WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson CXVIII) 07/25/22

4:18         Where God’s love is, there is no fear because God’s perfect love takes it away. On the contrary, it is His punishment that makes a person afraid.

Henry A. Sawtelle (1832-1913) says that the phrase “perfect love drives out fear” refers to the presence of divine love in our hearts and perfected there. In its completeness, it fills the soul, thereby shutting out despair in us prior to such love. Two spheres cannot occupy where there is only space for one. But how does perfect love in us expel dismay? In the experience of it, we feel entirely united to God, as if it were a part of Him. We look out upon the world, opposition, death, judgment itself, from God’s being that encircles us, from the canopy, the fortification of His divine person. In the consciousness of this union, we need not dread evil any more than God be uneasy about Himself.[1]

Sawtelle continues by pointing out that when it comes to the use of the word “torment,” there are only four places in the Final Covenant where this word occurs: Here, in verse eighteen, the Greek noun kolasis (“torment”), and Matthew 25:46 (“punishment”); and as the Greek verb kolazō in2 Peter 2:9 (“punishment”), and Acts of the Apostles 4:21 (“punish”). It is the punishment of the great day,[2] with which fear is connected and which it already takes possession of as if it were a part of itself. Distress is the anticipation of punishment; it contains a foretaste and partakes of it before it even arrives. There can be nothing of this, nothing of painful apprehension in perfected love, and, therefore, the statement in the first sentence of this verse must be true. The last sentence of this verse says that such fright is only present when perfected love is absent.[3] As we can see, the KJV translators chose the word “torment” to emphasize the severity of the punishment in the lake of fire.[4]

John James Lias (1834-1923) believed that the Apostle John has before his eyes the ideal condition of perfect union with God to which the believer is ever growing. No apprehension exists, nor can it exist in that condition, for there is no longer cause for anxiety. But, of course, John is not speaking of that reverent, respectful awe that hesitates to offend,[5] but of the dread of reprimand, rebuke, or rejection. If we ask, how is it that “reverence and godly-fear” are taught to us from Scripture if misgivings are opposed to love? We will find the reply in the following words – “because fear has no torment.”[6]

So, says Lias, if we imagine that fear and love may co-exist in the same person is not to misrepresent the Apostle John. He does not say that there can be no anxiety in the mind of the person who has love in their heart. What John says comes closer to the statement that apprehension is not love. He says that concern is not contained in love. Dread of offending God must always be felt. Despair over the consequences of sin cannot be avoided, even where there is much love in the heart. But, when love is allowed to diminish panic, the more a person is filled with love, the less they are inclined to be concerned. That’s why John says here, God’s gentle agápē dissolves the tears of fear.[7]

William E. Jelf (1836-1849) has an enlightening thought in verse eighteen. He says that having qualms does not harmonize with love, and perhaps it is the only energy of our moral nature with which fear is not connected. Being frightened of judgment is different than being afraid of the Judge. The feeling of love does not give rise to nor is it accompanied by uneasiness; it is the negation of worry. It cannot be said to use the argument “Who then is the one who condemns?”[8] for the notion of condemnation is not suggested by love but is foreign to it. It feels that God will give us all good things, and when this agápē is perfectly developed, if any hesitation arises from or in the other parts of our moral nature, love drives it out of our souls.

True Christian love, says Jelf, which, when developed, becomes perfect love which is founded on God’s agápē for us, and, as God loved us before we loved Him, the existence of agápē implies that we have no cause to fear Him: as far as God’s agápē is concerned we should have no aversion if we love Him. This is proof of the statement that perfect love excludes animosity, giving us the freedom to speak. Therefore, as we love Him, we must have realized His prior love for us, and in proportion, as we recognize His agápē for us, dislike for Him is out of the question.[9]

Alfred Plummer (1841-1926) hears the Apostle John giving proof here in verse nineteen of the statement in verse eighteen that perfect love will give us boldness by showing the incompatible natures of love and fear. Love moves towards others in the spirit of self-sacrifice: hostility shrinks from others in the spirit of self-preservation. It is generally understood that neither God’s agápē nor dread of God is specifically meant. In all relations, perfect love excludes angst and prevents love from being perfect. And the two vary in reverse: the more perfect the love, the less possible the anxiety, and the more apprehension, the less perfect the love.

But, says Plummer, being as sure as any physical law, the principle that perfect love excludes all fear is an ideal that has never been proven. Like the first law of motion, it is verified by its approximations. No believer’s love has ever been so perfect as to banish concern, but all believers experience that as their love increases, their despair diminishes. It is worthy of note that John here abandons his incompatible method. He does not go on to state anything about those that do not doubt. And rightly so, for the absence of dismay proves nothing: it may be the result of ignorance, presumption, indifference, unbelief, or chronic wickedness that keeps a person from having no anxiety about appearing before God on Judgment Day.

The Apostle Paul teaches the same doctrine, says Plummer; “So, you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when He adopted you as His children. Now we call Him ‘Abba, Father.’[10] The submissive distress, which perfect love excludes, is therefore altogether different from childlike awe, which is necessary for creating the Creator’s image to love their Creator. Even obedient fright is necessary as a preparation for perfect love. “Respect for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,”[11] and it is also the beginning of love. Every sinner must begin by reverencing the God against whom they have sinned. Johann Bengel (1687-1752) gives us these various stages, notes Plummer: The condition of mankind is varied: (1) without terror and love; (2) with trembling without love; (3) with nightmares and love; (4) without misgivings with love – agápē love towards God. This is also the case of Hagar, who Abraham evicted from his household.[12] In the case of Sarah, it would be like number (2) above; with Abraham, it would be (4).[13] [14]

Erich Haupt (1841-1910) notes that the Apostle John is certain that love must drive out fear; however, it appears from this that uneasiness causes terror. To explain this idea, we are directed to the words of our Lord, “They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”[15] We, therefore, perceive that torment is the punishment, not merely the feeling of condemnation; the objective condition, not the subjective sense of it or pain. As this is required by the Greek verb aperchomai (“to go away”), so still more is it demanded by the antithesis to eternal life: as it would be highly forced to speak of going away or entering a feeling. Hence, the state of eternal life is not the description of a subjective feeling but an appointed condition. Similarly, in our passage, torment must not be understood as a mere painful feeling, for it was surely not necessary to emphasize that angst is a sentiment of distress.

To look at it another way, the Apostle John said this terror has been shown to be the “fear of punishment” since the death penalty is already included and involved. If we remember the saying of the Gospel, those who don’t believe are condemned already.[16] Such condemnation implies that Light shined on those in darkness, but they did not comprehend its meaning. In John’s thought, condemnation is consummate in eternal separation from God. It is perfectly clear that John might have exhibited this proposition: that where dread is, love cannot be perfected. Therefore, dismay must be driven out.[17]

Clement Clemance (1845-1886) notes that since Love implies attraction, fear repulsion; therefore, being scared does not share any space in our hearts with love. Love in verse eighteen means the principle of love in general; it must not be limited to God’s agápē to us, or our love to God, or our love of fellow Christians. Love and distress coexist only where love is not yet perfect. Perfect love will absolutely exclude fright as surely as perfect union excludes all separation. Self-interested love is apprehensive; pure and unselfish love has no dismay. Yet nothing but perfect love must be allowed to drive out timidity. Otherwise, says Clemance, this text might be used to take the most unwarranted liberties with Almighty God and those around us. Attempting to end worrying without achieving perfect love is irreverent and presumptuous.[18]


[1] See Romans 8:1

[2] See 1 John 4:17

[3] Sawtelle, Henry A., An American Commentary, Alvah Hovey Ed., op. cit., p. 53

[4] See Revelation 19:20

[5] Cf. Psalms 19:9; 111:10

[6] First Epistle of St. John with Exposition, op. cit., pp. 339-340

[7] First Epistle of St. John with Homiletical Treatment, op. cit., pp. 340-341

[8] Romans 8:34

[9] Jelf, William E., The First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., p. 65

[10] Romans 8:15

[11] Proverbs 1:7; 9:10

[12] Galatians 4:30

[13] Bengel, Johann: Gnomon of the New Testament, op. cit., loc. cit.

[14] Plummer, Alfred: Cambridge Commentary, op. cit., pp. 152-153

[15] Matthew 25:46

[16] John 3:18

[17] Haupt, Erich: The First Epistle of John, op. cit., pp. 279-280

[18] Clemance, Clement: First Epistle of John, Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22, Exposition, op. cit., p. 105

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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