4 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
1 John 4:1-6
In 1 John 4, John provides clarity and a type of litmus test to help his readers fully grasp the realities involved in living a life in light and darkness/in Christ and in the world. The struggles of living a godly life are not merely temporal or material, they are spiritual. John makes the distinction between worldly and godly motivations by saying that we must test the spirits that drive our desires and actions. John has just finished his statements in the previous chapter that focused on how loving our brother is the utmost consequence of Christ abiding in us and vice versa. Now, he says that there is more to consider when deciding on whether or not we are truly living lives that are pleasing to God. It is not only enough to love our brothers but we must also test the motivation and substance of that love.
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 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.
1 John 4:7-16
And here is the standard by which we must measure our works of love: Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit reveals to us Christ, who is the manifestation and source of true love. Any teaching or motivation outside of Jesus is false and does not come from God but from the world and is of the antichrist. Why does John feel the need to make this distinction? The original audience was heavily tempted by opposing teachings of the gospel, especially Gnosticism- a teaching focused on detachment from the material world. He stresses the importance of understanding that love is not merely an abstract concept but is tangibly found in Jesus Christ. Without this measure, we can be easily deceived because the lies that the world tells about love are enticing to our flesh. Worldly love is egocentric and moves us to rely on ourselves and our own understanding on how to love and live good lives. But we must use the measure of truth as our standard. John encourages that we need not fear the world’s schemes and lies. We are able to overcome because we belong to the one who has overcome the world by true love. These measures do not make it harder for us to discern spirits, but easier because we will know that when a particular teaching is from the world it is because it will deny (by word and deed) the truth and revelation of who Jesus Christ is.
17 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. 18 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. 19 We love because he first loved us.
The true motivation behind worldly love and righteous living is fear. Fear in terms of God’s wrath and punishment. Most religions, and sometimes even among Christians, often function by the motivation of fear. Churches must be wary of teaching that our motivation to satisfy God’s commands stems from our understanding of the consequences of sin and disobedience. We cannot simply behave a particular way in order to avoid suffering or punishment.
John says that love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement. It is a daunting thing to go before the Holy God of the Universe. When we are faced with approaching God, our unholiness is made ever more clear. We are unrighteous and unable to approach God without fear of his rejection, punishment, and just wrath. John says that there is no fear in love. If God is love, then why are we often motivated to follow his commands because of fear? It is because we forget Christ. John makes mention in this chapter of Jesus’ humanity and his deity. It is important to remember that Jesus was both human and God. He understands our weakness and was the only person able to overcome it because he is God. God’s love was perfected with us because we are the recipients of it. The world will try to tell you that love is an emotional substance or abstract construct but God is love and he displayed that love for us on the cross. True love casts out fear because if we abide in Christ there is no fear of judgement. He took on wrath for us. He cleanses us from unrighteousness so that we can have confidence before God in judgement, knowing that Jesus is our savior and our advocate.
When Jesus resurrected from the grave, the power of the Holy Spirit was displayed as death was conquered. Wrath is satisfied and death conquered in Jesus and that revelation and power is provided to us by the Spirit. We don’t have to try to love or live godly lives by our own strength, which will prove futile eventually. We can follow God’s commands by the power and strength that he freely provides to us as a gift. The more that we know that Jesus is our Savior, we can rest assured that it is by his Spirit that we are able to live in the way that is pleasing to God. Our motivation is not fear but love. The more we know the true, sacrificial love of Jesus, the more we are able to love others. Not as a prerequisite to faith but as a consequence.
20 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. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 John 4:20-21