The Nature of Love
In the first epistle of John I believe we have the most comprehensive and simple expression in all of scripture of love conquering sin and what this means for the Christian. The image is beautiful and John paints it over and over and argues it from every angle. He exhausts us with his passion for the conquering love of God. The 1st Epistle of John was written to “those who believe in the name of the Son of God” (5:13). John’s desire was that “those who believe” would “have confidence for the day of judgement,” (4:17) and “know that [they] have eternal life.” (5:13)
In brief overview, John makes 18 references in the epistle to the noun form ‘agápē (love), n.’[ref]2:5, 15; 3:1, 16, 17; 4:7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 16, 16, 17, 18, 18, 18; 5:3[/ref], and 27 references to the verb or acting form ‘agapaō (to love), v.’[ref]2:10, 15, 15; 3:10, 11, 14, 14, 18, 23; 4:7, 8, 10, 10, 11, 11, 12, 19, 19, 20, 20, 20, 21, 21, 21; 5:1, 1, 2, 2 [/ref] The first time he mentions love (agápē) is in 2:5: “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” The whole passage is of interest to us:
¹My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. ²He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. ³And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. ⁴Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, ⁵but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: ⁶whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
In building his case John draws the great contrast between love and sin. Like opposing foes he lines them in array against one another. He actually states his purpose for writing the book that way in 2:1 “I am writing these things … so that you may not sin.” John says he is writing; “that you may not sin”, Sin is opposed to the perfection of love.
John writes unequivocally and authoritatively; he leaves no room for misunderstanding about what sin is. He says in 3:4 “sin is lawlessness.” Sin can be said to be the secondary theme of John’s epistle. Lawlessness is the villain of our story if you will. The english word lawlessness captures the meaning fairly well. It implies the practice of sin “to be lawless”, i.e. have no law. But the greek word John uses for lawlessness is anomia, and it is best translated as ‘set against law’. The greek word for law is nomos, and anomia is the antithesis of nomos. Anomia refers not only to having ‘no law’, but includes having an attitude of spite, rejection, enmity, sedition or rebellion against law, i.e. against nomos.
John insists that those who believe should not sin and he emphasizes this assertion in 3:8, 10 where he says “whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil”, and “by this it is evident who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God.” So two camps have been identified, the children of the devil are those who practice lawlessness, and the children of God are those who practice righteousness in love.
So what is this connection between love and law? Why does John harp on it and why are we as Christians so often confused by it? John connects righteousness with love in the book repeatedly, both by logical inference and by example. The primary example he turns to is Christ when in 2:1, 2 he says “...if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2He is the propitiation for our sins”. John describes Christ as ‘the righteous’ and Christ is truly the epitome of righteousness as opposed to lawlessness. Jesus Christ the righteous is the propitiation for our sins, for our lawlessness. How does this make him loving?
Christ, having lived a perfect life of unwavering obedience to the law of God, and the will of his Father was the perfect substitute for our punishment. He took our sin upon himself in order to free us from sin. John points to this act of redemption by ‘Jesus Christ the righteous’ as the ultimate demonstration of love; “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (3:16), again John says “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world,” (4:9) and just to make the point abundantly clear, he says again, “In this is love, that he … sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10).
So we have the love and righteousness of Christ at the forefront. Two other factors regarding love are also evident. Twice, John states emphatically that “God is love” (4:8, 16). God himself is love, not only was his act of sending Christ to be our propitiation the greatest demonstration of love, but God himself is love. Love is an attribute of God’s own perfect character, and one that John makes absolutely sure we understand resides in Christ as well “In this the love of God was made manifest among us” (4:9). The manifestation of love that God gave us was Christ himself. John has presented us with Jesus Christ...the direct manifestation of God’s love, and Jesus Christ the righteous who demonstrates the ultimate expression of love by obeying the will of the Father in laying down his life for us. Love and righteousness find their unity in the person of Jesus Christ.
John follows up this beautiful statement regarding propitiation saying “by this we know that we have come to know him”. John is saying that by the advocacy of Jesus Christ the righteous, we can know God! What does this mean? Why does John suddenly throw knowledge in? It quickly becomes apparent that the matter of our salvation hangs on this concept of love. So what does it mean to know God? The short answer is that it means to be a Christian, to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, since “whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (2:23). But John is not content with a single definition. He references knowledge 33 times in this epistle.
In the words of John; to know God, is to be of God, to be born of God (3:9, 5:18, 19), to know the truth (2:21) or be of the truth (3:19), and to abide in the light (2:9, 10). To know him is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord (2:22, 23; 3:23; 4:14, 15; 5:1, 5, 10, 13, 20), be anointed by the Holy One (2:20, 26; 3:24; 4:13), have our sins forgiven (1:7, 9; 2:2, 12), be regarded as children of God (3:1, 2, 10), and have fellowship with him (1:3, 6). To know God is to overcome the evil one (2:13, 14), stand contra mundum ‘against the world’ (2:15), cast out fear (4:18), love one another (4:7, 8, 12, 16, 19, 20, 21; 5:1), and keep his commandments (2:3; 3:24).
The final definition for knowing God is in 2:3 “by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” In other words, the soundness of our knowledge is evidenced if it constrains us to keep God’s commandments.[ref]Matthew Henry on 1 John 2:3[/ref] To keep means simply to practice or obey. For whenever Scripture speaks of the righteousness of the faithful, it does not exclude the remission of sins, but on the contrary, begins with it.[ref]John Calvin on 1 John 2:3[/ref] We are to keep the commandments of God, and by keeping them we have assurance that we know God.
Now, this keeping begins with the assumption that we are in Christ, that we are a new creation indwelt by the Holy Spirit. John says: “[We] know that we abide in him and him in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (4:13) and likewise “we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us” (3:24). John is emphatic: No obedience to God comes from the strength of man. Man in his fallen state, is a child of the devil and practices lawlessness. Man who has been redeemed, is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and thus practices righteousness in love.
John states his message negatively to escape confusion. “whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (2:4). There is no room in John’s economy for love to forsake the keeping of God’s commandments. To profess to know God and practice unrighteousness is to bear witness to folly and falsehood. John calls the one who does this a liar. And points out that “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” Here again is the unity of love and righteousness.
So what do we do with all of this argumentation about love and righteousness? Our instructions come in 2:6 where John says “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (2:6). What is this manner? Every time that John speaks of loving the brothers or one another, he uses the verb agapaō, to love. According to John, the love of the Christian is a love that practices deeds and truth (3:17, 18), keeps God's word, i.e. his commandments (2:3-7, 17, 29; 5:2, 3), abides in the light and in him (2:10; 4:16, 17), lays down a life for another (3:16), gives to those in need (3:17, 18), overcomes the world (5:4, 5), casts out fear (4:18), and stands contra mundum ‘against the world’ (2:15). Furthermore, the love of a Christian does not sin, i.e. practice lawlessness, nor does love murder, hate, close the heart to those in need, or love only by talk and speech (hypocrisy) (2:9; 3:4-10, 11, 17, 18; 4:20).
Love therefore, is perfected by abiding in God through his spirit (4:16, 17) … and abiding in God is evidenced by the keeping of the law, … which is practiced by loving God and loving our brother, … this is done through obeying God’s commandments and practicing righteousness … you get the idea. John actually uses a circular argument for why we love and how we know, and he can because his reference point for understanding love is God himself.
Many Christians will say: "love is not an emotion, it is an action", or "love is a verb". I understand what they are trying to do in highlighting the Christian's responsibility to act, but to reduce love to a simple act of obedience is to promote a live contrary to faith, in effect it promotes humanism. The Christian love starts with the presupposition that God is love, and it presupposes Christ's work in every act of obedience.
By the end of the epistle, it is hard to tell where righteousness leaves off and love begins. In John’s economy, love and keeping God’s word are inseparable. Over and over he declares and pictures the most perfect marriage of love and law. John’s perspective, consistent with the whole of scripture, is that love is synonymous with righteousness. Both covenants viewed the law as a grace from the hand of God. The only difference is that in the old covenant one could not fulfill the law or love God or our neighbor truly, while in the new covenant, we are enabled to keep the law through the work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Love and obedience, love and law, love and liberty, they are all inseparable parts of the knowledge of God and the evidence of his saving work in the life of a redeemed man. Love is defined solely by the law. There is no other law or standard or ethic or legitimate definition for love apart from our perfect God and his perfect law and his perfect love. Any other love or form of love is counterfeit. It is not loving to be lawless. It is sinful to be unloving.
The love of the apostle John is a love that requires constancy, it is a love that acts consistently with its profession. It is not a love of compromise or stagnation. It is a love of vitality, one that professes to be true, and then acts in accordance with that truth because the Spirit enables us. This love is perfected in us, so that we keep his word. This love is perfected in us so that we persevere to the end. This love is perfected in us so that there is no fear of judgement (4:17, 18), for we “have passed out of death into life” (3:14). Our eternal life has already begun in Christ, we have participated in the first resurrection by our justification. This is the victory of faith that overcomes the world! Christ has given us his law in his word, so that we may rightly love God and man. Jesus says in Matt 22:37-40:
³⁷“...You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ³⁸This is the great and first commandment. ³⁹And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ⁴⁰On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
John echoes the words of our Lord in 5:1-4:
¹Everyone 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. ²By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. ³For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. ⁴For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.
God’s commandments are the guide and rule for loving God, and loving the children of God. God’s redemption of man establishes the Christian with the means to overcome the world victoriously by his faith. In the words of the Prophet Habakkuk “the righteous shall live by his faithfulness” (Hab 2:4), and Moses declares “man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Dt. 8:3). This is what John is establishing when he says “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (4:9, 10).
This all comes home when John declares that God’s commandments are not burdensome. To the fallen man, the law is the penalty and indictment of death, but to the redeemed man who has been anointed by the Holy One has been taught all things (2:27). Just as the Psalmist declares:
He who teaches man knowledge— the LORD… Blessed is the man … whom you teach out of your law —Psalm 94:11, 12
This is amazing!!! The commandments of God are not a burden for the Christian, but a blessing and further, the rule of fellowship with one another! John glories in this...“we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1:4). The completion of joy and fellowship with one another and fellowship with the father are rooted and grounded in John’s love that acts in righteousness.
John has drawn the great battle lines between the children of God vs. the children of the devil, those who love vs. those who hate, those who practice righteousness vs. those who practice unrighteousness, those who keep him word and commandments vs. those who practice lawlessness. Yet in all of these contrasts, John does not give us a picture of love in conflict with sin as though they are equally opposing forces, instead he gives us a picture of love having conquered sin! “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (2:8).
1 John 5:19 is often quoted, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one”, as though this is the final statement regarding the issue of sin in the world. But John’s whole epistle does not give us that impression. Instead he presents Christ to us as the victor over sin on earth. In the very next verse (5:20) he says “we know that the Son of God has come and has given understanding”, and why did Christ come? “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (3:8), and Christ can accomplish this “for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (4:4), and “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (5:4, 5).
John’s has laid out the intent and purpose for understanding love. We can see that God himself is love, that Christ is the direct manifestation of love, that Christ demonstrated love toward us in that he became the propitiation for our sins, that Christ overcomes the world and destroys the work of the devil. We are called children of God and abide in him and he in us so that we love God and the children of God, through the power of the Spirit, by keeping his word and commandments, and having the love of God perfected in us so that we overcome the world by faith and have confidence for the day of judgement. To know God is to know love truly, and thereby live out love after the image of his Son Jesus Christ. On this love hangs all the law and the prophets.