Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. ( 1 John 4:7–9—NKJV)

Because the world is a confusing place and our own hearts are prone to self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9), it is imperative that we allow the Bible to define critical terms which lie at the heart of human relationships, both with God and with our fellow men. Love is one of those critical terms.

I am from of a long line of WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). I remember, as a very young teenager, asking my mom what love was. Her response, being the WASP that she is, was to tell me that, of course, I already knew what love was, I was raised in a loving home. How very stereotypical of “WASPdom.” Needless to say, I had to grow up a bit in the Lord, turn to the Scriptures to discover the Author of Love, and identify the biblical foundation that would allow my “love” emotion to have solid footing, discernable boundaries and the useful governors that would make my acts of love bear real fruit.

The Bible word for love, found in the 1 John passage, is agape. It is not the “warm feeling” so often thought of when we use the word love, but it is the foundation of the warm feelings that arise from a thoughtful, lively, and deliberate heart. It is descriptive of “an intelligent, purposeful attitude of esteem and devotion, a selfless, purposeful outgoing attitude that desires to do good to those loved” (Wuest). In the secular Greek world, the mind analyzes and the will chooses the object to be loved. In the biblical use of the term, it involves the whole man—emotions, intellect, will. It is a deliberate free act that is the decision of the subject rather than the result of unbidden, overpowering emotion. Agape love is a warm responsiveness of heart drawn out by the preciousness of the object loved. This is why biblical love can be defined as “a decision of commitment.”

This mature kind of love, the highest form of love, is God’s kind of love. Our text declares that “God is love.” The Greek construction places an article before “God” and no article before “love.” This means the terms are not interchangeable, as if God were some nebulous, squishy, fuzzy feeling. Rather, the lack of an article before the word love means that it is defining His nature, His character, His essence. God is, in His nature, character, and essence, love.

Lest we forget, there are several other passages like this one found in John’s letter that state, “God is….” He is Spirit (John 4:24), identifying that He is not bound by physical limitations as we know them but is lively and active in the fullest sense. He is light (1 John 1:5), indicating His cleansing, life-granting, penetrating, discerning qualities. He is also described as a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:9), expressive of His holiness, dispassionate justice, and His awe-inspiring power. And, yes, He is love—stated twice in this fourth chapter of 1 John.

Taken together, we glimpse a full picture of the divine, deliberate planning and full execution of the Gospel. God’s Justice demanded to be satisfied because of the offense of our sin. No man can stand before the righteous fire of God’s wrath. God’s agape love “sent His Son to be the propitiation (satisfaction) for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God’s Spirit plants life in the converted sinner’s heart and he is born again.

One of the tests to determine whether a man is truly born again is identified in our verses—the test of love for the brethren. How do we know if we love enough to attest that we are children of this loving God? An answer is found in 1 John 3:16–18. Because Christ laid down His life for us, we have a moral obligation to be willing to sacrifice, even our lives, if need be. A believer’s love must be practical, day-by-day applications of useful self-denial. The text states “But whoever has this world’s goods [food, clothing, shelter] and sees [deliberate contemplation over a long period of time] his brother in need, and shuts up [slams and bolts the door of his heart so that nothing may escape away from him] his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

As 1 John 4:11 admonishes, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought [have a moral obligation] to love one another.” We are not talking about a squishy, warm mess of emotions as a test of the authenticity of our faith, but we are talking of practical helps generously rendered in assistance to spiritual brothers in need—the living response of a grateful heart before God drawn out of us because of the preciousness of the object loved! Trust and obey.