In my introduction to this article, we saw there are four levels of relationship on which a person may live: murder (1 Jn. 3:11–12), hatred (1 Jn. 3:13–15), indifference (1 Jn. 3:16–17), and Christian compassion (1 Jn. 3:18–24). The first two are not Christian at all, the third is less than Christian, and only the last is compatible with true Christian love. As we continue our study in John’s first letter (1 Jn. 3:11–24), we will look at the fourth level of relationship.
4. CHRISTIAN LOVE (3:18–24)
True Christian love means loving in deed and in truth. The opposite of “in deed” is “in word,” and the opposite of “in truth” is “in tongue.” James 2:15–16 gives an example of love “in word”: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
To love “in word” means simply to talk about a need, but to love “in deed” means to do something about meeting it. You may think because you have discussed a need or even prayed about it that you have done your duty, but love involves more than words—it calls for sacrificial deeds.
To love “in tongue” is the opposite of to love “in truth.” It means to love insincerely. To love “in truth” means to love a person genuinely, from the heart and not just from the tongue. People are attracted by genuine love, but repelled by the artificial variety. One reason why sinners were attracted to Jesus (Lk. 15:1–2) was because they were sure He loved them sincerely.
“But does it not cost a great deal for us to exercise this kind of love?” Yes, it does. It cost Jesus His life. But the wonderful benefits that will come to you as by-products of this love more than compensate for any sacrifice you make. The principle, “Give and it will be given to you” (Lk. 6:38) applies to love as well as to money. John names three wonderful blessings that will come to a believer who practices Christian love.
The first blessing is assurance (vv. 19–20). A believer’s relationship with others affects His relationship with God. A man who is not right with his brother should go settle the matter before he offers his sacrifice on the altar (Matt. 5:23–24). A Christian who practices love grows in his understanding of God’s truth and enjoys a heart filled with confidence before God.
A “condemning heart” is one that robs a believer of peace. An “accusing conscience” is another way to describe it. Sometimes the heart accuses us wrongly because it “is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). The answer is, “God knows the heart!” More than one Christian has accused himself falsely or been harder on himself than necessary, but God will never make such a mistake. A Christian who walks in love has a heart open to God (“God is love”) and knows God never judges wrongly.
John may have remembered two incidents from Jesus’ life on earth that illustrate this important principle. When Jesus visited Bethany, He stayed at the home of Mary and Martha (Lk. 10:38–42). Martha was busy preparing the meal, but Mary sat at His feet and listened to Him teach. Martha criticized both Mary and Jesus, but Jesus knew Mary’s heart and defended her.
The Apostle Peter wept bitterly after he had denied his Lord, and no doubt he was filled with remorse and repentance for his sin. Jesus knew Peter had repented and after His resurrection the Lord sent a special message (Mk. 16:7) to Peter that must have assured the hot-headed fisherman he was forgiven. Peter’s heart may have condemned him because he knew he had denied the Lord three times, but God was greater than his heart. Jesus, knowing all things, gave Peter just the assurance he needed.
Be careful lest the devil accuse you and rob you of your confidence (Rev. 12:10). Once you confess your sin and it is forgiven, you need not allow it to accuse you anymore. Peter was able to face the Jews and say, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) because his own sin of denying Christ had been taken care of, and was forgiven and forgotten.
No Christian should treat sin lightly, but no Christian should be harder on himself than God is. There is a morbid kind of self-examination and self-condemnation that is not spiritual. If you are practicing genuine love for the brethren, your heart must be right before God, for the Holy Spirit would not “pour out” His love in you if there were habitual sin in your heart. When you grieve the Spirit, you “turn off” the supply of God’s love (Eph. 4:30–5:2).
The second blessing is answered prayer (vv. 21–22). Love for the brethren produces confidence toward God and confidence toward God gives you boldness in asking for what you need. This does not mean you earn answers to prayer by loving the brethren. Rather, it means your love for the brethren proves you are living in the will of God and God can answer your prayer. “We receive from Him anything we ask because we keep His commands and do what pleases Him” (1 Jn. 3:22). Love is the fulfilling of God’s Law (Rom. 13:8–10); therefore, when you love the brethren, you are obeying His commandments and He is able to answer your requests. A believer’s relationship to the brethren cannot be divorced from his prayer life. If husbands and wives are not obeying God’s Word, for example, their prayers will be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7).
An evangelist preached about the Christian home. After the meeting a father approached him. “I’ve been praying for a wayward son for years,” said the father, “and God has not answered my prayers.”
The evangelist read Psalm 66:18—“If I cherished sin in my heart the Lord would not have listened.”
“Be honest with yourself and the Lord,” he said. “Is there anything between you and another Christian that needs to be settled?”
The father hesitated and then said, “Yes, I’m afraid there is. I’ve harbored resentment in my heart against another man in this church.”
“Then go make it right,” counseled the evangelist and he prayed with the man. Before the campaign was over the father saw his wayward son come back to the Lord.
These verses do not, of course, give us all the conditions for answered prayer, but they emphasize the importance of obedience. One great secret of answered prayer is obedience and the secret of obedience is love. “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15). “If you abide (remain) in Me and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you… If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (Jn. 15:7, 10).
It is possible, of course, to keep God’s commandments in a spirit of fear or servitude rather than in a spirit of love. This was the sin of the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:24–32). A believer should keep His Father’s commandments because this pleases Him. A Christian who lives to please God will discover that God finds ways to please His child. “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). When our delight is in the love of God, our desires will be in the will of God.
The third blessing is abiding (vv. 23–24). When a scribe asked Jesus to name the greatest commandment, He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind… And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34–40). Faith toward God and love toward man sum up a Christian’s obligations (1 Jn. 3:23). Christianity is “faith that expresses itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
Faith toward God and love toward men are two sides of the same coin. It is easy to emphasize faith—correct doctrine—and to neglect love. On the other hand, some say doctrine is not important and love is our main responsibility. Both doctrine and love are important. When a person is justified by faith the love of God is poured out in his heart (Rom. 5:1–5).
“Abiding in Christ” is a key experience for a believer who wants to have confidence toward God and enjoy answers to prayer. Jesus, in His message to the disciples in the Upper Room (Jn. 15:1–14), illustrated “abiding.” He compared His followers to the branches of a vine. So long as the branch draws its strength from the vine, it produces fruit. But if it separates itself from the vine, it withers and dies.
Jesus was not talking about salvation; He was talking about fruit-bearing. The instant a sinner trusts Christ, he enters into union with Christ; but maintaining fellowship is a moment-by-moment responsibility. Abiding depends on our obeying His Word and keeping clean (Jn. 15:3, 10).
As we have seen, when a believer walks in love, he finds it easy to obey God and therefore he maintains a close fellowship with God. “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them” (Jn. 14:23).
The Holy Spirit is mentioned by name in 1 John for the first time in 3:24. The Holy One is the abiding Spirit (1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13). When a believer obeys God and loves his brethren the indwelling Holy Spirit gives him peace and confidence. The Holy Spirit abides with him forever (Jn. 14:16), but when the Spirit is grieved, He withdraws His blessings.
The Holy Spirit is also the attesting Spirit (1 Jn. 4:1–6), giving witness to those who are truly God’s children. When a believer is abiding in Christ the Spirit guides him and warns him of false spirits that would lead him astray.
Each member of the Triune Godhead is involved in the “love life” of a believer. God the Father commands us to love one another; God the Son gave His life on the cross, the supreme example of love. God the Holy Spirit lives within us to provide the love we need (Rom. 5:5). To abide in love is to abide in God and to abide in God is to abide in love. Christian love is not something we “work up” when we need it. Christian love is “poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” and this is your constant experience as you abide in Christ.
As we have seen, there are four levels on which a person may live. He may choose the lowest level—Satan’s level—and practice murder. Murderers “have their part in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).
Or, a person may choose the next level—hatred. But hatred, in God’s sight, is the same as murder. A man who lives with hatred is slowly killing himself, not the other person! Psychiatrists warn that malice and hatred cause all kinds of physical and emotional problems.
The third level—indifference—is far better than the first two because the first two are not Christian at all. A man who has constant hatred in his heart or who habitually murders proves he has never been born of God. But it is possible to be a Christian and be indifferent to the needs of others.
A man who murders belongs to the devil, like Cain. A man who hates belongs to the world (1 Jn. 3:13), which is under Satan’s control. But a Christian who is indifferent is out of fellowship with God and is living for the flesh, which serves Satan’s purposes.
The only happy, holy way to live is on the highest level, the level of Christian love. This is the life of joy and liberty, the life of answered prayer. It assures you confidence and courage in spite of the difficulties of life.
A psychologist studied children to determine what affect love and neglect had on them. The survey proved children who were neglected and unloved were much slower in their development; some of them even died. In a physical sense, love is the very atmosphere of life and growth.
But it is even more so in the spiritual sense. In fact, it is a matter of love or death!