God has a strange sense of humor. Mind you, I can’t complain, because I have a strange sense of humor, too, but sometimes God’s is differently strange. This week was a good example of that, to find myself preparing this passage as we had two meetings with the Presbytery of Wabash Valley regarding our departure from the PC(USA); they didn’t use 1 John, but they did try to argue that it was a betrayal of Christian love for us to end our affiliation with them, and especially to do so in the way we did. It was another reminder of how easily the language of love can be used for the reality of manipulation.
That’s what happens if we define love in human terms; not only is that even true for Christians, I’d argue it’s especially true for Christians. If we affirm that God is love but don’t allow that truth to challenge and change our understanding of what love is, we end up by defining God in human terms—which is to say, we end up worshiping a god made in our own image; we end up worshiping an idol. We end up twisting Jesus, by one means or another, until we have a pretty picture of a Jesus who would never lead us anywhere we don’t want to go, or push us in any way we don’t want to be pushed. I don’t know if that’s what happened to the people against whom John is writing, I don’t know if that’s why they left the church—though I wonder; but I think it’s exactly what led astray the false teachers who are currently running the mainline Presbyterian church, and what has seduced them away from the true gospel to a lie.
This is why John has taken great pains to say two things. One, we know what love is by the example of Jesus, and especially his death on the cross for us; we learn what love is and what it looks like by looking to Jesus. This is essential, but it isn’t sufficient for identifying false teaching, because we can be deceived; thus John also says, two, that anyone who speaks by the Spirit of God is oriented completely toward Jesus Christ, and is primarily concerned that people put him first in their lives, love him above all others, and seek to please him in everything they do. The love of God never aims us at pleasing ourselves or fulfilling our own agenda, though that may happen along the way, nor at satisfying the desires and agendas of others, though that too may happen; rather, the love of God in us makes us concerned first and foremost with loving and serving him and doing what he wants us to do, whether it’s what anyone else wants us to do or not.
The place where we’re so prone to go wrong, the mistake that so often wrong-foots us, is our assumption that the love of God, because it is unequivocally for us, is therefore about us. Nothing could be further from the truth. The love of God is above all else about God. We talked about this last year when we talked about the Trinity and what it means to say that God is love—not that he is loving, but that he is love. The key to understanding this is the truth that God is three in one—a reality which we see at work in verses 13-16, as the Father sends the Son, who pointed us to the Father, and he sends the Spirit by whom we are able to acknowledge the Son, and by whom God lives in us.
When we begin honestly to understand God in that way—which is beyond us to grasp fully, but when we begin to think that way—we can start to understand what John is saying here. We can say that God is love because in his very nature, they exist in love between himselves. The love of God is the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for each other. We were created that we might be drawn into that circle to share it, but the circle doesn’t break because we enter it. Love is still fundamentally something which comes only from God and which is directed ultimately toward God; we share in his love, we are included, it has become for us as well, but it isn’t for us first. Which means that we don’t get to define it, or control it, or try to dictate terms to God, because his love doesn’t depend on us; if we reject him and reject his love, it grieves him, but it does not diminish him or his love in any way, only us.
Now, does this mean that God doesn’t love me best? Yeah, it does. Is that reason to feel bad? No, it isn’t. The love of God is infinite, and his love for each of us is infinite, and how much headway are we going to make comparing infinities anyway? If Jesus already loves us more than we will ever be able to comprehend, what does it matter to us that he loves the Father and the Spirit even more? Where exactly do we lose in that? What matters is that he created us to love us, he redeemed us because he loves us, and he is leading us home to live in his kingdom for eternity because he loves us—and that by his love, he is teaching us to love him and to love each other as he loves us.
This creates a cycle here, one which is implicit in this passage though John doesn’t spell it out. Why do we love? Because God first loved us. How do we know? Because he sent Jesus his Son to offer himself as a sacrifice on our behalf, that our sin might be taken away and replaced with his righteousness. How do we know this, and how do we know what his love looks like? Because he has given us his Holy Spirit, who shows us Jesus.
And how does the Holy Spirit show us Jesus? In his word, the Bible—and in his body, the church. In the only body Jesus currently has in the world—us—his people, filled by his Spirit with his love that we might be like him. We learn to know his love, and we learn to love, in part because the Spirit of God loves us through the people of God; by so doing, he makes us part of his people and fills us with his love so that we might love others and they might learn his love through us.
This is what God is doing with us, and what he is doing in us, and through us; more than that—God is love—this is who he is, this is his nature, and this is what it means that he lives in us. This is what it looks like for Jesus to be the Savior of the world, because this is what his salvation means. It isn’t merely that we have sinned, that we are incapable in ourselves of getting free of our sin or making it all right, and that we need Jesus to cleanse us and set us free from our sin; that’s all true and absolutely essential, but it doesn’t stop there. He sets us free from our sin into his love—and in so doing, he radically transforms us, from the root up.
We can see this in John’s statement that perfect love drives out fear. From the context, part of the point is that the love of God removes our fear of being sent to Hell when we die; but God’s salvation is much bigger than just that assurance, because it isn’t merely a transaction, it’s not just about giving us a “Get out of Hell free” card, it’s a transformation. Our confidence, our assurance of salvation, is rooted in the fact that the love of God is at work in us, changing us from the inside out, to such a point that John could say with a straight face that we are in the world now in the same way as Jesus was then. His Spirit is in us, his love is in us, he is at work in us, and while a lot of other things are also in us and get in the way, they are dying; they are passing away as we become by the power of the Holy Spirit the people we already are in Christ.
Thus we can see that God’s perfect love drives out any reason for us to be afraid of God, because God no longer stands in relation to us as the one who will punish us; which, by the way, shows the essential falsity of those who would seek to scare people into Heaven by terrifying them with Hell. God isn’t in this to punish us because he has given us his love, and his love is purifying us and setting us free from all that. We love him because he loves us, and instead of being judged and punished, we are renewed and remade as the people of his love.
And in so doing, God’s perfect love doesn’t only remove our fear of him, it removes our fear of the world, because the world no longer has the ability to punish us. We fear rejection—that people will punish us for not being who they want us to be. We fear failure—that society will punish us for not being good enough. We fear loss—that the world will punish us for caring, for hoping, for dreaming. We fear many things, because we look to the world to meet our needs and give our lives meaning and significance. The less we look to the world and the more we look to God, the more we depend on him to provide all our needs and the more we trust him to do so, the less we need the world and the less power it has to hurt us; and so our fear of the world leaves our hearts, driven out by the perfect love of God, which is ours in the power of the Holy Spirit, through the grace of Jesus Christ the Son of God, by the will of God the Father, who is now and forever to be praised.