God Encourages Us in Love (4:17–18)* The relationship of divine and human love is further developed here. God makes our love complete and so gives us confidence. As noted above in the comments on verse 12, love that is complete is love that reaches its goal by being bestowed upon our brother or sister. To put it another way, the shape of perfect love is triangular: love comes as a gift from God that enables us to love each other and so return to God the gift that is given to us. In the words of C. H. Dodd, “The energy of love discharges itself along lines which form a triangle, whose points are God, self, and neighbour.” Where any one leg of the triangle is missing, love remains incomplete and immature.
But where the triangle is whole, love is complete. As a result, we have confidence on the day of judgment because our love signals to us that we already enjoy fellowship with God. And those who share fellowship with God in the present need not fear that they shall be judged unfavorably in the future. God will not take away from them the salvation and love that has already been granted to them in the Son. They need have no fear of punishment.
The Elder further underscores the point when he writes, in this world we are like him. Here is an analogy between the children of God and the Son of God at the point of fellowship with God (compare Jn 17:21–23). As the Son has free access to and confidence with God (2:1), so too does the believer have a boldness with God (2:28; 3:19–22; 4:18; 5:14). And since boldness and fear are opposites of each other, the author writes that in love—the hallmark of our relationship to God and of Jesus’ relationship to God—there is only confidence: not fear. As Barclay puts it, “When love comes, fear goes” (1976:98).
And so John writes, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. As the context shows, fear means fear of punishment by God when one comes to the judgment. Those who live in God do not need to fear God’s judgment. But the statement ought not to be turned around to mean that any anxieties or fears are evidence that we are imperfect in love. Confidence and fear are opposites, and the Elder believes that because Christians have confidence before God they need not be frightened of God’s judgment. Fear of being condemned has been driven out from them by the perfect love of God.
Nonetheless, many Christians are tortured by feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt and inadequacy, that they are not good enough for God, that somehow by trying harder they really can make God love them more. A young Christian counselor once told me of working with a woman who had great difficulty accepting God’s unconditional love for her. His well-meaning but misguided strategy was to exhort her, “You just have to believe it.” But we cannot badger others into accepting God’s love. Although we can preach and teach about it, and try to model it in our life and community, each of us must ultimately open up with vulnerability and humility to acknowledge our unworthiness and yet also to accept our own worth, which is sometimes the more difficult. In confessing our sin before God, we accept our unworthiness—not worthlessness! In that moment of vulnerability we discover that God is “faithful and just” and, through Jesus Christ, graciously covers the sinner with love and forgiveness. We know that although we have been found out, we have also been found. We come to accept that God sent the Son into the world because he deemed us worthy to be loved and forgiven, we who are created in the divine image and destined to become fully restored to it when “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (3:2).
To know that we are forgiven for our sin, loved in our weakness, saved by his mercy, destined for fellowship with God, all because we are supremely valued by God—that is to know the perfect love that drives fear away. It is not because of what we have done that we can have such confidence before God, but because of what God has done for us.
Thompson, M. M. (1992). 1–3 John (1 Jn 4:17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.