Has it ever struck you how strange it sounds to be commanded to love? Say you are a devoted Pittsburgh Steelers fan and someone told you to love the Dallas Cowboys. This would not sound like a joyful invitation, but rather a cruel joke. How can I love what I do not even like?
Scripture does not merely invite us to love God and neighbor; we are commanded to do so. And this is where it gets a bit tricky. How can we be commanded to love? Sometimes in reaction to our culture, which often confuses love with sappy sentimentality, Christians are tempted to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. We say things such as “love is not a feeling—it is a commitment.” While I am sympathetic with the concerns of well- meaning Christians, I have to admit that concept of love is depressing if it exhausts one’s definition of love. Commitment is vital, certainly, but is that really all we mean by love? I am happy if my wife is committed to me, but I sure hope she feels something good, too. Marriages based on contractual obligation alone and not nourished by the waters of affection, tenderness, and grace lead us to the cool of winter, not the warmth of spring.
So how does the commandment to love God and neighbor move beyond mere obligation to being not only a duty but also a delight? Here is the short answer: He loved us first. That changes everything.
In 1 John, we find ourselves caught in the beautiful and complex web of God’s love and commandments. John reaches a crescendo late in his letter when he declares, “We love because he first loved us” (4:19). This idea is not introduced here, but it is presupposed throughout all that came before. The statement only makes explicit what was previously implicit. Earlier John announced, “This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (3:23). Simply put, the commandment is twofold: first, believe in the name, and second, love others. There is a reason belief and love go together for John.
To believe “in the name” is not mere cognitive movement, not simply a set of facts agreed upon. To believe in the Sent One is to begin to understand the Sender—God so loved that He sent his Son (4:10). And the love of the Father is what grounds our adoption as sons and daughters (3:1), a promise sealed upon us by His Spirit. To believe in the name is to understand the divine humiliation: the Son condescends, dwells among us, and as the sympathetic High Priest, He experiences the realities of our brokenness and takes to Himself the judgment of the cross. To believe in the name is coming to the point where we realize that He came not because we were so admirable, but because we were so needy. He came out of the overflow of the triune God’s love—a love toward us.
How can we love others? Because He first loved us. And because He continues to love us. God’s love is a powerful liberator. It frees us from the trap of self-absorption and opens us to the other. Love gives us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands to extend to our God and neighbor. Love is brave, truthful, and generous. Love loves. But when we try to love without first being soaked in divine love—the love of the name—we easily turn “love” into something ugly. Our endeavors can get twisted into manipulation, consumption, and idolatry. Christian love can never grow out of mere willpower; it must always find its source and strength in God.
So what does love look like? “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” (4:18–19). This is why for John, anyone who is motivated by fear or “hates his brother” is undermining the gospel. To hate your brother or sister, to be a fearmonger, points not to impressive conviction but to a malnourished soul that tries to feast on the carcasses of others. The one who fears and hates may say he “loves” God, but everything points to the absence of the Spirit in him. If there is no love, how could God’s Spirit be present? “Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21).
When our gaze is drawn to Christ, the fruits of the gospel begin to manifest themselves in our lives. Believing in the name, we are freed from fear by the love of the Father who sent His Son for us. Resting in the name, we are secure in the finished work of Christ. Empowered in the name, we are set free by the Spirit to spread the love of God. We love not merely because we are told to but because God’s love has made us alive and free. We love, because He first loved us. That is the heart of the gospel.