“We Love Because He First Loved Us” (1 John 4:1-21)
Love, love, love. How often do we hear that word “love”! We use it so freely, so loosely. We use it for McDonald’s hamburgers: “I’m lovin’ it.” We use it for clothing and cars and hairstyles and lots of things we like, but instead of saying “like,” we say “love.” I found myself doing that just the other night: Lance Lynn struck out a batter with the bases loaded and two outs, and I said, without thinking, “Love it!”
Well, a step up from that very loose use of “love” is when we apply the word to people. But even there, it can be overused. So many pop songs have “love” in the lyrics, but what they mean is “I’m really infatuated with you” or “You really turn me on.” Meh, that’s a little weak. Better is when we use “love” about people for whom we have a strong and lasting personal affection. “I love my grandma.” “I love my daughter.” That’s pretty good. That’s the love of personal affection.
But we can do even better than that. There is the love of commitment, of caring and serving others, even the love of self-sacrifice for the good of another. Now that is really the best and highest use of the word “love.” And where and how do we learn that kind of love? That’s what we’ll take up now, under the theme, “We Love Because He First Loved Us.”
“We love because he first loved us.” That’s a direct quote from our Epistle reading today, from 1 John 4. We’re using the longer reading today, including the parenthetical verses. But this thought is not parenthetical! It is highly important. For if we do not love, it raises the question of if we even know God or love God. John writes in this text: “If anyone 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.” Or again: “Anyone who does not love does not know God.” In other words, if you say you’re a Christian and that you love God, but you do not love your fellow Christian, then there’s a serious disconnect there. To not love, actively love, your brother or sister in Christ is a serious matter.
See, here is the situation that John is addressing in his letter: There were apparently some members of the churches in and around Ephesus who thought they were superior Christians to the other church members, because they had some secret knowledge that the others did not have. And these supposedly superior Christians had pulled out from the congregation and formed their own group. And so they were not showing love and commitment to the truth and commitment to their fellow Christians. While claiming to know God and to love God, these super-Christians would not help a brother in his practical need. So John here in this epistle is saying that’s not right. If you claim to love God, how can you not love your fellow Christians?
Well, let’s not just stay back there at that time. What about us, you and me here today? Has your love failed at times? I know mine has. I don’t do all that I could for others, because I’m too selfish, too turned in on myself. I don’t help or care for people as much as I could. Maybe I’m slow to forgive a person who has hurt me. Maybe you are, too. That’s a love deficit going on there. See, love can be costly. It means extending effort or cost, self-sacrifice or some sort, on behalf of another.
It’s because of this lack of love on our part that God’s love had to intervene. Our text says, “We love because he first loved us.” If we’re going to talk about our love for others, we first need to talk about God’s love for us. That’s how we know what love truly is. That’s how we experience love, the real deal. That’s how we receive love, more than enough, so that we have love to give away. It all starts with God’s love for us.
“He first loved us.” And this is how it came down: God showed how much he loved us when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation. Here it is; our text tells us: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
“In this is love.” Yes, in Christ is love! God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. God’s love has been “made manifest among us.” We know that it’s there, that God does indeed love us. We know what God’s love is like and where to find it. “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” God’s love is not just a feeling; it’s love that takes action. God sent his Son into the world on a mission. God’s love has a purpose and a result. The purpose and the result is that we would live. That we would live and not die, not die in our sins, not perish eternally. But rather that we would live, live with God in a new and restored relationship. Live a new life, alive in Christ, alive in the Spirit. That we would live forever, forever with our Lord and with his people. That’s what God’s love is and what it does.
John goes on: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” “Propitiation”: Now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. But by Christ being the propitiation is precisely how God loved us. God sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. That means that Jesus made the sacrifice that satisfies God’s wrath against sinners, suffering the punishment that satisfies God’s justice. Jesus paid for our sins, so that now they are removed from your record. God is not angry with you anymore. Jesus took the penalty that your sins deserve. In God’s courtroom, you are declared not guilty. And God is not being a slacker of a judge. No, the penalty has already been served. Jesus did it, on the cross. Jesus did it all, for you, out of God’s great love for you. Now this is the greatest love of all! What John is saying here in his epistle is the same thing he said in that familiar verse from his gospel, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Who can measure this love of God? It goes beyond our imagination. But it is real; we have received it, we have experienced it, and we are saved by it. So now we know what love is. Through faith in Christ we know love, and the Holy Spirit works this love in us, so that now we, you and I, actually begin to love others. Love is the fruit of faith. It always is. That is why it is such a contradiction for a Christian to not love his brother or sister. Instead, we love, we do love, because God has first loved us. The one follows the other as a natural consequence. It’s like a branch connected to a healthy vine. It will produce fruit, good fruit. And you, dear friends, you are connected to Christ, the living Vine. His life and his love will produce the fruit of love in your life.
So do you want to know the secret of loving others? Abide in Christ. Stay connected to him. As you abide in him, his love will abide in you and produce that good fruit. Well, Pastor, how do we stay connected to Christ? Friends, it’s happening here today. You are here today, in church, to receive Christ’s love anew, to remain in him, to be refreshed in your walk with him. This is where we hear Christ’s voice. This is where the Spirit does his work in our lives. This is where we receive Christ’s very body and blood for our forgiveness. Abide in Christ, and you will produce the fruit of love in your life. “We love because God first loved us.”
Love also means forgiveness. Think of God’s love for us. It’s all about forgiveness. It’s all about reconciliation and restoration. And so it is with our love for one another. Is there a brother or sister with whom you’ve been on the outs? It doesn’t matter who’s at fault. Love moves toward that brother or sister. It does not pull away. Love seeks reconciliation. It happens in the congregation, among our members. It happens in the home and the family, one family member forgiving the other. Love and forgiveness go hand in hand.
“We love because God first loved us.” First comes God’s love, and then that bears fruit in our lives, as we learn to love one another. You know, I’ve mentioned this before: My favorite prayer, outside of prayers directly from the Bible, is the prayer we often pray right after receiving Communion. It goes like this: “We give thanks to you, almighty God, that you have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore you that of your mercy you would strengthen us through the same in faith toward you and in fervent love toward one another.” Did you catch that? “In faith toward you and in fervent love toward one another.” That’s a pretty good summary of the Christian life, isn’t it? Faith toward God, that is, trust in God because of what he has done for us in Christ. “And in fervent love toward one another.” There is the fruit of faith produced in our life, namely, love. Even fervent love–this is what we are praying for. An even stronger love for one another. And how does that happen? As we are strengthened in faith and love by God’s gifts, such as the salutary gift–that is, the healthful, the beneficial gift–we receive here in the Lord’s Supper.
“We love because God first loved us.” The one will always produce the other. God’s love for us produces the good fruit of love for others in our lives. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” And that is you–yes, you! Believe it, beloved! It’s true.