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What pops into your mind when you think about “conversations” over doctrine? Chances are, “love” isn’t what comes immediately to mind. Shepherds love sheep by fighting wolves. Kings love citizens by fighting invaders. Husbands love their families by fighting the seduction of the workplace & the adulteress. Fences make the obligations of love clear.
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. 4 Ye are of God, little 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: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. 6 We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error. 7 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. 8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. 9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God 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 to be the propitiation for our sins….” (1 John 4:1-21).
Summary of the Text
John doubles down on why Christians have assurance of salvation: Jesus Christ is King & Conqueror. So, John gives a litmus test for whether a spirit is true or false: antichrist doesn’t confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, the Spirit does (vs.1-3). Though false teachers are intimidating & often convincing, those born of God walk with confidence, because Christ dwells in them & so they’ve overcome antichrist (v4, cf.3:8 & 5:4-5). False teachers speak what the world wants to hear, because they are of the world (v5); but those who know God discern the Spirit of truth by listening to the Apostles’ witness (v6), which is how to tell right from wrong, doctrinally.
Christians are to love each other; which can only be done by those who know God, for God is love (vs.7-8). God’s love––being preeminent––was manifested in sending His Son to be both our life (v9), & our propitiation (v10). This is the spur for Christian imitation of His love (v11).
God is Spirit, and unseen. But, Christians loving one another,(which we can see) reminds us that God isn’t just a “force,” He’s personal: by dwelling in us, & His love being perfected in us (v.12). Because the Spirit bears witness that the Father sent the Son to save the world, our love for each other becomes an assurance that we dwell in Him, and He in us (vs. 13-14).
Only those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God dwell in God and God in them (v15); this is how you know & believe that God loves you, by dwelling in the love He showed us in sending His Son (v16). Any fear of the judgement is waylaid because our union with God’s Son, means that God looks at us & sees Jesus (vs. 17-18, cf.2:28). But we must get the order right, God loved us first (v.19). Receiving God’s love––as manifested in Christ––logically leads to the commandment to love our brother who is right in front of us (vs. 20-21). The chapter begins with discerning between spirits (true or false), & ends with discerning between brothers (obedient or disobedient).
Doctrine & Love
A loving community & a commitment to faithful doctrine aren’t at odds. Notice John’s rehearsing the same themes, “Here’s the Gospel, now do it.” Here’s the doctrinal foundation, now go live out the relational implications. Here’s what you should believe, now believe it in action. Here’s the root, now bear the fruit. Here’s God in the flesh––Jesus Christ––your lone salvation, your Mediator, your Messiah, now imitate & declare that love.
John––like a New York taxi driver telling you about the Yankees’ latest win––jumps up & down on the importance of Christ’s incarnation. He weaves this doctrine into its real world relational cash-out. Believe a false gospel? Trust in a false savior? You will murder your brother. Only God in the Flesh can save us from our sins and restore our fellowship with each other. Only the Messiah can intercede for us before the Father and reconcile us with each other. Only Jesus can unite us with the Father and with each other.
False-christs can create a pseudo-community, but certainly not forever (and usually not for long). Disinterested gods stay up on Olympus. Earthly saviors can give us pseudo-community, but never eternal life. An impersonal First Cause might theoretically give us life, but never communion.
Giving What is Best
This is no “pass the peace pipe” kind of love. It’s a life-giving, sin-covering love. Both grace & mercy are on display here. This love has, as its foundation, God’s character & nature. It’s rooted in the love of the Trinity. The Spirit’s message is that Jesus coming to earth should make us see that the Father loves us (vs.13-14). In essence, God gave us Himself. His love, then, is the bedrock for our ethics.
So, how should a husband love his wife? A mother her children? A slave his master, or a master his slaves? A Jew a Gentile? Does it mean you give yourself? Yes & no. Love aims to give supreme happiness to the object of love. You & I are pretty lousy & will never bring complete joy to those we love. However, you are to give yourself––in Christ & by His Spirit––to those you are called to love. You give Him. After all, you don’t have anything better to give.
God in the Flesh is Love
We can know God, & know the love of God, by looking at one thing. Not by looking to our own inward experience (i.e. feelings). Not by looking to philosophical gymnastics to discover metaphysical realities (i.e. reason). Not by putting our love for God (i.e. good works) on the scales. We hear God’s love by how He spoke to us in the person of His Son (cf. Heb. 1:1-2). We see it in the flesh & blood of the man from Nazareth. We know it because this is what the Spirit teaches us. We experience it because His love in & through Christ has made us new, & we now love & are loved by our brethren in the same manner.
The message which John received & is declaring to Christians––so that their joy might overflow (1 Jn. 1:4)––is that the one true God is not the mere force of the Universe, but is a personal God. This God has spelled out His love for us––with big, neon letters––by sending His Son to become a man; suffering in the stead of Adam & his sons, that all who believe in Him might obtain forgiveness of sins & eternal life. This was the Gospel which all the Apostles proclaimed:
“Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, & gave him glory; that your faith & hope might be in God (1 Pt. 1:20-21).”
“[Our salvation] is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, & hath brought life & immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10).”