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.
14. And we have seen. He now explains the other part of the knowledge of God, which we have referred to, that he communicates himself to us in his Son, and offers himself to be enjoyed in him. It hence follows, that he is by faith received by us. For the design of the Apostle is to shew, that God is so united to us by faith and love, that he really dwells in us and renders himself in a manner visible by the effect of his power, who otherwise could not be seen by us.
When the Apostle says, We have seen and do testify, he refers to himself and others. And by seeing, he does not mean any sort of seeing, but what belongs to faith, by which they recognised the glory of God in Christ, according to what follows, that he was sent to be the Saviour of the world; and this knowledge flows from the illumination of the Spirit.
14 John has just asserted that “no one has seen God”; now he emphasizes what he himself has “seen” and “witnessed.” The plural forms of “see” and “witness” probably refer to the total group of people who had physical contact with Jesus, of which John claims to be a member (most scholars believe that “we” here refers to the general “witness” of the community rather than the group of living witnesses to Jesus [so Dodd, 115; Marshall, 220; Brown, 522–23, 557–58; Culpepper, 90–91]; see comment at 1:3). What John has seen has led him to the conclusion summarized by the creedal statement here, which closely parallels John 3:17: “the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” Marshall, 220, notes that the term “Savior” is a logical extension of “atoning sacrifice” at v. 10, for “it is through being the [sacrifice] that Jesus can be the [Savior].” While no one has ever seen God, John has seen the Son in the form of Jesus. Refusal to accept this witness leaves one with no means of salvation, for Jesus is also the Savior.
4:14 / Another reason to be confident is the historical fact that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. It is as if the Elder were saying, “Remember the incarnation! Remember John 3:16!” The verbs seen and testify are meant to ground the community’s assurance in the historical tradition of the Johannine community and of its eyewitness, the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 21:24). Our faith is based on an actual event, personally experienced (“heard,” seen, “looked at,” “touched,” “appeared to us”; 1 John 1:1–3), not on wishful thinking or on projected hopes. When the writer says, we … testify, he is standing with his mentor, the beloved disciple, and with the other elders and apostles, who witnessed “the Christ event.”
What they claim to have seen and the burden of their testimony is that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Two elements are present here: (a) the relationship between Jesus and his “Abba,” and (b) the Son’s mission of universal salvation. That Jesus was uniquely conscious of his special relationship of Sonship with the Father is witnessed to by the Synoptic Gospels (e.g., Matt. 11:27) and throughout the Gospel of John (e.g., 5:17–23; 6:43–46; 8:28–29, 42, 54–55; 10:29–38; 11:41–42; and most of chaps. 14 and 17). The disciples of Jesus saw, remembered this, and told others about it, so that it came to be recorded in the Gospel tradition. The Son’s message was the coming of the kingdom of God, entered into by allegiance to Jesus (Synoptics), or eternal life through believing in Jesus (John). In either case, in whatever language, the Son came to be the Savior of the world (cf. John 3:16–17). The Elder had already said that he was the “atoning sacrifice” “for the sins of the world” (2:2) and that the Son was sent “into the world that we might live through him” (4:9). The Son is the world’s Savior, in that he is the means by which its sins are forgiven, and he gives it eternal life.
We have the apostolic testimony (verse 14)
Linked to the witness of the Holy Spirit is the witness of the apostles. The one empowered the other, yet both were needed. The Lord Jesus himself taught his disciples this, bringing both strands of testimony together. ‘When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me; but you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning’ (Jn. 15:26–27). The we in this verse clearly refers to the apostolic company, as it did at the start of the letter. It was their unique privilege and responsibility to witness to what they saw and heard. Indeed, it is widely accepted that to have seen and been commissioned by the risen Lord was the ultimate test of New Testament apostleship. Others might be specially ‘sent ones’ (apostoloi), commissioned to specific tasks in the Christian community, as missionaries for example, but the original eleven with the addition of Matthias (Acts 1:26), James the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:19) and Paul stand in a class apart. Interestingly, when Paul is defending his own authenticity as a true apostle of Christ he adduces as evidence the fact that he has ‘seen Jesus our Lord’ (1 Cor. 9:1). Our assurance therefore finds root in their testimony. We have not seen the Lord Jesus, but they did. They saw the eternal Word made flesh, in time and space in Jesus. As Peter confirms, ‘We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty’ (2 Pet. 1:16).
Note again how John compresses so much of what we have already learned into one short sentence. Resolutely he hammers the nails into the coffin of gnosticism, again and again. The pre-existent Son was sent by the Father into the world. He came to be its Saviour by his real human death on the cross. These are the facts of the matter. The witness of the Spirit and the apostolic testimony belong together, for there can be no separation between the Spirit and the Word. The one who wrote the Word, inspiring its human authors, uses his specially designed tool to bring us to life and to build us up in the faith. The vindication of the reality of the Spirit’s work in our lives is seen in commitment to the revelation of God, in the Scriptures.
4:14–16. John’s readers probably never saw Jesus in the flesh. False teachers, however, claimed to have made heavenly journeys during which they saw God in heaven. This is impossible. God cannot be seen. How do you deny the claims of these teachers and still say, we have seen? How, if your readers have never seen Jesus, can they testify that God sent his Son to be our Savior? First, John and his fellow apostles saw Jesus in the flesh, but the majority of those who saw Jesus did not join in the testimony. They cried for his crucifixion.
Second, such testimony is based on more than eyewitness. It comes through eyes of faith. Only after the resurrection did this testimony become real for the apostles. They testified to the church. Then the church accepted and repeated their testimony. We do the same.
Third, you do not have to see the earthly Jesus to testify about what God has done through him. You need only hear and believe in the testimony to him from Scripture and from faithful followers. Such testimony is both verbal testimony and God’s love exercised through our lives. The impact God has made in other Christians—this is what we have seen. Based on the manifestation of Jesus in the lives of Christians, those who have witnessed it can testify that the Father sent Jesus to be the Savior of the world. That is, God sent Jesus to the cross to pay for our sins so we do not have to suffer the wages sin pays, namely, death.
Testimony about Jesus tells more than what Jesus did—save from sin. It also tells who he is—the Son of God. Again, all this goes against false teachers. They apparently claimed Jesus could not be human, thus could not die on the cross. On the other hand, Scripture claims that anyone who acknowledges this Savior they have seen is a true Christian, living in union with God.
This section concludes by repeating an affirmation made earlier—that God is love and that the person who lives in love lives in God, and God in him. This is the test of true Christianity in the letters of John. We must recognize the basic character of God, rooted in love. We must experience that love in our own relationship with God. Others must experience this God kind of love in their relationships with us. That’s why God sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins.
13. We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.
- The New International Version has “we know.” But the Greek actually says, “By this we know.” The words by this refer to the preceding context where John tells us that if we love one another, God lives in us. John’s discussion of the subject love, therefore, is the backdrop for the confidence John expresses in God. What is this confidence? John says, “We know that we live in him and he in us.” That is, from experiencing the presence of God in our lives we know that God lives in us and we in God.
- How do we know that we dwell in God and he in us? “Because he has given us of his Spirit.” Even though John uses many of the same words he wrote in 3:24, he makes a slightly different point. There he says, “We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” Here in verse 13 he writes, “He has given us of his Spirit.” In 3:24 he states that divine blessings flow to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit pours out God’s love to us (Rom. 5:5) and reveals that God is living within us. But in verse 13, we read that the Holy Spirit himself is God’s gift to us and we are the recipients.
- The Spirit does not work alone. With the Father and the Son he takes part in the work of salvation. In verses 13 and 14, therefore, John mentions the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Trinity.
- Together with the other apostles John is able to testify to the truth of the gospel. He writes, “We have seen and testify” (compare John 1:14, 15). Perhaps he is thinking of the scene of Jesus’ baptism. At the Jordan, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove and the Father declared: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17; Luke 3:22). The disciples were eyewitnesses not only of the baptism of Jesus, but also of his entire life. They saw, heard, and with their hands touched Jesus (1:1). After the ascension, they proclaimed the truthfulness of Jesus’ message.
- John gives a brief summary of the gospel: “The Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” This is a most profound statement! God the Father commissioned his Son to assume the task of saving the world. And God initiated this mission of the Son because of his love for this sinful world.
Jesus proclaimed the message of salvation most effectively. When he visited Sychar, the Samaritans said, “We know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). In the early church, the apostles preached that Jesus is Savior. They said, “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (Acts 5:31; also see 13:23).
The early church called attention to Jesus, who was appointed as Savior and given authority as Lord to save not only the Jews but also the Gentiles. The work of salvation, then, is worldwide in scope (John 3:16).
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