Commentary on 1 John 4:7-21
Years ago I heard William Sloane Coffin preach on this text.
He summed up its claims in a classic Coffin aphorism: “The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is fear.”
In the first instance, this epistle’s claim, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), is about the relationship between believers and God who is creator and judge of the world. If God is exclusively understood as the God of power, or demand, or even justice, then we approach God with fear — both in this life and in the life to come.
But if understood first as the God of love, perfect love, then we approach God with confidence. God’s love is perfect and our love is perfected because we trust in God’s love. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Note the sentence carefully. It is not “we ought to love because he first loved us” as if God’s love were the ground for a new imperative. It is “we can love because he first loved us.” God’s love is the ground for a new possibility.
Human analogies are never entirely adequate but they are entirely unavoidable. Watch the growth of a child and notice that the child who can give love is the child who has received love. Love grows from love while from apathy grows only coldness, fear, and retreat.
Implicit in our passage, too, is the second claim. Perfect love casts out fear in human relationships and even imperfect love diminishes fear perceptibly.
A small child received a jack-in-the box for Christmas and, to the parents’ surprise, was not delighted by the puppet’s popping out but terrified. Not entirely daunted though, the child turned the handle once again until the puppet jumped out again. This time the child kissed the puppet he had feared.
The child was far from fearless. But by loving, he sought to put fear in its proper place.
Remember that for 1 John, the right understanding of Christian faith and practice lies in a right understanding of John’s Gospel, surely the central scripture for the community that heard this epistle read aloud.
Try thinking of 1 John 4:9b-10 as an explanatory gloss on John 3:16:
- John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
- 1 John 4:9b-10 – God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
1 John provides its own interpretation of the Gospel for this somewhat later community.
It suggests that “eternal life” is not only life in the world to come, but that it is life in the present, through faith in Jesus Christ. Here the epistle sounds very much like the Gospel.
But the epistle also takes on language more like that of Paul and the synoptic gospels than that of John’s Gospel. Jesus is sent, not just to reveal God but to be “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Both in this stress on Christ’s atoning death and in its stress on a coming day of judgment, 1 John sounds more like emerging Christian orthodoxy than it does like the somewhat idiosyncratic theology of the gospel.
If 1 John is written in part to dissuade Christians from believing a Christology that is almost docetic and a spirituality that is almost Gnostic, the epistle writer does so by claiming for this community a reading of John’s Gospel that is quite orthodox, both in its doctrine of the atonement and in its hope for last things.
Nonetheless, we continue to have in our passage two great themes of John’s first epistle which are further iterations and elaborations on the gospel.
There is the distinction between those who abide in God and those who do not, the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Again, the great word “abiding” provides the link between humans and God. Loving Christians “abide” in God and God “abides in them” (1 John 4:16).
And there is the strong claim that the love of God is always manifest in love of other Christians. “Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Again, as in John’s Gospel, this is expressed as the one true commandment.
1 John 4 is much loved by a certain strain of humanist: “If God is love why have two words for the same thing.” It is at least somewhat easier in a skeptical age to believe in love than to believe in God, they say.
But for the epistle, the affirmation is not a simple equation. God is love, but love is not God.
“Love” is an abstraction and a quality of God’s own self. “Love” is personification and God is person. Love is some thing. God does things, sends a Son, atones for the sins of the world, and gives commands.
What the author of 1 John is most worried about is that Christians will think faith is about abstractions like Truth and Love without attending to the crucified one who was and is both loving and true.