If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Suppose you knew that a Christian friend of yours was doing something wrong—at least wrong as far as you could judge by the Scriptures. How would you answer if he said, “I know that it is not what the Bible specifically commands, but I think it is the most loving thing. And since love is the highest ethical norm of Scripture, therefore I think what I am doing is right”?
A False Kind of Ethical Reasoning
This kind of reasoning is very widespread among Christians today—a reasoning, namely, that finds a catch-word in Scripture like “justice” or “mercy” or “love” or “peace” or “kingdom of God,” and then makes that catch-word the criterion of right and wrong without letting the specific commands of Scripture determine the content of the criterion.
In other words a principle that has biblical sanction is lifted out of Scripture and the more detailed contours of that principle which are given in the specific commands of Scripture are ignored while the principle is shaped by someone’s personal agenda.
It is an easy mistake to make because the Bible doesn’t answer every moral question directly. We do have to use principles like justice and love and peace to weigh various alternatives where the situation may be different than anything the Bible addresses.
But it seems to me that what is happening today in all kinds of moral issues is that in the name of certain biblical principles the actual commands and teachings of Scripture are being rejected. In other words principles are being taken over from the Bible but the actual content of those principles is being fleshed out by personal desires and social pressures, not by the specific commands and examples of Scripture.
I will give some examples of what I have in mind later. But we need to see first that our text today speaks directly to this problem. Let’s walk through this text together and let this issue emerge as we see the flow of John’s thought.
The Test of Whether Your Love for God Is Real
The first unit is 4:20–5:1 and the main point of this unit is a familiar one, namely, that the test of whether your love for God is real is whether you love your fellow believer. Verse 20 puts the point negatively and verses 21 and 5:1 put it positively.
You Can’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Brother
In 4:20 John says, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
In other words, religious piety that does not produce practical deeds of love is just empty talk—or worse than empty. John would say it is a lie. A person who sings, “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul rejoice,” and holds bitterness in his heart and shows no love to visitors is a liar. His song is a lie.
The way you treat your visible brother or sister is the proof of whether you really delight in your invisible Father and cherish his promises.
I don’t think John is saying in verse 20 that it is easier to love a brother that you can see than it is to love God whom you cannot see. You might get that impression from the verse (“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen”). And that’s why a lot of people stumble over it.
Isn’t he simply saying this: If you really love God—if you really rest and delight in all that God is for you, in all his amazing promises, then you WILL love your brother. You will be so full of hope and joy and freedom that you will love to spread the good things of God to as many people as possible. But, he adds, there is no way to know whether you really love God since he is not around to see. You can’t hug him or bow down in his visible presence or take an order directly from his lips.
There is only one way to know whether your claim to love God is a self-deception or not, namely, in the way you relate to the people you can see (cf. 4:12). If you don’t love your brother whom you can see, then there is open evidence that you can’t be telling the truth when you talk about the invisible workings of your heart toward an invisible God.
So verse 20 says negatively, “If you don’t love your visible brother, then you can’t be loving the invisible God.”
The One Loving God Loves the One Believing in Jesus
In 4:21–5:1 John says the same thing positively. “And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child.”
The literal rendering of 5:1 is, “Every one who is believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” In other words the verse teaches that faith is the result and evidence of being born again, not that being born again is the result of faith. There is a change in tense that the English versions obscure: “Every one who is believing (present tense) . . . has been born of God (perfect tense).” New birth precedes and enables faith. Not vice versa.
Then the second half of the verse says that every one who loves the begetter loves the begotten. Every one who loves God loves those begotten of God. Every one who loves the divine Father also loves the human child.
When you put the two halves of the verse together, the point becomes: Every one who loves God loves those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, since believing in Christ is the mark of having been born of God, and every one who loves the Father loves those to whom he gives new birth.
That is the first unit in this text, 4:20–5:1. And the main point is the familiar one that loving your fellow believers is the test of whether you really love God or not.
The Test of Whether Your Love for People Is Real
The second unit is a brand new thought. It’s found in 5:2–3. It’s the point I referred to at the beginning of the message. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Up until now in this book of 1 John the question has been: How can we know for sure that we love God or believe God or are born of God. And the answer has always come back that you can know how it is with you and God by whether you love your brothers and sisters on earth. Love to man has been the test of love to God.
But here in 5:2 is a brand new question. It’s so different we are prone to think we must have read it wrong. It seems backward from everything we’ve seen so far. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God.” Surely he meant to say the reverse, didn’t he: “By this we know that we love God, when we love the children of God”? But that is not what he says. He says that the test of whether we really love people is whether we love God.
Now this seems very circular. On the one hand in 4:20 he says, “If any one says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar.” In other words, love to man is the proof of our love to God. But on the other hand he says in 5:2, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God.” In other words, love to God is the proof of our love to man.
This seems to destroy our assurance on both counts. If loving man provides the assurance that you are really loving God, and loving God provides the assurance that you are really loving man, then where does assurance start? Where can we find a sure foothold to begin with? How can I use my love for God as a test of my love for man when the question asked me in that test is: Do you love man? All I can say is: That’s what I am trying to find out!
Keeping Non-Burdensome Commands
Maybe if we read on there will be a solution. Verses 2–3 say, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Since verse 2 says that love for God is the test of our love for people, John tells us something about the test. He says in verse 3 that love for God means keeping his commandments and not experiencing them as burdensome. “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Well, if this is the test to see if we are really loving our brothers and sisters, then it doesn’t sound so circular after all. It would go something like this: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we keep God’s commandments and don’t experience them as burdensome.” In other words the test of the genuineness of your love to the children of God is whether you let the commandments of God govern your relation to them and whether these commandments are burdensome to you.
Two Halves of This Test
This is really worth thinking about. Let’s take the two halves of this test one at a time.
1. The First Part of the Test
First, we look at the part that says we know that we love the children of God when we keep his commandments. This is John’s answer to the people in our day who take a catch-word from the Bible and then make that catch-word the criterion of right and wrong without letting the specific commands of Scripture determine the content of the criterion.
Defining Love on Our Own Terms not Scripture’s
For example, some folks take the catch-word “love” and say that this is the biblical ideal for human relationships, but then let their own view of what love must be cancel out particular commands and teachings of Scripture. We can mention a few instances.
Many today will argue that the loving thing to say to practicing homosexuals is not that homosexual activity is sin but that promiscuity is sin. Find one partner and be faithful to him. They say it would be unloving to forbid sexual satisfaction to someone who has a homosexual preference. So the biblical norm of love is used against the biblical teaching of Romans 1 that says homosexuality is against God’s created order and will bring judgment upon those who practice it.
John would say that the test of real love toward a homosexual would show itself by keeping the commandments of God and in that way seeking the eternal good of the homosexual. To take a biblical concept like “love” and give that concept your own meaning and then use that meaning to cancel out specific commandments of God does not qualify as love according to 1 John 5:2. He says, you can know you love the homosexual if you obey God’s commandments.
Another example would be church discipline. If a church member is involved in open, persistent, and unrepented sin, what will love dictate? Having plead with an unrepentant person privately and in groups and as a church, do we remove that person from the fellowship according to the commandment of Matthew 18:17? Or do we take the catch-word approach and say, “That would not be the loving thing to do.” According to 1 John 5:2 you can know whether you love someone by whether you let the commandments of God govern your relationship.
Roles for Men and Women in Marriage and Church
Another example would be the issue of whether there are biblically sanctioned differences between roles for men and women in marriage and in the church. Here the catch-words vary. Some take the idea of “equality” from Galatians 3:28. Some take the idea of “personhood” from Genesis 1:27. Some take the idea of “giftedness” from 1 Corinthians 12. And some take the idea of “love.” And the result is usually the same: the meaning given to the catch-word is used to cancel out some of the commandments of God.
When the Scripture says, “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body . . . As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church,”—that is, when the Scripture teaches a role distinction for husbands and wives modeled on the distinction between the roles of Christ and the church, the standard feminist response is: that contradicts equality, or that contradicts personhood, or that contradicts giftedness, or that contradicts love. And therefore we don’t accept it.
And so some of the commandments of God are nullified because the general concept of “equality” or “personhood” or “giftedness” or “love” is not given its content by the most relevant specific biblical teachings, but instead they get their content somewhere else. But 1 John 5:2 would say, “If you want to know whether your ideas about the role relationships between men and women are loving, then measure your ideas by the commandments of God, even if you have to go against social pressure.” God’s commandments will be vindicated in the end.
The Discipline of Children
One other example concerns the discipline of children. I heard a man on the radio last Wednesday advising a young mother on the phone what to do if her two-year-old son said NO when she told him to put his arm in his jacket. The radio authority said, “Don’t reprimand him and insist on obedience. Instead try telling him a story, and when his attention is diverted, slip his arm in the jacket.” Why? This is more loving.
Radio, television, books, magazines, newspapers, cassette tapes, videos—everybody has ideas about how you should love your children. And again and again some principle is used to nullify the commandments of God in Scripture. “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him . . . Discipline your son while there is hope; do not set your heart on his destruction” (Proverbs 13:24; 19:18).
If you want to know whether you are loving your children or not, don’t hold your finger in the winds of contemporary thought. Instead ask, “Am I keeping the commandments of God toward my child?” Not just: “Am I using some biblical catch-phrase that sounds loving?” But: “Do I seek to understand and implement the specific teachings of Scripture with regard to my children?”
Real Love Is Guided by God’s Commandments
Now the point of all these examples is simply to show that in John’s mind you can’t talk about loving man without bringing God into the picture—”By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Many things in the world look loving (as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:3), but they are not real love unless they are done out of love for God and guided by his commandments.
That’s the first half of the test of whether our love for people is real. Now for . . .
2. The Second Part of the Test
When John says that you can know that you are really loving the children of God when you love God, he means not only that your relationships must be guided by the commandments of God but also that those commandments must not be burdensome. Verse 3, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” The love for God that can test the genuineness of our love for man is an experience of God in our relationships with people that not only causes us to submit to his commandments but also to do it freely rather than begrudgingly. When you have this experience of God—what Elizabeth Elliot calls the “glad surrender”—then you have assurance that your love toward the children of God is real and no mere self-deception.
Turning God’s Commandments from Burden to Joy
So our final consideration should be: How can you get to the point where the commandments of God are not a burden but a joy.
Verses 4 and 5 give the answer. The commandments are not burdensome “because whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Overcoming the World Through New Birth and Faith
Verse 4 says that two things overcome the world:
- that which is born of God, and
- our faith.
Recall the relationship between faith and new birth in verse 1: every one who has faith has been born of God. New birth gives rise to faith in the promises of Christ. And this faith overcomes the world. And that takes away the burdensomeness of the commandments of God.
Burdensome Commands of God and the World
How does this work? What is the connection between the burdensomeness of the commandments of God and the world? It seems to be twofold: the commandments of God are burdensome to us on the one hand because the world tempts us to believe that obeying God’s commandments is not as satisfying as disobeying them, and we tend to agree with the world, and on the other hand, there is something in us that loves to agree with the world. Before new birth we are “of the world” (4:5). Anything contrary to the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and pride in possessions is a great burden and folly to unregenerate man.
It’s a burden to be sexually chaste if you believe the message of the world that fornication or adultery really will give you more satisfaction. It’s a burden to be honest on your tax returns if you believe the message of the world that more money would bring you satisfaction. It’s a burden to witness to a colleague if you believe the message of the world that Christians are foolish and getting egg on your face is to be avoided at all costs. It’s a burden to say, “I’m sorry; I was wrong,” if you believe the message of the world that more satisfaction comes from keeping up the front of strength.
God Overcomes the Lies of the World
But if the world could be overcome, then the commandments of God would not be burdensome. They would be the way of joy and peace and satisfaction. What can overcome the temptations of the world? What can unmask the lies of the world?
Answer: God can. And he does it by causing us to be born again so that we can see the infinite superiority of the promises of Christ over the promises of the world. The result is that we trust Christ and by trusting him overcome the temptations of the world.
Faith says to every temptation of the world: NO, BE GONE! I know where true satisfaction is to be found. God has loved me with an infinite love. He promises to work everything together for good for those who love him. He withholds no good thing form those who walk uprightly. Nothing you offer can compare to the joy of his fellowship now and the glory to be revealed hereafter. World, you have lost your power. I have become the glad slave of a Good Master. His yoke is easy and the burden of his commandments is light.
A Closing Invitation
I close with an invitation. For the Lord holds out many good things to you in this text.
If you want to know that your love for others is real and not just self-deception, if you want to have the power to obey the commandments of God, if you want to find a life that is loving and at the same time not burdensome, if you want to overcome the deceptive power of the world, then consider the infinite superiority of the Son of God and put your faith in his forgiveness for your sins and his promises for your future. Whoever has the Son has life!
Ponder with me the lesson of Pilate’s authority over Jesus.
Pilate said to Jesus, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10–11)
Pilate’s authority to crucify Jesus did not intimidate Jesus.
Not because Pilate was lying. Not because he didn’t have authority to crucify Jesus. He did.
Rather this authority did not intimidate Jesus because it was derivative. Jesus said, “It was given to you from above.” Which means it is really authoritative. Not less. But more.
So how is this not intimidating? Pilate not only has authority to kill Jesus. But he has God-given authority to kill him.
This does not intimidate Jesus because Pilate’s authority over Jesus is subordinate to God’s authority over Pilate. Jesus gets his comfort at this moment not because Pilate’s will is powerless, but because Pilate’s will is guided. Not because Jesus isn’t in the hands of Pilate’s fear, but because Pilate is in the hands of Jesus’s Father.
Which means that our comfort comes not from the powerlessness of our enemies, but from our Father’s sovereign rule over their power. This is the point of Romans 8:25–37. Tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword cannot separate us from Christ because “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35–37).
Pilate (and all Jesus’s adversaries — and ours) meant it for evil. But God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20). All Jesus’s enemies gathered together with their God-given authority “to do whatever God’s hand and God’s plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). They sinned. But through their sinning God saved.
Therefore, do not be intimidated by your adversaries who can only kill the body. Not only because this is all they can do (Luke 12:4), but also because it is done under the watchful hand of your Father.
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6–7).
Pilate has authority. Herod has authority. Soldiers have authority. Satan has authority. But none is independent. All their authority is derivative. All of it is subordinate to God’s will. Fear not. You are precious to your sovereign Father. Far more precious than the unforgotten birds.