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The Test of Radical Christian Love

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10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. 11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?       18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

The book of 1 John gives us several “tests” or “proofs” that we have become children of God through the new birth. The Apostle John wanted his readers to have some assurance that they were different from the apostates who, by leaving the church, indicated that in reality they were not born again. John essentially gives three types of tests of true regeneration: doctrine, righteousness, and love. Last week we read more about the second test, but at the end of verse 10 John transitions into the third test. He writes, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”

John defends his use of love as a test of genuine salvation in verse 11. The reason why our love for others is a proof of our faith is because the command to love “is the message that you have heard from the beginning.” As John said in 1 John 2:7, it is an “old commandment.” John’s opponents evidently ignored the commandment, but John reminds us that we have no right to believe we are a child of God if we are not lovers of God’s people. We cannot ignore the command to love others.

But John has also told us that the command to love is in another sense a “new commandment.” Because of Christ’s example, those who belong to God through faith in Christ have learned a new way of love that is radical and unknown to the world. Only those who exemplify this kind of love are truly born of God. So John has already set the stage for what he is about to say, namely, that the kind of love that demonstrates authentic faith will be misunderstood by the world and will even cause the world to hate us. Those who live with this kind of love will stand out clearly in a world full of hate.

Here is how John lays out his thoughts in this passage. First, he shows us what the world is like without the love of God by using an Old Testament character, Cain, as his example. Then, he shows that the new birth is what makes it possible for people to love. Finally, he urges all believers to demonstrate a life of love, using Christ as the perfect example of how it should be done.


John wants us to love one another. But before he expounds upon what this kind of love looks like, he wants us to see a negative example. Cain, is an example, albeit an extreme one, of a life lived without the love that comes from the new birth.

Cain is the prototype for the world

The story of Cain and his brother, Abel, is recorded in Genesis 4:1-16. John’s commentary on this story is limited to one thing: the motive behind Cain’s murder of his brother. This is something that is not altogether clear in the Genesis account. We are not told why God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Nevertheless it seems from Genesis 4:7 that it was Cain’s own fault that his offering was rejected. Evidently God had given instruction about how to worship him, but Cain had disregarded God’s instruction and made an offering his own way. In response, God rejected not only Cain’s offering, but Cain himself (Gen 4:5).

On the other hand, Cain’s brother, Abel, followed God’s instructions and was accepted. But because of this, Cain despised his brother, and killed him. That the murder was premeditated is made clear by John. There was a motive: “his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” In other words, Cain’s motive was jealousy, but not in the normal sense of the word. Cain was jealous of Abel because Abel had done what was right and had thereby received God’s favor. Cain saw that Abel’s righteousness had won God’s favor, and Cain hated his brother because of it. He hated him so badly that he brutally killed Abel. The word murder in 1 John 3:12 means the violent killing of another, and is used to describe Jesus as the Lamb of God who was slain (Rev. 5:6, 12).

The world will hate us

Now the reason John mentions Cain and his murder of Abel is not so much to give us a negative example of love, but rather to show how the world will respond to the love of God within us. So in verse 13 he says, in light of what Cain did to Abel, “do not be surprised that the world hates you.” As Abel was to Cain, so Christians are to the world. The world will hate Christians as wickedness hates righteousness.

Notice how illogical this hatred is. Abel did nothing wrong, certainly nothing injurious to Cain. But he was hated by Cain nonetheless. Christians will be hated not because of anything wrong done to the world. We are, in fact, to show love to the world and so give them no legitimate reason to despise us (Titus 2:7-8). We are to love our neighbor and do good to them. It is a good thing to be at peace with your neighbor. But our right standing with God will be a constant reminder to the world that they have been rejected by God.

So it will come as no surprise when we do have to bear the hostility of the world simply because of our association with Christ. If he was hated, so his followers will be. This is what Jesus predicted in John 15:18-19.

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

The world will hate us “because [we] are not of the world.” John says in 1 John 3:14 that the Christian has “passed out of death into life.” The world will hate us, then, because we have left their ranks.


John describes the world as haters and murderers and as those who abide in death. The believer in Christ, in comparison, abides in life. Consequently, one can know that he has left the ranks of the world by the fact that he now loves other Christians.

This is the miracle of the new birth. It is not subjective change, but real objective transformation. Once we were haters; now we are lovers. And this love is played out in our relationships with others. John mentions our love for the brothers, that is, for our fellow believers in the church, because a lack of love displayed here is a clear indication that we have not been changed by the new birth. But John would surely not limit the command to love only to the believing community. Jesus said we should love even our enemies (Matt 5:44). But if love cannot be successfully lived out in the community, then it will never be lived out in the world.

So a major characteristic of a true believer in Christ is that he loves other Christians. John says that the absence of love is hatred. And if we hate it makes us a murderer like Cain and so proves that eternal life does not abide in us. At first glance it seems like quite a leap to equate hatred with murder. But Jesus said something similar (Matt 5:21-22). And when we hate someone our attitude is the same as a murderer—we wish that the other person were not here.[1]

It is this pairing of hatred (or the absence of love) with murder that should make us pause and take note. How we feel about others is extremely important. Our attitude toward others—and  toward other Christians in particular—is a good indicator of where our relationship with God lies. It will not do for us to excuse ourselves on the grounds that we are not “people persons.” Jesus said that “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Everyone who experiences the new birth changes in their affections toward other people.

That is why love is a solid indicator of whether or not we have been born again. Love comes only from the life that God gives. So the kind of love that John has in mind must be radically different from many popular conceptions of love. Why does it take the new birth to be able to love?


John answers that question, beginning with verse 16, by giving us a picture of love. Notice how he begins, “By this we know love.” He does not believe that love is naturally known. John says that love—at least the kind of love that proves we have passed from death to life—has to be learned. And we learn it only by experiencing it.

Christ is the example of love

So if Cain was our negative example, we now have our positive example, Jesus Christ. “He laid down his life for us” and that is how we know love. While hate ends up taking life, love ends up giving up life on behalf of the hater. This is what Jesus did (John 10:11-18).

And this is how John defines love. Whatever other ways we might like to define it, this is the kind of love that John says indicates we have passed out of death into life. We can note at least two unique things about this kind of love. First, it is sacrificial. “Laying down one’s life” is the greatest expression of love (John 15:13), for we have nothing more we can give than our lives. Second, it is beneficial. That is, Jesus gave up his life for us. He died so that we might live. This second element is very important because the Apostle Paul says we can give up our lives without love (1 Cor 13:2). One commentator explains it this way: Imagine I’m sitting on the edge of a pier enjoying the warm summer air and someone came along and jumped into the water and drowned in order to “prove his love for me.” Such an act, however much in need of love I might be, would be completely ridiculous and worthless. But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning myself, and someone jumped into the water and saved me while he himself drowned, then I would say, “There is no greater act of love than that.”[2]

This is why only those who are born again can love like Jesus loved. John’s argument is that those who are born again have seen and tasted and felt the love of Christ on their behalf, and have subsequently been radically changed by it. Verse 16 is the second time that John has used the word ought in this letter. The first was in 1 John 2:6, and there we said that the word conveys the idea of compulsion. We who have learned love from the example of Christ are now compelled to imitate that kind of love to others.

Love in action

John does not tell us why we will be compelled by the experience of Christ’s love for us to show the same kind of love to others. He simply says that this is what happens. The love that Christ displayed is so magnificent, that is absolutely must change those who have benefited from it. John cannot imagine the possibility of one experiencing the love of Christ and then doing nothing with it.

So those who have been born again take on the loving nature of God. They become those who will go so far as to give up their own lives for the benefit of another, just as Christ has done for them. In John’s situation, with the threat of persecution very real, there were undoubtedly times where it came to this.

But while John wants us to know the extent to which our radical love would allow us to sacrifice, he also wants us to see that if this kind of love will take us to the point of giving up our lives, then it will surely make smaller sacrifices as well. So in verse 17 he makes an argument from the greater to the lesser. No one would lay down their life for another if they refuse to lay down their possessions for the same person. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

The sacrifice of God’s people for one another is a hallmark of the Christian faith. The Bible tells us that the early church was known to sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to whoever had need. John says that this practice is indicative of God’s love, so it is to be the common practice of God’s people in all places. The procedure is fairly straightforward:

  1. Someone possesses “the world’s goods.” The phrase does not define those who are rich, but rather those who have the things necessary to sustain life.
  2. There is a “brother in need.” The kind of need John has in mind is the need for life’s sustenance, things one must have in order to live.
  3. The one with the world’s goods does not shut his heart toward the one in need but responds by meeting the needs with the possessions he has.

John says that God’s love cannot dwell in those for whom this process breaks down at step three. Love that does not result in action is no love at all. So in verse 18 John urges us all to “not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” If our faith does not spur us to action, we have reason to question the legitimacy of our faith.

I want you to see how these two verses, 1 John 3:17-18, influence an important part of our church life. Our Town Groups that meet in homes during the week are intended to provide the opportunity and accountability to do exactly what these verses exhort us to do. We say that Town Groups are not designed for Bible Study, not because we think Bible study is unimportant, but because we believe we need to create space for our church to love in deed and in truth. It will not do for us to say that we do not see the “needs” that John saw in his day. Many in our city have real needs that go unmet because we refuse to see them. And it will not do to say that we do not have “the world’s goods.” In a culture like ours where we throw away more than many people live on, we can no longer excuse our indifference toward the needy. Doing nothing is the same as closing our heart against them.

But the kind of love John is describing is not just action. It is love, and love is also a feeling. It may be more than feeling, but it is not less than feeling. Notice the way John describes love in verse 17. He is concerned about those who have the world’s goods, see a brother in need, and then do not use their possessions to meet that need. But he says it this way: “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him.” The loveless act is not called “failing to do a deed” but “closing the heart against the needy.” It is assumed that if the heart is truly moved the action will follow.

So what we need in our affluent American churches is not to be guilted into loving action toward the needy. What we need is God’s love to come full circle in our hearts, stirring us to action for the needy because of the overflow of real joy in God. In other words, your problem and mine when we fail to show real, radical love to the needy is not our lack of compassion for them, but our lack of joy in God.

Remember, that this love is an evidence of salvation, not a means of salvation. This kind of love cannot be manufactured. Unbelievers can seemingly replicate this kind of love, dying for another or sacrificing possessions to share with someone in need. But John is not concerned about unbelievers who look like Christians; he is concerned about professing believers who do not exemplify the love characteristic of one who has been genuinely born again. So what do you do if you fear that you do not exemplify this kind of love?

You do not excuse your loveless life; you repent of it. But you don’t repent of it by waiting to act until you can do so out of genuine love. Rather, you resort to duty, all the while begging God to break through your cold heart and grant you joy. We cannot be content with loveless acts of kindness. Our feelings matter to God!

But it is our actions that can be seen by others, and so it is our actions that are an indication that we have passed from death to life. May God make Crosstown a church that doesn’t just talk about loving our city, but shows in our actions that we really do love our city.


[1] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 191.

[2] Ibid., 193, quoting J. Denney.

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