If God Is Love, Love Is Not Love

Blair Smith, Speaker

1 John 4:7-21 | August 6 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
August 6
If God Is Love, Love Is Not Love | 1 John 4:7-21
Blair Smith, Speaker

Please turn with me to 1 John chapter 4, verses 7 to 21. This summer we’ve been doing a morning and evening series through this wonderful letter of 1 John. We find ourselves today, both this morning and this evening, in chapter 4. Kevin preached from verses 1 to 6 and this evening we’ll be looking at 7 to 21.

Hear the Word of our Lord: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; 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. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His 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. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for 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. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he 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: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Please pray with me.

Our heavenly Father, as we’ve seen in this passage and in the one this morning, You have sent Your Spirit, Your Spirit who inspired these Scriptures and who lives within us and who draws us to You through the Son. We pray that Your Spirit would work with this passage this evening within us to grant us a greater understanding of who You are. God is love. The triune God, You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are love. You have demonstrated love to us, Father, by sending Your Son, and Spirit, You have shed abroad that love within our hearts, and we do pray that Your Spirit would work with this passage this evening to grant us a deeper understanding of that love, to receive that love, to share that love, and to display that love to a world in need of it. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

Love is love. You’ve seen that on t-shirts, you’ve seen that on bumper stickers, on people’s yard signs, “In this house, we believe science is real, love is love, kindness is everything,” and so on. And you’ve heard it endlessly from cultural and political leaders, even from the mouth of our president. Love is love.

Now there’s a subtext to such a statement, isn’t there? On its own, it’s what’s called a tautology, a repetition that on the face of it doesn’t mean anything. It’s akin to “our nation must come together and unite.” Or “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

The subtext, the subtext to “love is love,” of course, is the demands of expressive individualism. Whoever or whatever I or you love is okay, even good, because love on its own is an unquestioned good. Love is love. Love someone of the same sex, love a child, love an animal, love a car, love a couch, love a phone, love a weed whacker… It’s all love. And love is love. Don’t fuss. It’s love. Don’t worry about the broader implications if it’s love because love is love.

What’s interesting about this statement is it’s grammatical similarity to two statements in our passage this evening: God is love. Remove God and substitute love, and then love is love. When you put them side by side like that, it’s remarkable how religious a statement “love is love” is. It’s profoundly religious and it enthrones love.

But to enthrone love is to enthrone the self. The freedom to create ourselves according to our loves and our desires has become the highest and final authority in western culture today, hasn’t it? The Bible has a word for this. It’s actually found in the very last verse of this book, 1 John 5:21, where John says in his pastoral goodbye, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” “Love is love” is a form of idolatry, because it puts in highest position that which is reserved for God alone. Love is not love, God is love. God defines for us love.

In our passage this evening, we find John once again repeating himself. 1 John, as we’ve learned, is less a linear argument from point to point to some conclusion, it’s more a fatherly and pastoral letter that goes around hitting on different angles of the same themes. When a parent is speaking to a child, she often repeats herself to remind her children of some key truths. Pastors, right? We preachers. We’re guilty of repeating ourselves often, you might say, but hopefully, more or less, about God and the Gospel.

So here John is a fatherly pastor, entering again into this favorite of themes of love. But perhaps here in this passage with a greater depth.

Now I have four points for us this evening, it turns out, and I didn’t know this when I was putting my sermon together. Kevin handed out 5 C’s this morning. I have 4 D’s.

Here’s the first: Love defined. Then second, love delivered. Third, love distributed. And finally, love displayed. I think they work. We’ll see.

Love defined, love delivered, love distributed, and finally love displayed.

So two times in this passage, in verses 8 and 16, John says “God is love.” This is saying something about who God is, His unchanging character. To use the language of theology, this is an attribute, a divine attribute. One defined defined attribute in this way – the divine attributes are that we know to be true of God. He does not possess them as qualities, they are how God is as He reveals Himself to His creatures.

So love, for instance, is not something God has and which may grow or diminish or cease to be. His love is the way God is and when He loves, He is simply being Himself, and so with the other attributes.

You and I, we can love a friend, a spouse, a child, and that love can be incredibly strong by God’s grace. But it is something we have and we express to another. We know that it can ebb and flow. It can diminish or grow. God loves, yes, but more, God is love.

Now this isn’t the only place Scripture says God is something. Elsewhere it says God is spirit, God is light, and God is a consuming fire. Some preachers, some theologians who want to paint God in a certain way, say yes, God has many attributes, but He is love. So you don’t have to fuss over His potential wrath or reckon with His righteousness, since God is love, this is His true essence, His attribute par excellence. The one that trumps all others in the end. So the argument goes.

But love is not a singular attribute or activity of God. Nonetheless, it does shape how we understand all His attributes and activities. God is judge and will judge, but in His judging will always be loving. God is holy and His love is always a holy love.

When we talk about the love of God, we often start with the manifestation of that love in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Right? Our mind run to John 3:16, God so loved the world that He gave. And of course it’s not wrong to talk about God’s love that way, and we’ll see that in the next point this evening. But that love made manifest comes from somewhere. That love poured out comes from a love reservoir, as it were. Love delivered to the world in Christ is first defined, and God Himself defines it.

God’s love, therefore, this is going to sound wrong at first, God’s love therefore doesn’t start with the Gospel. The Gospel is sourced and flows out of a prior and eternal love that God is.

But how do we understand saying “God is love”? This passage provides us some clues at beginning to understand this. Of course, we never understand this in our finitude. But nonetheless, we have some clues here. When we speak of who God is, we know from Scripture He is one: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That’s the famous Shema, the confession of the Israelites, which we find in Deuteronomy 6. It’s a confession of monotheism, fundamental to Judaism, of course, but also to Christianity.

In the Old Testament you have hints and intimations, though, that there may be a little more going on. You have the “let us create” of Genesis 1. You have angelic visitations that might hint at something more than angelic. You have reference to the Spirit in messianic psalms and prophetic passages that taken together suggest that even though God is one, there is a plurality in that oneness.

Well, in God’s ongoing expanding revelation in the New Testament, it comes into focus that God is not only one, He is also three. The Father sent His eternal Son, He poured out His eternal Spirit through the Son. There are three divine persons manifest progressively in Scripture but existing forever as God in three persons, blessed trinity.

In just this passage as we reference it, we see in it trinitarian persons. In verse 14, it is the Father who has sent the Son. In verse 13, God has given to His people His Spirit.

So to understand God as love is to understand His trinitarian nature. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, the Spirit loves the Father and Son.

The great church father Augustin called the Spirit the bond of love and he thought there, yes, the Spirit binds us to God but the Spirit also functions in some way as the eternal bond of love in the trinity, the trinity though of one nature and will having forever loved one another.

Though we must understand that God is entirely different from us as God, and so the words that we use in reference to Him we use analogically, there is something of a personal relational dimension to their love, a certain mutuality. This is important because as we look further at this passage, this characterizes the kind of love we are to have for God and for one another, a love that’s first found in God.

Before we are to love one another, even before God loves us, God is love. Love in His very being. Love in His triune nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God, though, that as God defines love in Himself, He also delivers that love, and that’s our second point.

If you go to the beginning of this passage in verse 7, there’s a command there to love one another, yet as you can see that command is grounded in something. Beloved, let us love one another for, for love is from God. God is love, and then love is from God.

This is now speaking of the love we know. It comes from the love that God is and then out of that He gives into the world. Love is from God because God is love. Therefore, and this is very important as we want to have a robust, biblical understanding of love in a culture which talks about love all the time, love does not ultimately have a human source. Love is not love. The God who is love gives love. It’s sourced in Him, it’s defined by Him.

But how does He give it? God, of course, loves His world in all sorts of ways. But as this passage and so many others demonstrate, there’s a preeminent way that He loves us: “In this, the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. This is love not that we have loved God but that He loves us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins.”

So God reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ as a self-sacrificial love, a self-sacrificial love. This is echoed in the two John 3:16’s. There’s the famous John 3:16 and then there’s another John 3:16, which echoes it. The famous one, of course, is John 3:16 from the Gospel, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” But then there’s 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us.”

This love from God that is delivered to us, of course, stands opposite from this love of love, or love is love, culture that we have spoken about. The love of expressive individualism is defined by me and by you and is expressed insofar as it brings to you and to me satisfaction, personal fulfillment. But in contrast God, godly love, gives. Godly love sacrifices. Godly love does not first look to human desire as the arbiter of its authenticity. It looks to God, who He is and what He gives.

To further confirm that love is not primarily a human phenomenon, I want us to note that the love spoken of here begins as a unilateral love, meaning it comes from first one side. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us.

Verse 19: We love because He first loved us. He first loved us.

This is God’s sovereign initiative. Let us never puff ourselves up, thinking that we originate love. Love is God’s idea and God delivers that love to His people.

If you’re here this evening and you’ve not yet known or experienced the love of God, you might be wondering, where do you even begin? John makes clear, look to Jesus Christ, His only Son, the Father’s only Son, whom He has sent. He did not just come as mediator, He lived a perfect life in our place, and He died a death for our sins so that instead of God’s wrath being exercised against our unrighteousness, God’s love and forgiveness is received. Instead of having in heaven a judge with a case against us, He pardons us and we also have a Father who forgives us because of what His Son has done for us, and in His forgiveness He loves us and He treats us and loves us as His children.

But this is not where love ends. While it first comes from one side, it has as its goal both sides. Right? It has as its goal a covenant, a covenantal reciprocity, a mutuality. That is, God loves us and that love then elicits from us a loving response. We love because He first loved us, but we do love, we do love. Yes, He first loved us; yes, He is sovereign, but then we respond. What is the greatest commandment? Love the Lord your God, love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

So this passage and others in John’s Gospel describe this mutual love in striking ways. It is a love that is first seen in the trinity in God Himself. In John’s Gospel John uses “in” language, using that word “in,” “in” language to describe it.

John 14:11, for example – Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me.

Or you may remember from the high priestly prayer as we call it at the end of the upper room discourse in the Gospel of John chapter 17, the incarnate Son prays to the Father that we may be one just as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, and then He goes on remarkably to say, and He uses this “in” language, “that they also may be in Us.” So there’s this mutual indwelling among the persons of the trinity by nature, but then a prayer that that by grace might be extended to us, to those who are united to Christ, to those who believe in Him by the Spirit.

Here in 1 John 4 it speaks of the same unity and intimacy in terms of abiding. Let me just read some of these lines from the passage.

God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. If we love one another, God abides in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us because He has given us His Spirit. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him and He in God. Whoever abides in love, abides in God and God abides in him.

This is remarkable language.

The very unity and intimacy found in the shared love of the trinity is extended by God’s grace to His children. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually indwell one another for all of eternity in their very nature, but in God’s giving sacrificial love, He extends that to us because the Son has come and the Spirit unites us to the Son. We can know by grace what is in God by nature.

But how can this be? This is where John would bring our attention to the Spirit, to the Holy Spirit. Everything here flows from the Spirit. We heard this morning from Kevin it is by the Spirit that we come to acknowledge the incarnation of the Son, and it is by the Spirit we know that we live in God and that He lives in us. Working with the Word, working with passages such as this one from 1 John, the Spirit testifies within the Christian of our abiding in God and God abiding in us.

But you might ask how do we know, how do we know that He has given us His Spirit? That brings us to our third point – love distributed.

Love is first defined by God, because God is love. Love is then delivered by God, resulting in our salvation and our covenantal love for God. That’s the Spirit’s work within us. But where does that go, according to John? Love is delivered to us in the Son by the Spirit, but then it is to be distributed. Indeed, John would argue, it’s distribution is a test of its original delivery to us. The delivery of God to you and to me is tested by our distribution of that love.

So the practical thrust of this passage is this point, verse 7: Beloved, let us love one another. Verse 11: Beloved, if God so loved us, we must also love one another. Verse 21: And this commandment we have from Him, whoever loves God must also love his brother.

So God delivered love to us so we ought to distribute that love each to the other. Indeed, John’s argument here is that our distribution of love, one to the other, is the test of that original delivery. To put it differently, John would say, “Brothers and sisters, if you’re not loving one another, perhaps you should examine whether you don’t have the love of God in you.” In his words, he puts it this way: “Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” But then he makes the point clearer by stating its inverse: “If anyone says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he does not love his brother whom he has seen and cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

So loving one another in the covenantal family of God is simply not an option. Yes, this can be incredibly difficult. We are not always very loveable people. We still have sin within us and we still sin against one another. But we do have this mandate from heaven. The One that the Father sent from heaven, our Savior, His Son, said in John’s Gospel, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples if you have love one for the other.”

The manifestation of God’s love in Christ certainly assures us of God’s love for us, but it also lays upon us this obligation to love one another.

One author put it this way: “No one who has been to the cross and seen God’s immeasurable and unmerited love displayed there can go back to a life of selfishness.” Indeed, the implication seems to be that our love should resemble His love.

So what does that look like? Again, it’s not a love defined by us and our fleeting feelings. It’s God-defined, so we look to Him and who He is and what He has given. In that we learn Christian love is sacrificial and it stems from God’s self-sacrifice. Christian love is godly in that it imitates God’s own love, but it is more. In loving one another, we are not only obeying God, I would submit to you we’re also meeting a fundamental human need. Now that human need was created by God, our nature is given to us by God, but this is something the Church always has to offer to the world, but perhaps especially in our current milieu, where a variety of factors are conspiring from geographical transients to dominant digital forms of communication to philosophies and practices of expressive individualism. These are conspiring to create incredibly lonely and loveless people.

Now in considering this, it’s right to consider things from the divine side. That is, the divine Father has given His divine Son and yet in giving His Son for us, the Son assumed, as we learned this morning and learned throughout this letter, He assumed a fully human nature like ours. In His humanity, as we see especially in the gospels, Jesus Himself demonstrated His own need for love and companionship. Our Lord, yes, is God, but He’s the God-man who knew no sin, was not immune to the need of human relationships, where love is shared.

Mark 3:14 tells us that one of the reasons Jesus chose the 12 was simply to be with Him. When He went to Gethsemane, He took three of them with Him. In the hour of His agony, He needs the presence and love of His own kind. All He asks is that they be there. Are we, are you, ever ashamed of needing others and their Christian love? Are we tempted to feel ashamed of our feelings of loneliness? Do we, in fact, sometimes confuse ourselves and think that’s part of our sinful nature, that if we would just be strong enough, we’ll be all right on our own? Do we think we can find godly fulfillment by avoiding the loving relationships of the body of Christ?

Well, the perfect man, the perfect human, our Lord Jesus Christ needed human beings with Him and knew the exchange of human love. We see the man Christ with friends. We see how He loved children. We see Him weep over Jerusalem. We see His spontaneous affection for the rich young man. When we look to Christ, there’s no tolerance of a detached, non-relational, unloving Christianity. He knew one way to live, to open Himself to both acceptance and yes, rejection, of others in claiming to be the Son of God.

Here’s the hard part, and this is why so many of us are reluctant to love our brothers and sisters. We know that in order to love we might experience great pain.

Here is often the case. C.S. Lewis was quite insightful. He said, “Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrong and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements, lock it up safe in a casket or coffin of your selfishness, but in that casket, soft, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.”

Our Lord’s love made Him vulnerable to hurt. He was hurt at last, cruelly hurt. One of the 12 betrayed Him. His three friends forsook Him and fled. In the end, there was no one at the cross offering encouragement and understanding. He knew the full horror of human treachery and infidelity. He knew the lack of love by those closest to Him. And yet He loved us to the end. He loved us so much that all that hurt did not stop Him from enduring the rejection of everyone on the cross. He came to fill that infidelity, that treachery, with His own faithfulness and His own redeeming love.

If you feel loveless here tonight, if you struggle to love your brothers and sisters, look to Christ. If you’ve been on the receiving end of lovelessness, look to His perfect comforting love. Love can be incredibly challenging. I’m sure each of us here has stories of relational strain, disappointment, hurt, in the church. This could be due to, yes, our lack of love. It could also be due to the indifferent, unloving acts of others. But if we sin, let us repent. Let us seek forgiveness through the blood of the One who died for us, for our lack of love. If we’ve been sinned against, let us seek the comfort of divine love and not give up, pursuing Christian love within Christ’s body.

But this passage demands we don’t end there. While our love is faltering, our love is imperfect, we have a Savior who provides forgiveness out of His perfect love, but we also have the Spirit. To link this with the previous point, we know God has given us the Spirit because we confess that Jesus is the Son of God but also we live and we act as Christians in love. The Holy Spirit in His sanctifying work endeavors not to leave us in lovelessness. On the basis of our forgiveness in Christ, empowered by the strength of the Spirit, He leads us to distribute the love to us to one another, the love He has given us to one another.

But even that’s not an end, even that’s not an end. The end of the Christian life is not our love for one another, that’s not the end of the Christian life. Thanks be to God that’s the fruit of the Spirit’s work, but what the Spirit intends to do is not simply distribute God’s love, but to put it on display, to put God’s love on display. That’s our last point as we conclude this evening.

God’s love originates in Himself, is manifested in the Son, and shared among us, His people, but in that sharing there is a display, a display principally of what? Of divine love.

I think that’s what John is getting at here when he says that if we love one another, God abides in us and love is perfected in us. God’s love for us is perfected or made complete when it is reproduced in us or among us in the family of God. This is how we know love is the work of the Spirit. Spirit-fueled love in the Christian doesn’t put on display the Christian. Let me say that again: Spirit-fueled love in the Christian, or among Christians, doesn’t put on display our love.

Remember what Jesus says in John 13 – by your love for one another all people will know how loving you Christians are.

No, that’s not what it says. I think we sometimes get this confused. Right? What does he say in John 3:16 – by this they will know you are My disciples by your love for one another.

We don’t seek to love one another as a church so that we can be really proud and confident of our love. Certainly obeying this command casts out fear, grants us confidence before God as it confirms His love for us. But to focus on our love for each other as an end is to forget the source of our love, it’s to forget where the love that we have comes from.

What’s more, it forgets the goal of our love. The goal of our love is the display of God’s love. Again, Jesus, John 13, by this will all people know that you are My disciples if you love one another.

Our love for one another is not about us in the end, but about God continuing His work in us. We receive the love of God and abide in Him as He abides in us, and then through the Spirit’s strength, love one another. This puts on display God’s love in us. The unseen God who revealed Himself in the Son now reveals Himself in His people when they love one another.

God’s love is seen in our love because our love is His love, which has been imparted to us by the Holy Spirit.

What other love do we have to give one another than the love He has given us. If it is truly His love among us, may that love never end in us but redound to His glory as a display of His matchless, unending love.

Love defined, love delivered, love distributed, love displayed, because if it is truly His love among us, it will never end in us but it will again redound to His glory.

Let’s close with these slightly modified lines from the hymn we sang this morning, the first hymn from this morning’s service.

We come, O Christ, to You. It says we worship You, Lord Christ, our Savior and our King, to You are youth and strength adoringly we bring. So fill our hearts that all may view Your love in us and turn to you.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, as we do consider You defining love with the Son and with the Spirit, You delivering that love to us in the gift of Your Son Jesus Christ, and the application of the Son’s work by the Spirit, and as that same Spirit gives us the strength to love one another, we pray that You would give us that strength but also as You would give us that strength, we pray that others would see Your love in us. May our love for each other that comes by Your grace be a display of Your perfect matchless love. For in ourselves we have nothing, we have nothing to give, our love is not an end in and of itself, but it is a witness, it is a witness of Your great love. So as you have placed us among each other and You’ve placed us in a community, may, yes, we love one another, but may that be a display of Your beauty, the beauty of Your love. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.