7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 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.
11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or 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. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
If there is one message that has been passed on to us from 1 John it is that “God is Love.” If this is true, then those who say they love God should “love one another.” The first is a confession of faith. The second is the expected result from making that confession. It is the way in which those who say they love God express that love for God. So, if we are to call ourselves children of God then we should be people known by our love for one another. That is the premise on which John bases his word of wisdom to a church that appears to be struggling. What was true of that congregation continues to be true down the centuries. Yes, even today the folks who populate our churches often struggle with connecting the dots. We say we love God, and we like to sing about being known for our love of one another, but if the polls to be believed, we’re not known for loving one another or anyone else for that matter. Instead, we are seen as a gathering of intolerant bigots. So, it appears we have a lot of work to do if we are to embody the message we find here in 1 John 4.
As for the confession of faith. Yes, I agree with John that God is love. This is a foundational theological principle, and as Augustine reminds us love isn’t God, God is love [On Christian Belief, p. 170]. This is a basic premise of
“open and relational theology.” There is much that goes into that belief system because questions quickly rise about divine power and why bad things happen, especially to good people. One answer to that, which comes out of various forms of open and relational power, is that God is not all-powerful. At least that is true if love is considered uncontrolling and uncoercive. If that is true then God acts through persuasion. Thomas Jay Oord has written quite a bit on that score and should be consulted (see his books The Uncontrolling Love of God and God Can’t). That is, however, not the concern of the moment. More importantly here is the connection between the confession that God is love, which John takes as a given, and the way we live our lives as children of God.
This would be the ethical application of the confession that begins by recognizing the true exemplar of God’s love, and that would be Jesus. John writes that “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 Jn 4:9-10). Note that we are to live through the Son, not just follow him but participate in his life. John also affirms the premise that God’s love for us is seen in the mission given to the Son, who was sent to be “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Again, John doesn’t define his terms. In fact, John doesn’t mention the cross, only that he was an atoning sacrifice. Or perhaps it’s better to suggest that the love of God is sacrificial in nature. It takes risks. As I wrote in my book on 1 John: God is willing to give up everything so that we might once again experience oneness with God and with one another” [The Letters of John, p. 71]. As Paul Tillich reminds us, love is more than emotion. If it is only emotion, then love is merely sentimental. When understood ontologically, Tillich writes that “love is the moving power of life.” In fact, “love is the drive toward the unity of the separated. Reunion presupposes separation of that which belongs essentially together” [Tillich, Love,Power, and Justice, pp. 24-25]. Could we think of John’s words about atonement here in terms of moving us in love toward “at-one-ment”?
So, let us love one another as an expression of our love for God, remembering that it is God who first loves us. In other words, the love we show one another has its origin in God. If love is foundational, because God is love, and those who abide in God abide in love, then we should act accordingly. After all, John says that we’re liars if we say that we love God and don’t love our neighbors. How can we say we love God, whom we cannot see if we don’t love our neighbors whom we can see? It’s a good question. The only possible answer is to agree to love our brothers and sisters as an expression of our love for God. That’s because love ultimately has its origins in God’s love for us. If this all true, then John also teaches us that those who love should not live in fear, because love casts out fear. The reason John connects love and an absence of fear is that fear is an obstruction to love. We can’t love others if we fear them. So, let
us abide in God so that we might not live in fear, but instead live lives that express love. As Tillich reminds us, love brings things together! When we do that, we can truly live the love of God.
Note: For more on 1 John, I suggest my book The Letters of John: A Participatory Guide (Energion Publications, 2019).
Picture attribution: Stratz, Wayne; Almon, Margaret; Halstead, Suzanne. Love, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58120 [retrieved April 24, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nutmegdesigns/6209236367