God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
What is the perfect love which casts out fear? From the text and context it is clear: God’s love found in the God who is love. It is relational to its core. One could well argue theologically that God being love hints to the triunity of God: the Father, the Son and the Spirit living in communal love. And that humans in and through Jesus are taken up into that same love, experiencing it with God and with each other.
The problem stated in the text is the fear that comes with a sense of punishment. It is a dread of condemnation. In the letter we read that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and we read how we are to deal with sins in our lives. As well as the teaching that our lives are not to be characterized by sin, but rather by righteousness. Sometimes we might feel trapped by sin in our own lives, or at least just as likely, that we are cornered for some reason in a no-win situation. We may well be off the mark in our thinking, but on the other hand, we may know full well that we are undeserving, that we do fall short. We really can’t be the judges of ourselves, only God can judge and convict us by his Spirit through his Word. I struggle with this concept because though I believe it is true, and that God is the one who searches and knows us through and through, I also don’t think we need to wait for some big conviction from God when we know we’ve done wrong. We need to confess it to God, and to the offended person, and go on, knowing we’re forgiven in and through Christ.
The perfect love which drives out fear is to be experienced in our lives fully, because Jesus took the condemnation for our sins upon himself in his death for us. And because God works this love into our hearts and lives by the Spirit. We indeed are to experience it.
Does this experience have to be overwhelming? No, although it is fine if we experience mountain peaks as it were, when God’s love is particularly felt. But most of life is lived in the valleys. It is in those places, even in the lower places where we need to learn to live with a settled sense of God’s perfect love for us in and through Jesus. A love which is not dependent on us, our circumstances, even our faithfulness. At the same time a love in which we are to live in the sense of response which brings change into our lives. As the text says, “made perfect in love.” And notice too that this is communal:
This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.
The NIV takes the singular masculine pronoun literally translated, “he,” and interprets that to mean Jesus. In context, it could mean Jesus, or God. I might lean toward the interpretation made by the NIV (see also NLT). The point is our identity in this world. God in and through Jesus has identified himself with us, and we are to live as those identified with God in and through Christ. Through Christ judgment is taken care of.
And so we we live as those who are forgiven in Christ in and through his blood, his death, as we walk in the light as he is in the light, and thus experience cleansing from sin and fellowship with each other. This is the perfect love in which fear will not only be diminished, but cast out. A love in which we are to live together in Jesus and for the world.