The false teachers had upset the confidence of John’s readers. “You’re not really Christians (but we are),” we can almost hear them say. John replied, first of all, with his series of “if we say / the one who says” statements (1.6, 8, 10; 2.4, 6, 9, 11) and his “by this we know” statements (2.3, 5, 18; 3.10, 14, 19, 24; etc.) that would reinforce the readers’ ability to know and be confident in the truth about themselves and their detractors.
This raises an important issue. What identifies us a Christians? The sign in front of the church building? I can put a Cadillac badge on a Ford Pinto, but does that make it a Cadillac? Do our doctrines identify us? Our position on baptism? The question of our identity is not just an interesting idea. It is crucial to who we are.
John had another, more powerful, answer to the false teachers, one that establishes the true identity of a Christian. 1 John 4.7-21 provides the ultimate answer to the question “Who is a real Christian?”: Real Christians practice God’s kind of love (but the false teachers don’t).
Just as God is light (1 John 1.7), so also God is love (4.8, 16). [Actually, these are not two separate qualities of God, but two ways of saying the same thing.] This fact controls the discussion of 4.7-21. Just as any doctrine that contradicts the fundamental truth that God is light must, by definition, be false (1.5-10), so any way of conduct that contradicts the fundamental truth that God is love must also be false.
4.7-13: The True People of God Know God’s Love and Have It in Themselves
God is love. Real Christians know that (v 7), and that knowledge translates into a lifestyle of love. When a person does not act in love, it is a measure of how much he does not really know God (v 8), or is even proof that God is not his Father (since children will take on the qualities of their father (v 7).
And how do we know that God is love? The answer is simple: this is the message about God that screams from the cross of Calvary (vv 9-10). The death of Christ was motivated first and foremost by God’s love for us. Because God loves us he did not want to see us perish in His wrath, so He sent Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2.2 and here, v 10). This love on God’s part was not something that was provoked by admirable qualities within us. As Paul said, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5.8). No, God’s love for us is the purest kind of love. It is not based on our being lovable, but on the nature of God Himself (v 10). And this quality of love that exists in God must exist in his true children as well (v 11).
In fact, seeing this divine kind of love is the closest any human being will come to actually “seeing” God. No one has ever seen God (v 12a), but do you remember when Moses asked to see God’s glory in Exodus 33? God’s response was: “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exod 33.18). What God meant was that to see God’s love, compassion, and mercy is to see the essence of God Himself. So here, John says that even if we have never seen the presence of God, we can see Him when we see love in action in the lives of Christians (v 12b). This is what it means to have the Spirit of God within us: to have a spirit, or heart, of love that works itself out in words and actions of love. We have within us the same spirit of love that is in our Father, because children have their father’s qualities (v 13).
4.14-18 We Know the Love of God in Jesus
Now this fact that we see the love of God displayed in the cross relates directly to another of the problems with the false teachers, namely their denial that Jesus had come in the flesh (4.2-3). To deny that Jesus was God’s Son in the flesh is to deny the love of God; because if Jesus was not really God’s Son, sent as our propitiation, then God has not shown His love for us on the cross. No, the cross must mean something very different in that kind of scenario. The testimony of the apostles, who were guided into all truth by the Spirit, was that “the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (v 14). If that is true, then the cross means that God loves us. But if Jesus is not the Son of God in human flesh, then His death is not a display of divine love.
To confess the Son is to acknowledge God’s love, and to acknowledge (that is, to respond to) that love is to abide in God (v 16). As we continue in that relationship we grow in our likeness to God in this world, resembling him more and more every day in our words and actions of love. It is this becoming completely people of love that will guarantee that God recognizes us as His children on the day of judgment (v 17). If we have truly become like our Father – people of love – then we have nothing to fear when we stand before Him (v 18).
4.19-21 Our Love is a Reflection of God’s Love
God’s love is pure love, not provoked because of some prior quality in its object prompted it (v 10). Our love for God will never be that pure, but our love for Him certainly will be, and ought to be, our response to His love for us (v 19). But here’s the thing: to love God is also to love what (or who) God loves. So the person who says “I love God” but hates the brother whom God loves really doesn’t love God after all. His claim to love God is empty and hollow, in fact it is a lie (v 20). No, loving God includes loving our brethren (v 21). This love for others identifies us as the children of God and the true followers of Jesus. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.35).