What is Love (1 John 3)?

Love is a major theme in John’s first epistle. Our society tells us that we need more love but less Bible or even more love but less God. How is it that we can be such a love-infatuated culture when we are not a God-seeking culture? John 13:35 says “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” On the contrary, many people today regard modern Christians as some of the least loving people in the world. Is this because those who know God aren’t living like it? Absolutely not. He who does not love does not know God (1 Jn 4:8). Rather, love has come to mean tolerance and giving people whatever they want. The love that our secular society embraces is not the love of the Apostle John.

What is love? I have found this to be a difficult question to answer and I am still growing in my understanding of it. The Scriptures give us numerous examples of it, all of which are trumped by God’s love for his children in that He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn 2:2, 3:16). Paul tells us that love is patient, kind, etc. (1 Cor 13:4-7). Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love one another (Mk 12:29-31). What is this love which is at the heart of life in the body of Christ? What is this love which motivated God to save sinners (Jn 3:16)?

Generally speaking, love is valuing something. I ask that the reader permit a broad discussion of love before we get to the more precise forms of love found in some verses. To love God with all our heart, soul, and strength is to think that He is supremely valuable. We must not value our money, our reputation, our father, our mother, our job, our wives, our kids, our education, our baseball card collections, or our libraries more than God. This is why continuing in sin is incompatible with belief in God. To value God above all else means to devalue sin. If we love God, we keep His commandments. When we sin, we reveal our values. More than that, all our actions show our values. What we do results from what we love. Interestingly enough, this is the principle that drives sound economics. People act in accordance with their values.

Love always has an object. We don’t just love. We love something or someone. Sometimes we may refer to someone as a “loving person.” What we most likely mean is that the person loves whomever he/she is around. The word “love” tends to be used only of the things that we value highly. You may say that you love Egg McMuffins, to which I’ll retort: “You don’t love them, you like them.” You might reply that even Isaac the patriarch loved good food (Gen 27:4).

When the Scriptures speak of the virtue of love, something more precise is meant than simply that we are to value things. After all, we are commanded not to love the world but to love God. There are right and wrong loves. As applied to our neighbors, the virtue of love is valuing what God wants for others. For example, one parent may think it is loving to withhold a spanking for the child who is lying to him. However, a more loving response is to obey God and discipline the child in accordance with God’s command that parents discipline their children. Similarly, it may seem loving to continue to fellowship with a church member who is unrepentantly engaged in a lifestyle of sin. However, love for such a person is to follow God’s instruction for church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18 trusting in God’s method for calling this struggling person back into God’s fold. Valuing what God wants for others always results in obedience to God. Romans 13:8-10 says

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Since the two greatest commandments are to love, it seems obvious that love is the fulfilling of the law. Note, in addition, the interconnectedness of obedience to God and love. In 1 John, there is an unbreakable chain between knowing God, loving God, and obeying His commandments. Knowing God produces love (i.e. a value for God and his will for others). Love produces obedience to God.

Love: Evidence of our Sonship

1See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.


The chapter opens with a marvelously encouraging reminder to look into the love that the Father has bestowed upon us. Namely, that through belief in the Word, and because of Christ’s sacrifice (i.e. through God’s plan of salvation), we may be sons and daughters of God! Amazing love! Chapter 4 tells us that we love because He first loved us. Indeed, God’s love is the motivator for the believer’s love and the believer will not love without this motivation. Let us look into the Father’s love through study of God’s plan of salvation from His gracious calling to regeneration to justification to sanctification and to glorification. Our hearts may be encouraged to love others when we look into our adoption by our heavenly Father. With this hope, we love respond in love to God by purifying ourselves.


4Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 10By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. 11For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.


As beneficiaries of God’s special love, we are compelled to repent of sin. John defines sin as transgression of or want of conformity to God’s law. The reason that a Christian does not make a practice of sinning is said to be because “…God’s seed abides in him…” and because “…he has been born of God.” What is this seed? 1 Peter 1:23 says, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” Luke 8:11-15 says “…the seed is the word of God…” The new birth is the work of the Holy Spirit revealing the truth and causing us to believe it. The truth that is believed is the Logos of God. Believing in the Word is necessarily followed by more and more repentance from sin, so that the believer becomes a practicing mortifier of sin. John is saying that the believer does not continue to act wrongly toward his brother but loves his brother. Love for one another is said to be a distinguishing feature of God’s children.

Moreover, love is not an emotion, feeling, or passion. Love is mental. This is evidenced by the fact that we are commanded to love. Responses to God’s commands are volitional (of the will). We may choose to love God or not to love God in a given situation whether or not our emotions are cooperating. The paragraph could be construed as impossibly confusing. The first couple of chapters of Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards and the book: What is Saving Faith? by Gordon Clark provides a great exegesis of the Scriptures pertaining to the relationship of the mind, will, heart, soul, spirit, and body. One might object that love is in the heart not in the head. That is right and wrong! The Scriptures fairly consistently speak of the heart, mind, soul, spirit, as referring to the same faculty. There is no distinction between head and heart. Love is intellectual. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he…(Prov. 23:7)”



12We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.


Words can be deceitful. Words are so deceitful that we sometimes can even deceive ourselves with our words. God’s love for His people is not mere words. God says that He loves us and Christ laid down His life for us to demonstrate that love and to glorify the Father. Even before Christ came to us, God’s love was upon us. Before the foundations of the earth, God forknew us. John is not commanding us to stop saying “I love you.” He is saying that we need to show the love of which we speak when we say “I love you.”

When a woman says she loves a man, and then leads him into sexual sin, the correct judgement is that she loved him in word and in talk, but not in deed and in truth. Love others is valuing God’s will for them. When we influence a friend who we say that we love to committing ungodly actions or embracing ungodly mindsets, we love in our talk, but we hate in our deeds and in truth. When I tell my wife that I love her, and then I look at other women with lust in my heart, I am loving her in talk but hating in deed and truth. How convicting. All such sin is hatred for God as well.


19By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us

Not only do we know that He abides in us when we bear fruit by keeping the commandments and loving one another, but also by the fact that the Holy Spirit resides in us; teaching us, comforting us, and otherwise ministering to us daily.


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