Summary: 1) Perfect Love & the Character of God (1 Jn. 4:7–8), 2) Perfect Love & the Coming of Christ (1 Jn. 4:9–11), 3) Perfect Love & the Christian’s Claim of Faith (1 Jn. 4:12–16), 4) Perfect Love & the Christian’s Confidence in Judgment (1 Jn. 4:17-21).
In scientific experimentation, a Litmus Test is a test to establish the acidity or alkalinity of a mixture. The phrase has also been applied metaphorically to represent a crucial test using a single issue or factor as the basis for judgment. (Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.)
Throughout the scriptures, love is presented as a litmus test of one’s relationship to God. It is a love that does not derive from mystical experience or attach to emotional sentimentality, but that originates in salvation (cf. Rom. 8:28–30) and demonstrates itself in the good works of sanctification (cf. Eph. 2:10; Heb. 10:24). The fullest expression of it occurs when believers obey the Lord: “Whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected” (1 John 2:5; cf. 5:3). But our understanding of doing this starts with God’s nature.
When we look at the world with all its evil and suffering, so many damaged and broken lives, how can there be a God who really loves? Yet, John insists, this is the very nature of God…Amazing enough, He is so great that he can be bothered with each of us individually (Jackman, D. (1988). The message of John’s letters: living in the love of God (p. 117). Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.).
The Apostle John first presented love in 1 John 2:7–11 as a proof of true fellowship. Then in 1 John 3:10–17 John discussed love as evidence of believers’ sonship. Now here in 1 John 4:7-21, this third discussion of love is an example of John’s cycling back through the letter’s moral and doctrinal proofs of salvation, each time providing his readers with greater depth and breadth. He shows love reflected in 1) The character of God (1 John 4:7–8), 2) The coming of Christ (1 John 4:9–11), 3) The Christian’s claim of faith (1 John 4:12–16), and 4) The Christian’s confidence in judgment (1 John 4:17–21).
1) Perfect Love and the Character of God (1 John 4:7–8)
1 John 4:7–8 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. (ESV)
John addressed his audience as beloved (agapētoi, “[divinely] loved ones”) (cf. 2:7; 3:2, 21; 4:1, 11) whom he urged to love one another. Again, unlike emotional, physical, or friendship love, agapē (love) is the love of self-sacrificing service (Phil. 2:2–5; Col. 3:12–14; cf. Rom. 14:19; 1 Cor. 10:23–24; 13:4–7), the love granted to someone who needs to be loved (Heb. 6:10; 1 Peter 2:17; cf. Rom. 12:15), not necessarily to someone who is attractive or lovable. “Godly love is the willingness to inconvenience yourself to bring benefit to somebody else.” Christian families and fellowships are full of examples of the Spirit at work in people’s hearts (Jeske, M. A. (2002). James, Peter, John, Jude (p. 256). Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House.)
John now begins to list reasons believers are to extend such sacrificial love to one another. The first reason is that love is from God. Just as God is life (Ps. 36:9) and the source of eternal life (1:1–2; 3:1–2, 9; 5:12; 2 Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:2), and just as He is light (1:5–7; 2:8–11; cf. Isa. 60:19), He is also love (cf. 4:16). Therefore, if believers possess His life and walk in His light (righteousness and truth), they will also both possess and manifest His love, since whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. As alluded to earlier, the love John refers to is the divine, perfect love that God gives only to His own. The verb rendered has been born is a perfect passive form of gennaō and could be literally translated “has been begotten.” Everyone God has saved in the past continues to give evidence of that fact in the present. Those who possess the life of God have the capacity and the experience of loving. Because they are God’s children, manifesting His nature, they will reflect His love to others. In other words, it is not the person’s ability to love that causes the new birth, but the ability to love flows from regeneration in Christ (Akin, D. L. (2001). 1, 2, 3 John (Vol. 38, p. 178). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.). Love, as Christians understand it, is not a human achievement; it is divine in origin, a gift from God (Morris, L. L. (1994). 1 John. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 1406). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.)
In contrast, verse 8 explains that anyone who does not love does not know God. Those whose lives are not characterized by love for others are not Christians, no matter what they claim. The Jewish religionists (scribes, Pharisees, and other leaders) of Jesus’ day, as well as the false teachers in the church of John’s day, knew a lot about God, but they did not really know Him (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 3:7). The absence of God’s love in their lives revealed their unregenerate condition as conclusively as did their aberrant theology. The point here is that the absence of love for one another is evidence that a person does not know God, because God is love, and there can be no real knowledge of God which is not expressed in love for fellow believers (Kruse, C. G. (2000). The letters of John (p. 157). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos.).