Perfect Love and the Christian’s Claim of Faith
No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (4:12–16)
In verse 12 John makes the simple point that if no one has seen God the Father at any time (cf. John 4:24; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), and Jesus is no longer visibly present to manifest Him, people will not see God’s love unless believers love one another. If they love one another, God will be on display, testifying that He abides in [them], and His love is perfected in [them] (cf. John 13:34–35; 1 John 3:24). The unseen God thus reveals Himself through the visible love of believers; the love that originated in God and was manifested in His Son is now demonstrated in His people.
In this section the apostle John also sets forth a key sequence of evidences to remind readers once again that they can know they are saved. Assurance begins with the work of the Holy Spirit (2:20, 27; Rom. 8:9, 14–16; 1 Cor. 6:19–20; Eph. 1:13–14). Bruce Milne summarizes it for believers this way:
The heart of Christian experience of the Holy Spirit lies in his bringing us into a living relationship to Jesus Christ so that we share in his redemption and all its blessings. All Christian experience can be focused in this one gift of God to us through his Spirit, our union with Christ. (Know the Truth [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1982], 182)
Therefore John assures his believing readers they can know that [they] abide in God and He in [them], because He has given [them] of His Spirit.
Having already focused on the Father and the Son within his discussion on perfect love, John now emphasizes the role of the Spirit. By noting the work of each member of the Trinity, the apostle underscores the Trinitarian origins of perfect love. Such love, which is accomplished through the work of each member of the Trinity and subsequently manifested in the lives of believers, finds its source in the triune God, who from eternity past enjoyed perfect fellowship as Father, Son, and Spirit. As those who abide in God, believers will reflect His love, because God abides in them and His Spirit is at work in their hearts.
Jesus compared the Holy Spirit to the wind (John 3:8) and said people can see only the Spirit’s effects; there are no visible, physical signs that guarantee that someone is filled with the Spirit. But the reality of their faith enables believers to know they have the indwelling Spirit, as John reminds his readers: We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. Belief in the gospel (the doctrinal test) provides evidence of the Spirit’s ministry and presence (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3). Because sinners are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1, 5), they cannot come to God on their own (cf. Matt. 12:35; John 1:12–13). Saving faith is possible only because God grants it (Eph. 2:8). In John’s case, his own experience of seeing and being with Jesus verified his faith (1 John 1:1–3). He bore witness that the Father has sent the Son to be Savior of the world, but he would not have believed had the Father not chosen him (John 6:44; 15:16, 19) and the Spirit opened his eyes to the truth.
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, knows that God abides in him, and he in God. The true believer has discerned the presence of the Holy Spirit, and has come to know and [has] believed the love which God has for us. Such persons understand the eternal love of God, who is love, for all believers. They can rest confidently in the assurance that the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. They will further demonstrate the genuineness of their salvation by loving the Father and the Son, loving righteousness and fellow believers rather than the world’s system, and even loving their enemies. In summary, they will increasingly love the way God loves (cf. Matt. 5:48; 22:37–40; 2 Cor. 3:18).
Love and Sound Doctrine (vv. 13–16)
In the last verse of the preceding section, John has concluded that if we love one another, two things may be said to follow: first, that God abides in us, and second, that God’s love is perfected in us. These two conclusions give the outline for the next two sections of this chapter. In the first section (vv. 13–16) God’s indwelling of the Christian is discussed in greater detail; in the second (vv. 17–21) the perfection of love is analyzed. That the indwelling of the Christian by God is the theme of the first section is evident from the threefold repetition of the idea: once in verse 13 (“we live in him and he in us”), once in verse 15 (“God lives in him and he in God”), and once in verse 16 (“whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him”).
It is not easy to give a simple outline to this section of the chapter, however, as it was, for instance, for verses 7–12 on the basis of the threefold repetition of the phrase “love one another.” Still, the major ideas are obvious. First, we know that we dwell in God and God in us because of the Spirit, whom he has given to us (v. 13). Then, second, we know that he has given us the Spirit because we have come to believe in Christ and love the brethren (vv. 14–16).
The Gift of God’s Spirit
John’s first point is that believers know that they dwell in God and God in them because of the Holy Spirit whom God has given to them. By this John emphasizes that God is always first in spiritual things and that apart from his gracious activity by the Holy Spirit to open blind eyes to perceive the truth and move rebellious wills to turn from sin to the Savior, no one would believe in Christ or love the brethren. In the next few verses John is going to talk of belief in Christ and love of the brethren, but we must not think, as some commentators have, that these are conditions by which we are enabled to dwell in God or remain in him. To believe in Christ and to love the brethren are not conditions by which we may dwell in God but rather are evidences of the fact that God has already taken possession of our lives to make this possible.
The Holy Spirit’s Gifts
This leads directly to John’s next point, for, having said that it is always God who is first in spiritual things, the question with which he next wants to deal is this: Is God thus at work spiritually in me? In answer to this question he therefore now argues that if God is at work, the evidences for it will be seen in a combination of love and sound doctrine. In other words, we may know that we have the Spirit because we have come to confess Christ and dwell in love.
The confession of Christ is mentioned first because it is at the point of confession that the Christian life may properly be said to begin. “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God” (vv. 14–15). Once again, as in numerous spots throughout the letter, John phrases his confession of Christ in words that would be especially challenging to those faced with the Gnostic heresies. He emphasizes that God the Father sent the eternal Son to be the Savior and that the historical Jesus is that eternal Son.
This should not obscure the fact that there are additional theological riches in the verses, however. For one thing, there is the doctrine of a lost world that needs a Savior. This “world,” as was pointed out in the earlier discussion of 2:15–17, means the world of men as it is in rebellion against God. A second doctrine is the full deity of Jesus Christ. A third is the focal point of his mission, which was to be the “Savior of the world.” It was for this that God “sent” him, says John. A fourth is the matter of God’s own motivation in the work of salvation, which is “the love God has for us” (v. 16).
The second evidence of the Spirit’s activity is love for God and one another, for John concludes by saying, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” In other words, the love to which Christians were exhorted in verses 7–12 is now said not only to be a most solemn duty but also to be a striking evidence of the Spirit’s activity.
Here certainly, in a combination of the ideas of the internal work of the Holy Spirit, belief in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, and the supreme point of Christian ethics which is a two-pronged love both for God and man, is a high point of the epistle. John is dealing with the subject of assurance (as he has been throughout) and has expressed it under several aspects. There is a subjective side, but it is without those unreliable, so-called spiritual experiences on which so many depend: tongues, miracles, feelings, and so forth. There is also an objective side, but this is not without those tender expressions of love that temper mere orthodoxy and validate it. Dodd writes of these verses:
This closely knit statement therefore places the reality of the Christian experience of God beyond question, guarding against the dangers of subjectivism on the one hand, and of mere traditionalism on the other; placing equal and co-ordinate stress on love to God, which is the heart of religion, and love to man, which is the foundation of morality, without allowing religion to sink to the level of mere moralism, or morality to be dissolved in mysticism. The passage is the high-water mark of the thought of the epistle.
16a The language here is subject to different translations with varying exegetical implications. The first difficulty relates to the meaning of the verbs ginōskō and pisteuō. The NIV’s “rely on” for pisteuō is strained, for John typically uses pisteuō (“I believe”) in the more literal sense of Christian faith. The translation “rely on” also implies that ginōskō (“I know”) refers in this context to a cognitive recognition of God’s love. It seems more likely that John is using ginōskō in an existential sense to describe the believer’s personal experience of God’s love and the confidence that arises from that experience. Further, the NIV translation does not reflect the fact that both verbs are in the perfect tense, indicating that a past action has had a continuing result in the present. The use of this tense suggests that John is thinking of the starting point of the believer’s present experience, the time when she first accepted “the love God has for us” (cf. Brown, 524). Since John has already specified that God’s love was revealed in the incarnation, pisteuō probably refers to the moment when the believer accepted John’s witness about Jesus, and ginōskō refers to the experience of God’s presence that followed that recognition. The first portion of v. 16 should therefore be translated, “And we have experienced and have accepted the love …”—where “love” refers to the coming of Jesus and all its benefits.
A second difficulty relates to the unusual phrase hēn echei ho theos en hēmin, “[the love] which God has in us.” The NIV’s “the love God has for us” is possible but would represent an obscure use of the dative case. The more typical meaning of the dative, however, still permits of two possibilities. Although hēmin (“us”) is plural, John may be using the term to refer to the sum total of individual believers, “God’s love in each of us.” If this is the case, John is focusing on “the personal experience of [God’s] love in our hearts created by the Spirit” (Marshall, 221). On the other hand, hēmin may have collective force here, referring either to the entire Christian community (“God’s love among us [= believers]”) or even possibly to the entire world (those to whom God sent the Son as Savior; v. 14). This reading can be supported by the context, for John has just been speaking of “God’s love” specifically as the incarnation, which occurred in the human sphere, “among us” (cf. Rensberger, 121). It seems, however, that the phrase “the love which God has in us” is an awkward restatement of v. 9’s “the love of God in us,” which referred to the presence of God’s Spirit in the believer and the effect the Spirit has on one’s behavior (see comment). The first reading discussed above, then, is probably correct. “Among us” seems to refer to the universal Christian experience of God’s love in each person, which results from believing the incarnation.
16b As the NIV suggests, the latter portion of v. 16 seems to introduce a new thought or paragraph. John repeats the creed “God is love” from v. 8 and reiterates the points he has made at vv. 7 and 12 to elaborate it. The verb menō (NIV, “lives”) appears three times in this sentence and carries two distinct meanings. In the first phrase, “the one who remains in love” (NIV, “whoever lives in love”) is the person who holds to the view that God’s love was revealed through the sending of the Son. Since John has already established that “love” in this context has explicit Christological implications, menō here relates primarily to doctrinal beliefs. In the second and third phrases, John uses menō to describe the unique relationship between God and true believers. Those who hold to the truth “remain in God” (NIV, “lives in God”) in the sense that they receive his approval while the world and the Antichrists are rejected, and they consequently enjoy the gift of God’s Spirit (“God remains in her”; cf. Jn 14:17). In this context, divine indwelling takes the form of love for the brothers and the inner witness of the orthodox creed.