Summary: The foundation of Christian doctrine is laid in the word of God. The confirmation of a doctrine is found in our own experience.
The text has two words in it that make up all there is of religion, love and fear. All pagan religions of the world are founded on fear of their gods. Christianity is the only religion in the world whose substance is love.
There are scholars who claim the love spoken of in verse seventeen is not our love toward the Lord, but the love of the Lord toward us. The absuridity of this interpretation found in the declaration made in the verse is “love is perfected with us.” From and beyond the beginning of time the Lord’s love has always been perfect. The second problem is the interpretation is out of harmony with John’s statement “the one who abides in God, and God abides in him” (1st John 4:16). That is to say, he who loves God, and abides in that love, dwells in God. In verse nineteen John tells us “We love, because He first loved us.” The love in this verse proceeds from the human heart. “There is no fear in love” is not a reference to the Lord’s love, but our love toward Him.
The reason our love is made perfect is so we “may have confidence in the day of judgment.” Here, John is speaking of what a person feels when he gives serious thought to the day of judgment and the confidence the true believer in Christ has when he gives serious thought of the day of judgment. The confidence is a sign of assurance that our love for the Lord has reached a state of perfection in our heart. We have nothing to fear because our love for the Lord overcomes the fear that is in the heart of the non-believer. All dread and tormenting fear have been excluded from the heart. John sees this as the test of perfect love, a love that is pure and unmingled, so that we can look forward to the descending Judge without fear. We do not fear the descending coming of the Judge because we know He will not condemn us.
There are four possibilities of the love and fear spoken of by John.
First, there are those who have neither fear nor love. They are hardened sinners. They do not love the Lord or fear Him. The second are those who fear without love. This fear can be used to lead a person to the Lord. He is looking for a way out of the state of fear he is in. The third are those who have both love and fear. A majority of the professing Christians are in this mixed state. Their motivation to serve the Lord is mostly out of fear and not love. The fourth are those who love without fear, which John calls perfect love.
When John wrote this passage he was speaking from the depths of his own experience. He knew the possibility of having love without fear filling his soul. He has experienced the perfect love that cast out fear and does not repress it or hold fear down. His love for the Lord casted out fear.
What is this fear John speaks of?
It is the fear Adam and Eve experienced when they disobeyed the command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The new born emotion in the heart of Adam and Eve following their disobedience was fear. Prior to their disobedience they found joy in and looked forward to their conversations with the Creator. When they heard the voice of the Lord they were overcome by fear and tried to hide themselves from the Lord.