Defining Love – 1 John 4:10

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.
10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
12 No one has beheld God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.
(1 John 4:7-13, NASB).

Defining Love

It’s a bit of a writer’s game to try to define love; there are a zillion definitions out there. Here are a few attempts from famous writers:

“What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is.” Anais Nin

“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will. … there are no age limits for love.” – Stendhal

“Love is kind of like when you see a fog in the morning, when you wake up before the sun comes out. It’s just a little while, and then it burns away… Love is a fog that burns with the first daylight of reality.” Charles Bukowski

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.” Shakespeare

“Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.” Ambrose Bierce

“Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.” Katherine Hepburn

“Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused.” Paulo Coelho

“Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time.” Haruki Murakami

I think there is probably a world of insight in looking at how great writers try to define the idea of love; I’m not setting these in contrast to this Bible passage as if they are all wrong. I think that all of them, even the silly Ambrose Bierce quote, touch on an important biblical truth. The word “love” in some fashion occurs 15 times in these 6 verses, so I think we would be justified in saying that this is John’s attempt at writing a definition of love. In verse 10 he spells it out: “In this is love…”. If you want a definition of love, this is the verse.

I have written extensively on this verse in the past, as I think it is central to 1 John and in fact to the whole of scripture. It is the key to unlock the nature of the gospel and the bridge between grace and practice. Even though I’ve written on this so much before, I always think there is still foundational and critical truth to be found here.

Vertical and Horizontal Love

Notice that in the context, there is no distinction between love for God, or love for people. There is no horizontal and vertical distinction in this verse. He simply says, “In this is love.” A huge amount of teaching in evangelical circles is devoted to the division between “vertical” relationship and “horizontal” relationship. The general notion is that “vertical” love is a kind of status based on receiving grace while “horizontal” love is a behavioral choice that we can practically show to others in various relational roles. In other words, “vertical” love = justification while “horizontal” love = sanctification. I think it is very important to observe that this passage, in which John is defining the source and nature of love itself, blurs these divisions.

On the whole in 1 John, there is no distinction between motherly love, romantic love, or brotherly love. I think it is more true to say that all of our love relationships are defined by the grace that comes to us through Christ’s blood, regardless of the roles played. Agape love trumps and indeed gives context to all the other kinds of love. A huge part of evangelical teachings bear on the responsibilities that love demands as we play out these various roles. As Paul says (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:14,15), we are destroying divisions, not creating them. These roles have been completely rehashed under the universe of grace and gift. We are all qualified by the blood of Jesus, and we all submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). Our roles flow from this common unity in Christ; we do not define ourselves by our roles but by Christ.

You are skeptical! Let’s carefully observe the text and the context. Is it not fascinating that in the context of 1 John 4:10, he is talking about horizontal relationships if he is talking about anything? He is saying, love one another (horizontal). He is saying, if you don’t love one another(horizontal), you don’t know God(vertical). But then he says, without any transition or bridge, that love (horizontal) is found in this: that God loves us (woops! one-way vertical!) and not that we love God (forget about two-way vertical!). He is saying that our love for each other is completely defined by God’s love for us. John purposely blurs these lines of horizontal and vertical love. He is talking about horizontal relationships with other people and he uses the same word in the same context to say that this horizontal love is found in the vertical one-way love which God has for us.

Love’s True Source

7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves;
(2 Corinthians 4:7, NASB).

We are leaking clay vessels filled with the treasure of another that is not of ourselves. If we are vessels, and the treasure or power is of God and not of ourselves, it means that we are not the responsible party to produce love. We have given up. We no longer have to trust ourselves to produce love on demand; we have a limitless and endless love that is not of ourselves. Love is not in us. Love is in God. I am not love, I was not designed to be the source and fountain of love. I am off the hook. I can just come out and admit that I am a selfish monster, I don’t know how to stop it no matter how hard I try. In contrast to the brutish message we generally receive in evangelical circles, that love is a choice or that love is a command or duty we can obey (thus implying that we are the source of love), John says that love is not in us. Let’s review this again:

10 In this is love,

not that we loved God,

but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
(1 John 4:10, NASB).

Could this be any clearer or more simple? Seriously, could it? What else could it mean? What is he really talking about? I’m sorry but if you interpret other passages in 1 John or even in the whole scripture in a way that is out of line with this passage, this passage stands in your way. It is NOT that we love God – it is that God loved us. This is shocking and clear. It’s not subtle.

Slicing Up Love

“In this is love.” Why do we find this difficult to grasp? I think it is because it raises the wrong question for us. We ask – does this mean love for God, or love for people? Let’s clarify the question; what we are really asking is this: “Does this verse refer to the love I have for God, or the love I have for people?” The answer is no, it doesn’t refer to either one of these; this question betrays a life under law. Instead, he says, that love, vertical and horizontal, is in God loving us. God is the source and resting place of love. We try to slice up love by person or role, but John slices up love by its source.

So, we might say that the old covenant way of love slices up love as a command and defines it as something we can choose and which we perform in different relational roles. The new covenant way of love defines it as either coming from ourselves or coming from God, and champions the love which doesn’t come from ourselves but comes from God.

Love by Example vs. Love by Manifestation

Let’s put this another way. We are tempted to think, Jesus loved us sacrificially, and we ought to take His example and love people in a similar way. But it doesn’t say that we ought to endeavor to love them similarly. It says the love of God is manifested in us. We are not asked to love people in a way that is similar to the way that God loves them; we are asked to love them with the actual love of God, to manifest His present love for them. God’s love is not an example, it is a presence.

This is not what you would think, some wild supernatural manifestation. That also is not really what he is saying here. He is saying that, in community (horizontal), we look at each other as having been died for by Christ (vertical). The love which God has for us is not just any kind of love, it is the love which specifically involves the sending of the Son as a propitiation for our sins.

Our relationships either have rules and expectations and judgment at the center, or they have Christ and Him crucified at the center. If Christ and Him crucified is at the center of our community, we see each other as the one pearl which God wanted. We see each others’ sins as terribly and decisively judged already, and yet we see each other as powerfully and eternally accepted. Mere belief achieves what the commandment demands but cannot deliver. Belief in Christ for both you and me actually is horizontal love. It means I see you with Christ’s perspective, I operate from my giftings on your behalf according to God’s abundant acceptance for you. I don’t have to pretend your sin is OK, and that I’m not hurt and offended by you. I believe that a terrible price was paid for your sins at the cross, already, and that your acceptance and forgiveness has been achieved at a very great cost. That means that without reservation, I am free to seek your blessing, and that having already been so blessed with abundant love, I do not need to suck meaning and favor and acceptance and a sense of worth out of you. You can be flawed and sinful and I can still bless you. Since I am not God, and I am not the controlling source of blessing and acceptance to you, I can bless with the limited gift and time and insight that I actually have, without feeling guilty that I didn’t fulfill the expectations of your standards and judgment. Guilt and judgment are the main barriers to practical love, and when these are removed, love flows freely. We are the community, not of those who are supposed to love each other but do not, but of those who are already powerfully loved by God and so freely love.

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