1 John 4:17–19
In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.
Verse 17 tells us how to have something everybody wants to have. And verse 18 tells us how to get rid of something everybody wants to get rid of.
Confidence Before God
In verse 17 John tells us how to have confidence or boldness on the day of judgment. And in verse 18 he tells us how to cast fear out of our lives. These are simply positive and negative ways of saying the same thing: getting rid of fear is the negative way of saying become confident.
So the main point of the text is clear: John wants to help us enjoy confidence before God. He does not want us to be paralyzed or depressed by fear of judgment. Nothing would make John happier (1:4) than to produce a generation of Christians who were utterly confident that God would accept them on the judgment day.
Taking the Day of Judgment Seriously
I hope we all take the day of judgment as seriously as John does. I sometimes wonder if we have abandoned real belief in God's judgment and in the torment of hell which our Lord Jesus spoke of so vividly and so often (Matthew 5:22, 29f.; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; 10:15; 11:22–24; 12:36–42; John 5:22–30). The word "hell" (gehenna) is used 12 times in the New Testament—11 of them on the lips of Jesus. And besides that, he spoke of judgment and "the day of judgment" just as John does in 1 John 4:17. For example, Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 10:14f.,
And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
The Lord has warned us so clearly: it is appointed unto man once to die and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). He has spoken vividly of the horror of hell,
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:47–48)
Do We Really Believe in the Horrors of Hell?
One of the reasons I say I wonder if we really believe this is the public zeal with which so many Christians warn against the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and how earnestly they work to avert it. And I ask, "Does the coming holocaust of divine wrath at the final judgment startle us as deeply and mobilize us dramatically?"
The nuclear holocaust is only a possibility; but the holocaust of divine wrath is a biblical certainty. The nuclear holocaust would only snuff out life that is temporary and earthly; but the holocaust of divine wrath will snuff out eternal life and will bring a misery to unbelievers that is worse than any disease caused by nuclear radiation.
So I hope we all take the day of judgment as seriously as John did. I hope that when your heart recoils at the tragedy of a possible nuclear holocaust, you will let that legitimate concern overflow the limits of earthly considerations and take in the tragedy of eternal divine judgment as well. I hope that when you feel an impulse to save the world from the bomb, you will enlarge your heart to long for the eternal salvation of your neighbor and the millions of unreached peoples of the world.
Approaching the Day of Judgment with Confidence
According to 1 John 4:17–18 there is a way to approach the day of judgment with fearless confidence. No one who is willing to follow John's teaching needs to be frightened at the approach of death. None of us who accepts this teaching will have to approach the judgment seat of God with our fingers crossed, wondering if we are going to make it. John wrote this book to give us "confidence for the day of judgment" and to "cast out fear."
How does it happen?
Three Clauses in Verse 17
Notice, there are three clauses in verse 17:
- 17a, "In this is love perfected with us,"
- 17b, "that we may have confidence for the day of judgment,"
- 17c, "because as he is so are we in this world."
It says that the result of having love perfected with us (17a) is confidence for the day of judgment (17b); and it says that the reason perfected love gives confidence is that it shows that we are like Christ (17c).
Let's take them one at a time.
1. What Is Perfected Love?
17a) What is perfected love? "In this is love perfected with us." What does "this" refer to? The words just before it say, "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us." So I would take the "this" to refer to our abiding in love or abiding in God and God's abiding in us—when you abide in love, love is perfected in you.
God's Abiding in Us and Our Abiding in Love
What this means you can see from the connection in 4:12. The same two ideas are both here: God's abiding in us and love being perfected in us. "No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." In other words perfected love refers to God's love in us coming to completion or coming into action as we love each other. "If we love one another . . . his love is perfected in us." So "perfected love" is the love of God expressing itself in our love to each other.
Not Flawless Perfection
It is very important that we understand this, because it is different from what most people think of when they hear the word "perfected." Most people, when they say something has been perfected, mean that it was changed from a state of flawed imperfection into a state of flawless perfection. But the Greek word that John uses (teleioo) does not usually mean that in the New Testament. In the New Testament the word generally means finished, or completed, or accomplished. When something, like a trip or an assignment, attains its goal, it is said to be "perfected."
Other Uses of the Word for "Perfected"
For example the same word is used in John 4:34 where Jesus says, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work." The word "accomplish" here is the same word which in 1 John 4:12 and 17 is translated "perfected." It does not mean that Jesus took the flawed work of God and made it flawless. It means that he took an assignment of God and turned it into action and so completed it (see John 5:36).
In John 19:28 it says that Jesus said, "I thirst" in order to "fulfill" the Scriptures. The word translated "fulfill" is the same as the one translated "perfected" in 1 John 4:12 and 17. It does not mean take a flawed Scripture and make it flawlessly perfect. It means take a Scripture promise and put it into action and so complete it.
James 2:22 is a very important parallel. "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works." The word behind "completed" is the same as the word behind "perfected" in our text. How do works perfect faith? Not by making it flawless faith but by making it active faith. In other words faith is imperfect until it reaches its goal in good works. Then we can speak of it as "perfected" faith—not because it is flawless and beyond the need for improvement, but because it has attained the goal of action.
A journey can be complete or finished even if it is not a flawless journey. That is the way Paul uses the word for "perfect" in Acts 20:24—"If only I might accomplish my course and the ministry which I have received from the Lord Jesus!" He did not mean that he expected to have a flawless ministry. He meant that he fully expected to finish putting into action what the Lord had assigned him to do—even if it was not "perfect" in our usual sense of our word.
God's Love Reaching Its Appointed Goal
Now we come back to 1 John 4:12. It says, "If we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us." Following the normal usage of the word, we would take this to mean NOT that our love for each other is a flawless expression of God's love, but that it is God's love being put into action—God's love reaching its appointed goal in practical human love. Perfected love is not just an incomplete idea or emotion or potential in the heart. It is completed, accomplished, put into action—and in that sense "perfected."
So the meaning of the first clause of 1 John 4:17 would go like this: "In this, that is in your love for each other, God's love is put into action and so reaches its appointed goal. It does not remain at the imperfect stage of mere talk, but reaches the stage of action."
So in these verses perfected love is not flawless love. Perfected love is when you don't just talk about the need to share Christ, you do it. It's when you don't just talk about the hungry, you feed them. It's when you don't just talk about floundering new believers, you disciple them. And so on.
2. How Is Confidence Gained for the Day of Judgment?
17b) Now the second clause of the verse says that the result of having love perfected with us is that we have confidence for the day of judgment. "In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment."
By Putting God's Love into Action for Others
In view of what we have seen now about perfected love, how is it that we gain confidence for the day of judgment? Answer: by putting God's love into action for other people. We don't gain confidence because we are sinlessly perfect in the way we love. That would contradict 1:7–10 ("If we say we do not have sin, we deceive ourselves") and we have seen that it is not what the word "perfected" means. We don't gain confidence by being sinlessly perfect. We gain confidence by putting our money where our mouth is.
Love Not in Word or Speech but in Deed and Truth
The flow of thought is very much like 3:18–19. "Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth." That is the same as saying, "Little children, let the love of God be perfected in you. Let the rubber hit the road. Complete your talk with your walk."
And what will be the result in the next verse? The same as in 4:17. "By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us." In other words the way to have confidence before God on the day of judgment is to love each other with the perfected love of God—that is, love that doesn't just talk but turns into deeds. (See also Matthew 5:7; 6:14; 7:1; James 2:13.)
The Recurring Theme of the Book
So this text is not teaching anything contrary to the thrust of the whole book—loving each other is the reassuring evidence that we are truly born of God and bound for eternal life: "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren" (3:14). Today's text simply stresses the same thing that 3:18–19 did, namely, that the love which can give us confidence before God is not mere talk but love that has been perfected into action—"not in mere word or speech, but in deed and in truth."
3. Why Does Active Love Give Us Confidence?
17c) The last clause of verse 17 says that the reason active (i.e., perfected) love gives confidence for the day of judgment is that it shows that we are like Jesus. "In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world."
Having the Spirit of Jesus
The assumption is that at the judgment day God won't condemn people who are like his Son. Living a life of active love shows that we have the Spirit of Jesus. It shows we belong to the family of God. And that gives us confidence before God. You can't live at odds with the character of Jesus and then expect to have any confidence when you stand before his Father at the final judgment. But if the current of your life is like his, you can have confidence before his Father.
Seen Throughout the Book
We can see the same sequence of thought in 2:28f.
And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that every one who does right is born of him.
In other words, the way to be sure that you are born of him and that you will have confidence when he comes to judge the world is to abide in him (v. 28) and thus do right as he is righteous (v. 29). "As he is so are we in the world."
1 John 3:2–3 argues the same way:
Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
Notice the tremendous confidence of verse 2: we know we will be like him when he comes! That's boldness at the day of judgment! Now what is the proof of this confident hope? Verse 3: "Every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure." The proof is the same as in 4:17, "As he is so are we in the world." We share his purity and so assure ourselves that we truly hope in him.
Summary of Verse 17
To sum up verse 17, we can paraphrase it like this: When you love each other with love that is more than just talk, when the love of God reaches its practical goal of action in your life, you will experience a deep and unshakable confidence before God. Much talk of love with few deeds of love destroys assurance. We've all experienced this from time to time. Our conscience condemns us because we think of deeds of love and don't do them.
But if we put our money where our mouth is, or put our time where our tongue is, then we will have a deep sense of the reality of our own faith and will feel confident for the day of judgment, because then we are acting the way Jesus acted.
The Same Thing at Stake in Verse 18
Now for verse 18.
It seems to me that exactly the same thing is at stake in verse 18 as in verse 17—how to get rid of fear about the day of judgment. Verse 17 is positive: how to have confidence for the day of judgment. Verse 18 is negative: how not to have fear for the day of judgment. And both give the same answer: "perfect" or "perfected" love. Verse 18:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.
The Negative of Verse 17
Let's look at the last part first: "He who fears is not perfected in love." This is the exact negative of verse 17. Verse 17 says that when love is perfected with us, we have confidence. Verse 18 says that when we are not perfected in love, we don't have confidence, we fear!
If we have been on the right track so far, we can say that a person "perfected in love" is not a person who loves flawlessly. He is a person who loves "in deed and truth and not just in words." In these verses perfection has to do with completion not flawlessness. "Perfect love" is love that does not die on the vine. It's love that comes to fruition. It's love that goes beyond desire and is completed (i.e., perfected) in a deed.
So the first part of the verse (18) says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment." In other words the reason there is no fear in love is that there is no threat of punishment for being a loving person. When you love someone with real practical deeds, you never hear a warning signal that says, "You're going to get punished for this." Fear is what you feel when you have done something that ought to be punished. But love is never threatened with punishment. So there is no fear in love.
On the contrary, when you love each other with "perfect love" (i.e., with the love of God overflowing and being completed in action)—when you love each other like this, it casts out fear! The way to boldness, the way to confidence and fearlessness, is to walk love not just talk love. Love is perfected not when it is sinlessly flawless but when it passes from talk to walk.
David Livingstone's Challenge
In 1857 when David Livingstone was home from Africa giving a challenge to the students at the University of Cambridge, he tried to convince them that a life of love in the service of others is no ultimate sacrifice. In doing so he gave a beautiful illustration of 1 John 4:17–18 (without realizing it, I suppose). He said,
Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter?
Notice the sequence of thought. He says that his labors of love on behalf of the lost have been healthful ACTIVITY. He has the consciousness of DOING GOOD. This is "love perfected"—love in deed and truth, love reaching its goal, love completed in action.
And what was the result for David Livingstone? PEACE OF MIND and A BRIGHT HOPE OF A GLORIOUS DESTINY HEREAFTER! Or to use the words of John: confidence for the day of judgment and a mind without fear.
A Chief Reason Why Many Have Little Confidence
Brothers and sisters, one of the main reasons why so many professing Christians have little confidence with God and little boldness with men is that their lives are not devoted in love to the salvation of the lost and to the glory of God, but instead are devoted (often by sheer default) to providing earthly security and comfort for themselves and their families.
When we try to say that we are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, and yet we do not devote our lives to the eternal good of other people, there is a deep contradiction within that gnaws away at our souls and dissolves our confidence and leaves us feeling weak and inauthentic.
John wants us to discover the secret of David Livingstone—that a life poured out in the labors of love for the eternal good of other people yields a sure consciousness of doing good, a deep peace of mind and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter!
And where will you find the power to do that?
God Loves First in Jesus Christ
I close with verse 19: "As for us, we love because he first loved us." Our acts of love on behalf of others never cause God's love to be initiated towards us. It is always the reverse. God loves first. Then we know and believe the love God has for us (v. 16). Trusting the love that he has for us in Jesus Christ, he abides in us and HIS love overflows into action and is perfected with us. And we have confidence for the day of judgment.
It all begins with the love of God. "We love because he first loved us." If you lack the power to love, look to the cross of Christ and let the love of God for sinners fill you with hope.
Added Note: Confidence and the Forgiveness of Sins
Of course confidence before God MUST include a sense of the forgiveness of our sins through the death of Jesus. The way this relates to active love as the basis of our confidence is as follows.
1 John 1:7 says, "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."
Here two things are combined to secure our cleansing from sin: one is the blood of Jesus; the other is walking in the light. Only one atones for sin, namely, the blood of Jesus. But it does not atone for everyone. It atones for those who walk in the light.
So our confidence before God on the day of judgment is based on the blood of Jesus as the atoning force that takes away all our sins, AND on a certain kind of "walk"—not because this walk atones for our sins at all, but because it confirms the genuineness of our faith. It confirms that we are in fact savingly related to Christ whose blood cleanses us from all sin.
Walking in the light and being perfected in love are the same thing. Neither atones for sin. Both certify that we are born of God and so attached to Christ in such a way that his blood avails for us.