“Perfect love casts out fear” is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, but people can’t agree on its meaning.
These are some of the most popular guesses:
When we see God’s love perfectly, we won’t fear anything
When we love God perfectly, we won’t fear him
Or just generally that we don’t need to be afraid because God is nice
This expression is found in 1 Jn. 4:18, and the context doesn’t support any of these interpretations very well.
What does this verse mean?
And is this an unconditional promise for everybody at all times?
After summarizing the context, we can answer some questions about this passage that will give us conclusions about this verse:
Who is the one loving?
Who is the one being loved?
What is “perfect love”?
What is the fear of? And why is it neutralized by love?
To the context.
The Purpose of 1 John
We can detect the broader context of 1 John by asking questions like:
Why did John write this letter?
What is the main theme of the letter?
How does the flow of thought relate to the verse?
First, John gives a few reasons why he wrote this letter:
“So that you too may have fellowship with us” (1 Jn. 1:3)
“So that your joy may be complete (1 Jn. 1:4)
“So that you may not sin” (1 Jh. 2:1)
“That you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13)
But the flow of the text makes it clear that the absolute central purpose of his letter was to encourage his readers to live in a way that would give them confidence in their salvation.
He wanted them to have assurance: assurance that they were God’s people and that their hope was secure, which they could have by following Jesus.
If someone told you they were doubting their salvation, whether they were legitimate Christians or not, how would you lead them into assurance?
John weaves this question and the answer into every cluster of thought in 1 John:
“By this we can know that we are in him…” (1 Jn. 2:5-6)
“Abide in him so that when he appears, we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 Jn. 2:28)
“Everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 Jn. 2:29)
“By this is it evident who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil…” (1 Jn. 3:10)
“We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers” (1 Jn. 3:16)
“By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him” (1 Jn. 3:19)
“By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error…” (1 Jn. 4:6)
“Whoever loves has been born of God” (1 Jn. 4:7)
John wrote this letter so the recipients could identify themselves as true children of God.
By living out the gospel of love and righteousness. By following Jesus' commandments to love like Jesus.
But this wasn’t written so they could feel safe and cozy (though that’s an intended benefit), and it certainly wasn’t so they could go around testing everyone else’s authenticity.
Years ago when I was trying to be an evangelist (as an early Christian), I would give out one of two letters I wrote to almost about every person I met: people in the store, on the street, or during my evangelism pursuits.
The main letter was my summary of what I thought the gospel was, put in the most graphic language possible in hopes of provoking alarm and change.
I gave the first letter to anyone I spoke with, but I gave the second letter to anyone who claimed to be a Christian.
If someone even hinted at being a Christian or a church-goer, I would say, “Here, take this letter instead.” Then I would hand them another letter that was titled, “You Are Reading This Because Someone Loves You”.
I thought the title would spike their curiosity so they would read the letter, which essentially said, “You claim to be a Christian but you’re probably a phony another day closer to hell, and here’s how you can tell.”
I burned a lot of bridges and soiled a lot of relationships with that tactless tactic.
What I did was self-confident, and condemning, but I think John had something else in mind.
No. John wanted to stimulate them to action.
He wanted to stir them up to “love and good works” (Heb. 10:24).
He wanted them to have a passion for “good works” (Titus 3:16).
He wrote to them so they could have confidence before their Creator and King for how they lived: for Jesus or self.
The Flow of 1 John
John starts his letter with an introduction that's like his gospel intro: a personal testimony to Jesus, whom he calls “eternal life” (as in Jn. 17:3).
Through the person of Eternal Life, everyone can have fellowship with him and with one another.
What did “fellowship” mean to the first church?
This is huge to John’s point and to the purpose of his letter.
“Fellowship” is not going to a church potluck to eat junk food and talk about football. It’s not even going to a church service to eat communion and talk about Jesus.
The Greek word is famously known as κοινωνία (koy-nohn-ee´-ah).
Κοινωνία is a special word:
It doesn’t mean to “spend time together”
It’s related to the word “communion”
The KJV translated it is translated as “fellowship”, which traditionally meant to share
It’s used in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) in conjunction with covenants
Its basic meaning is multiple people sharing something together, such as:
Money (Rom. 15:26)
Possessions (Acts 4:32, Gal. 6:6)
Business (Acts 2:42)
Jesus’ life (1 Cor. 10:16)
The Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14)
Demons (1 Cor. 10:20)
Unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14)
Each of these is a mutual participation in some tangible object or an important purpose. And whatever is shared exists in a close relationship.
It often denotes a covenant (as in Mal. 2:14 LXX, Wis. 8:18).
Indeed, a covenant is implied with John’s usage: “we proclaim to you so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed, our fellowship is with the Father and his Son” (1 Jn. 1:3, emphasis added).
That’s covenant language!
Any covenant-loving Hebrew or Christian would have recognized this.
John's basically saying, “I talk about Jesus so that you can join our family and purpose. So you can join in a covenant with us all."
People are united to Jesus in the new covenant through faith, which simultaneously unites us to the Father and all God's children (Jn. Acts 15:9, Rom. 10:8-17).
It makes us covenant family members and unites us under the purpose of living out that covenant to the world--to reflect the image of Jesus to people.
John’s main point in this letter is to give criteria for determining who:
Truly has faith
Truly is in the covenant
Truly is united to God and his people
Is truly assigned a part in living out the covenant
John’s main criteria is simple but repeated ferociously in multiple ways.
The one who has eternal life, Jesus, or faith, who is in the covenant and the family of God, working for the kingdom of God, can be detected because they:
Confess (by their lives) that Jesus is the Messiah (2:18-26)
Confess that they have sins but Jesus covers them (1:9)
Practice righteousness (2:29)
Keep his commandments (2:3)
Keep his word (2:5)
Walk as Jesus walked (2:6)
Walk in the light (1:6)
Love the Christian family (2:10)
Love by self-sacrificial, other-benefiting actions (3:11-18)
Don't love worldly ways (2:15-17)
Don't continue in the same level of sin (3:4-10)
John lays out this argument with various themes while centering everything around Jesus and his life.
He goes from the image of Jesus as life to the image of light working against the darkness (just like Jn. 1). The light is living like Jesus, which is done by living out righteousness and love in following his commandments.
Darkness is described as the opposite: as living out the selfish ways of the world which are antithetical to life, light, and Jesus and his commandments.
He builds on this dichotomy of light and darkness with talk about anti-Christs who are antithetical to Jesus and his work because they deny Jesus and his work.
The metaphors all mirror each other in antithetical terms. Everyone who denies Jesus and his work is under the influence of the anti-Christ spirit, living in the kingdom of death, serving the darkness.
They can know which one they are based on the effect of their lives.
It always goes back to personal assurance through striving to live out Jesus’ commandments.
This is how the themes flow together and develop from 1 Jn. 1:1 to our verse in 1 Jn. 4:18.
Now to the questions.
Whose Love to Who?
The first question is: Whose love is this?
Let’s narrow in at the immediate context, starting in verse 16-18:
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 Jn. 4:16-18).
He speaks of God’s love, and of abiding (or dwelling) in God’s love, but abiding in God’s love is the key: “By this is love perfected in us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment” (4:16-17).
Love is perfected in us by abiding in God’s love, and we abide in God’s love by keeping Jesus’ commandments: “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected” (2:5).
Obeying results in abiding which results in perfected love.
Whose love is this? Ours or Gods?
It’s a trick question because it’s both.
God’s love for us creates love for him and also for others: “and this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son” (4:10).
We start without love (except of the world), then God’s love comes to us in the form of Christ crucified for us, but it doesn’t keep us as we are.
It changes us to be like him.
“When he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is” (3:3). Seeing God’s love makes us conform to God’s love (see also 2 Cor. 3:18).
His love changes us to reciprocate his love.
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (3:9)
But true love to God is always lived out to others, especially Christians:
“Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another” (4:11)
“Let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (4:7).
“Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21).
Who is the one loving? And who is being loved? For both, it's God and us.
God loves us which changes and grows us until it spills over into our own love pointed at God and others.
It is this process that is either “perfect” or not, which brings us to the third question.
Who Has Perfect Love?
The term "perfect" in English is misleading because it implies a duality of two opposite states: perfect or imperfect.
That’s not how the Greek word works here.
For example, when Jesus says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), he’s not at all saying that we must be free of flaws, as the English implies, which has resulted in disastrous understandings of the function of the Law in the gospels.
Rather, this is talking about being a grown version of the Father that resembles him, so there are degrees allowed (it’s not only perfect or imperfect).
That’s good for us!
The word τέλειος, teleios (tel´-i-os) has a wide range of usages, but the most probable meaning in this context has to do with maturity.
The Louw & Nida, which I personally consider the most advanced and informative Greek Lexicon currently available, lists this meaning as “pertaining to an adult human being”, as in a “grown person” (9.10), or “pertaining to being truly and completely genuine” (73.6).
The first would mean a love that is grown-up or mature, while the second is authentic love.
Someone could convincingly make a case for either meaning here, but the image of growing up into the image of Jesus seems to fit the context of the New Testament best, even as the language of God’s love growing in us like a seed until we resemble him fits the immediate context best.
Love that is aged to a delicious ripeness is what casts out fear.
Fear of what?
This is the easiest one to answer because John makes it so abundantly clear that this letter is about assurance of salvation, which conversely is assurance of not being condemned.
He speaks of condemnation all throughout his letter as:
The darkness that’s passing away (2:8)
The worldly way of being human that’s passing away (2:17)
The works of the Devil that Jesus came to destroy (3:8)
A fear: “for whenever our heart condemns us” (3:19)
“The day of judgment” (4:17)
Then in the immediate verses, he defines what he means by “fear”: “Fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (4:18).
It’s fear of dying as the consequence of sin.
This means love expels fear because: if we see God’s work of love leading us to actively and tangibly love one another, we have no reason to fear his judgment.
Because this means we are God’s children, and God's children are saved from the results of sin and are destined for eternal life (resurrection; see Dan. 12:1-3).
The evidence that we are his children is that we resemble his love in how we live, so we don't have to worry about judgment or death.
Perfected love casts out fear.
Does this mature love cast out all types of fear? Yes, but indirectly (see Rom. 8:28-39).
Does this promise apply to all people at all times?
It only applies to those who have “perfect love” currently evident in their lives, so no.
It’s not designed to give comfort to wayward rebels so they can continually indulge in destruction unfettered by fear of consquences.
It’s supposed to lead us into loving at greater depths and giving at greater costs, because we have a greater confidence.
This answers our questions.
And it answers the questions John is actually trying to answer:
Do you wish to have confidence of eternal life with Jesus?
Do you wish to have a confidence that melts all fears?
Do you wish to be more daring for Jesus?
Do you wish to have power to conquer selfish indulgences?
Do you wish your faith was more effective and contagious?
Then love like Jesus loves.
When we choose to take risks to love like Jesus the Spirit of Jesus empowers us to do this mighty task.
Love like Jesus loves.
This is the secret to growing up into Jesus to have perfect love, and this is what casts out all oposition.
Love like Jesus loves.