Perfect Love and the Christian’s Confidence in Judgment
By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. 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. We love, because He first loved us. 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. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. (4:17–21)
Confidence in the day of judgment is the experience of believers who not only know when they have an accurate grasp of the gospel and other biblical doctrines, but also when love is perfected within them (cf. 1 Cor. 13:10–13; Gal. 5:24–25; Eph. 5:15–21; Col. 3:12–17).
The day of judgment refers in the broadest sense to the final time of reckoning before God (cf. 2:28). John says believers can live their lives with confidence (literally, “boldness”) as they look to the day when Christ returns and they stand before God (1 Cor. 3:9–15; 2 Cor. 5:10; cf. James 1:12; Rev. 2:10). In 3:21 John used the same word (parrēsia) to refer to the confidence believers can have that God will grant their prayer requests. In the present verse the apostle declares that boldness and lack of fear should characterize believers (cf. Rom. 5:2; Heb. 6:19) whenever they think ahead to God’s time of judgment (cf. Titus 2:13).
Why can believers have such confidence? Because as He is, so also are we in this world. This stunning statement means the Father treats the saints the same way He does His Son Jesus Christ. God clothes believers with the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 3:21–22; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9), and grants the Son’s perfect love (Matt. 9:36; John 10:11, 14–16; 13:1; 14:21) and obedience (cf. John 4:34; 5:30; 18:37). Someday believers will stand before God’s throne as confidently as their Lord and Savior does. When they reach that final accounting, they will see the fulfillment of 1 John 3:2b, “We [believers] know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”
Those whose perfect (complete, mature) love demonstrates the reality of their salvation need have no fear of the return of Christ or God’s judgment, because perfect love casts out fear. That kind of love dispels fear because fear involves punishment, and believers perfected in love do not face final punishment (Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9; cf. Eph. 5:6). However, anyone who fears God’s judgment is not perfected in love. Someone who professes Christ but fears His return evidences that something is seriously amiss, because all true saints love His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8; cf. James 1:12).
The motive for those who have such confident assurance regarding the future is obvious: we [Christians] love, because He first loved us. It was God’s perfect and eternal love that first sovereignly drew believers to Him (4:10; John 15:9, 16, 19; Acts 13:48; Rom. 5:8; Eph. 1:4), thus enabling them to reflect His love to others.
The apostle repeats his warning (cf. 2:4, 9; 3:10, 17; 4:8) that anyone who claims to love God but does not love others is a deceiver: 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. It is absurd to claim to love the invisible God but at the same time not show love to His people. John counters that hypocritical notion with a closing command: this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. Brotherly love seeks nothing in return; instead it unconditionally forgives (cf. Matt. 18:21–22), bears others’ burdens (Gal. 6:2), and sacrifices to meet their needs (Acts 20:35; Phil. 2:3–4). Yet it is also a righteous love that tolerates neither false doctrine nor habitual sin (1 Tim. 5:20; cf. 2 Thess. 3:15).
God’s perfect love is a blessing for believers to know and a joy for them to manifest to others. Although it enhances and enriches the emotional love they have for other people, perfect love far transcends any kind of feeling the world might experience. It is a complete, mature love that reflects the essence of God and the work of Christ and flows through believers to anybody with a need (3:17; Matt. 25:34–40; 2 Cor. 8:1–7; 9:7–15; James 1:27; cf. Matt. 5:16; Acts 9:36; Titus 3:8), especially others in the family of God (Gal. 6:2, 10; cf. 1 Tim. 5:8; Heb. 6:9–10). This love, which has characterized the triune God from eternity past, is also the mark of His children (John 13:35). Because this love so clearly comes from Him, those who love like Him can be assured that He is their Father. As the hymn “I Am His, and He Is Mine” so aptly expresses:
Loved with everlasting love, Led by grace that love to know;
Gracious Spirit from above, Thou hast taught me it is so!
O, this full and perfect peace! O, this transport all divine!
In a love which cannot cease, I am His, and He is mine.
Love’s Perfection (vv. 17–21)
In verses 13–16 John has developed the first of two ideas introduced for the first time in verse 12, the indwelling of the Christian by God. Now he returns to the second of those two ideas, the perfection of love, and explains what he means practically. Earlier, when he had said, “If we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us,” the reader might well have been left with the question of how such a thing could be possible. God’s attributes are perfection; he is perfection. Consequently, we might wonder how God’s love could be perfected in us, or anywhere else for that matter. Now John explains his meaning, showing that his emphasis was not so much upon that love that God has in himself (which obviously is already perfect) but rather upon our love both for God and one another. This has its source in God and is brought to completion by him. “Made complete” here does not mean totally without flaw in a moral or any other sense. It means “whole” or “mature,” and it refers to that state of mind and activity in which the Christian is to find himself when the love of God within him, expressing itself in the believer’s own love, has accomplished that which God fully intends it to accomplish.
No doubt there are many aspects of love’s perfection, but from this greater number John singles out two. First, there is confidence in view of God’s coming judgment (vv. 17–18). Second, there is love of the brethren (vv. 19–21).
This is the third time in the letter that the word “confidence” (parrēsia) occurs, and it will occur once more. In two of the four instances it refers to confidence before God in reference to prayer (3:21; 5:14). In the other two instances, one of which is this text, it refers to confidence before God in view of Christ’s return and the execution of his righteous judgment against sin (2:28; 4:17).
The idea of God’s judgment is an unpopular one today, but it is not necessarily less popular than it was in John’s time. The problem is simply that men and women do not like the idea of having to account to God for their actions. So they tend to discount the idea, hoping that the day of judgment might just go away. But judgment is the only logical idea of the three ideas usually associated with the end times. In most systems of theology the end events focus around three things: the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the judgment. But neither the return of Christ nor the resurrection is logical. Jesus came once and was rejected. He was crucified. If he never came back, this would be logical; and no one, least of all ourselves, could blame him. Yet against logic he is returning. The resurrection is not logical either, for even the Bible declares of our bodies, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). Logically no one could expect more. But judgment? That is the most logical event the future holds for any man or woman.
Moreover, the day of judgment is as fixed in God’s eternal timetable as any other day in world history. This is the significance of the word “day.” Technically speaking, the day of judgment is not necessarily a twenty-four-hour period. At all events, it certainly includes a series of judgments upon the earth (Revelation 6–16), the beast and the false prophet (Rev. 19:20), the gentile nations (Joel 3:14; Matt. 25:31–46), Israel (Ezek. 20:33–44), and all individuals at the judgment of the great white throne (Rev. 20:11–15). The reason it is called a “day” is that it is fixed in God’s timetable and will surely come.
In view of this logical and unalterable day in which the thoughts and deeds of men and women are to be judged, an individual might well fear. But John says that in the case of Christians perfect love casts out terror. This does not mean that love for God is the ground of our acceptance before him. The only possible ground is the death of Christ for us and faith in him. It means rather that by love for God any unreasonable fears are quieted and we come to rest in the fact that the one who was for us in Christ will allow nothing to destroy the eternal relationship that the death of Christ established (Rom. 8:31–39).
It is possible to be a Christian and still be filled with fear in view of God’s judgment. Some branches of the Christian church even encourage such fear on the part of their adherents. But the fear is unnecessary, and mature love defeats it. Bengel, in one of his excellent Latin expressions, gives the proper course of progress in the Christian life: “neither love nor fear, fear without love, both fear and love, love without fear.” The sinner must begin by fearing the God against whom he has sinned; but, having believed in Christ who has atoned for sin, he may put away fear and grow in confidence before him.
Love of the Brethren
The second area in which love finds perfection is in reference to our love for the brethren; for it is there, according to John, that real love is to be seen and measured.
John begins this section by a broad statement: “We love because he first loved us.” But lest a person apply this to a love for God exclusive of a love for human beings, John immediately goes on to show that anyone who is attempting to separate the two is a liar, for love cannot be so differentiated. John’s reasoning at this point is interesting. He argues that it is easier to love men than God; therefore, if there is no love for men, love for God is absent also, regardless of what the person professing to love God may say verbally. How many Christians really believe that it is easier to love men than God? Possibly it is a very small number, for our natural inclination is to think that it is easier to love God simply because he is worthy of our love and that it is difficult to love men because they are not lovable or lovely. Yet this passage says exactly the opposite, implying, no doubt, that unless we are really loving our Christian brothers and sisters on the horizontal level, we are deluding ourselves in regard to what we consider to be our love for God on the vertical. Unless we can love men and women, we cannot love God. Unless we actually do love them, we do not love the one who created them and in whose image they were and are created.
We can put this in other terms. Earlier in this book we considered the difference between philia-love and agapē-love; philia-love is strong brotherly affection. It might be described as the highest love of which man in himself is capable. Agapē-love is divine love. It might be described as the love of which only God and those who are indwelt by God are capable. These verses are the equivalent of saying that a person cannot practice agapē-love unless he can first practice philia-love. Without the love of men, the love of God is impossible.
It is possible, moreover, that another conclusion may be drawn from this text. It is the conclusion that it is in learning to love men that we learn to love God. On the one hand, there are undoubtedly those who loudly profess to love God but who do not love their Christian brothers and sisters. John rightly calls such liars. But on the other hand, it is also possible that there are many who recognize that they do not really love God (at least not as much as they would like to) and who wonder how they might learn to love him better. “I cannot see him,” they might argue. “At times he seems so far away and so unreal. How can I learn to love him? How can I make progress in this that I know to be my privilege and Christian duty?” On the basis of these verses we are justified in arguing that John might well reply to such that a Christian learns to love God by loving those he can actually see. This does not replace the revelation of God’s love at the cross of Jesus Christ, of course. It is there that we learn what love is. Nevertheless, it does supplement it practically, for it is by practicing a real and self-sacrificing love for one another that we learn to love the one who sacrificed himself for us.
At the beginning of this chapter the question was asked, Which is the most important of John’s three tests: righteousness, love, or truth? We answered that love was the most important, but at this point we have several additional insights for knowing why.
The first reason is obviously that we need love most, particularly in the so-called evangelical churches. These have sound doctrine, at least to a point. There is a measure of righteousness. But often, sadly, there is very little love. Without it, however, there is no true demonstration of the life of Christ within or true worship of the Father. The second reason is that Jesus himself made love the first and second of the commandments. The first commandment is love for God (Deut. 6:4). The second is love for one another (Lev. 19:18). The two properly belong together. As Jesus said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40). The third reason is that it was the realization of this double love in us for both God and man that was the object of Christ’s coming. This is what John seems to speak about in the opening verses of the letter when he says, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1:3). That is, the coming of Christ is proclaimed so that those who hear of his incarnation and death might believe in him and thereby learn to love both God and one another.
The devil is the one who disrupts. The Lord Jesus Christ is the one who draws together. Moreover, in the drawing together into fellowship, love is the key factor. Little surprise then that we have this commandment from him: “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
21 The connection here between love for God and love for one’s brothers has led Dodd, 123–24, to conclude that John is referring “clearly to the tradition of the teaching of Jesus, as we have it in Mark 12:28–31” (cf. Barker, 347; Rensberger, 126–27). While this is an intriguing possibility, it should be noted that elsewhere in 1 John the “commandment” relating to love is John 13:34 (1 Jn 2:7–11; 3:23–24). Further, John 13:34 clearly demands that those who love God must also love their brothers—the point John has just stressed. In the context of the Antichrist conflict, the love command means that those who aspire to perfect love must (1) show love toward God by accepting John’s true witness about Jesus and (2) stay in good fellowship with other believers who make the same confession. The Antichrists have failed on both counts (see comments at 2:18–27) and therefore have reason to fear God’s judgment.
It is important to stress that the “love” which proves our relationship to God in 4:7–21 cannot refer merely to benevolent acts. From time to time, people of the world and the Antichrists act in a way that appears to be “loving,” but these acts alone cannot be taken as proof of God’s indwelling presence any more than a charismatic facade can prove that one is driven by God’s true Spirit (4:1–6). Real “love” proceeds from a belief in God’s ultimate act of love in sending the Son. Those who do not believe that the Son came through the human Jesus do not, in John’s view, have God dwelling within them, regardless of how they treat other people.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 170–172). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boice, J. M. (2004). The Epistles of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 119–122). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 485–486). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.