We Have Come to Know God's Love, part 2
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” 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. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
This is part 2 of the sermon we began two weeks ago. It is a continuation of our exposition of 1 John 4:13–5:5. This passage is much more than a summary of John’s letter, although he does take the time to remind us of the three tests of an authentic relationship with God (doctrinal, moral, social). But what I believe John is emphasizing for us is how God’s love has impacted us through whom God intends to show his love to the world. If God’s desire is to manifest himself to the world through a radical display of love, and if he intends to show that love to the world through us who have already experienced it, then we should expect that God’s love would have already had an enormous impact on us.
John gives us at least six ways that we have been changed by God’s radical love. Two weeks ago we discussed four of those ways. Let’s review them briefly.
- We have a share in the Holy Spirit (4:13). The Holy Spirit is given to us to empower us to obey God’s commands and to show God-like love, but the Spirit’s presence within us also gives us spiritual and emotional perception that we truly belong to God.
- We acknowledge Jesus as Savior of the world (4:14-15). Because of the new birth, Jesus becomes much more to us than a good example to follow or a great moral teacher. With eyes of faith, God allows us to see Jesus as the Savior of the world.
- We believe in the power of God’s love (4:16). That means that whatever else we experience in life, we can always be assured of God’s love for us. For if God gave us his Son to be our Savior, then we need no further proof of God’s love. We have become believers in its power because we have seen it demonstrated in the coming of Jesus.
- We are no longer afraid of God (4:17-18). Because of God’s radical love shown to and experienced by us, we are changed to become lovers just like he is. And because of this mutual relationship of love that we have with God, we, like Christ his Son, have no reason to fear God. Love has dispelled fear!
There are two more results of God’s love for us that John mentions in this passage, and that’s what I want us to see in the final verses of this passage.
5. We become lovers of others (4:19-5:1)
The next result that God’s love for us has on us is that it makes us lovers of others. John is very clear that this ability that we have to love others comes from our own experience with God’s love. Verse 19 reads, “We love because he first loved us.”
Our love for others depends upon the new birth
Jesus told us that the whole law could be summarized with two commandments: love God and love others. But here we find that it is impossible to keep those commandments without God’s love first coming into us. The only way that we can love is by having been loved first.
That means that we have not loved others until we love them the way that God loves us. It also means that we will fail to love others unless we can see the depth of God’s love for us. Most of us think too little about this. Either we assume that God ought to love me because we think too highly of ourselves. Or, we think that God should love me simply because he is a God of love. What we need to meditate on over and over again is that God loves me by providing a Savior for me. God’s love does not cause him to overlook our sin. God’s love causes him to do something about our sin.
Until we can see how God’s love works for us, we will never understand what love for others should look like. We will assume that there are limits to our love. Or we will believe that there are things people can do that disqualify them from receiving our love. When we do not love others as we should, we need to consider again the depth of God’s love for us. Having been loved by God, we should be able to extend his love toward others.
We love God by loving others
Because Christian love is a response to God’s love, and because Christian love is empowered by God’s love, Christian love for others is identical with Christian love for God. This is what John says in verse 20. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” In other words, we cannot be lovers of God if we do not love our brothers. We can claim to love God, but our claim is a lie if we do not also love others just like God loved us.
John’s argument is based upon the assumption he makes at the end of verse 20. “For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” The way to love an invisible God is by loving our visible fellow man. John can say this is true because the effect that God’s love has upon those who are born of him is to make them lovers. Remember what he said in 1 John 2:9? “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” If God’s love for us has not changed us, then God’s love has never made its way into us.
Let’s back up a bit and see the whole of John’s argument. He is saying that God has taken the initiative in showing love to us, and he acts in love because it is his character to love. But the aim of God’s love for us is for his love to radically change us, making us lovers like him who then pass on his love to others. Because we are transformed by God’s love, we now have a relationship of love with God giving us confidence before him rather than fear. Still, John is not interested in theory but in evidence, and any claim should be validated by fact. It is one thing to say that we have a loving relationship with God; it is quite another thing to prove that this is indeed the case.
If I say that I love my wife, there should be evidence to back up this claim. If the evidence can not be found, my words simply do not count. So John says that the evidence that proves that we really do love God is that we love our brother. How do we prove that we love God? By loving others. We might even say that the way that we love God is by loving others. The evidence of our love is also the way that we love.
But I have to show my love in a way that the person I love experiences it. I can say that I love my wife, and even say that it is proven in my hard work to provide for her. But I cannot love only on my own terms. I have to love my wife in ways that communicate love to her. She is the one who primarily decides how that should happen. Likewise, John is telling us how we are to show love to God. We have to love on God’s terms. And God says that the way we love him is by loving others.
Granted, this is not the only way that we love God. But John’s concern here is that we love God in ways that also give evidence of our love. Other ways of loving God, including the spiritual disciplines, can be done with no heart for God at all. But, loving others with God-like love is only possible with a heart that is moved by love. Because the new birth is required to love in this way, this kind of love is a clear sign that a person has been overcome by God’s love and that by loving others he is demonstrating his love for God.
The command to love is effective on those who have been born again
Chapter four ends with this command: “whoever loves God must also love his brother.” The command does not diminish the role of love. Rather, the command can have the positive effect of awakening love. If you or I feel the conviction of God from what John has had to say, the command of verse 21 should bear fruit in our lives. There is no concern here with legalism. An unregenerate person will simply not be able to love others with God-like love. But those who have been born again will respond to this command because the love of God resides in them, giving them the power to carry out this command.
So God’s commandments are not to have the effect of placing undesirable rules upon the heartless soul. God is not interested in getting us to respond out of guilt. In the first verse of chapter five, John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” John reminds us that the new birth comes only through acceptance of who Jesus rightly is. But the rest of the verse says exactly the same thing as 4:21, only this time as a statement of fact rather than as a command. “Everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” Putting this together with 4:21 we conclude that in commanding us to love our brothers, John is only commanding us to do that which should be quite natural for us to do. John is saying that in the natural order of things, love exists in the family. Not only does the child love his parent, but he also loves his siblings.
John has great hope, then, that his readers will respond in obedience to the command of love. He believes that those who have been born of God will evidence their love for their Heavenly Father by loving their spiritual brothers and sisters. We have argued throughout this book that the command to love is not limited to the spiritual family, but John emphasizes it because if we cannot love our own spiritual family, we will surely not love those outside the family of faith.
It would be good for all of us to pause here and consider our relationship with others in our faith community. Do we love them with God-like love? Are we proving our love for God by how we love one another? If we cannot get this right then we are deceiving ourselves. Worse, we are telling a lie to one another and to God. It simply cannot be true that we love God if we do not love one another.
6. We Become Lovers of God (5:2-5)
The final thing I wish for us to observe in this passage about the effect that God’s love has on us is that it makes us lovers of God. This is the effect that we might expect God’s love would have, but it is not mentioned explicitly until now.
Love others by loving God
Up to this point, the emphasis regarding the effect that God’s love has on those who experience it has been that it makes them lovers of others, specifically other Christians. John does not wander too far from that point in the final verses of this passage. He has already told us that one way that we demonstrate our love for God is by loving others. Now he says the opposite is true as well: the way we demonstrate our love for others is by loving God. Here’s what verse 2 says: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”
Obedience to God’s commandments is one of John’s “tests” of genuine conversion. “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). And the book of 1 John is concerned primarily with one commandment: love for others. So John makes a simple logical conclusion. If those who are truly born again evidence this reality in obedience to God’s commandments, and if one of God’s commandments is to love my brother, then those who are truly born again should be those who love others.
John says this is what “the love of God” does to us. It makes us into lovers. It causes us to love others in obedience to God’s commandments. But John says more here. The question behind verse 2 is not how our love for God makes us love others. The question behind verse 2 is, “How do I know that I am loving my brother and sister in Christ?” Part of the answer is “when we obey his commandments.” But that is a circular argument and offers little help on its own. John says we need something else. We know that we love the children of God, when we love God.
How does loving God result in loving others?
So the way that we love others is by loving God. But how can this be? How does loving God translate into love for others? John answers these questions in the next verse. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” Notice that both verse 2 and verse 3 show a connection between love and obedience. When we love God we obey his commandments, that’s what John says. And John is only saying what Jesus said. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21).
This helps a bit more. It means that the effect that God’s love has on us is that it makes us obedient to him. Obedience comes from the love of God. That means both that obedience comes from God’s love toward me and that obedience comes from the love I have for God. God’s love for me makes me an obedient lover. My obedience stems from a heart of love for God. So the key to loving others is the love of God, both his love for me and my love for him. I cannot love others without this love of God.
The necessity of love in obedience
But someone might object. Isn’t it possible to love others without loving God? To this I would say yes and no. Yes, we can do many loving acts for people and care nothing for God. Philanthropy in itself does not have a prerequisite of loving God.
But the Bible does not define love as simply being nice to another. Love is doing what is best for another, and since what is always best for another is God, love is doing whatever is necessary to point people toward God. That is the way that God expects us to love others.
But there’s more. The reason why love is needed along with obedience is to prevent us from falling into legalism. God does not expect us to love others merely out of duty. John does not say that we know that we love others when we obey his commandments. He says that we know that we love others “when we love God and obey his commandments.” And he says at the end of verse 3 that the effect that our love for God has on us is that it makes his commandments not be a burden on us.
You see, God is not asking you and I to circumvent our personal joy in order to live obediently to him. But that is what we will be in danger of doing if we try to obey the 2nd greatest commandment without obeying the greatest commandment first. The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God with all of our heart, soul, and strength (Luke 10:27-28). You cannot do that by shear duty alone, because loving God with all of our heart means we will feel delight in our loving. Delight is a much greater motivator than duty. If you find your obedience is based on duty and not pure delight, something is not right. This is not what God expects or desires of you.
The necessity of the new birth in creating love
We can see at this point that the kind of love and commandment-keeping that God expects of us is not something that comes naturally to fallen humanity. God is demanding radical, self-sacrificial love for others, motivated by delightful love for God that makes his commandments a joy and not a burden. How can all of this be possible for anyone to attain?
John tells us in verse 4. The reason why we can keep God’s commandments without them being a burden to us is this: “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” The world does not love like this. But those who are born of God overcome the world. They are able to love others and delight in God in ways that the world cannot understand.
Now follow how John wraps up this passage. Verse 4 concludes, “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” Our ability to love and obey God stems from our faith. But it’s not faith in itself that make this possible, as verse 5 demonstrates, it is the object of our faith. “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Everything points back to Jesus, the Son of God. He is the object of the kind of faith that enables one to overcome the world. And overcoming the world, in this context, means being able to obey God’s radical demands out of love and delight. This is the effect that God’s love has on us.