In today’s passage, John continues to explain how we are to imitate God in loving one another. Having told us in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love,” the apostle reminds us of the supreme manifestation of this love so we might understand what it means when the Bible says God loves us and when it commands us to love one another.
Let us first note that the love of God is self-originating. That is to say, it does not arise from something outside of God but is inherent to His own divine nature. For fallen human beings, it is often the case that something outside of ourselves motivates us to love another person. We do not, in our fallen nature, love that which is unlovely. That this is not true of God is evident by the statement “God is love.” God’s love is not dependent on the loveliness of the creatures He has chosen to love.
Lest anyone doubt this, the supreme example of God’s love given to us in verses 9 and 10 confirms this idea. We read in these two verses that we see God’s love preeminently in His sending of Jesus for our redemption. God’s love for us does not rest on any account of our own loveliness. In fact, God loves us despite the fact we were not at all lovely. We were sinners by nature, deserving only His wrath. Despite all of this, God loved us and sent Jesus to be a propitiation — to satisfy His justice and turn His wrath away from us. As John Calvin comments on this passage, “Christ, then, is so illustrious and singular a proof of divine love towards us, that whenever we look upon him, he fully confirms to us the truth that God is love.”
Greek philosophy at the time of John’s writing asserted that the highest form of love was love for that which was worthy of being loved. But if God is love, and if His sending of Jesus is the supreme example of His love, then we see the highest form of love is to love the unlovely. Moreover, as Jesus is God and sacrificed Himself for us, we can see we love as God loves only when we are willing to sacrifice ourselves. This may involve giving up our lives (3:16), but even if it does not, it does mean we freely give of ourselves in deeds of self-denial to those who are seemingly unworthy of such love.
The presence of sin means it will be difficult at times to give of ourselves, even to those we think deserve our love. This biblical teaching is indeed radical. We must love even the unlovely and do so even if it means denying ourselves. Look at the relationships in your life and consider what you must deny yourself in order to love an unlovely person. Then begin to take steps to love that person and find a friend to hold you accountable for doing so.