WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson CXL) 08/16/22

4:20If anyone says, “I love God,” but keeps hating their brother or sister, they are lying; for if they don’t love their brother or sister who is right in front of them, how can they love God whom they have never seen?

Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) examines the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius and says we must seek two roots in our dispositions for such mixed results – greediness for evil and love for good. There is not a single root for both in nature. Humanity’s “ability” is the root of nothing. Still, it is capable of both good and evil according to the motivating cause, which, in the case of evil, is human-originated, while, in the case of good, it is from God. Pelagius’[1] assertion that grace is given according to our merits took such an extreme form as to openly proclaim that individuals can come and hold onto God by their free will alone without God’s help. Augustine shows that the Scriptures teach just the opposite and then points out how Pelagius has confounded the functions of knowledge and love and how he forgets that we cannot earn merits until we love God. At the same time, the Apostle John asserts that God loved us first.[2] [3]

Bishop Arthur Temple Lyttelton (1852-1903), Suffragan Bishop of Southampton, states: We cannot love God whom we do not see, and then comprehend the tremendous invisible influence in which we live and move and have our being, to appreciate the person who is watching over and directing us and guiding all this complicated scheme of things. That is more complex and harder to do. And the world comes close around us and absorbs us. If that is our difficulty, we may take verse twenty to say, there is training for God’s children in agápē.

So, offers Lyttelton, if we accept that love of others is training for God’s agápē; for, though it is hard to grasp the invisible, we have the visible. We have people; we have a love of others, which is natural to us, and easy for us in a sense. And I think that is what the Apostle means for us to become sufficient using God’s agápē – the love of our brother and sister whom we see; this familiar friend, who is with us at every turn of our life, with whom we are continually in contact. And in our natural life in the world, this familiar friend is the means to train and draw out this outstanding faculty in us – the love of our friend and our fellowman. So, we are to train and exercise God’s agápē. And that simple, natural human affection we feel for our friends is the same faculty as that required for God’s agápē.

We must not think of this agápē as something extraordinary, says Lyttelton, some new and unknown faculty to be given to us. No doubt all God’s love is a gift: but all love is similar to the same affection. Although it is essentially going out of ourselves, loving another, and living for another, whether that other is our fellowman or God, still, the impulse is the same – the putting aside of all selfish motivations and living in and for God or those around us. That is love. So, the love of others is training for expressing God’s agápē because it is the same faculty needed for both. And in our weakness, when we cannot rise to God’s agápē, let us remember that we have our Lord’s warrant that “whatever we do for the least important of our brothers and sisters, we do for Him.”[4] And when we love our fellow believers, it is the first step to God’s agápē. We cannot pass it over; we cannot rise to the level of God’s agápē; we cannot see unless we love “those whom we have seen.”[5]

Alonzo R. Cocke (1858-1901) says it is easy to say, “I love God,” but the evidence supporting a claim of having love must be tested. The witness to the presence of God’s agápē in our hearts is love for our fellow Christians. One who claims to love God and yet hates their Christian brother or sister proves their assertions are lies. Hatred and love mutually exclude each other. Our fellow believers are visible, but God is invisible. Love for God is the primary, and love for fellow Christians is a copy of God’s agápē. Love for God causes love for His children.

Cocke continues: Love for God is invisible unless manifested with visible effects. A person’s profession of love to God is an incredible lie when there is no visual evidence. Likewise, the invisible God is not loved if the visible brother or sister is not loved. Such is the necessary connection between these two exhibits of the divine life as it flows in the agápē channel. From one fountain, the waters ever flow into these two streams: Love for God and love for our fellow Christians.[6]

Alan E. Brooke (1863-1939) states that since God is love, they who abide in His agápē remain in God and God in them. Thus, the test of love can give full assurance concerning the reality of our fellowship with God. It is a logical deduction from the very nature of God. Love has been made perfect in us when, and only when, we can look forward with entire confidence to the great day of God’s judgment, knowing that as the exalted Anointed One abides in the Father’s love, so we remain in it so far as that is possible under the condition of our present existence. Where complete confidence is not yet likely, love fails to reach perfection, for fear and dread have no place in true love. It drives them out entirely from the sphere of its activity. Love is not merely an attribute of God but His attitude. Love expresses the highest conception we can form of God’s very Being.[7]

Brooke goes on to say that fear is something of the nature of punishment, and they who experience it have not yet been made perfect in love. How then can they say that they have compassion? Because love, in whatever degree it is exercised, originates in something above and beyond us. It has its origin in God. It is in response to God’s love for us. But our claim to love can be put to an obvious test. Love is active and must go out to those who need it if it is genuine. If anyone claims to love God and does not show love to their fellow believers, their claim is not only false but reveals a deceptive character. Love will show itself wherever an object of love is to be found.

Those who will not take the first step can never reach the goal. If the sight of one’s brother or sister in the Lord does not call out their love, it shows they cannot have enough love to reach God. And for us, the matter is determined, once and for all, by the Master’s command. He has said, the first commandment is: “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart,”[8] and the second is, “You will love your neighbor as yourself.”[9] [10]

Harry A., Ironside (1876-1951) tells us to notice the Apostle John’s strong language in verse twenty. Listen to what he said earlier in this epistle, “If someone claims, ‘I know God,’ but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth.”[11] Then John asks this stabbing question, “Who is lying? Anyone who says that Jesus is not the Anointed One.”[12] Now John spells it out, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” In other words, how you treat your Christian brother and sister is a test as to whether you really love God.[13]

Charles H. Dodd (1884-1973) tells us that the meaning of the last part of verse twenty is not entirely clear. The words “loveth not” (KJV) and “cannot” (NIV) might bear either of two meanings, which may be illustrated as follows. A schoolmaster might warn a lazy pupil, “Unless you start doing your lessons, you cannot become educated,” and, on the other hand, the recipient of an anonymous letter might remark, “A person who writes like that cannot be educated.” Similarly, here the meaning might be either that, unless a believer practices loving their fellowman, they are incapable of the more difficult task of loving God.

It could also be that the absence of practical charity proves that a person does not love God. The context seems to demand this latter meaning. John is not concerned with the stages by which we may learn to love God but with the tests by which it may be known whether we love Him. However, the most straightforward and convincing test is that of assistance towards our neighbors. In effect, we have a fresh interpretation and application of the evangelical commandment of love for God and neighbor. For the “first and greatest commandment” and the second, which is “like unto it,”[14] are in summation one commandment. Being the objects of God’s agápē, we are to love our neighbor in Him and Him in our neighbor; and that is what it means to “remain in His agápē.”[15]

Greville P. Lewis (1891-1976) is nothing between white and black, love and hate, in the Apostle John’s vocabulary. There is no grey area or fence to sit on. He is thinking of a professing Christian who is indifferent to the needs of their fellow Christians and may even positively dislike – or hate – a member of the Church to which they belong. He says that a person who says proudly, “I love God,” but fails to love any one of their fellow believers, is in plain words, “a liar.” Since John has just said in verse nineteen, “We love because He first loved us,” our capacity to love is our grateful and self-giving response to the undeserved and amazing God’s agápē for us. If, as a result of our love for God, we live in such intimate union with Him that we share His very nature, then love should become “second nature” to us. If this proves true, it follows that a person who says, “I have no feelings of love for this particular brother or that specific sister, and have no interest in their needs,” shows that love is not their “second nature.” Therefore, they do not love or belong to God.[16]


[1] Pelagius (born c. 354 AD, probably Britain—died after 418 AD (possibly in Palestine), monk and theologian whose non- orthodox theological system known as Pelagianism emphasized the primacy of human effort in spiritual salvation.

[2] 1 John 4:10

[3] Warfield, Benjamin B., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 5, Trans. Peter Holmes, Part 2, Introductory Essay on Augustine and the Pelagian Controversy, the External History, p. 62

[4] Matthew 25:40, 45

[5] Lyttelton, Arthur Temple: Church Pulpit Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.

[6] Cocke, Alonzo R., Studies in the Epistles of John, op. cit., loc. cit., Logos

[7] Brooke, Alan E., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, op. cit., p. 118

[8] Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37

[9] Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39

[10] Brooke, Alan E., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, op. cit., p. 123

[11] 1 John 2:4

[12] Ibid. 2:20

[13] Ironside, Harry A., The Epistles of John and Jude, op. cit., p. 181

[14] Matthew 22:38-39

[15] Dodd, Charles H., The Moffatt Commentary, Johannian Epistles, op. cit., p. 124

[16] Lewis, Greville P., The Epworth Commentary, Johannine Epistles, op. cit., p. 111

About drbob76

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