Bible Commentaries
1 John 4

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Verses 1-21

But there must be guards as to the operation of the Spirit of God, that is, the child of God must be guarded against all that would imitate the operation of the Spirit. Satan is extremely cunning, and his agents are abroad everywhere. We must remember that all that professes to be spiritual necessarily has a spirit behind it. “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” The trying of the spirits therefore is testing the teachings of men by the pure Word of God. The Spirit of God can teach nothing contrary to the Word of God, and fundamental falsehood is the deliberate attack of Satanic wickedness, “the spirit of antichrist.” How urgent then is our own responsibility of learning the Word of God, to be preserved from the deceptions of evil spirits! If even while the apostle was still living, “many false prophets” had “gone out into the world,” their number today is increased beyond measure, comparative to the number of the prophets of Baal and of the groves in the days of Elijah, in contrast to the number of true men of God (1 Kings 18:19; 1 Kings 18:22). But these New Testament false prophets are of course those who assume a profession of Christianity which is hypocrisy, rather than the true knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ come in flesh is of God, and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus Christ come in flesh is not of God; and this is that spirit of antichrist whereof ye heard that it is coming, and now already is it in the world” (Numerical Bible). A man’s doctrine reveals what spirit is energizing him. Verse 2 does not imply merely the saying of a formula, but rather the real confession of the Lord Jesus as being manifest in flesh. This must be evident in the very essence of the man’s teaching. Nor is this merely a confession of His manhood, although the term “in flesh” of course insists upon His humanity. But it could not be said of any other that he came in flesh; for this involves a previous existence. In what form did He exist? Scripture answers, “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6). Therefore, the two truths are absolutely imperative in this confession, His eternal Godhead, and His perfect manhood assumed in being born of the virgin. This clear confession of the Person of the Lord Jesus is evidence of the real operation of the Spirit of God. Blessed guard against all imitations!

But where there may be a fair profession of Christianity, these two vital truths may be actually lacking. A man may speak against them, or he may cunningly avoid them, while speaking even flatteringly of Jesus as a wonderful example. But this is not of God: it is the spirit of antichrist, and no believer should be deceived by it. They had been warned beforehand that this would come, and of course when the coming antichrist is revealed he will deceive thousands; but the same spirit that will energize him is already doing deadly work in the world.

“They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.” God and the world are thus completely contrasted. Those who succumb to diabolic deception do so because “they are of the world,” a satanic system over which Satan is both the “god” and the “prince” (2 Corinthians 4:4; John 14:30). Desire for present gain, present glory, the tinsel and color of exaggerated pride and popularity, -all mere passing illusions, are those motives by which the evil one attaches his victims to a world that chooses to ban God from its affairs. Men of this character will of course gain the ear of the world: theirs is the language and conduct the world approves. We cannot be surprised if they have a large hearing.

“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.” John here speaks most positively of the absolute authority of the ministry of the apostles. They were of God: He had commissioned them, and their word abides with the same vital authority today. There can be no middle ground, no compromising position of any kind. If the apostles’ word is minimized or modified by man’s bland deceit, this is actual refusal of God’s voice. If one knows God, he hears the apostles: he does not attempt to explain away their words. If one will not receive their word, it is because he “is not of God.” Every profession of spiritual knowledge must be tested by this means. The believer is expected thereby to know what is “the spirit of truth,” and what is “the spirit of error.” To this end we must of course be acquainted with the Word of God, to know what the apostles teach.

In these first six verses, it will be discerned that the subject connects with light, while verse 7 introduces the subject of love. If the light necessarily excludes those who are in darkness, the love of God on the other hand embraces all the true children of God.

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.” This love is pure, unfeigned, unselfish, divine; not sentimentalism, not mere natural affection, but the active warm energy of the nature of God. The children of God are to exercise it toward one another, for it is the very essence of the nature that is communicated to them by new birth. If this love is present, it is a proof of being born of God: therefore the love itself is a far higher thing than all those things that might pass for love among men; for every man loves something in some kind of a way, but the apostle will not count this as love at all, unless it is that in which the very nature of God is active. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” If this love is absent, then the knowledge of God is absent, for love is His very nature: “God is love.” Blessed resting place for the renewed soul!

Nothing is left here to mere human. deduction, and no room allowed for man’s false conceptions of this precious subject, for it is guarded from every angle. 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.” In the incarnation of the Lord Jesus this love is manifested toward us. The Father has sent Him into a world utterly contrary to His nature, in which sorrow and suffering could be the only result for Him. This is unselfish, real concern for the welfare of others. Moreover, it is His only-begotten Son He has thus sent, the unique Object of His pure delight. In this is no mere feeling of affection, but supreme self sacrifice for the sake of His rebellious creatures, “that we might live through Him.”

But this does not stop with His incarnation. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” It is a false view of God’s love that would speak of the holy and beautiful life of the Lord Jesus in self sacrificing service to mankind, while ignoring His willing death on Calvary as the great propitiatory sacrifice necessary for the purging away of sins. Love is not found in man’s heart toward God, but in God’s heart toward man: this is its living fountain. And the sending of His Son to bear the dreadful burden of our guilt the guilt of rebels in His anguish and death on Calvary, is proof of love infinitely higher than anything that man naturally calls “love.” In the contemplation of these two great facts, the incarnation of the Lord Jesus, and His sacrificial death, our thoughts of love will find a proper formation. The propitiation is that which completely satisfies God in reference to the putting away of sins, so that the love of His heart (expressed indeed in the propitiation itself) is free to flow out in unhindered complacency toward His children. Love has found a way to overcome every great barrier to its abundant outflow.

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” Can we sufficiently emphasize that little word “so”? Such unselfish concern, issuing in sacrifice so amazing, should so captivate the heart as to expand it to serve the need of others in utter self-denial. If love calls for it, and motivates us, what can be too great a sacrifice for His sake and for the need of others? What possessions of our hands should not be willingly committed to His hand for disposal?

“No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected in us.” The apostle here is speaking of a practical response to, and effect of, the love of God. If that love is to be evidenced, it is to be evidenced toward the children of God, because no man has seen God at any time. A careless, self centered man will assume he loves God without that professed love taking any practical shape, because he does not see God. But the test of this is in whether or not he loves the children of God. This is the proof of God’s abiding in us; and His love hereby is perfected in us, that is, it is producing its properly matured fruit. He is not speaking of how much we love one another, but of the fact. But a fact will always manifest itself. The degree will depend on the individual’s degree of enjoyment of God’s love, but the apostle does not here speak of this.

“Hereby know we that we dwell in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.” The close connection of these verses should be realized. A proof of very real significance to our own souls, that God abides in us, is in the fact that He has given us of His Spirit. The emphasis here is upon His sharing with us His Spirit, that we may portray the same blessed character of love as He does. How wondrous to partake of this very nature that spontaneously loves! Mat proof of the reality of God’s abiding in us! If it seems that this is only repeating from a slightly different viewpoint what has already been discussed in ch.3:18,19, yet it is different, and the subject of the love of God is of such vital importance that these things must not be left in any measure to mere human deduction or opinion. God is rightly jealous that His nature should be properly and perfectly represented.

“And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.” If no man has seen God, yet the apostles have seen the blessed Son who was sent by the Father. Notice in these two verses the vital manifestation of God as a Trinity, the gift of the Spirit, the sending of the Son, by the Father. Wonderful indeed the Father’s love so expressed in the sending of His Son to be Himself the Saviour of the world! Jacob sent Joseph out of the vale of Hebron (communion) to visit his brethren; but the history issued in his becoming “the Saviour of the world,” a most beautiful type of that of which our verse speaks (Genesis 37:14; Genesis 41:41; Genesis 41:57). This is love, pure love on the part of God; but that love must be received if it is to be of benefit to us.

“Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” Here is an honest, clear confession of the rightful glory of the Lord Jesus, as Son of God. This cannot be divorced from the preceding verses, as though one could deny the Trinity and yet speak glibly of Christ’s being the Son of God, reducing His Sonship to that of a mere creature, and placing Him on a level with others who have become “sons” by adoption (Galatians 4:5). He Himself is the Son in very nature, “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting [eternity]” (Micah 5:2). The confession of Himself as Son of God must involve this eternal dignity and glory of His Person, or it is no confession at all. But where the confession is honest and true, it is because “God dwells in him, and he in God.” Precious abiding indeed! God permanently abides in the child of God, and God is his permanent abiding place. Love therefore has its perfect interflow: in such a soul the love of God has been received: there is a precious, vital “abiding.”

“And we have known and believed the love that God hath toward us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” There are no vague uncertainties here, but a living knowledge of the love of God. This is true Christianity: “We have known and believed.” Observe too that this is no mere dealing with love as a subjective thing, which has become a snare to too many. To know and to enjoy love rightly, it must be objective. Feelings are no basis of reasoning at all. It is not a question of feeling that I am loved; but knowing and believing it on the basis of the fact being true. It is true altogether apart from my feelings: therefore I ought to commit myself utterly to believing it. This is only reasonable and right. The proofs of that love in the incarnation of the Lord Jesus and in His matchless sacrifice for our sakes, are so strong and unquestionable that only stubborn rebellion would dare to doubt it. “God is love:” it is His very nature: therefore He loves. It is not the ardor of my response that determines whether or not He loves me. He does so because it is His nature, apart from anything in me that draws such love. Therefore I believe it, for it is true. And believing it, I dwell in love, I dwell in God, and God in me. It is a permanent abiding because a permanent love of the eternal God. One who refuses it by callous disbelief is of course refusing himself all title to it, and rejecting all its benefits. He has only himself to blame, for “God is love” still, however man may attempt to falsify the very word and nature of Him who in grace seeks the purest blessing of every creature. Thus man “draws iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope,” brazenly inviting the judgment of God rather than receiving His love (cf. Isaiah 5:18-19; Isaiah 5:18-19).

Verse 17 is correctly translated in the margin, “Herein is love with us made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as He is, so are we in this world.” It is a palpable mistake to say that our love is made perfect, for the apostle knows that our love is so faulty it is worth hardly a mention. Yet God would have us “made perfect in love,” it is clear. How then is love with us made perfect?” It is by knowing and believing the love that God has to us, that is, the plain recognition of the fact that God’s love to us is itself perfection. The knowledge of this unqualified, unchangeable love gives boldness even in view of the day of judgment. Love has given His Son to bear my judgment, fully, absolutely. Then the day of judgment is no occasion of fear whatever: God’s love is too great and pure to allow me to entertain for a moment the thought that judgment might possibly overtake me. His love has so wrought as to be the same toward me as toward His own Son: “as He is, so are we in this world.” Amazing statement of simple, one syllable words! Is Christ not completely immune from judgment now? He has in grace borne this at Calvary, the full, unmitigated penalty against sin being laid upon Him, the willing sacrifice. The work now finished, He is crowned with glory and honor, eternally exalted, having abolished death, triumphing over it. And so far as judgment is concerned, the believer, even now, “in this world” is “as He is,” past all possibility of it; accepted in righteousness and joy before the Father’s face, a present, permanent place of unmingled blessing.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” A child’s certainty off his parents’ unfeigned, unchanging love gives him confidence, and no element of terror in that filial relationship. How much more does God’s perfect love cast out fear. If we are loved perfectly, there is no reason for tormenting fear. Godly fear of course is another subject, involving wholesome, reverential regard for the greatness of God; but a tormenting fear of possible judgment is dismissed when the love of God is rightly known. If this fear is present, the soul has not been “made perfect in love,” that is, he does not recognize the perfect love of God as it really is, pure eternal, unchangeable and precious as when He gave His beloved Son in sacrifice for us. To he “made perfect in love” is to “know and believe the love that God has to us,” because it is a fact.

“We love because He has first loved us” (JND). This is a spontaneous, essential reaction. No human effort is involved in this at all, no pressing of myself, no stirring up of my emotions by artificial means. Love must be a spontaneous thing, or it is not love at all. “I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake [my] love, till he please” (Song of Solomon 2:7). The roe, or gazelle, is the very picture of timid sensitivity, while the hind, climbing with sure footedness to heights above the common level, tells the same story, of avoiding the pressures of danger. Love cannot be produced from our own hearts by a process of stirring them up: this will fail, for our hearts are no fountain of love at all: we must look elsewhere: “we love because He first loved us.” The reception of the love of God is the only source of love toward God or toward others. Let us but believe His love to be what it actually is, and this produces a glad and willing response, unfeignedly, unaffectedly. The law says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27). But every effort of man to do so only issues in utter defeat: it is against his nature. What is the use of putting all our energy into pumping to draw water from a well that yields only poison gas? Let us forget such a well as our own corrupted hearts, and turn to the living, flowing fountain of the heart of God; and without effort, without human operation, our hearts will become filled with His love.

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” The natural heart will embrace any subterfuge: man will quite glibly profess to love God, but it is convenient for him that God is out of sight, so that real, serious dealings with Him are avoided. But he must have dealings with his brother. If it is true that God’s love has entered his heart, how can he help loving his brother? If he does not, then he does not love God either: he is a liar. Dreadful designation! It is not simply that the man has been untruthful in a certain instance; but when he takes the hypocritical stand of professed love for God while hating the children of God, this is the very spirit of antichrist, who is a liar, as is his father the devil: it is the character of deceit willingly assumed.

“And this commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.” As are all the commandments in John’s epistle, this is absolute: disobedience to it means there is no life present: there is no real love toward God without love toward believers also. And if the principle is absolute, then let the practice he consistent.

Bibliographical Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on 1 John 4". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. 1897-1910.