SERMON: “God’s Love in Us” 「われらのうちにある神の愛」
TEXT: 1 John 3:16-22
It would be fascinating if we could get into a time machine and travel back to the days when John wrote this letter. There are so many questions I would like to ask John or the Christians who first read this letter! What were the specific circumstances that led John to write these things? Why did he need to exhort the church about the necessity of loving each other? What were the specific challenges that threatened the peace and unity of the churches he wrote to? Why did they need assurance that they were really God’s children and heirs of eternal life?
It seems clear that some had been confused by teachers who did not admit the full deity and glory of the Redeemer Jesus Christ. Some had already left the fellowship of these Christian churches to follow new teachings that differed from the doctrines taught by Christ’s apostles. So John said in 2:26, “These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you.” John cared deeply about these Christians, whom he often calls, “My little children,” and “Beloved.” So he writes with great sympathy and love, as he urges them to consider carefully and to reaffirm the truths they had been taught about their relation to Christ and to each other. “I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth.”
The churches John wrote to were perhaps not so different from the church today. They were constantly being confronted with claims that challenged what they had been taught and believed. We, too, are constantly being tempted and challenged by new teachings. We, too, need to examine and reaffirm what we believe about Jesus, about truth, about morality and righteousness, about the church, and about Christian love which binds us to one another and to God. At the beginning of his letter John had declared that it is truth that brings Christians together. Our spiritual fellowship is grounded in the truth of the apostles’ eyewitness testimony concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The “church of the living God” is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As a church, we must proclaim that truth and live by it. God’s word is the “moral compass” that guides our lives. The Christian church is a fellowship of people who trust God and try to follow His law. But when Christians do keep God’s law properly, because they trust Him, something else remarkable happens in them.
John writes in 2:5, “But if anyone obeys His word, the love of God is perfected in him.” In other words, when Christians obey God’s moral laws, they will “grow” in their ability to love one another and to love God. I think the expression “the love of God is perfected in him” means that God’s perfect love will be seen in a Christian’s behavior and relationships. But there are many kinds of “love.” How can we distinguish “God’s perfect love” from emotions and behaviors that are sometimes called “love”? Last week we considered what John wrote in vs. 11-16 about Christian love. Christian love must be more than a natural human affection for another person. What is called “brotherly love” is not “God’s perfect love.” John illustrates the inadequacy of brotherly love by mentioning the story of Cain and his brother Abel. Because Cain hated righteousness, he murdered his brother! “God’s perfect love” must include a love for righteousness. If you do not love God’s perfect law, you will not be able to love others as you should. Sometimes people think that they must choose between following “love” and keeping God’s commandments. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Any “love” that does not aim to keep God’s law and act righteously will ultimately deceive us and fail. Christian love is not a “substitute” for law; it is based upon law–God’s perfect law of righteousness. However, in a sense, Christian love is much more than keeping God’s laws. God’s perfect love did not end with righteousness. And Jesus did more than perfectly keep God’s laws. This is what John explains in our text this morning, in verses 16-18. In these verses John tells us how we can recognize real Christian love, that is, God’s perfect love. Then, in verses 19-22, John explains that practicing Christian love will give us confidence before God. Let’s examine what John tells the church about both of these matters a little more carefully.
II. CHRISTIAN LOVE AT WORK, AND ITS EFFECTS
3:16-18) How can we recognize true Christian love? John says that we must learn what love is from the example of Jesus, the Son of God. How can we know love? “We know love by this,” he tells us, “that He laid down His life for us” (v. 16). Christ’s love goes beyond any requirement of God’s law written in the Ten Commandments! In fact, as Paul wrote to the Roman church (Rom. 5:8, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ did not give His life for the righteous, but for sinners! Romans 5:6 says that “Christ died for the ungodly.” This shows what God’s love is—a gracious, self-sacrificing love for people who do not deserve, and are not ready to return, that love. This is the love that God shows toward us. And John tells us that, if we are Christians, we must also learn to love in the same way. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” I do not think that any of us will ever be asked physically to lay down our lives for the sake of our Christian brothers and sisters. But what does God seek from us? I think God seeks in each of us a heart that is “prepared to die, if necessary” for someone else. In other words, our hearts should be so committed to one another, and so trusting in God’s promise of eternal life, that we would be willing to die for one another. Remember that Jesus loved His followers with a perfect love, but He did not die for them physically every day. He only had to die for them one time. And on that one particular occasion, He chose to give His life a ransom for many. We must learn to live each day with that kind of a heart. As God’s love grows to maturity in us, we will more and more “die to self” that we may live to serve God and others. Paul expressed this idea in Philippians 2:3-5. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” This is what God’s perfect love requires: a readiness to give oneself to save someone else.
In the next two verses John shows us how we must put this principle of Christian love into practice. First, in v. 17, John shows us a negative example; this is what Christian love is not! This is how we can recognize a “fake Christian.” “Whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” If you have the means (ability) to help someone in need, but choose to harden your heart, instead of showing mercy, then you do not know God’s love. From time to time, God will ask you to sacrifice something— maybe your time, or your money, or even your pride or reputation—in order to help a brother in need. In that case, you will do it, because God’s love moves you to do it. In fact, you will offer the sacrifice willingly (as to God, not men), not under compulsion, and not complaining. If God’s love is in you, you will give gladly to help someone in need. Long ago, after murdering his brother, Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The correct answer to Cain’s question is, “Yes, you are.” We will all be asked one day to give an account before God for how well we have loved and protected our brothers and sisters.
Let me tell you a story that taught me this point many years ago. I was a young man living in the old parsonage next to the RP Church in Syracuse, NY. There were many poor people living in that neighborhood. Sometimes they would come to the church and ask for food, or money, or even gasoline. The church had a storage room with some canned food, rice, and pasta for the poor. Because I lived next door to the church, I often gave food to those who needed it. One day, a woman came and asked for some food and milk for her children. I knew that she had many children—maybe eight. But the church supplies were used up, and there was no milk. So I looked in my own kitchen and found some milk powder and gave it to her. It was a very, very small “sacrifice” for me to make. Several days later, I heard some very sad news about that family. The parents had been arrested for child neglect, because their baby had starved to death. I could not believe it. “Children do not need to starve to death in America!” I thought. Then I thought, “If I had only known their real need, I could have done so much more to help them. I could have gone to the supermarket and bought them lots of food . . . If I had only known.” It is true. I could have done more. But I could also have done less. I might have hardened my heart and said, “Sorry. There is no more milk in the church.” I could have sent her away with nothing. What I learned that day is this: Never harden your heart toward people in need! Use whatever you have to help those in need around you. We are just stewards of everything we possess. If God’s love abides in you, you will hold it with an open hand, not a closed fist. I could have done more to help that woman and her children in need. But I am thankful that I did not close my heart and do less than I did. John summarizes this thought in v. 18. “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” We must not just preach about loving our neighbors; we must do whatever we can to show our love in practical ways. We must show the perfect love of Jesus Christ–the Gospel–in word and deed. That is the love God wants to see in us.
3:19-22) Our actions are the evidence that God’s love is in us, and that we are God’s children. All of us sometimes fail to love others as we should. God’s love is not yet perfect in any of us. We may blame ourselves later. We may be accused by the devil himself, who tells us, “You are no Christian!” However, before you yield to blame and despair, examine your life carefully. Do you see no evidence of God’s love working in you? John tells us in vs 19-22 that it is our acts of Christian love—large or small–that will give us assurance, even when we think we have failed. “We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before God, in whatever our heart condemns us” (vs. 19-20). When that baby died in Syracuse, I felt personally responsible, because I had not done more to help. My heart condemned me. But “God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.” God’s Spirit reminded me that I had not hardened my heart toward someone in need. And there were other matters that I did not know about and could not have helped. I later heard on the news that the parents had a history of drug abuse and child neglect in a different state (Tennessee. Even if I had given them all my possessions, it would not have solved their problems. It would not have saved the baby’s life. God knew those things, too; but I did not. God gives us a way to calm our troubled hearts, and to answer the accusations of Satan. Have you loved others, not only in words, but in concrete actions? This is one test of Christian love that will assure your heart before God.
A clear conscience is a priceless possession. If you “love in deed and truth,” then your conscience can be clear. And as John writes in v. 21, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God.” When God’s love is working in us, it shows that we belong to God. We are His children. We have fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. Do you see this love at work in all of your relationships? Then you can have confidence before God. The Spirit of Jesus Christ abides in you. Our Christian love shows that Christ Jesus Himself is with us. Jesus showed us what real Christian love is when He died for us. He lives with us now, and He will teach us how to love others as He first loved us. “We shall know by this that we are of the truth” (v. 19). Give thanks to God for His amazing love!