We will read in the next verse that the old and new commandment John is talking about is to love our brothers and sisters. It is as old as the Garden of Eden as the law of love was written upon the human heart from the moment of creation. It was published in the Law of Moses where we read in Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But John probably means merely that from the very beginning of their Christian lives they have been taught that fundamental to the obligations of Christian faith and obedience is love. But this commandment is also new because it has been given a new character by the depth and power the Lord Jesus added to our understanding of love and experience of love by his own sacrifice for us and by our experience of his love in our hearts. That is what John means when he speaks here of the truth of the new commandment being in him, that is, in the Lord Jesus, and in us who know the Lord Jesus. It is new in us because of our experience of the living power of Christian love in our own lives. “New” in the Bible is not so much a chronological idea as a qualitative one: new life, new heart, new song, all refer to this transformation of life that Christ brings to pass in those who are being saved. As Robert Candlish beautifully puts it: “though doctrinal Christianity is always old, [experiential] Christianity is always new. The gospel preached to us is old; but the gospel realized in us is always new.” 
Here we have a variation on John’s presentation of one of the tests of life of which, you remember, there are three in the letter. We would expect him to write, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is a liar.” He will, in fact, say just that in 4:20. Here he says that such a person is still in darkness. That is, though he claims to be walking in the light, he is not in fact walking in the light; he is still in darkness. Light and darkness as images of communion with God – who is himself light – or alienation from God were introduced in 1:5-7. In other words, since God is light, the one who walks with God must be in the light as well. But one cannot be walking with God who hates his brother.
I have said that John will set before his readers in this letter three tests by which to measure the genuineness of one’s profession of faith in Christ and, so, by which to know that one has eternal life. This is the way John puts it in the conclusion of his letter in chapter 5, “I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” As we have already noted, John’s emphasis on these three methods of spiritual diagnosis is important both positively and negatively. It is important for us to consider what John regards as real proof of genuine faith and so real salvation in Christ and, at the same time, to consider what John does not regard as sufficient proof. He says nothing, for example, about what nowadays we are wont to call a “conversion experience.” There are those, you will hear them on the radio from time to time, who will tell you that if you don’t know the moment when you became a Christian, then you are not a Christian. But John doesn’t say anything about that. He doesn’t ask you if you can say, “I went forward in an evangelistic meeting or I knelt by my bed with my mother when I was 8 and I became a Christian then.” Such experiences may be very important; they may indeed have been the moment when a boy or girl, a man or woman became a Christian, the very moment when he or she crossed out of darkness into light. But by itself, such experiences are proof of nothing because a great many people have gone forward in evangelistic meetings or knelt by their beds who would not later meet the burden of John’s three tests; any one of them, much more all three.
In a similar way, John does not point to a person’s being faithful at church or growing up in a Christian home or having Christian books on the shelf, or a Bible on his coffee table as proof of his or her salvation. Alas there have always been many unsaved people in Christian churches, in some churches more than others, and it is a dismal fact, often enough illustrated in Holy Scripture, that the saddest road to hell is that oft-traveled road that begins in a Christian home, passes down the aisle of a Christian church right by the Table of the Lord Jesus and a faithful pulpit.
I also drew your attention to the way in which John identifies each of these three tests with his use of the terms lie and liar. So we have the moral test in 2:4: “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar.” We have the doctrinal test in 2:22: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” And we have the social test in 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar…” These are the only three places in the letter where the words “lie” or “liar” appear in the letter, in the introduction of each of these three tests.
There is, accordingly, perhaps a natural expectation that John, having introduced the moral test in the early verses of chapter 2, would concentrate on the exposition of that subject until he introduced the doctrinal test later in chapter 2 – remember, the chapter divisions are not original to John, having been added a thousand years after John wrote his letter – and then would concentrate on explaining and applying the doctrinal test until he introduced the third and last test near the end of chapter 4. That would make for an obvious, simple, and helpful structure that would make it easy for us to follow John’s argument. But people rarely wrote then the way we write today and our principles of organization were not theirs.
In fact the three tests are scattered all over the letter, come and go throughout the argument, and it is not entirely clear why John organizes his material as he does. He certainly did not outline his letter with three main points one succeeding the other in the argument. For example, in the few verses we have read this morning John introduces the social test of true and living faith in Jesus Christ even though he doesn’t introduce it with the use of “lie” or “liar” until the end of chapter 4. In fact, all three tests appear in our chapter 2 though only two – the moral test and the doctrinal test – are introduced in the formal way with the terminology of lying and liar.
So here is the second test in its first presentation in 1 John: true and genuine faith in Christ will produce a life of love for other Christians. People who live in the light love one another; it’s as simple as that. The grace of God in a person’s life, to be sure, will produce other loves: the love of God, the love of one’s neighbor, even the love of one’s enemies, the love of his Word, the love of worship and so on. But here the accent falls on the love of one’s fellow Christians. A person cannot claim to be in the light, to have communion with God, to be saved to put it bluntly, if he or she does not love the brethren. It is easy enough to claim to love God and many do so claim. But love for God is an inward, invisible commitment and emotion. Who is to know whether one loves God or not? Indeed, as people are very often blind to their own inner motivations, and very often unwilling to admit the truth about their moral and spiritual life, can we trust a person to say, even to know whether he or she loves God. Most people believe about themselves what they want to be true and few are resolutely honest with themselves.
But, says John, in the kingdom of God, true love, the love that Jesus Christ produces in the one who trusts in him, the love that God pours into the heart of those who are saved, the love that emanates from the light that bathes the life or a man or woman who walks with God, that love always expresses itself as well to men as to God. And among men that love expresses itself to a greater degree toward others who also walk in the light, toward fellow Christians.
John’s assertion is not, at first glance, particularly controversial. We know very well how emphatically we are taught the love of Christian brothers and sisters in the Bible.
- The love of other Christians is the first evidence of our salvation in many places, not just here in 1 John. Paul tells us such love is the first fruit of the Holy Spirit. [Gal. 5;22]
- Love of other Christians is the foundation of Christian character for, as we read in Eph. 3:17, we are “rooted and grounded in love.”
- Love is the path on which all followers of Christ are to walk because we are told to “walk in love.” [Eph. 5:2]
- Love is the stitching that binds the hearts of Christians together and forms them into a unity; as the Scripture says, our hearts are “knit together in love.” [Col. 2:2]
- Love is our protection in the spiritual warfare, as the Bible says, “put on the breastplate of love.” [1 Thess. 5:8]
- And love is the summation and fulfillment and completion of our obedience to the law of God, for, as the Bible often says, “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
- And, finally, as Paul famously put it in his great chapter on love, 1 Cor. 13, love is the measure of our lives because no matter what else we do if we don’t have love for one another, we are zeroes, nothings, failures in the Christian life.
Love is everywhere in the NT the mark, the characteristic, the feature of life in Christ. But no matter the prominence of love and brotherly love in the Bible, no matter that what John says here in 2:7-11 is said in a great many other ways and a great many other places in the Bible, Christians find that they have an unaccountable tendency to forget this when thinking about our Christian lives. You do and I do.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. One of the most famous and, in some respects, justly influential and popular manuals of the Christian life, what it is and how it is to be lived, is The Imitation of Christ by the 15th century Dutch monk Thomas à Kempis. Published first in the reforming circle known as the Brethren of the Common Life, it is estimated that the book has been reprinted since in as many as 6,000 separate editions. It has been said that next to the Bible The Imitation of Christ is the most influential book ever published in Christian history. I have an early 18th century edition which itself is the 12th edition of that translation of the original Latin text into English. Most of you have seen it; some of you have read it, if only in an abridged form. In the account of the Christian life and of Christian devotion as you find it in The Imitation of Christ – and remember, through these last 2,000 years if someone had asked, “What is the Christian life and how am I supposed to live it?” it would have been very likely for someone to put into his hands Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ – I say,in The Imitation of Christ you will find a grand account of a heart aspiring for communion with God, the love of God as the highest good of human existence. You will find searching demonstrations of the proper contempt that a Christian should have for the things of this world. It is very good on humility, very good on self-denial. It is a book for Christian men and women who care about their souls, who care about living a godly life, and who know that the love of God and the nearness of God are far and away the greatest things in the world!
What you do not find in this great book, however, this most famous of all Christian books, is the Christian life as a life of loving others. Emphatic as the Bible is in describing true faith as producing this life of love, insistent as the Bible is that such love is the mark or characteristic of the child of God, you find nothing of this in The Imitation of Christ. It is as if Thomas actually thought we could imitate our Savior without loving one another in the church. Thomas’ life, as one scholar put it, was “the little monotonous world of the cloister.” He was a monk from his early twenties until the time of his death at age 92. He was largely isolated from the life of ordinary people. But in the Bible, the context of godly living is the boisterous, noisy, demanding, complicated world of the home and the neighborhood and the market. At one point Thomas writes,
“Desire the fellowship of God alone and of his holy angels; and shun the acquaintance of men.”
I am sure that through the ages a great many, particularly young Christians, have read that, been inspired by it and said, “Yes! That is what I need to do!” In Thomas’ view the greatest saints were men who largely avoided the society of human beings and sought instead to be completely alone with God. But you can’t imitate Jesus in living such a life for that was not the life he lived. He was out and about among people morning, noon, and night. He taught them, he healed them, he fed them, he listened to them, he loved them and then he taught us to do the same.
Here is how one church historian describes this famous and much loved and still valuable book of Christian devotion. [Milman cited in Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, 64]
“It’s sole, single, exclusive object is the purification, the elevation of the individual soul, of the man absolutely isolated from his kind, of the man dwelling alone in solitude in the hermitage of his own thoughts; with no fears or hopes, no sympathies of our common nature: he has absolutely withdrawn and secluded himself…. Never was misnomer so glaring…as the title of the book, the Imitation of Christ. That which distinguishes Christ, that which distinguishes Christ’s apostles, that which distinguishes Christ’s religion – the love of man – is entirely and absolutely left out. Had this been the whole of Christianity, our Lord himself [would have lived] like an Essene, working out or displaying his own sinless perfection by the Dead Sea: neither on the mount, nor in the temple, nor even on the cross. The apostles [would have] dwelt entirely on the internal emotions of their own souls, each by himself; St. Peter still by the [Sea of Galilee], St. Paul in the desert of Arabia, St. John in Patmos.”
He goes on to say that had this been the true spirit and the center of the Christian life, its distinctive mark and characteristic – such as is described in The Imitation of Christ – there would never have been the wonderful, healing, saving, life-affirming influences of our holy faith on marriage and the home, upon the social life of men and nations, upon the condition of the poor and needy, upon the great unreached world that needed to hear the good news that there was eternal life to be had through faith in Jesus Christ. Each Christian soul would have cared for itself seeking escape for itself from the sins of the world. But, instead the love of others was from the very beginning deeply fixed as a first principle of the Christian life, as it was fixed in the heart and the life of our Savior who came into the world not for himself but for others.
I have another copy of The Imitation of Christ, an abridged selection of passages from the larger work published in 1965. In a brief introduction the editor explains that he has gathered the passages that, in his view, call us to the realization of what conforming our lives to Christ really means. But, again, there is nothing in the book about loving others, even loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is a great deal in the book about not loving oneself and about loving God; but nothing about loving others.
Surely this ought to serve as a warning for us. The greatest book, the most influential, the most famous book on the Christian life ever published in Christian history and somehow it managed to omit the most obvious, persistent and emphatic fact about Christian living as it is taught us in the NT: that it is a life of love for others. There is something about our selfish hearts that make them disinclined to heed lectures about the absolute necessity of love in a Christian’s life. Before we are too hard on Thomas à Kempis and his still valuable book we should admit that we often think about our own lives and somehow manage to miss this central feature of the description of the Christian life in the pages of the NT; in the example of our Lord, of his apostles and in their teaching.
So let us all take care, clear our heads, and listen again to the Apostle John and consider carefully that he made this brotherly love one of the three principle means of identifying a Christian in the world. Do you want to know who the real Christians are? Easy enough: look around and see who loves the other brothers and sisters. Our tendency, yours and mine, is to look inward. John’s instruction is the opposite. Look outward at your life, what you are doing with it, how you are connected to others, and to what extent it is a life of love. We worry that may turn our Christian life into one of performance, of works, instead of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We will be concentrating too much on what we do and not enough on what he has done for us. That is the fear. But the NT does not address that fear by telling us something other than to attend to our works of love.
Instead it gives us three tests, not just one, and it holds before us the goal of a distinctly Christian love, a love that is the effulgence, the overflow of our experience of God’s love and Christ’s love ourselves. And, apart from Christ, this love is frankly impossible, which is why it is a mark or a characteristic of true and living faith in Christ. Unbelievers never have it. There are kinds of love you can find in the unbelieving world; this kind of love you cannot. And it is why, just as with the moral test, we Christians are so regularly disappointed – even dismayed – by the measure of our own love for others.
Believe me, if when you first heard the text being read this morning you thought that such love must not be so difficult if all Christians have it, you have much to learn about love and about the others you must love. As anyone will tell you who has given himself or herself to brotherly love, Christians are an acquired taste. Loving them is not as easy as it may sound. You need distinctly Christian motivation and distinctly Christian power to manage this over time consistently, faithfully and sacrificially. This is a love that must first be in him before it is in you as John puts it in v. 8. Love is wearyingly hard work. It is a different kind of love. But then ask any mother what love for her children has cost her: the nights of sleeplessness, the tears, the worries, the backbreaking work of a thousand days and nights. There is sacrifice in love, there is hard work in love, there is disappoint in love, there is worry in love, there is fear in love. That is as true as it is true that perfect love casts out fear. True love is very different from that passing fancy and feeling that the world so often mistakes for love.
Think of all the romantic singing about love – and most songs in the world throughout history and still today, in every genre from opera to rap, are about love and usually the love of a man and a woman – and consider how few of them who sing these songs have managed to remain faithful to and passionately committed to the one he or she once claimed to love. Think of so many who have brought children into the world intending to love them, or so they said, but whose thirst for self-fulfillment later made them willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of their own happiness. Can it be the love of others when one puts oneself first? Think of all the appeals to love and brotherhood that we hear in our society and then put our society to the test.
After witnessing the revolution in France, all the violence and the blood-letting that was done in the name of equality and brotherhood, the Austrian diplomat Metternich said, “After seeing what was done in the name of brotherhood, if I had a brother, I would call him my cousin.” Everyone talks about love. Everyone wants love. Everyone thinks love is an obligation of life. Everyone thinks they love. But real love somehow remains a rarity in our world. We can’t help crave it and want it and value it because we have been made in the image of God who is himself love; but sin is in its very nature selfish, pointed away from love, destructive of love. The best way to prove this is to admit that we, you and I, we who have every reason to give our lives to love, have all the motivation we would ever need, have the ability in Christ and his Spirit actually to love others faithfully, nevertheless so often have to admit:
I lived for myself, I thought for myself,
For myself and none beside –
Just as if Jesus had never lived,
As if he had never died.
Love’s rarity is what makes it such a terrible and wonderful power in the world. St. Theresa of Avila once wrote “Satan could not be Satan any longer if he could once love his neighbor as himself.” To do that, really to do that, faithfully to do that, constantly to do that you have to be a Christian, you have to be a follower of Jesus Christ, because you have to overcome the anti-love principle deeply fixed in your nature as a result of sin.
As before with the moral test, the mark of a real Christian is not a life of perfect love – far from it – but a life that is really and seriously pointed toward the love of others, a life of seeking that love, and practicing it.
Every true Christian admits that he or she knows all too well the difference between the place love – sacrificial, constant, passionate love – ought to have in his or her life and the place it actually has. This is a grief to us. We know how beautiful love is because we have seen it in God and in Christ. We have felt it when it was poured into our hearts and we have practiced it by the power of God’s grace and in the moments when we have we have known for a certainty that in those moments we have encountered life as we know it ought always to be. No wonder that Jonathan Edwards should describe heaven as simply “a world of love.” We may fail many times to meet the obligation of love, a sin we must regularly confess as John says in John chapter 1, but there is no doubt in our minds and hearts as to the obligation, the rightness, and the goodness of love. We Christians don’t want the summons sugar-coated. We want it right between the eyes. Don’t hold back, John, tell us what we must be and how we must live!
Did you notice how verse 11 begins? “But whoever hates his brother…” John is hunting us out of that place we sometimes imagine must exist, that middle ground, some safer and more comfortable place for ourselves. We may not actively love our brethren as we should, we think to ourselves – after all, nobody’s perfect – but we are kindly disposed to them and wish them well. We certainly are not doing them any harm. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that love; if not the best kind of love, at least some kind of love? When the opportunity presents itself, we’ll try to be kind to them and generous to those around us. Surely that’s enough! But John says that if we are not loving our brothers and sisters, we are hating them. There is but that single alternative: love or hate, the one or the other. God made us to love, not to be indifferent to others. And a life of indifference belongs with hate. We Christians want to hear that. We want John to tell us that. We don’t want ourselves to allow any possible excuse to keep us from aspiring to this life of love and working to live it.
This is not the way our culture any longer thinks about love. It is a striking thing, but this is perhaps one of the deepest and most profound changes that has occurred in our modern life over the last generation. Of course it has always been true that people imagined that they loved more than they did; comforted themselves with very little actual love; imagined that it was love enough simply to approve of love. They were very rarely troubled with the fact that there wasn’t a single person in their acquaintance who would single them out as a particularly loving human being. Like Leo Tolstoy, they told themselves that they loved the world and were not overly troubled by the fact that they didn’t manage to love any particular human being faithfully, permanently, sacrificially, or practically. They loved mankind; a theory; a much easier thing to do. That has always been true. But what is more and more true, dismally in our culture, is that we are being taught by the elite culture that love is really just another form of self-interest. Do you remember psychologist Fritz Perls’ “Gestalt Prayer.”
I do my thing
And you do your thing.
I am not in the world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in the world to live up to mine.
You are you and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
That’s a summary of what is increasingly our official and public viewpoint in the United States of America. That is not the love that warms and gladdens the heart or blesses the life of mankind. But it is the love we are left with when we abandon the love of God and of Christ and strike out to find something we can substitute for it in our human life. That is not love and down deep nobody thinks it is. If parents loved their children that way, if husbands and wives loved one another that way, if friends loved one another that way, all would be lost in our benighted world. There is such a thing as love and nobody knows that better than a Christian, real love, that sympathy and fellow-feeling, that inflexible commitment to another human being and his or her life, that willingness to make sacrifices on another’s behalf, that longing for another’s happiness and welfare, and that determination to take whatever steps foster that happiness and welfare. That alone is love as we have learned it at the feet of the Son of God. That love involves, in the nature of the case, suffering and that is one of the reasons we recoil from it. Love is sympathy and fellow-feeling and a true commitment to another’s happiness and in this suffering world a heart that loves that way must often be broken. I suppose I have grieved more in the past two years than during any other period in the 60 years of life in this world. Why? Because I love my eldest daughter and her pain is mine. And you know that. You are aware of this. You have felt and experienced that and you know it is true and right. It is the way you ought to feel. You would hate yourself if you didn’t feel that way. Love and pain go together because love cares and love does. And when love cannot do, it suffers. Our Savior taught us that and showed us that.
John is resolute in forcing us to face these facts. We are not to content ourselves, he says, with anything less than the genuine article. The love we see in Christ and the love we have found in him is the love we are to give to one another. Love admits no substitute and no diminishment. We either love people in this way or we hate them, and what makes us Christians is that we absolutely agree with that and we want to be reminded of it again and again and again until our lives are really lives of love in this way. To love is to live in the light; not to love is to live in the darkness. We’ll content ourselves this morning with that magnificent truth because, thankfully, we are going to have a number of opportunities to talk about the love of one another as John makes his way further into his not terribly well organized argument.