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Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles
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1 John 4:17-18

17. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.

17. In hoc perfecta est charitas nobiscum, ut fiduciam habaemus in die judicii, quod sicut ille est, nos quoque sumus in hoc mundo.

18. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.

18. Timor non est in charitate; sed perfecta charitas foras pellit timorem: quia timor tormentum habet; qui autem timet, non est perfectus in charitate.

 

17 Herein is our love made perfect There are two clauses in this passage, — that we are then partakers of divine adoption, when we resemble God as children their father; and, secondly, that this confidence is invaluable, for without it we must be most miserable.

Then in the first place, he shews to what purpose God has in love embraced us, and how we enjoy that grace manifested to us in Christ. Then, God’s love to us is what is to be understood here. He says it is perfected, because it is abundantly poured forth and really given, that it appears to be complete. But he asserts that no others are partakers of this blessing; but those who, by being conformed to God, prove themselves to be his children. It is, then, an argument taken from what is an inseparable condition.

That we may have boldness He now begins to shew the fruit of divine love towards us, though he afterwards shews it more clearly from the contrary effect. It is, however, an invaluable benefit, that we can dare boldly to stand before God. By nature, indeed, we dread the presence of God, and that justly; for, as he is the Judge of the world, and our sins hold us guilty, death and hell must come to our minds whenever we think of God. Hence is that dread which I have mentioned, which makes men shun God as much as they can. But John says that the faithful do not fear, when mention is made to them of the last judgment, but that on the contrary they go to God’s tribunal confidently and cheerfully, because they are assured of his paternal love. Every one, then, has made so much proficiency in faith, as he is well prepared in his mind to look forward to the day of judgment.

As he is By these words, as it has been already said, he meant that it is required of us at our turn to resemble the image of God. What God then in heaven is, such he bids us to be in this world, in order that we may be deemed his children; for the image of God, when it appears in us, is as it were the seal of his adoption.

But he seems thus to place a part of our confidence on works. Hence the Papists raise their crests here, as though John denied that we, relying on God’s grace alone, can have a sure confidence as to salvation without the help of works. But in this they are deceived, because they do not consider that the Apostle here does not refer to the cause of salvation, but to what is added to it. And we readily allow that no one is reconciled to God through Christ, except he is also renewed after God’s image, and that the one cannot be disjoined from the other. Right then is what is done by the Apostle, who excludes from the confidence of grace all those in whom no image of God is seen; for it is certain that such are wholly aliens to the Spirit of God and to Christ. Nor do we deny that newness of life, as it is the effect of divine adoption, serves to confirm confidence, as a prop, so to speak, of the second order; but in the meantime we ought to have our foundation on grace alone. 8787     What is love? It is as much a gift, a grace, as faith; it constitutes a fitness for heaven, but is in no way meritorious; and were it perfect, there would be nothing of merit in it; for the highest degrees of it come far short of what is due to God. To set up merit of any kind on the part of man, betokens extreme blindness, for salvation from first to last is altogether gratuitous. — Ed Nor indeed does the doctrine of John appear otherwise consistent with itself; for experience proves, and even Papists are forced to confess, that as to works they always give an occasion for trembling. Therefore no one can come with a tranquil mind to God’s tribunal, except he believes that he is freely loved.

But that none of these things please the Papists, there is no reason for any one to wonder, since being miserable they know no faith except that which is entangled with doubts. Besides, hypocrisy brings darkness over them, so that they do not seriously consider how formidable is God’s judgment when Christ the Mediator is not present, and some of them regard the resurrection as fabulous. But that we may cheerfully and joyfully go forth to meet Christ, we must have our faith fixed on his grace alone.

18 There is no fear He now commends the excellency of this blessing by stating the contrary effect, for he says that we are continually tormented until God delivers us from misery and anguish by the remedy of his own love towards us. The meaning is, that as there is nothing more miserable than to be harassed by continual inquietude, we obtain by knowing God’s love towards us the benefit of a peaceful calmness beyond the reach of fear. It hence appears what a singular gift of God it is to be favored with his love. Moreover from this doctrine, he will presently draw an exhortation; but before he exhorts us to duty, he commends to us this gift of God, which by faith removes our fear.

This passage, I know, is explained otherwise by many; but I regard what the Apostle means, not what others think. They say that there is no fear in love, because, when we voluntarily love God, we are not constrained by force and fear to serve him. Then according to them, servile fear is here set in opposition to voluntary reverence; and hence has arisen the distinction between servile and filial fear. I indeed allow it to be true, that when we willingly love God as a Father, we are no longer constrained by the fear of punishment; but this doctrine has nothing in common with this passage, for the Apostle only teaches us, that when the love of God is by us seen and known by faith, peace is given to our consciences, so that they no longer tremble and fear.

It may, however, be asked, when does perfect love expel fear, for since we are endued with some taste only of divine love towards us, we can never be wholly freed from fear? To this I answer, that, though fear is not wholly shaken off, yet when we flee to God as to a quiet harbor, safe and free from all danger of shipwreck and of tempests, fear is really expelled, for it gives way to faith. Then fear is not so expelled, but that it assails our minds, but it is so expelled that it does not torment us nor impede that peace which we obtain by faith.

Fear hath torment Here the Apostle amplifies still further the greatness of that grace of which he speaks; for as it is a most miserable condition to suffer continual torments, there is nothing more to be wished than to present ourselves before God with a quiet conscience and a calm mind. What some say, that servants fear, because they have before their eyes punishment and the rod, and that they do not their duty except when forced, has nothing to do, as it has been already stated, with what the Apostle says here. So in the next clause, the exposition given, that he who fears is not perfect in love, because he submits not willingly to God, but would rather free himself from his service, does not comport at all with the context. For the Apostle, on the contrary, reminds us, that it is owing to unbelief when any one fears, that is, has a disturbed mind; for the love of God, really known, tranquilizes the heart. 8888     Beza, Doddridge, Scott, and most commentators, regard love here as that which is in us, and not the love of God as apprehended by faith. The main subject of the Apostle is love in us, and the words “perfected” and “perfect,” as applied to it, seem inappropriate to God’s love towards us; and this perfection is said in verse 17th to consist in this, that as God is, so are we in this world; that is, like him in love, as God is said in the previous verse to be love.
   “Fear” is the fear of judgment, mentioned in verse 17th, and he who fears is said to be not perfected or made perfect in love, which obviously refers to love in us. And then it immediately follows, “We love him,” and the reason is assigned, “because he first loved us.” He afterwards proceeds to show the indispensable necessity of having love to God and to the brethren — Ed.


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