Disquisition on Love

I. Verses 7, 8 – A clear Statement of the Old but New Commandment – “Beloved, let us love one another” John has introduced this theme in 2:7-11. He continues to unfold layers of meaning in it and connect it with all other virtues that flow from the Spirit.

A. The commandment is built on the moral foundation of God’s own character-“Love is from God.” This point was emphasized strongly in 3:9, 10 where John makes the point that because “God’s seed abides in” the one born of God he will be practicing righteousness. The one, therefore that does not practice righteousness is not born of God, and then John adds, “nor is the one who does not love his brother.” The new birth has established a moral foundation in the soul for all that reflects the character of God and the command encourages progress in cultivation of the newly implanted character. Peter does the same thing in 1 Peter 1:22: “Having purified your soul by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again.”

B. Whoever loves, therefore, is born of God. This assumes that no real love abides in the unregenerate heart, but that it has come to be the mainspring of action for the one born of God..

1.The generation of love in both its complacent and truly benevolent form is the result of God’s work in the soul. God’s indwelling through the Spirit is the presence of divine love in the very moral center of the new creature. “Hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given us.” (Romans 5:5). Since it is God’s love that has been shed abroad in the heart, the first impulse of it is to love God and find joy in his perfections as a response of complacent love [that is, love that responds to the worthiness of the one loved]. That is the very moral atmosphere of affection in which God eternally dwells and love for him is the sure result of the new birth. Second, like God, we have the principle of benevolent love resident through the Spirit in our hearts. Benevolent does not depend on the loveliness or the attractiveness to our tastes of the object loved, but arises solely from a principle within the one manifesting love, a principle wanting good for the object of such benevolent love.

2. Paul commended Timothy to the Philippians as one that would be “genuinely concerned for your welfare,” in stead of those who “seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” In writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:24), he set forth as a principle of new life in Christ, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” He claimed this as the principle that governed his ministry as an apostle, “Just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (10:33). 1 Corinthians 13:5, gives as a characteristic of love, “Love does not . . . insist on its own way.”

C. Conversely, the absence of love concludes that one does not know God. This means that he is left to his natural condition of “passing our days in malice and envy, hated by other and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).

1. Many activities in the natural man, individually and corporately, look like love, but in absence of love to God as the truly benevolent lover, such appearances only focus on a limited sphere of interest, ultimately world-centered and man-centered to the exclusion of the command, “Do all to the glory of God.” It is good for the stability of society than many human activities in our social and political arrangements look like love and virtue. As an indicator, however, of that original moral duty of the creature to love God with no reservation in any aspect of our whole being and love one’s neighbor as oneself, it falls short.

2. When this focus on a limited sphere of this world becomes contracted to its true source of action, it shows up as repulsive self-centeredness, a focus on one’s own pleasure, one’s own advancement, one’s own praise, one’s own well-being to the exclusion of anything outside of narrow personal interest. All can recognize the perversity of this kind of living as destructive and a clear manifestation of how Paul described the fundamental drive of the unregenerate person in Titus 3:3.

II. Verses 9, 10 – God has given a historical, observable display of love so that we may measure its true nature.

A. We do not need to guess at love and how it operates for it has been manifest among us.

1. God sent his Son into the world. His beloved Son, in whom he delighted for all eternity, who dwelt in unapproachable light in the exquisite joy of perfect holiness and the infinite approval of all that he was, he sent, in accordance with an eternal covenantal arrangement, to the world, a sphere in which the virtual antithesis of acceptance and delight would be his constant environment.

He was righteous and the world was opposed to righteousness.

He knew the Father and delighted in the Father and the world does not even seek God.

In him was life, and he lived in the sphere of the perfection of eternal life and the world was dead in trespasses and sins.

2. “That we might have life” – He came to give a blessing infinitely superior to our present condition, an act of mere mercy, sovereign grace arising from everlasting love. “In love, he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:5, 6).

3. “Through him” – In God’s action of redemption, he engaged in no superfluity or unnecessary demonstrations of power and wisdom. All the blessings of redemption land on us because of the perfect worthiness of the one in whom these blessings reside. He is the perfect person—uniting God and man in the singularity of his personhood—and did the perfect work—procured forgiveness by his death and the title to eternal life by his righteousness.

B. The true and ultimate constitution of love is in the death of Christ.

1. “In this is love, not that we loved God” – Though God is infinitely lovely and deserving of love because of the pure excellence of his virtue, we do not love him. Not only are we void of all benevolent love, but the most compelling and naturally fitting complacent love finds no prompting in our hearts.

2. “But that he loved us, and sent his Son” – This is absolute benevolence. We have no moral excellence, no remnant of virtue, no inclination to regard God’s law as good. Every reason to be hated with a holy hatred permeates out souls and our actions. To the contrary, however, the deep well of benevolence in God’s nature that overflows in mercy and grace does the unthinkable and performs an act utterly contrary to merit. Arising exclusively from his very nature, not from any attraction in us, God performs the unsurpassable act of love. Who does he send? He sends his Son. How does this display love? For those with no esteem, he sent the one worthy of greatest esteem. Why is he worthy of greatest esteem? He is begotten eternally of the Father’s perfect love of his own attributes. He is  the personal outflowing of God’s delight in Himself, thus the absolute antithesis to the moral desert of the world. No greater manifestation of perfect unalloyed benevolence can exist than this. That a world worthy of infinite wrath would be rescued by one of infinite worth against whom the sin of the world is directed (John 5:37-44) has no computation by human measurement but can only be accounted for by the boundless mercy and the exact justice of God.

3. “To be the propitiation for our sins” – Both immeasurable mercy and precise justice find their cohesion in the propitiatory death of Christ. This aspect of the redemptive work intensifies the grace involved in that his coming was in pursuit of his being a substitute for his people to  receive and endure to the utmost farthing the just and holy retribution of God for violated law. The Son, in loving and perfectly willing obedience to the will of the Father, put Himself under divine wrath (John 10:15-18), setting himself apart for punishment merited by those the Father had given him (John 17:19).

4. All of this explanation by John is in pursuit of showing the truly gripping nature of the proposition, “Herein is love . . .”

III. Verses 11, 12 – The argument from a greater to a lesser: If . . ., then

A. “Beloved” – John refers not only to his own affection for people to whom he is writing, but to the reality that  infinitely more compelling is the fact that they are the recipients of God’s eternal love. (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Romans 8:28, 29, 35).

B. “If God so loved us” –  This is the greater part of the argument. If God, exalted and holy and without fault, so loved, loved in the way proposed immediately above, us, ungrateful wretches in hostile pursuit of driving him out of his world, Then . . .

C. We, the mutineers just described all equally culpable in nature, ought, should feel the unrelenting moral imperative, to love, act toward others with the same kind of transforming and patient affection for their well-being, one another, fellow creatures of dust who have transformed ourselves into worms in a dunghill, but now equally embraced by the unconditional love of God. In light of such a transcendent motivation, can one fashion any rationale for not pursuing love of one’s brother?

D. “No one has ever seen God” (See John 1:18) – God has not given a visible revelation of his intrinsic glory to any person at any time. Neither Moses (Exodus 33, 34) nor Isaiah (Isaiah 6) saw the full display of God’s eternal, infinite brightness of beauty and holy power. Two places where we see the clearest manifestation of God’s holiness.

1. We see it in the manifestation of the incarnate Son in his teaching and redemptive work (John 1:18).

2. We see it in the transformation of sinners, former self-centered egoists full of envy, dissension, rivalry, under the power of various lusts, and haters of the good, into those who have repented of such moral corruption and now lovingly seek both the glory of God and the well-being of brothers and neighbors.


E “If we love one another”  – As opposed to the world that does not operate on the basis of love one for another but on the basis of competitive self-advancement with all its nuances, the mode of relating between Christians and one another and Christians and their neighbors is to be one of love—a self-effacing, self-denying preference for the good of another over our own advantage.

F “God abides in us” – God’s own goodness and love has acted as a transforming power through the indwelling of his Spirit (“The anointing you received from him abides in you” 2:27). John’s point is that God will manifest Himself through the moral transformation of his people and will be seen more powerfully and purely in the lives of love that they live. A professing Christian that  lives in hate and promotes hatred of other people gives a witness antithetical to his profession that he has been bought by sovereign love while he was dead in trespasses and sins.

G. “His love is perfected in us.” – God’s love is perfect in itself and is infinite in loveliness and can be neither diminished nor increased. God’s love operates as part of a threefold cord that cannot be broken. One, His love motivates the scheme of redemption in Himself and serves as the motivation for holiness in us. Two, the power of the Holy Spirit makes his love effectual for mortification of sin and vivification of spirit. Three, the commandments of God operate as a standard of perfection. These factors move his people toward maturity in this life and unblemished perfection after death, comnpleting our fitness to live in the presence of perfect love. See John 17:26 and compare to 1 John 2:3-5. “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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