"Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God . . ." 1 John 4:7-21.
"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God . . ." 1 John 3:1, 2.
It is remarkable that the same apostle who was inspired to write so sternly as to the truth should be the instrument employed also to write so elaborately on love. The fact is, we cannot really have truth without love, or love without truth. Both were perfectly blended in Christ. "He was full of grace and truth." To hold both love and truth together, according to God, is our practical difficulty. We say little to each other about love, because we are conscious how little we manifest it. And if it be true, as I believe it is, that we never know any part of God's truth really till we accept it, and walk in it, this may account for our knowing so little, and saying so little, about love. Besides, it often costs us very little to be interested in truth; but to walk in love, while always connected with blessing to our souls, is also contrary to the natural selfishness of the heart. Still we must remember that the subject of love occupies a large and prominent place in the inspired epistles, and it seems to be better and wiser to acknowledge our shortcomings in practising it than to ignore it in our teaching.
Love is the essential of Christianity. Where this is wanting there is no true Christianity. The subject therefore is vital, and its claims upon our attention paramount. A splendid gift is sometimes very attractive; an intelligent mind, as to the mysteries of Scripture, often highly valued; a self-sacrificing person greatly extolled; and yet all these things, if love be wanting, are only like so many clouds without rain, or wells without water. The seraphic tongue and rivetting eloquence of some men enchant crowds of eager listeners, who hang upon their lips, wondering what the next astounding burst may be, and extol the speaker to the skies; while the quiet, unobtrusive saint, diligently engaged in loving ministry to the souls or bodies of the needy children of God, is a work too small for many to deign to notice; but in God's sight how different! The one may be only an empty noise, no sooner heard than gone for ever; and the other the fruit of the Spirit, having the value of everlastingness divinely stamped upon it. Yea, says the apostle, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity (or love), I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing." (1 Cor. 13:1-3.) Thus we see that love is the essential, the vitality of Christianity. And at the close of the same chapter we find that, important and precious as faith is, and hope also, yet love is there again set forth in its superlative importance as the very key-stone of the arch, and laying hold of faith and hope by its mighty grasp in present reality and power. "And now abideth faith, hope, love; but the greatest of these is love."
In almost all the writings of the apostles the same pre-eminent place is given to love. In the fruit of the Spirit, in all the precious variety which its clusters present, love stands at the top of the list — "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace," etc. (Gal. 5:22.) Or, if the wondrous mystery of the Church be unfolded to the Ephesian believers, that marvellous subject which has been brought out in these last days with such clearness to the joy and comfort of our hearts, yet, precious as it is, all the attempts for its practical acknowledgment would be futile unless love were energizing our souls. Hence we read, "With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." And to secure edifying, love is the aliment, the mainspring of all; for by speaking the truth in love, the body edifies itself in love. (Eph. 4.) And so in Colossians, after the apostle has enumerated a variety of earnest exhortations as to practical walk, he puts love again in the highest place of eminence. He says, "Above ALL these things." Mark, "Above (or over) ALL these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness;" that is, that no bond can hold things together perfectly that is not wrought by the mighty power of love. Valiant then as Paul was for the truth, the vessel too used by the Lord to communicate to us the mystery of the Church, and other great truths of Christianity, yet can language, I ask, possibly convey to our hearts more thoroughly the vital and prominent aspect in which he sets love before us?
And now let us hear the instruction of another inspired apostle. Peter owns the love of the brethren as the fruit of obedience to the truth in the power of the Spirit, and encourages them to love one another with a pure heart fervently. And, like another inspired by the same Spirit, after many practical exhortations, he gives love an importance beyond all else that he had said. "Above ALL these things" — Mark again here, "ABOVE (or before) all these things have fervent love among yourselves;" not love merely, but warm, earnest, burning love to one another; "for love will cover the multitude of sins." (1 Peter 1:22; 4:8.)
And hear also the third apostle's inspired statement on the all-importance and priceless value of love, who leads us up at once to the same climax by assuring our hearts that "love is of God," and that "God is love;" and after solemnly informing us that "He that is of God heareth us, and he that is not of God heareth not us," he brings forth love as the vital test of Christianity "He that LOVETH is born of God, and knoweth God. He that LOVETH NOT knoweth not God; for God is love." The apostles thus stand before us with one voice, writing at various times and to different persons, to assert the vital character of love, and that it is the essential and superlative element of true Christianity, the grand, distinguishing, unmistakable test as to who really knows God, and who knows not God.
First of all, let us not fail to notice that we here read that "God is love." This is not merely that God loves, most preciously true as it is, but that His nature is love. It is equally true that "He is light." His essential nature is light, therefore cannot possibly fail to make every hidden thing manifest; but it is also blessedly true that the activities of His nature are loving; for He is love. We know, too, that God is righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works; and, as the cross of Christ most thoroughly sets forth, that He does not sacrifice His holiness to love, or His love to holiness, but His nature is love. "God is love." This faith receives and enjoys, because it is God's revelation of Himself. But here the fact is turned to practical account; for if God's nature is love, and we are born of God, it is clear that the moral qualities of a child must be according to those of the Father. The apostle therefore says, "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." The exhortation that we should "love one another" is founded, then, on the fact that we are born of God, and therefore have a nature that loves; for God is love. The fact is also stated that the person who loves according to God must be born of God. It is impossible therefore that one who is born of God can be one who loves not. He may be in a bad state of soul, and the divine work in him much obscured by carnal ways and associations, but it is as natural for the new nature which we have, as a new creation in Christ, to love, as for the old Adam-nature to be selfish and to hate. Hence you find the apostle Paul, in writing to the Thessalonian saints, declaring that they are taught of God to love one another. And how many souls, before they were established in Christ, have found comfort from this text, which assured them they were God's children — "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren!" They know this to be true of them. They know well that the poorest man by the roadside, who shows plainly that he is the Lord's, engages His affections and interests more than all the princes of this world who are enemies of the Lord of glory. Every one therefore that is born of God loves, and loves the brethren they are objects of his tenderest regard, because they are God's; and he knows also that the matters of one of His feeblest children are of more importance to God than the political movements of the whole of Europe. Oh the blessedness of having passed from death unto life, of being born of God, and of knowing God; for God is love!
The nature of God being love, He Himself is the spring of it; for "herein is love, not that we loved God;" that is, that love did not originate in us, but that "He loved us;" therefore, "he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him." Hence the word of the gospel is not about our love, but about His love; and those who have eternal life can say, "We have known and believed the love that God hath to us."
2. This leads us to notice, secondly, that God has manifested His love. It is not only a divine revelation that "God is love," but that He loves, and loves us, and that this has been most blessedly and suitably manifested to us in the gift of Jesus. "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (vv. 9, 10.) The love of God then to us has come out, both in its richness and freeness, springing only from God (not from us), coming down to us in all our uncleanness and ruin, putting away our sins, and giving us life — eternal life. How exactly, then, this love has come to us where we were, and met our need; and it is this surely which the gospel declares, for "God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8.) The depth, therefore, of this love extended to us when in our sins, and as it were on the brink of hell; it met us by Christ making atonement for our sins, even when we were dead in sins; and God, having raised up Jesus from the dead, and given us life, righteousness, and acceptance in Him, now exalted to His own right hand, the object of the grace of God so far is attained; which is, that we might live through Him. The circle of divine love is thus complete. It is from heaven to heaven. It flows from the throne of heaven down to where we were as dead in sins and guilty before God; and having accomplished atonement for us by the death of the cross, it takes us up in risen life to stand in Him who is gone back into heaven at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Surely this is
"Love that no tongue can teach,
Love that no thought can reach;
No love like His.
God is its blessed source;
Death ne'er can stop its course;
Nothing can stay its force;
Matchless it is."
The purpose of God then, in thus manifesting His love, was, that we should be fitted for, and able, in the power of a new life — eternal life — to enter into and enjoy His own blessed presence for ever. Christ suffered for our sins, to bring us to God; and divine love will not *rest in its activities toward us till we are brought there bodily at the coming of our Lord. Meanwhile we are objects of His love and care; but such are some of the characteristics of this manifested love.
Here, however, again the Holy Ghost, by the aged apostle, insists upon this as another motive for our loving one another. He says: "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another." (v. 1.) And if the question be asked what the measure of our love to one another should be, we are elsewhere told: "Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." (3:16.) When the standard is divinely set up, it could not be less than what marked the perfect One, "who loved the Church, and gave Himself for it." But we may be assured that the more we enter into and enjoy God's love in its depth, and height, and suitability to us, the more our heart's affections, sympathies, and ministrations will flow out toward our brethren. Thus we see that not only because we are born of God, who is love, do we love, but occupied in heart and conscience with His love which has been manifested, shall we find it natural to us to love. Moreover, we shall find that practising loving ways is the path of blessing and assurance for our own souls. "Hereby" (that is loving in deed and in truth) "we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him." (3:19.) How encouraging, too, to us is the astounding statement: "He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in Him." (4:16.) Who, then, is of the truth? He who loves. Who is dwelling in God and God in him? He who dwells in love. Who is born of God and knoweth God? Every one that loveth. Who have passed from death unto life? Those who love the brethren. How much ought we to love the brethren? To lay down our lives for them, because He laid down His life for us. And if we search Scripture for the great testimony we should bear towards those around, we are told by our adorable Lord — "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." And the measure of this new commandment is — "As I have loved you, that ye also should love one another." (John 13:34, 35.) But divine love working in us can never lead us contrary to the truth; for truth is divine also. Hence it is written: "This is love, that we keep His commandments; and by this we know that we love the children of God when we love God, and keep His commandments." True love must always therefore have to do with God its source, who is love, and it flows in the channel of divine truth. Hence love in activity in us and obedience are inseparable; for "this is love, if we walk after His commandments." As our blessed Lord also taught: "He it is that loveth Me that keepeth My commandments." It would be unsound, therefore, to be putting love against truth, or truth against love. We are taught to "walk in truth," and "walk in love;" and are told that the closing act of man's impiety will be to receive not the love of the truth. It is, then, a delusion to talk of holding the truth with an unloving heart. It is the highest folly to extol gift when love is absent. And we may be assured it is a snare of Satan to persuade people they have the truth when it has only reached the intellect, and one of his chiefest wiles to get men to hold the truth in unrighteousness. Whatever be the pretensions, it is certain that there can be no godliness without love; for God is love. And how marvellously has His love been manifested to us! Be assured, beloved brethren, that what we want in these last closing days is to be so dwelling in God's presence, who is love, to be so drinking in His manifested love to us in Christ, so practising love in deed and in truth, dwelling in love, and thus dwelling in God, until every cold recess of our hearts is so warmed as not easily to be chilled; for many waters cannot quench love. Thus fired with divine love, affections will flow upward to God, onward in the truth, and outward to our brethren, and in bowels of mercies to the ungodly. Love is always intelligible to almost the lowest form of the human mind, and can reach the coldest heart, while the truth we utter may pass by them as if they heard it not. How wise, then, is the inspired direction to "speak the truth in love!" The gospel, while it is the message of God's love, yet it is also God's truth. Hence we read of "the truth of the gospel," and of persons "obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren." It is divine love that sends forth the truth; and by the truth we have to do with God, who is love, and we therefore love. How truly, then, the gospel is the ministry of grace and truth, because it is concerning Him who is "full of grace and truth!" And how ruinous the separation must be of those two things which God has joined together!
3. A third point I would notice, in considering this most precious subject, is the kind or manner of love which God has bestowed upon us. In the beginning of the third chapter we read, "Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God." Here we have the relationship which divine love has brought us into. It would have been deep mercy to save us from hell merely, without bringing us into any relationship with God. Or, it would have been rich grace to have taken us to glory and made us servants. But this would not suit the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. His purpose was to have us as children before Him in love. Hence we are children by calling — not merely named children, but "called" into this nearest and most blessed relationship with God. And this, too, to be known and enjoyed now. "Beloved, now are we the sons of God." (1 John 3:1, 2.) Thus the way in which God has brought home His unutterable love to us, is to have us in this highest and most endearing relationship with Himself, both by being born of God and called children. Hence, elsewhere we are told, that we "have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father." And so truly is this relationship recognized, that Jesus the Lord is "not ashamed to call us brethren." It is not, I repeat, a calling and blessing to be known only in the future, but to be known now. "Beloved, now are we the sons of God;" and the contemplation of this glorious fact so animated the dear apostle's heart, that he at once soars in spirit right on to the glory, and adds, "It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know, that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is." Our destiny therefore is to be like Christ, "conformed to the image of God's Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren." This present relationship with God as His children necessarily links us on with the glory, and makes us strangers here and unknown by the world; for "if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together." How blessed is this relationship! how wondrous the manner of love that has brought us into it! and how precious the thought that by and by the world will know that the Father has loved us as He has loved His Son!
"So dear, so very dear to God,
More dear I cannot be;
The love wherewith He loves His Son,
Such is His love to me."
But more than this. Because we are "children" we are "brethren," and that as an actual relationship formed by divine love. And we shall find, I believe, that all correct conduct flows out of relationship. The wife's ways to her husband, the children's conduct to their parents, the brother's intercourse with each other, and the servant's behaviour to his master, are all different, having different feelings and activities and the more the reality of the relationship is entered into, the more consistent will be the maintenance of the duty flowing from it.
And first of all let us ask ourselves solemnly the question, Are we in the enjoyment of this precious relationship, formed by divine sovereign grace, of "sons of God"? It is this which the Spirit of God makes known to us, and gives us to realize; for it is by "the Spirit of His Son sent forth into our hearts that we cry, Abba, Father." If we are not habitually dealing with God as our Father, the state of our souls will be most seriously defective. We now know the Father, whose ways are always perfect as a Father toward us. If it be the place of a Father to care for, provide for, comfort, deliver, and bless His children, this He does perfectly for us; as our blessed Lord said: "If ye" (with all your love, forethought, diligence, and care) "being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?" Do we know, I ask, the habit of taking every thing from our Father, and referring every thing to Him, being assured that
"A father's hand will never cause
His child a needless tear"?
Surely the divine love that has thus called us into this near relationship would have us practically enter upon it and enjoy it; for what can so encourage our hearts in time of difficulty, comfort us in sorrow, or enable us to rest in the day of adversity, like the sense of the loving and true God being our Father. This, too, will always warrant our expectation from Him; for "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?"
As we have before observed, this is connected also with another relationship, that of brethren, for all who are begotten of God are brethren; and just, too, as the reality of this relationship is recognized will our practice be regulated; for all being partakers of the same divine nature, and all indwelt by the same Spirit, we cannot but love one another. "He that loveth not knoweth not God." (v. 8.) The world no doubt will hate us for, because they know not God, they do not know us. They have not this new nature; and, however refined and amiable they may appear, they have no love for God or for His people. Love to the brethren — all those whom Christ is not ashamed to call His brethren is the proof of vital Christianity. I repeat, how many a dear soul has been encouraged by those precious words, when deeply anxious, "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren"? This, then, is a new, a heavenly, and an everlasting relationship, and becomes another and most powerful motive for love. For when we look on our brethren in Christ, does not the thought often cross our minds, "I shall be with those loved ones for ever"? And if so, how can we fail to minister to them, care for them, or comfort them now? How can the heart thus exercised hesitate to weep with them that weep, and to rejoice with them that do rejoice? If Joseph used the fact of relationship as a motive for unanimity and peace when his brethren departed from Egypt, saying, "See that ye fall not out by the way," oh, how much more should our hearts flow out in varied forms of suited love to one another, as fruit in season, because we are born from above, and brought into an eternal relationship with God and with each other! If as saints we descend from the spiritual platform on which the grace of God has set us, to become carnal, and walk as men, we shall begin to look at one another with human feelings rather than divine, and thus the flow of brotherly affection, brotherly care, and brotherly sympathy, will be greatly set aside. Thoroughly removed from the heart love cannot be; for "he that loveth Him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of Him," and "he that loveth not his brother abideth in death."
The question may be asked, Is it not possible to love God without loving the brethren? The unmistakable answer of the Holy Ghost is, "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" The source of love, however, is always carefully marked as God Himself. "We love Him, because He first loved us." His love is first, not ours.
Thus we have seen that the Holy Ghost, by the word of eternal truth, sets before us three motives for the outflow of love from our hearts; first, being born of God, who is love, we have a new nature, which cannot but love, and that in everything according to God; secondly, that God having so wondrously manifested His love to us when sinners in sending His own Son into the world, that we might live through Him, we ought also to love one another; thirdly, being now brought into new and everlasting relationship to God and to each other, love to the brethren becomes the test of vital Christianity. And the more these motives are pondered in the conscious presence of God, the more our hearts will dwell in love, and our feet walk in love.
4. There is another aspect of love we should notice in this Scripture the quality of God's love. We have seen that God is love; that He has manifested His love, shown us the highest form or manner of love; and we are further instructed that His love is perfect. "Perfect love casteth out fear." Perfect love therefore has given a perfect gift; the work, too, He accomplished is perfect — making perfect peace, and perfecting the believer for ever. The love being perfect, it could do nothing less. Nothing can possibly be added to this love. It is perfect in its quality, perfect in its actings, perfect in its depth and height, perfect in its suitability to us, and perfect in its endurance. It met us in the lowest depth of degradation and sin, and raised us up to the highest place of blessing, even in Him who is Head over all principality and power. It surrounds us on every side with constant care and blessing. All things being of Him who loves us, all things are ours, all things for our sakes, and all things work together for our good. Could love be more perfect? Impossible. Could anything be added to it? Is there a thing we could ask more? Is there a desire that has not been met by Him who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ? What quietness and assurance for ever this gives us! Yea, rather, what praise and thanksgiving engage our hearts while thus dwelling on this boundless circle of divine, perfect love!
It is God's perfect love that casts out fear; for fear hath torment. We have heard that Luther said "he would run into the arms of the Lord Jesus, even if He had a drawn sword in His hand, because he knew His heart." And surely the effect of love is always to inspire confidence and banish dread. See how eagerly a little child runs into his mother's arms and why? Because he knows his mother's heart. Hence while on the one hand love always dispels distrust, on the other hand, when fear is in any heart, it is because it has not the sense of God's infinite, unchanging, perfect love. "He that feareth is not made perfect in love."
What boldness, too, this gives us in the day of judgment! For does the Father love us? Oh, yes, even as He loves His own Son! Is Jesus the Lord near to God? so are we; for we are in Him. Is He alive again, and that for evermore? So have we eternal life in Him. Is He righteous? We, too, are made the righteousness of God in Him. No wonder therefore that it is added, "Because as He is, so are we in this world." No marvel, then, that we praise and worship the Father now, and adore Him also who has washed us from our sins in His own blood, and made us kings and priests unto God and His Father. The wonder is that our praises ever cease. But we now know something of the reason why when in the glory we shall ever gaze upon that precious Lamb, and sing —
"Thou art worthy."