The Gospel as Perfect Love Casting Out Fear
We have seen throughout this section of our series on gospel paradigms that all of the principal NT figures spoke and wrote as though their basic understanding of the gospel was that salvation comes through the New Covenant gift of the Spirit who accomplishes in God’s people what the law of Moses could not by enabling us to display the love of God and neighbor that the Father has desired all along.
I have traced all of these elements in the preaching of Jesus and in the writings of Paul, Peter, and James. Last of all is John who, unsurprisingly, echoes the others by connecting all the same dots:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. . . . Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. . . . So 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. By 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. There 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. We love because he first loved us. 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. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (I John 4:7, 11-13, 16-21).
Some points to consider:
1. As throughout the Johannine corpus, love of God and neighbor is paramount here.
2. The foundation of our love of neighbor is God’s prior love for us.
3. There is a qualitative nature to the agape discussed here (much like the “righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” is not just greater in quantity or more of the same kind of righteousness, but is of another quality altogether).
4. The way John describes this superlative quality of agape is by describing it as “perfect love” that is “perfected in us” (2x), and we “perfected in it” (1x).
5. Building upon #s 3 and 4, the issue here is not our having kept a list of Mosaic commands, and neither is it that God has replaced the demand for perfect law-keeping with the demand for perfect loving (which, being impossible, serves to condemn us as the law did). Rather, this love not just demanded but becomes a reality in us, “because he has given us his Spirit.” This agape , then, is covenantally contextualized as it was by Jesus, Paul, Peter, and James.
6. The result of possessing this perfect love is a lack of fear concerning the day of judgment, which parallels the other NT figures we have considered, all of whom see the Spirit-wrought fruit of love as contributing to our final salvation on the last day.
I should also point out another passage in which John clearly sets forth the dual command of love in its New Covenant context:
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining (I John 2:7-8).
Here we see that despite the command to love God and neighbor having been operative under the Mosaic law, the command as it comes to us through Christ is indeed “new” because it is now accompanied by the power of the new age, the light of which is “already shining” by the Holy Spirit.
The problem for the Reformed is not that they don’t believe these words of the beloved disciple, or that they have no room for them in their system. The problem is that if the gospel hinges upon the extrinsic imputation of alien righteousness, then the gospel is conspicuously absent from anything John wrote, whereas if the gospel is about the Father creating in us through Christ by the Spirit the divine love that fulfills the law and sufficiently pleases him, then that gospel message is not just found on every page of John’s writings, but it is the exact message preached by Jesus, James, Peter, and Paul as well.