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The Nine Essentials: Love
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1 JOHN 4:7-21 


nine essentials art“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-25)


It’s little wonder that when Paul wanted to list those things that are the result or the “fruit” of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian believer that he begins with love. Earlier in his letter to the Galatians, he says that the thing that matters most is “faith working through love” (5:6) and urges the Galatians to “serve each other through love” (5:13). Of course, Paul takes his cue on this from Jesus, who said that the greatest commandment was to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-40). Love is at the very heart of the message of the entire Bible, and particularly here in the New Testament.


But what is the nature of that love? It’s a bit confusing in a culture where love is the central theme of much of our discourse and our music, where definitions of love are wide and varied and usually have to do with feelings. One of the interesting phenomena I’ve noticed over the course of my ministry is that many couples want to use Paul’s other great treatise on love, I Corinthians 13, in their wedding ceremony, but I always remind them that the kind of love Paul is talking about involves setting aside one’s feelings and doing the hard work of being patient, kind, putting the other ahead of yourself, keeping no record of wrongs. Paul wrote that particular chapter to a church where people were at each other’s throats, not getting ready to go to the altar. To enter into a covenant of love means loving someone even when you don’t feel like it. It’s love that transforms both the giver and the receiver.


Such a love is a fruit of the Spirit because it doesn’t come naturally to us as sinful, selfish humans who tend to focus only on what makes us feel good—it has to be cultivated by the Spirit within us and it has to have a model. For Paul, of course, the model was Jesus and while he writes extensively about that love, no one in the New Testament writes about it more than John. In both his Gospel and in his letters, John emphasizes the true nature of love as emanating from God, through Christ, to us; and then from us to others in the power of the Holy Spirit. Love as a fruit of the Spirit is thus the glue that connects us to God and to others. All the other fruit of the Spirit are byproducts of this love.


In his Gospel, John reveals Jesus’ own teaching and example of real love. It was God’s love that brought his only Son into the world to save it (3:16) and it was this love that Jesus commanded his disciples to emulate—“love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34). Indeed, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will do what I command” (Jn. 14:15). The love that Jesus and Paul are talking about is not merely a feeling, it’s an active orientation away from self and toward God and others. And as Paul puts it in Galatians, it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to love in this way, and it’s this love that reveals whether or not the Spirit is present in our lives.


John picks up this theme in the first epistle he wrote in the New Testament. Actually, it’s really more of a sermon than an epistle, and in it he explains how this love comes to us and then works through us in the power of the Spirit. It is love that is both unconditional and conditioning. Let’s take a look at the text:


In 1 John 4:7-8, the apostle begins by telling us that real love emanates from God’s very nature. As John puts it, “Let’s love each other, because love is from God,” and indeed (v. 8), “God is love.” But then he goes on to define what he means by that statement (v. 9) – “This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him.” Here’s a direct echo of John 3:16—God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” In this sense, God’s love is unconditional; we didn’t deserve it, indeed we merited nothing but God’s wrath because of our sin. And so John says in verse 10 – “This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice to deal with our sins.” It was God’s unconditional love that sent Jesus to save us even when we didn’t love God. As Paul puts in Romans, “God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God is the author of love, the one who loves unconditionally.


The problem, however, is that a lot of Christian theology stops there and misses the second part of the nature of God’s love. While it is unconditional, it is also conditioning—it is love that is given to us not to simply bless, excuse, or cover over our sin but love that is given to transform us and condition us into the people God created us to be. Go back to verse 7—John urges his readers to love one another because love is from God—in fact, love for others is the evidence that one is born from God and knows God. Faith is not just an intellectual exercise, it is “faith working in love” that matters. John goes on to make that more clear in verse 8 – “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.” The reason God sent his Son is not so that we could simply accept his love and continue to do what we were doing before, but so that we might “live through him.” God’s love deals with our sins so that we can be new people—reborn people who love as he loves. If God’s love isn’t making us into different people, people who look like Jesus, John implies, then we really haven’t received that love at all.


This is a major point because in our culture and in many places in the church today, the truth that “God is love” has often been flipped around as “Love is God.” The message we are constantly bombarded with is that love means we see ourselves and everyone around us as perfect just the way they are. In that world, love means never confronting sin and brokenness, never looking to change, and never questioning the way things are. Indeed, to speak the truth and say that there is something called sin and that someone or something needs to change, even ourselves, is to be considered not loving but “hateful.” For many of these folks, the gospel of “love is God” sounds something like this: “I love you. You’re perfect. Never change.”


This is not a sentiment you will ever find in the Scriptures, however. As John says earlier in his sermon in 1:8, “If we claim, ‘We don’t have any sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” John is dealing with reality here—that God sent his Son into the world for a reason and that is to deal with the sin that enslaves us and to set us free as people born again, transformed for his glory and to live the abundant life we were meant to live. God went to great lengths, all the way to the cross, to extend this unconditional and conditioning love toward us and we, in turn, as transformed people, are to extend it to others to help them be transformed as well. And God gives us the Holy Spirit, working within us to help us overcome our natural tendencies toward sin, to make that transformation possible.


In 4:11, John says “If God loved us in this way, so we also ought to love each other.” God’s love transforms us, conditions us, into being people who love as he loves. It’s this love that reveals the invisible God to the world (v. 12). How will people know the transforming, unconditional and conditioning love of God? Through the way we demonstrate love for each other. This is how his love is “made perfect” in us.


Now that sounds very Wesleyan! Actually, Wesley pulled this idea from John and from the rest of the Scriptures. For Wesley and for us Methodists (indeed for all Christians), the Spirit’s work is all about perfecting us in love—perfecting us into the image of God we were created to be. It’s not that we are perfect as we are, but that we are “going on to perfection” with the help of the Holy Spirit bearing the fruit of love in our lives. “This is how we know we remain in him and him in us,” says John, “because he has given us a measure of his Spirit” (v. 13). It’s that measure of the Spirit, that fruit of the Spirit in our lives that enables us to see with the eyes of faith and testify to the world that the Father has sent the Son to be its Savior (v. 14). We can know that love and share that love because we have experienced it for ourselves. We can confess and believe not because we’ve been intellectually convinced but because we have been infused with the love of God—because we have “known and believed the love God has for us” (v. 16).


So what does that “perfect love” look like, and how does that particular fruit of the Spirit manifest itself in our daily lives? John goes on with some particulars:


First, love casts out fear. In verse 17, John says that those who are growing in this perfect love have no reason to fear God’s judgment day because “we are exactly the same as God is in this world.” In other words, the more we grow in this love, the more we walk in the Spirit, the more we look like Jesus who was and is “God in this world.” Fear expects punishment, John says in verse 18, but there is no fear in love and the person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.


Those who are being perfected, conditioned by the love of God have no reason to fear God, because God’s love has had its effect on them—it is transforming them from the inside out. We can embrace what God has done for us in love and share it with others. And we don’t have to fear them either, because we have the Holy Spirit to speak the truth in love through us.


So many Christians are fearful—fearful of embarassment, fear of rejection, fear of being ridiculed by a world that settles for a cheap imitation of love. The truth, however, is that when people experience the real love of God embodied in people who live, act, and talk like Jesus, they want to know how to experience it for themselves. When the fruit of love is activated in our lives, others will be drawn to know where it comes from. Perfect loves casts out the fear of God and of others and, instead, conditions us to extend the sacrificial love of Jesus to all, including our enemies. If we say we love God but hate someone else, John says in verse 20, it makes us out to be a liar. Hate is usually a product of fear. But if we truly love God, we will demonstrate love to others no matter how they treat us. And in doing so, we just might be the instrument through whom they experience the love of God for themselves.


Second, perfect love makes obedience to God’s commandments more natural. Without love, we might look at God’s commandments as heavy obligations that we have to grudgingly execute. When love is our primary orientation, however, then obedience to God looks more like an opportunity than an obligation. We will naturally live the reality that the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Look at 5:2 – “This is how we know that we love the children of God: when we love God and keep God’s commandments.” And then, as if for emphasis, John repeats that in verse 6 – “This is the love of God: we keep God’s commandments” (Jesus says the same thing in John 14 – if you love me you will do what I command).


And then John says something that should shock us: “God’s commandments are not difficult, because everyone who is born from God defeats the world.” Those who believe in Christ, who have been conditioned by his love, who look more like him, do not see the world as a scary place that we want to evacuate, but as a place ripe for sharing God’s love—love that will one day fill every corner of God’s creation.


Love is the first fruit of the Spirit because it is the one that drives everything else. Without love, unconditional and conditioning, Christians and their witness are nothing more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals to the world, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13. How do we cultivate this fruit? I close with three suggestions:

  • Conduct a rigorous self-examination. Would people know I am a Christian by my love? How do I demonstrate it? Has God’s love made a difference in my life? Am I going on to perfection? Do I love my enemies? Do I see God’s commandments as obligations or opportunities?
  • Ask for the Holy Spirit to increase your capacity to love. Ask the Spirit to show you areas in your life where you can share more of the love you have experienced in Christ. Listen for the Spirit’s prompting as you go about your week. Look for opportunities to show unconditional and conditioning love.
  • Practice! Make a conscious decision each morning to show love to everyone you meet. Keep track of your interactions, listening to that inner voice of the Spirit. Take some risks in sharing the love of Christ with someone. Perfect love casts out fear!

John Wesley defined a Methodist as one who “has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him.” May we cultivate that fruit of love and shed it abroad to everyone we meet. Amen.



Wright, Christopher J.H. Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness. IVP Books, 2017.

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