God's Word stand rather than removing them by putting ideas into the Scriptures that are not there. If we meditate long enough and deep enough, we will see the biblical solution. Let me suggest what seem to me to be the biblical answers to the questions we just raised.
Why Tell a Person to Do What He Can't Do?
First, why tell a person to do a thing if he can't do it? Answer, because God can use the telling to give the person the power to do it. 1 Peter 1:23 says, "You have been born anew . . . through the living and abiding word of God." When the Word of God is preached to dead people who are unable to submit to God (Romans 8:8), the Word itself can create the capacity to submit and believe. That's why we should preach the gospel to those who in themselves cannot hear and believe.
Why Tell a Person to Do What He Can't Help Doing?
Second, why tell a person to do a thing if he can't help but do it? That's the situation we have in today's text. Doesn't the inevitability of love in the life of the true child of God make the command to love superfluous?
Consider an analogy: suppose that you were about to have a baby and God came to you and said, "This baby is a gift of mine and I promise that she will live to be 100 years old."
So when the baby is born, you take her home from the hospital, but you don't feed her. Your husband says, "Why aren't you feeding the baby?" And you say, "Because God promised me that the baby would live to be 100 years old. So if God is going to make sure that the baby will live 100 years, I don't need to feed it."
Well, this husband is perceptive and says, "How do you know that God didn't mean that he would see to it that the baby gets taken care of till she is 100 years old? How do you know that God won't let an irresponsible mother drop dead so that he can fulfill his promise through a mother who will feed this little girl?" No answer.
The Analogy Applied
Now let's apply the analogy. God comes to us in the Bible and says to us that knowing God always results in being a loving person (4:8). He promises in effect: I will see to it that those who know me, those who are born again, will be loving people. So somebody (in their merely human wisdom) suggests, "Well, we don't need to feed these children anything to help them love. We don't need to give them the commands and warnings and promises from the bread of God's Word, because God promised to make them loving."
To which we should answer, "How do you know that God didn't mean that he would see to it that all the necessary, love-producing food would be supplied to his children? How do you know that God didn't mean that if I won't feed them with what they need to be loving, then he will remove me and put someone in my place who will give them what they need? Why do you assume that God's promise is meant to be fulfilled in the most unnatural way possible?"
God's Intention to Fulfill Promises Through Commands
So the most natural biblical answer to the question, "Why command a person to love who can't help but love?" is that God intends to fulfill his promise through the use of commands. God has ordained to keep us alive in love by the regular feeding of his Word. And the Word of God contains warnings, promises, and commands. The commands are part of the food that the Spirit has provided for the nourishment of the saints, so that our love will thrive.
The Spirit of God fulfills the promise of God by use of the Word of God. And if I try to short-circuit the way God works, he will simply remove me if necessary for the sake of his children. He will fulfill his promise. And he will use his commands and warnings and promises to do it. So it is not inconsistent for John to teach in verse 8 that all who know God will definitely be loving people AND to command them in verse 7 to be loving people.
Become What You Are
This is the very genius of biblical ethics. Become what your are. Do what God is at work in you to do. If we can grasp the way John thinks here, we will guard ourselves on the one hand against a legalism that boasts in its obedience, and on the other hand against a lawlessness that says Christians don't have to listen to the commands of Scripture. You can't boast in God's sanctifying work. And you can't ignore commands that God has ordained to produce that work.
Genuine Love Is a Supernatural Work of God
Frank Tillapaugh asked Friday night, "When the world looks at the church, do they see a love that can only be explained by the supernatural work of God?" And that is THE KEY QUESTION for our life together. There must be such a love if this text is to make any sense. Verse 7 says, "He who loves is born of God and knows God."
But there are things we call love which people do who are not born of God (since they don't believe, and believing is a sign of being born of God too, 5:1). There are loves that are born of sexual desire and natural affections and philanthropic aspirations. But these don't point to the supernatural work of God. They are no sign of being born of God.
What matters is a love that can only be explained by the supernatural work of God. That's the love that assures us that we are born of God, and that's the love that will cause some in the world (not all, 3:13) to see and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
I long to love like that. I long for our church to love like that. There is nothing more thrilling than experiencing the love of God so deeply that it spills over into our relationships. And that's what this letter is all about: being so deeply transformed by the love of God within that we live the supernatural love of God without.
God Is Love
Let's meditate for a few minutes on the deepest of all statements in the book: "God is love." It's found in verse 8 and it is given as the reason why knowing God must result in loving others: "He who does not love does not know God; for God is love." Can we begin to fathom this statement? Surely John wants us to make a start.
Love Is a Necessary Part of God's Nature
I take it to mean that there is something about God's nature that makes love a necessary part of it. Love was a necessary part of God's nature from all eternity, even before there were any people or angels to love. What was it about God that made love a necessary part of his nature from all eternity?
In John 17:24 Jesus says, "Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world." The reason love was a necessary part of God's nature from all eternity is that from all eternity God the Father has had a perfect image of himself in the person of God the Son and has loved his Son with all the energy that lies within him. The simplest way I know to put it is that God is love because the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is a relationship of love.
The Fellowship of the Trinity
The Son of God was not created. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Christ, our Lord and Savior, did not come into being. He has always existed as God, eternally begotten by the Father. The mystery of God's nature is that there is God the Father and God the Son from all eternity and that the relationship between them has existed from all eternity and is part of God's nature.
This relationship is love and this love carries the perfections of the Father and the Son so fully that it too is God, God the Holy Spirit. God the Father has always had a perfect living image of himself—God the Son. And God the Father and God the Son have always had an infinite living Spirit of love between them—God the Holy Spirit.
Therefore when John says that God is love, he means that love is as much a part of God's nature as the Holy Spirit is part of God's nature. Look at the connection between verses 12 and 13. "No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit." Verse 12 says that God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. Verse 13 says that God abides in us and has given us of his own Spirit. Are these not two ways of saying the same thing? Is not the perfecting of the love of God within us the same as his giving of his Spirit, so that the Spirit of God is the living personified love of God? God is love because from all eternity love has been the Spirit uniting the Father and the Son.
Being Drawn into the Fellowship of the Trinity
Now John makes the connection in verse 8 between knowing this God who is love and being loving people ourselves. He says, "If you aren't a loving person, then you just don't know this God." When you come to have a personal knowledge of God, who is Father and Son united in infinite love, you become a loving person.
Why Knowing God Creates Loving People
In John 17:26 Jesus concludes his prayer for us with amazing words—words that relate very closely with 1 John 4:8. "[Father] I made known to them thy name (note the idea of knowing and the name, i.e., essence), and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them and I in them." Here's what Jesus is saying: when you come to know God personally, you are drawn into the fellowship of the Trinity.
This is staggering. But this what Jesus prays for us. He asks that the love with which the Father has loved the Son might be in us. In other words: to know God is to love the Son of God with the very love of his Father. You can't claim to know God or be born of God if you have not been ravished by the beauty of the Son. The evidence of being indwelt by the Spirit of God is the experience of loving Jesus the way the Father loves him.
If you truly know God, you share in the fellowship of the Trinity, and if you share in the fellowship of the Trinity, you love the Son of God with the very love that the Father has for him. (This is what it means to be indwelt by the Spirit, who is none other that the Spirit of love between the Father and the Son.)
How Loving the Son of God Creates Love for Others
And how does that translate into love for other people? Verses 9 and 10 set forth the love of God in the giving of the Son: "In this the love of God was made manifest among us that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins."
The Father's delight in the glory of the Son was an infinite delight. Yet he was willing to send the Son to be rejected and mocked and tortured and killed in order to bring life to the world. Can we say, then, that we delight in the Son with the very delight of the Father if we live at odds with the mission of the Son—that is, if we don't pour out our lives to bring life to the world?
If the Son died to bring life to his enemies, can we say with any integrity that we love him with the very love of his Father, while we refuse to join him in his mission?
It can't be.
I conclude with this exhortation. I think we will love each other and those outside with a distinct, supernatural love when we taste the fellowship of the Trinity; that is, when we love the suffering Son of God with the very love of his Father. When that happens, we will be so stunned by the glory of his suffering, that it will be our crown and treasure to suffer with him to bring life to the world.