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1 John 4:7, 8 says,
7 Beloved, let us love [agapao] one another, for love [agape] is from God; and everyone who loves is born [gennao, “begotten”] of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
The presence of love is the true mark of sonship. It is not about spiritual gifts performed by healers or miracle workers. It is not about gold dust falling from heaven, nor oil or blood flowing from holy objects. Of all the things that men think are evidences of spiritual stature, John focuses upon love as the chief characteristic by which we may know the sons of God.
Keep in mind, however, that John was not speaking of eros or even of phileo, but agape. The highest form of love is attained only by growing into the full maturity of the stature of Christ. We are all on a journey of love, and our level of love is the measure of our spiritual maturity. We may think that we have attained agape even now, but we should recognize that we are incapable of conceiving a level of love that is greater than what we ourselves have experienced—or perhaps have seen in others.
The bishops who burnt “heretics” at the stake in the Middle Ages would have claimed that their actions were done through love for God and for the church. But their love was far from perfect, and in no way could it be called agape. In fact, their love had not even reached the level of phileo.
That same spirit of pseudo-love is still with us. Though church leaders no longer are allowed to burn people at the stake, many continue to excommunicate and separate themselves from those who have differing views—views which have nothing to do with the essentials of faith in Jesus as the Son of God or of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. By separating from so-called “heretics,” they themselves divide the body into factions by their bans and excommunications, and then accuse the “heretics” of causing division!
Religious leaders are more apt to show love to a pagan than to a fellow believer in Christ who holds differing views of Scripture. In the early church, in fact, many pagans were baptized into church fellowship, though they had no genuine faith in Christ. As long as they remained in submission to the hierarchy, they could continue to live in sin and even worship idols at home. But if anyone espoused a doctrine contrary to one of the decisions of a Church Council, he was in danger of being executed or even tortured.
Such executions were not done through agape, but through pseudo-love. Scripture does not recommend that believers fellowship with unbelievers, but neither does it recommend a show of hatred.
The church often tolerates immorality but not heresy. But if Paul says to disfellowship one who remains in an incestual relationship without repenting (1 Cor. 5:1), how can the church fellowship with immorality? Paul says to “clean out the old leaven,” that the church may fulfill the feast of Unleavened Bread (1 Cor. 5:7, 8).
Unfortunately, even church priests and popes often lived immoral lives, bearing children through concubines. Many of their children were then ordained as bishops, archbishops, and were even elected popes. Nepotism has been a common practice. It is ironic, then, that church leaders guilty of gross immorality would persecute “heretics” for not submitting to doctrinal decrees of immoral church leaders.
The point is that there is often a wide difference between agape and actual church practice. While some form of judgment is sometimes necessary in matters of morality, such judgment ought to conform to the law of God and not merely to church law that is based on the traditions of men. We should also recognize that judging sin is really a function of phileo, not agape. Phileo is a judicial love and as such is indeed valid and necessary. But true justice cannot be applied properly unless the judge knows God intimately, and John says that “the one who does not love does not know God.”
Hence, all judgment must proceed from God and from a heart of love with a view toward the ultimate restoration of the sinner. Hence also, Paul himself said in 1 Cor. 5:5,
5 I have decided to deliver such a one [the immoral one guilty of incest] to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
Paul says that immoral people such as this should be delivered to Satan—not so that they might burn in hell, but that they might be saved at a later time! If that is the case with immoral sinners, how could churchmen justify burning heretics at the stake on the grounds that they were being given a foretaste of hell? Such judgment is not rendered by the heart of God nor by a heart of love. Do such judges truly know God? Do they have a right to judge in the name of Christ?
Kings and other leaders usually ask or require others to die for them. But Jesus, the King of Kings, came to die for sinners and enemies (Rom. 5:8-10). This demonstrated agape love as defined by God. It reversed the entire pattern of man’s concept of love and leadership. So also we read in 1 John 4:9, 10,
9 By this the love [agape] of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten [monogenes] Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [hilasmos, “expiation”] for our sins.
John assumed that his readers already knew what this meant, how Jesus died for sinners while they were yet sinners and for enemies while they were yet enemies (as Paul tells us). Such is the demonstration of divine love.
The term monogenes, “only begotten,” refers to a first-born son, an heir of the birthright. Often there are many sons, but there is only one monogenes. “Only begotten” does not mean that Jesus is the only Son, for His purpose was to bring “many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10). John’s letter, in fact, shows characteristics of the other sons of God.
Such a demonstration of divine love is also seen in the fact that God took the initiative. God’s Heir was sent to die, not because we loved Him, but because “He loved us.” Such initiative is consistent with the New Covenant, where God takes responsibility upon Himself to save the world, since man was incapable of saving himself by his own works or by his own will. John mentioned this also in his gospel. John 1:12, 13, saying,
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born [gennao, “begotten”] not of blood[line], nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God [i.e., God’s will].
In other words, the children of God are begotten by the will of God, not by the will of man (as in the case of fleshly begetting). John’s explanation in his letter gives us further information, telling us that it was not because we loved God, but because He loved us.
The Old Covenant, then, which seeks to save by the will of man, has always failed; but the New Covenant, wherein God has vowed to save us by His own will and initiative, can only succeed in turning the hearts of all men to Himself.
A few are turned in their lifetime on earth, while the vast majority will be turned at the Great White Throne judgment, when every knee bows, when every tongue professes that Jesus Christ is Lord, and when all “swear allegiance” to Him (Isaiah 45:23). The love of God will at last conquer the will of every man, for “love never fails (1 Cor. 13:8).
This is accomplished by the power of the New Covenant, by which God Himself vowed by His own will to save the world. This lofty and seemingly impossible goal could not succeed by the will of man.
But in Isaiah 45:23 God vowed to do this, saying, “I have sworn by Myself.” In other words, this is God’s New Covenant vow and must be viewed as an extension of His vow to Noah in Gen. 9:12, His promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, and His oath to Israel in Deut. 29:12-15.
The New Covenant, then, is the demonstration of the love of God. It is the only covenant by which men can be saved, and it is God’s commitment to save the world by His own will and initiative.
1 John 4:11 then concludes,
11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Hence, God’s example of agape is held up as the model for the sons of God. The true sons of God, those who truly know God, are those who exhibit the same love of God. In other words, they live by the principle of the New Covenant, not making salvation conditional upon the will of man, nor of his own fleshly decisions, but upon the will of God.
God’s will, then, supersedes and precedes the will of man. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The revelation of the gospel, where we learned about the love of God, opened our hearts to experience the same kind of love by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our love for God did not originate with us but was a gift from God to which we responded in kind. That gift of love was given to fulfill God’s own oath to make us His people and to be our God, as Deut. 29:12, 13 tells us.
Hence, we ought to recognize God as the Originator of our salvation, the First Cause of our own decision to follow Him, and the only Promiser capable of fulfilling all that He has promised. If we take credit as the originator of our salvation, we are in danger of basing our salvation upon our own works and our own will, which is, in effect, a reversion to the Old Covenant.