1 John 4:7-21
11 Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us. 13 This is how we know we remain in him and he remains in us, because he has given us a measure of his Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world. 15 If any of us confess that Jesus is God’s Son, God remains in us and we remain in God. 16 We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. 17 This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love because God first loved us. 20 If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. 21 This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love” (v.18). Few things disable our growing to maturity in Christ more than fearing that God’s love is conditional – that we must perform in order to be accepted and loved.
Yet few things seem more ubiquitous in American Christianity than just this perception. Everything in the Bible screams “No” to this idea; yet many of us have so deeply internalized it that we suffer from a severe lack of intimacy with God. And it stands to reason: if we expect to be rejected for failure to perform adequately we can hardly grow close or even desire to grow close to such a God. The best we can hope for is to do well enough to stay off his divine radar!
This we can call a “contract” view of God. It begins with an “if.” If you do thus and so, I will accept you and love you as my child. Performance is rewarded, failure is punished (punitive). Variations of this view abound but all of them rest on this if-then dynamic.
In contrast, the Bible promotes a “covenantal” view. The reality is that God is a gracious divine parent. He claims us as his own even before we are! God is committed to being our God and seeking our good before we have done or not done anything that might please or displease him. With the Bible’s God acceptance and love are given as a gift – an irrevocable gift.
God has made us his children, daughters and sons, a family. God created us out nothing in love to share his love with us. God liberated his people from slavery in Egypt and formalized this new family with a covenant. In this covenant God makes it clear that this family is all his doing, out of love. But, as any parent, God wants his children to reflect his family characteristics (the so-called Ten Commandments). He tells them he loves them so much that he will not rest until they do reflect the family traits. He will not be an indulgent, live and let live parent who is happy for us to do whatever it is that makes us happy. Rather, God is an involved parent. He is interested and committed to them and to his gracious plans for them.
That means his love will sometimes be a “tough” love. God will discipline his children when we stray (Heb.12). The farther we stray or the more resistant we are to his discipline, the tougher God’s love will be. Discipline differs from punishment in that it originates from God’s love and acceptance. Its aim is restorative and therapeutic rather than retributive and vengeful. God takes no pleasure in disciplining his children (Lam.3:33). He disciplines us because we are children, not in order that we may become children. We need not fear our status as children. Even in rebellion against God we remain his children, children for who he never stops searching or ceases wooing to win back to his heart.
We can seek to draw close to God because our relationship with him is not contractural (performance - acceptance) but covenantal (acceptance – performance). We live as God desires not out of fear of punishment and rejection but out of gratitude for God’s undeserved gifts and favor. He has forgiven and cleansed us; equipped and empowered us to live as his children. He lives in and among us as his family. Thus we can live and love in hope and courage in the world. And that makes all the difference!
Because God loves us, we can, as God’s children, love by God loving others. That’s how God’s family works (vv.20-21). It’s also how the world knows and responds to God’s love – through our love they realize that they too are children God is calling to come home!