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).
“We love, because He first loved us.” If this were my book, and I was sending it off to an editor, I would fully expect this statement to be edited right out, because I would be accused of repeating myself unnecessarily. John the Apostle has a degree of editorial license, and we can also expect that every sentence and every word in this text is there for a very good reason.
It seems obvious that you cannot simply state an intended effect and expect it to be so without the necessary resources and causal factors. How many people want to become millionaires but have no business sense or work ethic? That won’t work! How many people want to become rock stars but never practice their music? That won’t work! If you don’t plant some seeds you aren’t going to get a garden. You can’t demand fruit without the tree. The love John is talking about here requires the right resources and causal factors. It is a fruit of a certain kind of tree – a one-way love tree.
Here John spells out the causal factors for love, in the clearest possible terms. It is notable that it does not say:
- We love, because He commanded us.
- We love, because we determined to obey.
- We love, because we have learned to make good choices.
- We love, because we are new creatures in Christ.
- We love, because the Holy Spirit fills our hearts.
- We love, because we have pure hearts.
- We love, because we practice missional sacrificial incarnational Christianity.
These are all wonderful things, they are desirable fruits, but they are not the initiating source of love. The notion that these good things are the reason that we love makes us the source, and thus makes us the responsible party to persist in a perfection of love. We love because He first loved us. God demonstrates His love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We were yet sinners! This word “because” is critical. We cannot make ourselves the resource, that is like yelling at a guitar to play music. The guitar may be an instrument of music, but it needs someone to play it.
There is another important thing to note. It says, “We love, because He first loved us.” We are not in an endless game of chasing a carrot on a stick, forever seeking to love but forever stuck in a place of sin and confession and thus unable to love. We are not empty hateful puppets that are pipes that God pours this alien love through as if we aren’t even there. It is a more rich reality than that. We love. We may be sinners and always in need of confession, but we really do love. When we give up on ourselves as the architect or designer of that love, it frees us to be able to say so, because the fact that we love is based on His initiative, not ours. It would actually be a lie and an offense to the power of God and His love to say that His love for us did not accomplish His purpose, which is that we love.
Notice that it says, “We love“, not “I love” or “you love”. Love doesn’t even make sense without the notion of relationship and community. For love to engage, there must not be isolation. It is not that I love. It doesn’t even make sense. Love is a two way thing. Love has affection and concern and compassion for another. In a sense what this is saying is, you were isolated and selfish and concerned with your own passions and guilt and success, but God has granted you community. The question always in love is this: I may be able to control my love, but can I expect the other person to also love me? I can barely if ever control my own heart, but I most certainly can’t control someone else’s heart. I must give up control to enter into this community of people who love one another. This is the effect of the love which God has for us: it releases all of us into a community of safe and even eternal affection. Jesus did not just die for the sake of the proof of His own personal obedience, He died for the sake of relationship (1 John 4:10). It is paramount that we believe the power of His blood not only for ourselves, but for each other. When we have been offended or hurt or slandered by another believer, we love them and remain in community with them by believing that their sin is worth dying for, and that they themselves are worth dying for. His blood releases us into true community.
This love is the Christian distinctive. Wrath is removed from our community, and love is released, in Christ. We do not become sinless, that is the great message from Romans 7:15-25. We become loved. Being loved, we love. We are no longer defined by our guilt and shame, we are defined by our great belovedness. That is what it is to be a Christian.