1 John 4

Truth and Love
1 John 4
1 John 4. In the third chapter we had the two leading characteristics of the family of God: righteousness and love of the brethren. In the fourth chapter we have a further development of the same truth, but practically applied. The child of God is exhorted to discern the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (vv.1-6), then to love one another in the family of God (vv.7-21). The truth comes first, then love follows. In this chapter we have perhaps the fullest treatise on the manifestation, operation, and results of divine love that we have anywhere in the Word of God. We will find in this chapter that there is no need, no challenge, no fear that the love of God has not or cannot overcome for the believer.

Discerning Truth and Error (4:1-6)

1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, if they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world. v.1 Prove the Spirits. One of the most subtle forms of evil is that which pretends to be of God. John refers to many “spirits” that are around us; beings that are the power behind those who preach and teach. He shows that doctrine is connected with a deeper spiritual influence or power, called a “spirit”. God is a spirit, but there are other spirits; the fallen angels of Satan, and Satan himself. When someone preaches or teaches with power, it is either the Spirit of God (Acts 2:4) or an evil spirit moving them to do so (2 Chron. 18:21). Even true believers can sometimes get swept up under the influence of a spirit that is not from God; “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of” (Luke 9:55). These evil spirits work their diabolical mischief in many ways, but often through the spread of evil teaching (1 Tim. 4:1). Sound doctrine and true ministry is according to the power of the Holy Spirit. But not every spirit is of God, and the spirits have worked through “many false prophets” that are gone into the world, spreading their false doctrine. The danger is to listen to everyone who preaches or teaches with power. Just because they have ability does not mean that they are doing God’s work. The Christian is warned not to believe them! The point here is not to pronounce whether a person is saved or lost, real or false. Rather, it is to discern by what spirit they teach or preach. 
Two Tests of Discerning the Spirits. John proceeds to give two tests by which we can prove the spirits, to know whether a person’s doctrine is a outflow of the Spirit of God or rather a false spirit. First, the test of orthodoxy as to the Person of Christ, and confession of Him in His Personal glory (vv.2-3). Second, the test of hearing and obedience to the doctrine of the apostles (vv.4-6). 
2 Hereby ye know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses Jesus Christ come in flesh is of God; 3 and every spirit which does not confess Jesus Christ come in flesh is not of God: and this is that power of the antichrist, of which ye have heard that it comes, and now it is already in the world. vv.2-3 Confessing the Person of Christ. Having shown that there are many spirits, and that not every manifestation of spiritual power is the movement of the Spirit of God, John goes on to give the first of three tests that help the Christian to prove the spirits. The first test is that of soundness as to the doctrine of the Person of Christ, and the confession of Him according to the truth. The Spirit of God always operates to glorify Christ, His purpose being to show unto us the things of Christ (John 16:14-15). Therefore, all doctrine may be proved by this one great test: does it glorify Christ? If someone speaking by a spirit refuses to confess “Jesus Christ come in flesh” it cannot be of God. That confession, of the Divine Person of Jesus Christ come in flesh, is fundamental to Christianity. However, the test is not only the acknowledgment of fact, but of the confession of a Person. Translations that read “confess that Jesus …” rather than “confess Jesus …” obscure the real meaning. Certainly, the facts are vital, and these facts are involved in the confession. First, it shows the eternal deity of the Son. He was the Son of God and took on humanity including a physical body. He had to first exist in order to then “come” in flesh. Second, the ordinary human couldn’t say they had come in flesh, because they are flesh. They did not exist before in any other state. Only of the Son could it be said that He “came in flesh”. It isn’t so much the fact that Jesus Christ came into this world that is emphasized here, but the mode of His coming; i.e. in flesh (John 1:14). God who is love manifested Himself in flesh, and it was the only way He could thus be fully manifested to man. There have been many attacks against this truth, such as the assertion that Christ was just an appearance of human flesh, or just a human body indwelt with the Spirit of God, or even some claimed the man seen here below was a substitute person used by God for a temporal purpose. All of these are false and destructive to the faith. To deny Jesus Christ come in flesh destroys the manifestation of God as love! However, some evil spirits do acknowledge that Jesus came in flesh, only they assert He came in sinful flesh. This is why the test of spirits is the confession of the Person, not just the acknowledgement of the facts. John identifies the denial of Jesus’ Personal glory with spirit of the Antichrist. As we had in ch.2, there are many antichrists. Here we find there is one Antichrist, who will come to power in the future (“ye have heard that it comes”, v.4) as the Revelation describes. But the spirit of Antichrist “is already in the world”, seen in the many antichrists that spread evil doctrine concerning the truth Christ. 
4 “Ye” are of God, children, and have overcome them, because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. 5 “They” are of the world; for this reason they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. 6 “We” are of God; he that knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. vv.4-6 Hearing the Apostles’ Word. In contrast with the false spirits, believers are “of God”. The believer therefore has overcome false spirits (characteristically), because he is in possession of a life that has overcome. The false spirits are at home in the world-system, because the world hates the Son of God. The wickedest spirit in the world is the Devil. But the One who dwells in the believer, the Son of God, has overcome the Devil. False teachers are “of the world” and they speak “as of the world” and “the world hears them”. There is a mutual compatibility between the world, which is opposed to the Person of Christ, and false teachers who speak in the power of false spirits, with hearts full of the world. Does a person’s ministry appeal to the world? Ministry that glorifies the first man is appealing to the world. It may take the form of legalism, by which man approaches God on the merits of his own works. It may take the form of license, by which man’s sinful appetites are excused and vindicated. Alternatively, it may present Christ as the model human, an example for all to aspire to naturally, without the need for life or propitiation. All of these false doctrines, along with others, disparage the Person and work of Christ, exalt the first man, and therefore appeal to the world, which “hears them”. As John could say “ye are of God” referring to the believers, so he could say “we are of God” referring to the apostles. If someone truly knows God, they will submit to what the apostles say, as well as own the Old Testament to be the Word of God. By contrast, the spirits who are not of God do not submit to the doctrine of the apostles. This becomes a test of the spirits: “From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error”. Does a person’s ministry agree with the Word of God?
Inspiration. This passage provide a valuable key to demonstrating that the apostles’ writings were inspired, every bit as much as Old Testament scriptures. Read more…

Love in the Family of God (4:7-21)

In the next section we have the subject of love, and more specifically the exhortation to love one another in the family of God. John deals with this in three sections:
  • In vv.7-10 we have the manifestation of divine love. It is the love of God “toward us”. Love is the essential characteristic of God’s nature, and has been manifested in the fact that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, and made Him the propitiation for our sins. There, love for one another is motivated by the very nature of God: that God is love.
  • In vv.11-16 we have the operation of divine love. It is the love of God “in us”. It is the enjoyment of God’s love, and the activity of it in us. God Himself is invisible, and we are the channels for His love to flow out through us to others. God abides in us, we in Him, and His love is perfected in us.
  • In vv.17-19 we have the perfection of divine love. It is the love of God “with us”. God’s love has placed us in a condition – even now in this world – that gives the believer boldness in view of future judgment.

The Love of God Manifested Toward Us: Past (4:7-10)

7 Beloved, let us love one another; because love is of God, and every one that loves has been begotten of God, and knows God. 8 He that loves not has not known God; for God is love. vv.7-8 Love and Its Source. As children of God we have a nature that loves. The exhortation is to “let” that that nature act according to itself. However, the ultimate source of love is God Himself; “love is of God”. Every one that truly loves is able to love (in the sense of divine love) because they are born of God, and know God, and partake of His nature. It is by new birth that the believer receives a life that has the capacity to love as God loves. By contrast, a person who does not love is an unbeliever; “has not known God”.  John speaks characteristically; not that a Christian who fails in love is by that act constituted an unbeliever. The very nature of God in brought into focus: that God is love. It isn’t that God can love, or that He choses to love, but rather that love is His essential nature. It is impossible for God not to love, because love is what He is! Therefore, if someone does not love, they prove that they do not know God, because love is God’s essential nature.
Love and Light. These two words describe God’s essential character in different aspects. God is said to be light (1 John 1:5) and He is said to be love (1 John 4:16). To "be" something is far deeper that to "do" something. For example, God loves (John 3:16, etc.) but the expression "God is love" has a much deeper thought. Believers are commanded to "walk as children of light" and we are also said to be "light in the Lord" (Eph. 5:8). Light is the state and character of the divine nature, which we share by new birth. But believers are never said to "be" love. This is because love is a motive, a sovereign source that cannot emanate from man. God is sovereign in His love (agápe). As creatures, we are not sovereign. Only God Himself can be love, can be that source. We are privileged to be channels through which that love flows out. Hence, we are exhorted to “walk in love” (Eph. 5:5) and “love one another” (1 John 4:12). If it weren't for the Source, we could never love others with that same settled disposition; "we love because he has first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Light, on the other hand, is a fixed state of purity, and it is characteristic of our new nature.1
9 Herein as to us has been manifested the love of God, that God has sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. 10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son a propitiation for our sins. vv.9-10 Love Manifested and Two Results. John next gives the manifestation of the love of God, which was in God’s sending His only begotten Son into the world, and the two results of that infinite gift. Love is measured by the greatness of what it gives as sacrifice for the benefit of its object. God held nothing back in His love to us. He sent the dearest object of His heart! The two results of His sending the Son for believers is that two deep spiritual needs were met. The first need is that we were dead. God sent His Son “that we might live through Him” (v.9). The second need is that we were guilty, and God sent His Son “to be a propitiation for our sins”. This is pure grace, and it rests on God’s love for us. The principle of law is that of man’s love for God, but grace is just the opposite. We should not look for the proof of God’s love in ourselves, because we will be sorely disappointed.

Love Operating Through and In Us: Present (4:11-16)

11 Beloved, if God has so loved us, we also ought to love one another. v.11 Love for One Another Motivated by God’s Love. Thus it is that we have the deepest motive for love to one another. When consider the greatness of God’s love for us, proved in the sending of the Son, the powerful conclusion is that we ought to reflect that same love to others. Apart from knowing God, man can love his fellow to a certain point, but that human love is limited in power and duration. The believer has a reservoir deep and wide from which to draw; the source is the heart of God. Is there some offense too great for the believer to forgive? Can the believer ever, reflecting on the immensity of God’s love, find a moral justification for refusing to love another?
12 No one has seen God at any time: if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us. v.12 God Abiding, His Love Perfected, In Us. John states that “no one has seen God at any time”. This is not the first time he wrote that. In his gospel, John uses the same expression to convey the stupendous result of the incarnation; “No one has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). Christ displayed God – whom no man can see – perfectly on this earth. It was in that practical display that God is really known; i.e. in the Son. Here John uses the same expression to show that the believe is called to practically manifest God by loving as God loves. By loving one another, the God whom man cannot see, is nevertheless seen in the believer. It is really the nature of God in us – eternal life possessed in the Son – that forms the bond of Divine affection between believers. Thus, the love of God flows out through us as channels, and is perfected in us!2
13 Hereby we know that we abide in him and he in us, that he has given to us of his Spirit. v.13 Communion and Enjoyment by the Spirit. The enjoyment of Divine love in the believer is really an aspect of communion, which is the essence of eternal life. It is not so much the gift of the Spirit as in the previous chapter, but that which we are given to enjoy by the Spirit; hence it says “of his Spirit”. The believer therefore has the consciousness that he abides in God and that God abides in him. If our abiding in God is the enjoyment of eternal life, then His abiding us is the manifestation of eternal life in our walk, although it is connected with His nearness to us. Both are true characteristically of every believer, but there is a element of practical enjoyment and display that is absent when we sin. We are so near to God that “we abide in him and he in us”, and the enjoyment of this is through the Holy Spirit, which God has given to us. This is an astonishing truth! When we think of how great God is, the fact that such nearness should be given to us is a matter for praise and thanksgiving!
14 And “we” have seen, and testify, that the Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world. v.14 The Believer’s Testimony. Those who enjoy the love of God have a testimony that they give toward the world. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matt. 12:34). The subject of that testimony is the manifestation of the love of God in the sending of His Son as the Savior of the world. It is a testimony that “we have seen” ourselves, as those who have believed, and know God as “Father”, and this personal knowledge gives us the energy to “testify” it to others. Notice that is involves the truth of the eternal Person of the Son. If the Father sent the Son, He had to be Son before He was sent! It could not be said that God gave the Son if it were true that He gave Him to BE the Son. It is perfectly clear that the Person of the Son existed in the unique relationship of Son prior to the incarnation. Another way to say it is; when Christ came into the world, He came as the Son, whom He always was. The relevance of this is seen in v.15, where one must “confess that Jesus is the Son of God”.
15 Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. v.15 The Believer’s Confession. Having spoken of the believer’s testimony, John now gives the believer’s confession; i.e. that which one confesses who receives the testimony. What is required for salvation is to confess the truth of the eternal Person of the Son; “that Jesus is the Son of God”. In fact, it is almost always the case in scripture that the faith of the soul is directed, not to the work of Christ, but to the Person of Christ.3 One who makes this confession has this blessing, that God dwells in him and he and God. This is the same blessing as we have in v.13 only there it is added “hereby we know”, because there it is the knowledge of that truth. Here we find that, whether the person has the knowledge of it or not, it is nevertheless true. Thus, every believer “whosoever” makes this confession, that Jesus is the Son of God, has God abiding in him by the Spirit, as the power of eternal life. The Spirit is pleased to dwell in those who confess the truth of the Person of Christ. As a consequence of this, the believer finds his dwelling place in God; i.e. his heart confides in God in communion with Him. God becomes everything to us, such that we abide in Him!6
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has torment, and he that fears has not been made perfect in love. v.18 Fear and Love. Perfect love is love according to God, who is love. He loves us perfectly, and therefore we have nothing to fear. This fear is not the fear or reverence of the Lord. Rather, it is the emotion that results from the expectation of harm or evil. God will never give us the spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7). If God were less than Divine, we would still have reason to fear. But it is God who loves us, and that love is perfect. What then have we to fear? “Fear has torment”, says the inspired apostle. Torment and love are incompatible. Therefore, “he that fears has not been made perfect” or fully matured “in love”. It isn’t that a believer who fears is not perfectly loved, but that he has not been made perfect in his apprehension of that love. The believer will face trials wherein there is opportunity for fear, but a consciousness of God’s love will drive that fear away. Nothing that He allows in our lives comes with a purpose of blessing. Further, in His love, the Lord is with us in the trial.
Righteous alone in Thee,
   Jesus, the Lord!
Thou wilt a refuge be,
   Jesus, our Lord!
Whom then have we to fear,
What trouble, grief, or care,
Since Thou art ever near,
    Jesus, our Lord!7
19 “We” love because “he” has first loved us. v.19 A Responsive Love. As those who have been the recipients of divine love, we have the capacity to love with the same divine love. Our love is a responsive love. God is the source, we love God and others too, because He first loved us. Our love is not derived from any merit in others, or even in our own human power, but rather from God. This is what allows the believer to love with divine love! The following verses show that the scope of “we love” is broader than love for God.

Reality of Love to God Tested; Its Proof and Counterproof (4:20-21)

20 If any one say, I love God, and hate his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? v.20 Reality of Love to God Tested. Many claim to love God, but that claim is tested by something very practical, and in some cases it can be proven false. Our brethren are the children of God, and if we love God we will therefore love His children – all of them (ch.5, v.1). If we only love some of our brethren, and hate others, we betray the fact that we love the ones we love because they appeal to us, rather than because we love God, and possess a nature that loves as He loves.8 Love for God whom we cannot see is easily and cheaply professed. But the reality of that love is proved, and often with difficulty, by our love for our brother whom we can see.
21 And this commandment have we from him, That he that loves God love also his brother. v.21 The Commandment to Love. We love our brethren (1) because we have a nature that loves as God loves, and (2) because we know their value to God who loves them as children. Now we get a third reason: we have the commandment from God to love our brethren. The addition of the commandment does not make loving our brother a thing of duty; see John 14:31, “But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence.” Though it was John who wrote the epistle, the commandment was “from him”. Consider Who gave the apostles (and us by extension) the commandment.
  1. J. N. Darby. Love and Light. Notes and Comments, Volume 4, Page 233
  2. No one has ever seen God: if we love one another, God dwells in us. His presence, Himself dwelling in us, rises in the excellency of His nature above all the barriers of circumstances and attaches us to those who are His. It is God in the power of His nature which is the source of thought and feeling, and diffuses itself among them in whom it is. One can understand this. How is it that I love strangers from another land, persons of different habits whom I have never known, more intimately than members of my own family after the flesh? How is it that I have thoughts in common, objects infinitely loved in common, affections powerfully engaged, a stronger bond with persons whom I have never seen, than with the otherwise dear companions of my childhood? It is because there is in them and in me a source of thoughts and affections which is not human. God is in it. God dwells in us. What happiness! What a bond! – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.
  3. For some of the numerous examples of faith in the Person, see Matt. 18:6; John 1:12; 6:29; 9:35; 12:36; 14:1; 16:9; 17:20; Acts 3:16; 16:31; 19:4; 26:18; Rom. 4:5; 4:24; 10:14; Gal 3:26; Eph 1:15; Col 1:4; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 6:1 1 Pet. 1:21; 1 John 3:23; 5:13. For the two exceptions, see Rom. 3:25 where it is “faith in his blood” and Rom. 10:9 where it is believing in the resurrection; “that God hath raised Him from the dead”.
  4. Be this as it may, if I confess Jesus the Son of God as Him on whom my soul rests, and on His rich redemption, the Holy Spirit says, “I can dwell there.” He does dwell there; and if so, He is graciously pleased to draw out the heart to confide and repose in God. This is what is meant by dwelling in God. It is to find in God one’s hiding-place, as well as spring of counsel and cheer and strength. One turns to Him in each trial and difficulty as well as joy. I am pretty sure there is not one of us who uses this privilege as he ought. Nor does John speak of degree at all. Such a thought is foreign to the abstract style of the apostle John. He treats of a great fact for the Christian, though it may be more or less realized, and “God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” This is what faith receives and has. The beginning is God making His abode in us; the result is that we dwell in God. But sometimes he puts it in the order of our dwelling in God and God in us. It would seem that he then speaks of experience, where he puts our part first, and then God’s abode in us. – Kelly, W. Lectures Introductory to the Bible.[\efn_note]4The passage thus first presents the fact of God’s dwelling in us, then the effect (as He is infinite), our dwelling in Him, and then the realization of the first truth in conscious reality of life. – J.N. Darby, 1 John 4.[\efn_note]
16 And “we” have known and have believed the love which God has to us. God is love, and he that abides in love abides in God, and God in him. v.16 Abiding in Love. The one who has known God’s love, believes it, and abides in the enjoyment of that love, therefore abides in God, and God in him, because “God is love”. Here the Apostle John is connecting the nearness of God to the believer and our communion with Him, with the fact that God’s very nature is love. To know God and to have communion with Him is to know His love and abide in the enjoyment of that love. You cannot separate God from love, because He is love!

The Love of God Perfected With Us: In View of the Future (4:17-19)

17 Herein has love been perfected with us that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, that even as “he” is, “we” also are in this world. v.17 The Boldness of Perfect Love. John now speaks of how the love of God gives us boldness. It is not that God’s love has been shown or manifested, in sending the Son to give us life and make propitiation for our sins (vv.7-10). Nor is it how His love works in and through us as we love one another, and enjoy nearness to God (vv.11-16). Rather, it is that state of soul and mind that God’s love gives us in view of the future. When God’s love is perfected with us, we have boldness concerning the day of judgment. We know that when we stand before God, there is not a shadow of a possibility of our coming under His judgment. We know that through His love, we stand before God even as Christ stands before Him. It is not that we will have a perfect standing in that day, but that God already looks at us as Christ is now “in this world”! God looks upon us with all the favor and acceptance of his own beloved Son (Eph. 1:6).5Christ must condemn Himself in the day of judgment, if he condemns me, because as He is, so am I in this world. I am glorified before I get there. He changes this vile body and makes it like to His glorious body. When I am before the judgment-seat, I am in this changed and glorified body: I am like my Judge. – J.N. Darby, Notes on 1 John 4:7-21.
  • J.G. Deck. Jesus! That Name Is Love. Little Flock Hymnbook #109.
  • We cannot love a person without taking an interest in his children. But suppose the case of a father having three sons; I love two of them, this does not testify that I love their father, for if I did, I should love the three sons. These principles which act as counter-proofs are very useful; we often need their test. – Darby, J.N. Notes on the First Epistle of John.