“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.”
(1 John 4:7-8 ESV)
I had the pleasure of sitting in on a Sunday School class at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, KS last weekend while visiting my mother. This was an unusual experience for me, to be in a class and not be teaching it. It took everything in me not to jump in with something to say, and I humbly confess, I failed. Still, after my initial “might I add a quick thought,” I was able to tame my tongue and quietly enjoy the class.
There was a question asked during the study, however, that really got my mind turning. We were studying 1 John 4, one of my favorite passages. We came to the passage listed above and the question was raised, “is it possible for someone who does not know God to love?” It was a good question, and I think it set the teacher back for a second. The response given was something along the lines of: “Well, there are different kinds of love, physical or erotic, philial or brotherly love, and then there is the kind of love that John is talking about, the agape love, self-sacrificing, other seeking love. No other religion teaches this kind of love. This kind of love can only come from God.”
While I agree for the most part with the answer that was given, I think there are some deeper lessons to be learned from John’s teaching on loving as coming from God.
The question that was asked misses the point of John’s letter. John does not say that those who don’t know God cannot love. Rather, John is saying those who do not love one another, those who even go so far as to say they hate their brother, in fact do not know God. If we claim to know God, that is, to know Him as He has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, then we know that God loves us and would have us love one another. We cannot have fellowship with God while walking in darkness (1 John 1:5-6), we cannot claim to know him unless we keep His commandments (1 John 2:4-5), we cannot love God unless we love our brother (1 John 4:21).
All love does come from God, and even those who don’t know God in a personal way through Jesus Christ do know, in some way, of God’s love. While we affirm that God is holy, just, and a whole dictionary of other theological terms regarding the attributes of God, John also teaches us that it is the very nature of God to be loving. Even God’s wrath and judgment are manifestations of His love for us. And so, in a general way, all of creation has received the general grace of God’s love. From the beginning of time, God has been revealing His love for us: God provides the rain and the sun, for the just and the unjust. To varying degrees we have all known and experienced the love of family and friends who have cared for us through our lives. We are raised with a love for our nation, a love for our team, a love for our pets. Nearly every religion teaches love for all peoples (even though the demonstration of that love varies widely in its expression). Yes, it is possible not to be born of God and still love. But,
There is a difference between the general love that the world knows and the godly love that is required for our salvation. Matthew Henry writes that “the love of God is the sum of righteousness.” To love God wholeheartedly, completely, and perfectly is what it means to be truly righteous before God. Nothing less is accepted for salvation. To love God wholeheartedly, completely, and perfectly, however, is impossible for fallen man. The entirely of the law points to our inability to generate such consistent and unwavering love. Even when we are loving God the best we can, we fall short of such a high standard. To love God like this would be impossible were it not for the fact that He first loved us. God has proven His love for us in that while we were sinners, He gave His son to die for us, to atone for our sins, and to make us alive to His love by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we receive that love, when we live in the power of that love, when we give that love to one another, then we know that the love of God, yes even God Himself, abides in us.
Let us, then, love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.