When the Apostle John insists that we must love our fellow believers (“one another”, v. 7, 11, 12; “brother”, v. 20, 21), he does so on the basis that love is from God. But it’s important to understand that the love from God is a very specific love:
Beloved, let us love one another, for this love is from God… (1 John 4:7)
While most English translations leave out the word “this,” the Greek John uses is very specific. In his fantastic commentary on 1 John, Lenski explains:
The first fact is that “this love is from God.” Note the article. When our versions translate “love is of God,” this is not exact….Only “the love,” the one that John urges, the one of one Christian toward another, is from God. (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, 495.)
We ought to love one another, John writes, because this love–the love for Christians–is uniquely from God. This is a special, divine kind of love, and when this love flows out of our lives, it proves that we have genuinely been born of God and that we truly know God.
So, what is so specially divine about this love? John explains that this love arises from the glorious, infinite, jealous love that God had for his people before the foundations of the earth were laid.
Going Deeper: How to Differentiate the Love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
But John moves beyond the doctrine of the general love of God to differentiate the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, since each Person of the Holy Trinity reflects a unique angle of this love. It isn’t that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have different loves, but that they each share the same love (this love) from different perspectives.
John Owen, in his masterpiece Communion with God, breaks down the unique love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit like this:
Now, this is, that the Father does it [communicates grace] by the way of original authority; the Son by the way of communicating from a purchased treasury; the Holy Spirit by the way of immediate efficacy. (Communion with God, p. 43)
This is precisely the differentiation of the love of God that we see on display in 1 John 4:7-21.
The Source of This Love is the Father
John begins by identifying the source (or, as Owen puts it, the “original authority”) of this love: our Heavenly Father. In 1 John 4:7-9, we read:
7Beloved, let us love one another, for this love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9In 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. 10In 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. (1 John 4:7-10)
In characteristically profound, yet simple, language, John states that “God is love.” As John Piper helpfully unpacks in a sermon on this text, this means that love is an intrinsic characteristic of God, so that God has never been without love. Specifically, this refers to the fact that the Father has loved his Son from all eternity past, and that the Father and the Son have always had a Spirit of love between them, the Holy Spirit. The, Father, Son, and Spirit have loved one another with this love from all eternity past.
But, in v. 9, John begins to differentiate the love of the Three Persons by starting with the unique love of the Father: “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.” Clearly, John is talking about God the Father, the Person in the Trinity who sent his only Son into the world.
This love, John writes, features two radical characteristics that differentiate it from all other kinds of love.
First, this love is radically oriented toward our good. In v. 9, we read that the purpose of the Father’s sending his Son is “so that we might live through him.” This love is neither selfish nor manipulative, giving his Son to us in order that the Father might have us under his thumb for the rest of our lives.
The Father is not Don Corleone, saying “Some day–and that day may never come–I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day” (YouTube).
Yes, the Father calls us to a life of holiness and obedience, but don’t miss the point–our discipleship is not the “service” we do for God in exchange for his “justice.” Our discipleship is what it means for us to “live through him.” We are not trading favors; we are being transferred from death to life!
The second radical characteristic of the Father’s love for us is tied up in the Father’s Son, to whom we turn next.
The Manifestation of This Love is Jesus Christ
In Christ, we see this second characteristic: that this love is utterly sacrificial. Not only did the Father send “his only Son into the world that we might live through him,” but he “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The Father did not casually send his Son on a week-long mission trip, maybe helping to build a house or serve a meal to the homeless.
Instead, the Father actually sent his Son to death row, to be hated, mocked, spit upon, beaten, pierced, and suffocated under the weight of his own body fluids. The Father actually forsook his own Son, so that his Son might become the propitiation for our sins.
The Father sent his Son to be the manifestation of his great love for us as he bled out on the cross. The Father’s love is directed toward your good, even when your good came at the high cost of the death of his only Son.
But don’t overlook how the Son’s love is bound up in all of this. Jesus endured the cross because, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). He declined the battle that his disciples wanted to fight on his behalf, insisting that he would lay down his life by his own choice: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matt. 26:53-54).
John Owen magnificently describes this interplay of the grace of the Father and the Son for you in this way:
[Christ] is the treasury in which the Father disposes all the riches of his grace, taken from the bottomless mine of his eternal love. (Communion with God, p. 57)
In Christ, the Father manifests the fullness of his love for us, But also, our Lord Jesus Christ willingly laid down his life to become the manifestation of the Father’s great love for us because he himself loves us with this love.
The Gift of This Love is the Holy Spirit
On the basis of this love, John insists that we too ought to love one another:
11Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. god is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20If 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. 21And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:11-21)
In this last section of the passage, John turns his attention to the Holy Spirit as the Gift of this love. The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who carries into us this love straight from the source: the love of the Father manifested in the propitiation of the Son. John offers three glimpses into the love of the Holy Spirit for us.
First, the Holy Spirit perfects the love of God in us. In v. 11, John insists that we ought to love one another. How do we do that? Well, in v. 12, John explains that loving each other is a fruit of God’s abiding in us and perfecting his love in us. (Perfecting here doesn’t mean “correcting,” but “bringing fully to the desired goal.”)
But, John reveals, it is the Spirit who abides in us: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (v. 13). Here is how the Holy Spirit loves us with this love–by abiding in us and creating in us the ability to love one another with this love of God.
Second, the Holy Spirit teaches us about the love that the Father has for us in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit creates this love in us through a transforming encounter with the manifestation of the Father’s love for us in the propitiation of his only Son: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (v. 15).
Put simply, there is no way to exhibit this love in your own life apart from experiencing this love from God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ propitiating death is the manifestation of the Father’s love, and so apart from faith in Jesus Christ and him crucified, we cannot genuinely know God’s love. Apart from knowing this love, we ourselves cannot love each other with this love.
Third, the Holy Spirit casts out fear in our hearts through love. We experience this love through faith in Jesus Christ. But we do not experience this love at all–and we do not experience ever more intimate knowledge of this love–apart from the Holy Spirit.
John Owen puts it this way:
There never was, nor is, nor ever will be the least particle of holiness in the world, but what flowing from Jesus Christ, is communicated by the Spirit, according to the truth and promise of the gospel. (The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power, 248.)
It is an ever-expanding experience of this love, then, that John says will cast out fear from our hearts. Over the course of our lives, as we feast on the great love of God for us–the love of the Father, the love of the Son, and the love of the Holy Spirit–this love expels fear from our hearts just as darkness is driven out of a room when someone turns on the lights.
The best book I have read on experiencing the fullness of the love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is John Owen’s Communion with God, the work that I quoted a couple of times in this post. I read and enjoyed this edition, but John Owen published the book in 1657, so the language is sometimes difficult to understand. Thankfully, Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor have edited a new edition into modern language, making the treasure of this book accessible to 21st century readers.
I would highly recommend reading through this book, and doing so slowly. I read it over the course of a year and was richly fed whenever I read a few pages. In fact, I felt spiritually gorged if I read more than a few pages at a time, which is why I recommend reading this book slowly.
The book drips with the practical experience and wisdom of a man who is brimming over with this love of God, and he carefully, patiently, and pastorally teaches us how to experience the fullness of this love. If you would like to come to know the fullness of God’s love for you, communing with each person of the Holy Trinity, this book is a fantastic way to do it.
And as you walk with Owen page by page, I pray that your love for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will be deepened until, with Samuel Rutherford (in a quote that Joel Beeke is fond of repeating), you exclaim, “I know not which Divine Person I love the most–Father, Son, or Holy Ghost–but I know that I love each of them and need them all!”