God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  In this love has been perfected with us, in order that we might have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as he is so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment, and the one who fears has not been perfected in love.”   (1 John 4:16-18)

The promise of 1 John 4:18 is a perpetual favorite of many Christians, and for good reason.  Few things are more terrifying or unpleasant in life than the foreboding sense of remaining under God’s displeasure, or the prospect of one day being judged and excluded from His presence.  This is the stuff of ultimate nightmare for human beings.  Yet John holds out the possibility of Christians, in the here and now, receiving assurance of God’s pardoning love and favor to them.  What could hold more potential attraction or value than attaining this profound peace–assuming that such a subjective sense is in accord with objective reality?

Of course, that is the real rub: is our subjective assurance before God in accord with objective reality?  I cannot imagine that most clear-minded people would covet any perception of being in the right before God, if in fact that perspective did not line up with the way things actually are and will be in the universe.  Yet it is my contention that the most popular interpretations of John’s meaning in this passage tend to perpetrate that very danger. 

It is not a secret that one of the most fundamental disagreements between Catholic and Protestant theology over the centuries has concerned the doctrine of the individual Christian’s assurance of his or her salvation.  Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, one of the leading intellectual figures of the so-called “Counter Reformation” and a Jesuit priest whose sophisticated thought was integral to the theological formulations of the Council of Trent, once wrote this:

“The principle heresy of Protestants is that saints may obtain to a certain assurance of their gracious and pardoned state before God.” 

Protestants (rightly) contested this stubborn agnosticism, in the conviction that it is not virtuous to continue in doubt when God has spoken clearly on an issue.  Indeed, in their polemical engagements with the reigning paradigms of medieval Catholicism on assurance, the short letter of 1 John—which, after all, is explicitly written “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life,” and which contains a number of “tests of life” by which one may “know” that they are right with God—was crucial in their struggle.

And Catholic theology has, of course, regularly fretted over the potentially disastrous consequences which can arise from the distinctive Protestant readiness to grant absolution and assurance to any and all confessing Christians with undue ease and cheapness, apart from tangible obedience and long-term perseverance.  It does not take a gifted imagination to conceive of how justification by faith alone, apart from works might be so construed and abused.   So as a card-carrying Protestant, I believe that this concern is deeply legitimate, and that Catholic fears have all-too-frequently been proven true in the lived practice of Protestantism’s more impoverished productions.  

Cheap grace runs rampant in our circles, and nothing is so disingenuously doled out to the masses in our churches than the immediate, eternally unquestionable assurance of salvation upon the first verbal confession that Christianity is intellectually true.  Indeed, to doubt this Protestant shibboleth on assurance leads almost inevitably to charges of undermining the gospel itself in contemporary evangelical circles.  But as John Murray once insightfully pointed out, there is a world of difference between the basis of a Christian’s salvation, and the basis of a Christian’s assurance of that same salvation.  This is not a distinction without a difference, and the confusion of these two categories in modern evangelical piety has been catastrophic:

“When we speak of the grounds of assurance, we are thinking of the ways in which a believer comes to entertain this assurance, not of the grounds on which his salvation rests. The grounds of salvation are as secure for the person who does not have full assurance as for the person who has.” (“The Assurance of Faith,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2: Systematic Theology, p. 270)

1 John offers a better way, a way that avoids the extremes of Catholic skepticism and Protestant cheap grace.  This is where 4:16-18 comes into play.  When I hear John’s beloved phrase—“perfect love casts out fear”—thrown around among fellow Christians, they often apparently mean that as one’s subjective appropriation of, or assent to, the idea of God’s personal love increases, then the believer’s fear of God’s condemnation correspondingly decreases in direct proportion to the success of that nifty, self-serving mental trick.  This sounds nice.  It may even be psychologically true to some degree.  Yet it is manifestly not what John is talking about in the immediate context.

The key to correct interpretation is the word “perfect” or “perfected” in 4:17-18, which appears three times in these two brief sentences.  In Greek, both the noun (teleios) and the verb (teleioo) are in the same cognate word group as telos—“goal”—and behind our English word “teleology”—the study of purposes, goals, designs, intentions.  Yet when these words are translated with the word “perfect,” this throws the modern reader off the right trail.  “Perfection” in current idiom conjures up the idea of the state of absolute freedom from error, or from any sort of blemish.  A 98 out of 100 on a math test is as equally “imperfect” as a 6 out of 100.  Therefore, in passages like 1 John 4:17-18 (and other related passages such as James 1:4, 2:22, Matthew 5:48, 19:21, Hebrews 5:9, etc.), readers tend to intuitively substitute meanings such as “sinless” or “flawless” into the flow of thought.  Given the strong Protestant emphasis upon universal sinfulness, most Christians immediately conclude that such “perfection” is beyond their reach and thus either an impossible ideal or an unreachable standard that is solely bent on showing us our need for (surprise, surprise) God’s grace, understood simply as God’s forgiveness—not His moral empowerment through the Spirit.  Once again, we are off the hook for real discipleship, real obedience.

Two other parallel passages in 1 John, however, hold special significance for understanding aright John’s intended meaning in 4:17-18.  In 2:3-6, John writes:

“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.  Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

And just a few verses prior to our passage of focus, John writes in 4:11-12:

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”

In both passages, the same verb teleioo is behind the translation “perfected.”  Yet what both passages make crystal clear is that such “perfect” love is not perfect on account of the subjective mind games of certain individuals, as they psyche themselves up into a state of mind that refuses to doubt their favored status before God in spite of however they may be conducting themselves in the kingdom of God.  Rather, such love is “perfect” on account of the concrete obedience to God’s commands and tangible love of neighbor which God’s love has actively produced in the lives of those who are its recipients.  When sacrificial, deep-rooted obedience to God and self-giving love to our fellow human beings is realized in the body of Christ, God’s love has been “perfected” in our midst.  That is, God’s love has reached its telos—it’s goal, its purpose, its divinely-given intention in our lives.  And, John boldly states, it is this sort of “perfected” love that avails to cast out the fear of God’s punishment as we walk in the ways of Jesus.

A better translation of teleios and teleioo, at least in 1 John, would perhaps be something more like this: “that which has achieved its goal.”  Yes, it’s a bit more cumbersome, but its strength is that it cuts right to the heart of the meaning with none of the possible ambiguity resident in “perfect.”  When a believer keeps His word, in him or her truly the love of God “has reached its goal” (2:5).  When we love one another, God’s love “has reached its goal” among us (4:12).  There is no fear in love, but love “that has reached its goal” casts out fear, because fear has punishment, and the one who fears has not “reached the goal” of God’s love in their lives (4:17-18).  Through, of course, sacrificial obedience to God’s will and selfless love for the people around us.  That is the epitome of John’s “perfect” love.

Perhaps above all else, what 1 John 4:17-18 teaches us is that the subjective attainment of God’s love is not an end in itself in Christian existence.  God does not pour our His magnificent love into our hearts through His Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) in order that it might just stay there, for our own amusement and for the advancement of our selfish spiritualities.  The goal of God’s love is missional.  It aims to redirect sinners who are curved in upon themselves outward to the other, to the world and to our neighbors and to God’s delightful, life-giving commandments.  When we seek experiences of God’s love merely for our own sake, we give evidence that we do not know God well at all and that we fundamentally misunderstand the gospel.  God’s love is extended and shared with us in order that we might imitate God in extending and sharing it with others.  This is what God is after.  And it is to such people that God gives the blessed assurance that they are indeed His children and truly belong to Him. 

This interpretation raises the ante considerably, of course, and categorically rules out the possibility that cheap grace without obedience and ongoing assurance of our right standing before God can simultaneously coexist in the consciousness of thoughtful Christians.  For that reason alone, this passage may no longer be a perennial favorite for those whose eyes are opened to its true meaning.  Yet truth is always more precious—and more life-giving, in the long run—than even the most pleasant falsehoods, and one awesome benefit of this reading is that it ought to rule out, a priori, any version of Christianity that considers the normal Christian life to be one of assurance with ungodliness, or peace without discipleship.  I do, in fact, think that the normal Christian life includes regular, ongoing (though not perfect or entirely consistent) assurance of one’s salvation before God in Christ.  I am not a Catholic.  And yet this is only because I also consider that the normal Christian life inexorably includes taking up one’s cross daily, dying to self, and following Jesus in the radical obedience that faith inevitably produces (Romans 1:5, 16:26).  There is no other way to (legitimately) cast out the fear of punishment, or to hold up one’s head without trembling in the anticipation of the day of reckoning which looms over us all.

Indeed, I find myself in substantial agreement with Jonathan Edwards (surprise!), who actually argued that assurance of salvation is not a good thing for habitually disobedient, self-centered Christians to be encouraged to experience:

“No such signs are to be expected, that shall be sufficient to enable those saints certainly to discern their own good estate who are very low in grace, or are such as have much departed from God and are fallen into a dead, carnal, and unchristian frame. It is not agreeable to God’s design that such should know their good estate: nor is it desirable that they should, but, on the contrary, every way best that they should not; and we have reason to bless God, that He made no provision that such should certainly know the state that they are in, any other way than by first coming out of the ill frame and way they are in.” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, p. 121)

Meaning: there is no assurance apart from ongoing repentance, faith and a long, faltering obedience in the same direction.  Later in this same work, Edwards offers an extended meditation upon 1 John 4:17-18, one that in my view hits all the right emphases.  So I’ll give him the last word here:

“When [professing Christians] are in such a dead frame, and have no sensible experience of the exercises of grace, but on the contrary, are much under the prevalence of their lusts and an unchristian spirit, they are not to blame for doubting of their state.  It is as impossible, in the nature of things, that a holy and Christian hope should be kept alive in its clearness and strength in such circumstances, as it is to keep the light in the room when the candle is put out; or to maintain the bright sunshine in the air when the sun is gone down.  Distant experiences, when darkened by present prevailing lust and corruption, will never keep alive a gracious confidence and assurance, but one that sickens and decays upon it, as necessarily as a little child by repeated blows on the head with a hammer.  Nor is it at all to be lamented that persons doubt of their state in such circumstances: on the contrary, it is desirable and every way best that they should.  It is agreeable to that wise and merciful constitution of things, which God hath established, that it should be so. 

For so hath God contrived and constituted things, in His dispensation towards His own people, that when their love decays, and the exercises of it fail or become weak, fear should arise; for then they need it to restrain them from sin, and to excite them to care for the good of their souls, and so to stir them up to watchfulness and diligence in religion.  But God hath so ordered, that when love rises and is in vigorous exercise, then fear should vanish and be driven away; for then they need it not, having a higher and more excellent principle in exercise, to restrain them from sin and stir them up to their duty.  There are no other principles which human nature is under the influence of, that will ever make men conscientious, but one of these two, fear or love; and therefore, if one of these should not prevail as the other decays, God’s people, when fallen into dead and carnal frames, when love is asleep, would be lamentably exposed indeed: and therefore God has wisely ordained, that these two opposite principles of love and fear should rise and fall, like the two opposite scales of a balance; when one rises the other sinks…

So it is in the heart of a child of God: if divine love decays and falls asleep, and lust prevails, the light and joy of hope go out, and dark fear and doubting arises; and if, on the contrary, divine love prevails and comes into lively exercise, this brings in the brightness of hope, and drives away black lust and fear with it…These two opposite principles of lust and holy love bring hope and fear into the hearts of God’s children in proportion as they prevail…Fear is cast out by the Spirit of God no other way than by the prevailing of love; nor is fear ever maintained but when love is asleep.  At such a time, in vain is all the saint’s self-examinations, and poring on past experience, in order to establish his peace and get assurance.  For it is contrary to the nature of things, as God hath constituted them, that he should have assurance at such a time.  They therefore do directly thwart God’s wise and gracious constitution of things, who exhort others to be confident in their hope when in dead frames…[for] it has a direct tendency to establish the most presumptuous hypocrites, and to prevent their ever calling their state in question, how much soever wickedness rages and reigns in their hearts, and prevails in their lives.” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, pp. 107-09)