In 2008, John Piper preached a sermon titled “Regeneration, Faith, Love: In That Order.” The sermon unpacks the reality of the new birth, the place of faith, and then the role of obedience in the life of faith. He eventually explains the aim and purpose of our love for others, but he begins by talking about the regeneration that produces faith and the obedience to God’s commandments. Here’s what John Piper said in that 2008 sermon.
The opposite of experiencing the commandments of God as burdensome is to experience them as your deepest longing, your deepest delight. And that is what the new birth does.
We are working our way through three links in the chain of thought in 1 John 5:3–4. That was link number 1, but this time in this service I want to push on this just a little further and ask: Which commandments? What has he got in mind specifically? And when he says: This is the love of God that we keep his commandments and don’t find them burdensome, which commandments? What specifically might be at the front of his mind that might help us get a handle on those?
I don’t think it is hard to answer that question if you just read the flow of the thoughts starting back in 1 John 4:20. That is just two verses prior to chapter 5. First John 4:20–21 says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God’” — I hope you say that — “and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must love his brother.”
Therefore we know what is on the front burner of this man’s mind when he writes: If you love God, you keep his commandments. It is the commandment to love each other. That is the main commandment. In fact, we are going to see before we are done that this is the summary of all the other commandments in this book and in the Bible.
So when he says, if you love God, you keep his commandments, he means, first, if you love God, you love other people — especially believers. So now we have in the first link of the chain not just a vague statement that loving God yields obedience; we have a statement much more precise — and this is what I wanted. We have a statement: Loving God yields loving people. That is what we have in the first part of verse 3.
Now it keeps on going. First John 5:1: “Everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” Do you see the connection he is continuing? I’m just confirming that this is on his front burner. Here is verse 2: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Now that is odd. He switched it around on us. It kind of surprised me, anyway.
He is going along saying that loving God means loving people, and now he says: By this we know that we love people, we love children of God, Christians, when we love God and obey his commandments. Why does he do that? Why does he say not just, You know you are loving God when you love people, but he also says, You know you are loving people when you love God. It seems like a circle. Where are we going to jump in here?
I will tell you why I think he did it. You decide. This is your Bible. I think John added verse 2 like that to guard us against sentimental reinterpretations of what love is. Nobody is going to say: Well, I don’t think we should love other people. Nobody is going to say that. But they may mean something very sentimental by it. No grounding in reality. Not doing anybody any ultimate good — just doing what they think love is.
John wants to guard against that, and so he says, “By this we know that we love the children of God” — not when we do any old thing we feel like toward them, but “when we love God” (1 John 5:2). You can’t help anybody if you don’t love God. What if you believe that? Well, of course you don’t believe that. You can feed them if you don’t love God. You can clothe them if you don’t love God. You can give a roof over their head if you don’t love God. You can help them get assimilated as a refugee if you don’t love God. Of course you can do good to people if you don’t love God. You can just make them totally comfortable on their way to hell.
God is not impressed with that kind of love. Just doing stuff for people, distracting them from their totally big need, never angling at those, not caring about that, just doing what you think love is. This verse is in there to keep us from doing that, because one of the commands of God that validates whether you are loving people is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matthew 22:37).
If you are not helping people do that, you are not loving them. You can call it what you like, but biblically speaking, you are not loving them. If you are not using all the practical helps — which most certainly should be done — with a view to awakening their heart to see God as their Treasure and their Savior, you’re not loving them.