The Capacity for Knowing Divine Love, and How We Know It

1 John 4:7‑19  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 8
I would add to the paper on 1 John 4 some observations of a somewhat different character, though partly referring to the same truths. The verses which I would seek in a measure to unfold are from verse 7 to 19. There are two subjects in these verses—the capacity for knowing divine love, and the manifestation or proof of it, or more generally how we know it. First, as regards the capacity of the saints, that in them by which the blessedness of God’s love is known and enjoyed, it is twofold: first, participating in the divine nature (vs. 7); secondly, God’s dwelling in us (vs. 12). This gives it its full and perfect character and forms the link with the manifestations of this love, for this reason, that we cannot then separate the capacity to enjoy God and the manifestation of God, because as dwelling in us the manifestation of Himself becomes power to enjoy Him.
Hence, though for convenience sake, I have separated the two points, capacity to enjoy and the manifestations of divine love which reveal it to us to be enjoyed, and this division for other objects is exceedingly important and never lost sight of in Scripture, yet as regards God’s dwelling in us it is imperfect. We cannot here separate the capacity and the means. Next, then, as regards the means of knowing the divine love, it is first manifested to us in its true nature in Christ’s coming into the world to save in love, that had no motive in us; secondly, it is perfect in us in that God dwells in us and sheds it abroad in our heart; thirdly, it is perfected with us in that, even while we are in this world, we are as Christ is with God, so that we have boldness in the day of judgment.
The whole is connected with the subject of the entire epistle as displaying the traits of the divine nature in us by the communication of that eternal life which came down from the Father, so that these things should be true in Him (Christ) and in us, as had been shown as to righteousness (1 John 2:2929If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him. (1 John 2:29); 1 John 3:1-241Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. 2Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. 3And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. 4Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. 5And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. 6Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. 7Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. 8He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. 9Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 10In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. 11For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous. 13Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you. 14We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. 15Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. 16Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? 18My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. 19And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. 20For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. 21Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. 22And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. 23And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. 24And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us. (1 John 3:1‑24)). Only the communication of life is completed here (love being the very nature of God and not an attribute) by the perfect manifestation of that love, and even by the dwelling of God in us. Righteousness and love are the two great characteristic traits of the divine life, but the latter is what God is. I do not say God is righteousness, though He is righteous; but I do say He is love. Righteousness refers to others. Love is what He is in Himself.
But to proceed now to the examination of the verses, and first our capacity to enjoy the love of God. The apostle exhorts the saints to love one another, “for,” says he, “love is of God.” It is so in its nature, for it is what He is. Hence when a man loves with these divine affections, he is certainly born of God, for he participates in His nature and he knows Him, for he knows what that nature is, for he participates in it. A mere animal cannot enter into my thoughts as a man, for it has not my nature so as to be able to do so. If we have the elements of this nature as ours, we are clearly born of God and know Him, for that is His nature. This is the first essential principle of our capacity for the knowledge of God as love, the participation in this nature, and a most blessed one it is. Our being born of God, our receiving life is a real thing. It is our being made partakers of the divine nature. But for the full completing of this power of knowing God we must bring in not only the divine nature as communicated to us, but God Himself. This is still connected with its manifestation in loving one another. No man has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwells in us and His love is perfected in us. Thus the divine presence becomes the power of knowing God, of His love being perfected in us. We know that we dwell in God and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. Paul (though, as he is wont, in a more dispensational way) tells us the same truth: “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5:55And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. (Romans 5:5)).
It is here said, remark “of” His Spirit, because it is not a display of power—as it might be when it is simply said His Spirit, as in chapter 3: 24, where consequently it is not said we dwell in Him—but such a working of the Spirit in the power of divine life that there is communion in the elements of the divine nature. We love, for He loves. “He hath given us of his Spirit.” Our being partakers then of the divine nature and God dwelling in us form our capacity for enjoying God in love.
I turn now to those things in which that love is manifested and proved. First, we have verses 9-10. In speaking of him that loves being born of God and knowing God, the soul might have been thrown quite back on itself to search the love there and fall into mysticism. But the Spirit of God at once, while clearly laying down this partaking of the divine nature, turns the eye of faith to what is wholly outside us, in order to have the proof and learn the character of divine love. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us.” This comes out in the fullest and most blessed way. He sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him. I was dead then—I live through another. It was pure and perfect love in the mind of God Himself—the expression of what He is in this love, for there was nothing in me to attract or awaken it. I was dead. But God gave the one blessed object of His undistracted and undisturbed love—His only-begotten Son—for me when I was dead. Herein, then, was love, not that we loved God (this was law work), but that He loved us.
But this leads to another aspect of the state of the sinner. He was guilty as well as dead, but Christ came to be the propitiation for our sins. That is the pure love of God without a motive, but what was in Himself took us up when our state was one of death and guilt through sin. It was in this state and as being in it we were loved; and the love applied itself to this. I look for it therefore in God and know its absolute completeness in Him. There was only a needy undeserving object in me. It was to my state of sin this love applied. If I look at the cross where it was displayed, I have no part in it but my sin. The love of God there was manifested in this that we, dead in sin and guilty, might live through Him, and know that propitiation was made for our sins.
I now turn to the last of the three points I mentioned—love perfected with us. It is in this: that as Christ is, so are we. Love was manifested to us in that He came to us in love when we were in our sins. It is perfected in that, as Christ is, so are we. We can say “in this world,” for it is here that we learn to know we are, in Him, the righteousness of God in unclouded light. How can I but have boldness in the day of judgment, when I am as the judge before whom I appear? And so it is with us. He comes and fetches us Himself and changes our bodies into glorious bodies by the way; so that, when we appear before Him, we are like Himself in glory. But this comes about by a real communication of life. We say we are dead, and our life is hid with Christ in God. “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:44When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:4)). Paul, as I have said, treats it more dispensationally, but it is the same truth. I know I am as Christ is, now that He is gone to my Father and His Father, my God and His God. Risen, after He had completely put away our sins, He has taken us in the power of resurrection out of the whole case we were in and put us in a new one before God, even that in which He is. To be as Christ the Son, before God our Father, is all that love could do. Thus love was manifested in visiting us in our sins; it is perfected in putting us in Christ’s position before God, and that livingly.
But there is more. I have reserved for the last what comes second in the chapter, because it speaks of our present enjoyment of this blessing. I have already referred to it in speaking on the point of our capacity to enjoy. It is said (vs. 12), “No man hath seen God at any time.” What is the remedy for this seeming impossibility of knowing Him? The answer here is, If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and His love is perfected in us. Here is a wonderful way of knowing God, of enjoying in the most perfect way His love. How great is the intimacy when He dwells in us and gives us to feel immediately the sweetness of His present love! No intermediate means to assure us of it merely, precious as we have seen these are and absolutely necessary to found our souls in the certainty that He does love us: we know it because we enjoy it directly with Himself. He has been pleased to come and fill our hearts with the consciousness of His love and to abide there. He becomes the home and object of confidence for our hearts, because He dwells in our hearts. He can dwell in us because of Christ’s work and our cleanness and righteousness in Him.
Here, we can say, is rest—here is peace, the spring of joy, and the intelligence and pledge of what we shall enjoy with God above. This passage is the more remarkable through its correspondence with John 10:1818No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. (John 10:18). The same difficulty is raised. “No man hath seen God at any time.” And how is it met there? “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:1818No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1:18)). Not who was, mark: He who is the one object in whom the Father’s love concentrated itself in the most immediate enjoyment and delight— He has declared Him as He Himself knew Him. So he that hath seen Him hath seen the Father. Thus by the Son’s coming into the world, we may, through grace, know God. This, along with the consequent promise of the Spirit on His departure, is the great subject of John’s gospel: God made known as the Father by His revelation in the Son. But how is the same difficulty met here? God dwells in us. We know it by this great result of Christ’s work that cleansed and justified. God dwells in us, and makes us enjoy by His presence a love which has allowed nothing to hinder its making itself our own, and has communicated itself to our hearts by dwelling in us, so that we know that nothing hindered its communicating itself to us. We know it because it is communicated, and God is nearer to us than any other object in the world. He dwells in us. Wonderful place given to us!— not an earnest of God’s love (there is of the glory), but that love itself perfected in us, because He is there, and whom would we wish but He, and where He is, who shall compete with Him?
One sentence remains in the passage which I would notice. Some may say, This is too high for me, I cannot pretend to enter into all this, must have something simpler. Friend, nothing is simpler than the presence and love of God, where it is enjoyed. That is what is wanting. And now, to show you how without excuse you are, it is written, “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” Do you confess that Jesus is the Son of God? God dwells in you then. How are you treating such a guest?
Allow me to add one correction of a thought fundamentally just, and one correction of an error of expression or copy. Read, It does not say, “As the Father loves me,” but, “as he loved me.” That is, it is not the infinite and eternal delight, but the Father’s love to Christ as one walking down here.
The other remark I would make is this, that, while the contrast between knowing God as a father and as a judge is most just and most important, it is well for the Christian to remember that in a certain sense it is just as father that He is judge. As regards final judgment, or the imputation of sin, the Father judges no man, but has committed all judgment to the Son. The perfect work of Christ, which has put away our sins and thus secured us from the judgment of them as guilt, brings us to call on the Father, who, without respect of persons, judges according to every man’s work. That is what delivers us from judgment as to guilt, brings us into that holy and gracious care which never overlooks anything in the children, and judges it according to the Father’s own nature, in the privilege of communion with which the child is fully brought. The word of Christ was, “Holy Father, keep through thine own name” (John 17:1111And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. (John 17:11)). That perfect love of God which has brought us into the enjoyment of itself has not changed Him into whose communion it has brought us, so that He should allow any evil. Indeed it would not be love. He deals with us in grace; He warns, chastens, and if He chastises, it is that we should not be condemned with the world; but He allows no evil in His government of His children more than finally in the government of the world.