17 By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
19 We love, because He first loved us.
20 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one 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, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.
(1 John 4:17-21, NASB).
Finally, some practical balance?
1 John 4:20-21 is one of those texts which would be an easy candidate for someone to pull out of context as a proof that grace is not sufficient to empower our sanctification. Someone might try to make the case that John is trying to pull back and add some balance to the astonishing things he has been saying in the prior context. We might think, one might enjoy all this theological overly-spiritualized gobbledygook about perfect love that is not of ourselves, but in the end, if we say we love God but hate our brother, we are liars. He’s keeping it practical.
No one loves God, and we all hate
I think this perspective is all wrong. The gospel of Christ is all about grace on the ground. He has been making a very powerful case that love does not consist of our claim to love God, but consists of His love for us. He is not suddenly abandoning that idea here. He really is saying, if someone says “I love God” and hates his brother, he lies. There is no option to say ” I love God” and love your brother. No one can do that. Love does not dwell in my claim to love God. Everyone who claims to be the source and initiator of love for God, will end up hating their brother. If we judge ourselves as successful at the command, we must inevitably judge others for their lack of success. We dwell in a universe in which we are our own God and we call the relational shots, even with God. Claiming to love God in isolation from relationship with all of these other imperfect people who do not love God is not the way love is perfected in us. We will always think the way to perfection is to judge and to isolate from imperfection. It is the heart and soul of self-righteousness, and does not confer confidence in judgment or the release into the community of the powerfully forgiven.
The invisible God
John is shockingly practical and realistic in this verse. God is invisible, and you have not seen Him, you don’t even know where to start in loving Him. It is ridiculous to say that you love an invisible God while hating and judging and isolating away from all of these people whom God loves and for whom Christ died. You end up rejecting the purpose of His death and resurrection.
Isn’t hatred a bit extreme?
Isn’t the idea of hatred for our brother a little extreme? I think sometimes we imagine success at loving God because we may have some occasional minor irritations with our brothers and sisters, but we don’t actually hate them. It isn’t so black and white. It’s more like I am preoccupied and kind of lazy, so I neglect my brother. This is way different than hatred, right? I believe we think this way because we have become accustomed to squelching our hatred and sweeping our conscience’s true judgments of ourselves and others under the carpet just to get along in the wretched universe of moralism. We have to pretend that the incredible injustices of everyday life are not a big deal or we go insane. We imagine our pretense of non-hatred is spiritual maturity. We are preoccupied and lazy because we have selfishly isolated in order to avoid the paradox of having to love all of the unlovely people around us. We are each our own little monastery with our own inventive way of taking a vow of silence by pretending to speak with intimacy. We hate, quietly or loudly or perhaps even violently, but the small and large injustices of life demand hatred. If Christ’s propitiation does not dwell in the center of our relationships, then it is only right that hatred dwells there. Under the old covenant, I am an object of wrath to everyone else, and they are objects of wrath to me. We live in an ocean of hatred, we are taking a constant bath in some degree of horror at ourselves and each other. So, I would say that John is right, and after all, who am I to judge?
Unified Love – Vertical and Horizontal
Notice John unifies “vertical” love and “horizontal” love. He says, “in this is love, not that we love God, but that God loves us.” He is talking about a vertical relationship here, our love for God. Yet he goes on at length talking about horizontal relationships. It is all mixed up. When we have horizontal love, God is in it. The moralist wants to split these up. The moralist wants to take the two laws as separate: love God, love your neighbor. John bridges that gap with the gospel of Christ and Him crucified. God is love, and love operates in community. He is saying, if you separate these two, you cannot succeed at the one and fail at the other.
The old commandment to love presses upon us the obligation to love God and neighbor. Either we succeed at both or we fail at both. It is a unity under the old covenant as well as under the new covenant. The old covenant presses the obligation to do both upon you, and makes you the source of power for compliance. The new opens the door to the possibility to love, and empowers love through the grace and forgiveness and mercy which come to us through Christ’s blood. In Christ, we do not boast that we know and love God, we boast that we cannot know and love Him, but He knows and loves us. We do not trust in ourselves or our perfection, but in Him and His perfection. His perfection is that though we slay Him, He resurrects to love us still. His love abides, it persists. This is the love that He has for us, and it is the love that is at the heart of the love that we have for each other.