Great Expectations in the Heart
Preached by Jason Abbott
1 John 4:7-16
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
1. God is love (vv. 8, 16).
There are bookends in this short but profound passage. John begins and ends with the statement: God is love. It is a beautiful expression of God’s character. However, it is also an expression that’s been terribly misunderstood and misused. Thus, it is worth asking: What does John mean when he says God is love?
Most theists I know, whether Christian or non-Christian, would like to affirm that God is love. We like to believe that God is love, but we often import our own understandings of love into our conception of what this should look like. In other words, God is love therefore I should be able to marry whomever I want; or, God is love therefore everyone should go to heaven—except serial killers, sadistic dictators, and personal injury lawyers.
This is very clearly not what the Bible means when it says that God is love. The Bible never divorces or separates one of God’s characteristics from the others. Rather, his characteristics are all always present in perfect unity. Whether it’s holiness, love, mercy, justice, faithfulness—all exist together in God’s oneness!
For this reason, John Stott explains God’s love in the following way:
It is true that the words God is love mean not that loving is “only one of God’s many activities” (Alexander) but rather that “all His activity is loving activity” and that, therefore, “if He judges, He judges in love” (Dodd). Yet, if His judging is in love, His loving is also in justice.1
This is the biblical picture of God’s characteristics. This simply means that when the Bible says that God is love it is discussing a very particular kind of love. It is describing love with a backbone—love that does not and will not change. Consequently, this is very different than many modern conceptions of love.
So, for example, God’s love must say “No” to things that are sinfully harmful—even when we think they are not sinful or harmful for us, even when we think (in fact) they are very good for us. God’s just love must say “No” to them.
My children often think it’s an excellent idea for them to run with a sharp pencil or scissors in hand. However, my love for them combined with my judgment (that this is a bad idea and unsafe for them) compels me to say “No.” Nonetheless, as I repetitively instruct them to not run with sharp things in hand—over and over again—inevitably they give me some kind of rationalization.
Ezra has recently learned to rationalize his rule breaking actions in this way. Perhaps, I correct him: “Ezra, don’t run with pencils in your hand. You’ll get hurt! Why did you do that?” He rationalizes it: “I just did daddy. I just did run with pencil daddy.” Translation: “Because, I wanted to fool. Don’t you want me to be happy? Don’t you love me?”
Now, this is a silly picture, but it’s not too far from how we really operate. When God’s just love compels him to say “No” to things that are harmful to us, often we rationalize, in our small minded sinfulness, that God’s “No” must mean that he doesn’t really want us to be happy and, thus, that he doesn’t really love us.
However, nothing could be further from the truth! For, it is God’s love that compels him to intervene for our good; it’s God’s loving judgment that compels him to say “No” to us. Moreover, such reasoning is false because already:
2. God has loved us (vv. 10, 11).
John explains this in today’s passage. In fact, it’s a brief reminder of last week’s sermon topic—Jesus came into the world; Jesus came into real history; Jesus came into real history to love us! Look at what John writes here:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (vv. 10, 11).
Look (John explains) if you want to know that God’s prohibition against ungodliness is a prohibition that is spoken in love then consider his historic activity—remember what God has already done in the real world, in real history. He sent his Son into this world so that you and I wouldn’t have to suffer his wrath. Indeed, God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to be the propitiation (or the atoning sacrifice) for our sins.
Essentially, John is saying that sin is supremely dangerous because it puts us under God’s wrath. God’s “No” is therefore a “No” spoken in love because the dangers of sinning against a holy God and being under his wrath are real dangers. Nonetheless, God’s love is simultaneously so great that he sent Jesus as the Sacrifice of Atonement for our sins. God has loved us so much that he sent his Son in order that he might turn God’s wrath away from us!
Love has often been cheapened in our time. But, it’s proved not to be cheap when it’s put to the test—when it’s tested in and through sacrificial action. Whenever such demonstrations of love occur, they are able to transform us and prove to us that love is real!
This is precisely the kind of love that John describes here—sacrificial love. And, he expects such sacrificial love to change us; he expects it to transform us. Thus, he explains:
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (v. 11).
No one, John says, can experience such love (can benefit from such love) and come away unchanged. When one receives such a great, sacrificial love, he or she must learn to love in response. We simply “ought to” do it!
Then, why are churches so often characterized by criticism and infighting and divisiveness? Why are Christians not primarily known for sacrificial love? Why could Mark Twain say, with humorous bite, that if Christ Jesus walked the earth during his time the one thing which he most certainly would not have been was a Christian?
The primary reason (I truly believe) is that we in the Church too often forget we need God’s sacrificial love. We all too often overlook the fact that our sins put Jesus on the cross. We somehow begin to see Jesus’ death as mainly for other people but not for us. For (we have begun to believe) we are righteous.
When Jesus tells the parable of the loving father and his two sons, we see by the end of the story that the older son (who has stayed with his father and worked) argues with his father while the younger son (who has really screwed things up) rests at peace with his father.
The older son aims criticisms all over—at both his father and at his brother; he will not make peace with his father for he has rights that have been violated. The younger son is overwhelmed by the father’s sacrificial and loving reception; he will not criticize or object for he knows that he should have had no rights and, yet, has been given the gift of grace.
Why is it so hard for us to love one another in the Church? Because: we’ve subtly slipped into the older brother’s self-righteous mindset, his thinking about how love and honor should be apportioned out in order for it to be the most fair. Our older-brother-ness is at the heart—in some way, shape, or form—of most of our lack of love in the church.
How can we minimize such love-less-ness in the Church? We can constantly reacquaint ourselves with the younger brother’s humble mindset, his thinking about his need for mercy and forgiveness and grace. A younger-brother-ness will make it easy to forgive and love others as we recognize how much we have been forgiven and loved by God in Christ.
To live like the older brother in Jesus’ parable is to say to God: I do not need your grace; I do not need Christ’s sacrifice. To live like the younger brother in Jesus’ parable is to say to God: I badly need your grace; I desperately need Christ!
And, when we have reached such desperation, when we have come to the end of ourselves (our ability to earn our own salvation) then we are made ready for the next advent of Jesus—his coming into our hearts.
John speaks of this advent of Christ. He explains that:
3. God loves in us (vv. 12, 13).
Look at what John writes here:
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. / By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit (vv. 12, 13).
First, notice it is not that we love one another and then God lives in us. Rather, verse thirteen makes clear that God “has given us…his Spirit” and, therefore, we love one another and know that God’s Spirit is in us. In this way, love is not the avenue by which we receive God into our hearts but a sign that God already dwells in our hearts. Our love is the blooming of God’s love in us.
In order for us to experience God’s love in us, we must make him our home. We must abide in him. When we trust Jesus for our salvation—when we trust that he died to take away our sins and to give to us his righteousness—we begin to live in Christ and Christ has begun to live in us. This is one of the great mysterious truths of Christianity—our intimate connection to God in Christ Jesus.
My dad has a little evangelistic book at his accounting office which he makes freely available to his clients. The book is called My Heart, Christ’s Home. I always thought the title was a bit cheesy and clichéd, but this is no cheesy cliché. Rather, it’s one of the most profound truths of the Christian faith:
- God is not merely a god who wants to lead us and have us follow him.
- God is not simply a god who wants to dwell among us and relate to us.
- God is not simply a god who wants to redeem us and make us like him.
- God is the God who wants to give us life in him and wants to live in us. We are his temple, his tabernacle. He dwells in us in the person of the Holy Spirit! He counsels us and guides us and drives us to love!
Second, notice that God’s “love is perfected in us.” Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that God’s love was imperfect until he created the human race. Neither does it mean that we (who are in Christ Jesus) will practice perfect love. What then does it mean? How is God’s love perfected in us?
Well, it likely means that God’s love “is ‘brought to perfection within us.’ God’s love for us is perfected only when it is reproduced in us or (as it may mean) ‘among us’ in the Christian fellowship.”2 Consequently, if this is so, John is placing an extremely high value on fellowship and relationship in the local church. In effect, he is saying that if we are going to see God’s perfect love exhibited in our lives then it will be seen in and through our loving relationships with other brothers and sisters in Christ.
I am convinced this is the truth for I have experienced it in my own life. Back in Jefferson City, our church was incredibly eclectic. We had doctors and lawyers; we had plumbers and cooks. We had Africans from Ghana, and we had hillbillies from the sticks. Brace yourselves: we had Republicans, and we had Democrats. Most difficult for me was that we had Mizzou Tiger fans, and we had kansas jayhawk fans; (I intentionally refuse to capitalize the preceding profanities.) We had a diverse population of people!
What could bring such a motley group together voluntarily? What could make this fellowship possible?
Nothing but God in us and his love working through us could build and flourish this crazy fellowship!
I go home and regularly meet with a good-old-farm-boy from northern Missouri who is in his 60s and retired and loves to hunt and woodwork and do a bunch of stuff that I don’t do. I like Thai food, Frank Sinatra music, and big cities. I do not own a gun, and my greatest kill was a rabbit that I shot by accident while guarding my backyard garden.
Yet, the two of us meet every time I go home. Sometimes he gives me a call, or I give him one—just to talk. Moreover, I know that he regularly prays for me! And, I count him a deep friend! Where could such love come from, but God in us?