John makes this startling claim in his first epistle.

1 John 4:7-8 (NIV)
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

If I am to take the obvious interpretation of this verse, then I must make one of two conclusions:

  • The act of loving causes us to be born of God, and thus saves us.
  • The act of loving is impossible unless we have been born of God.

The problem with the first, of course, is that it sets up an alternate, works-based mode of salvation. This contradicts so much of the Bible, that I think we can immediately rule it out.

The second is problematic (albeit, less so), because it claims that non-Christians are incapable of love, or at least makes some distinction between the character of Christian and non-Christian love. This seems to contradict observation, because (in my view, at least) many non-Christians live just as lovingly and compassionately as many Christians. I would find it hard to swallow that their love is somehow less authentic than my own.

So, how do we explain this? What is John getting at exactly, and how do we reconcile it with reality?

I'm interested in answers consistent with the protestant tradition, and particularly answers that are consistent with Arminianism.

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    I would guess that this is related (for Calvinists) to total depravity--being "dead in your transgressions" (Eph. 2:1+) and in the flesh ("nothing good ... in my flesh" [Rom. 7:18]). I.e., an unregenerate person's love is not true love coming from spiritual life. However, I am not confident of this interpretation and am not equipped to provide an answer (but this comment might be a hint at an answer). – Paul A. Clayton Jul 17 '13 at 20:35
  • Good point, Paul - I think I'll rescope my question to non-Calvinism, because I have a good handle on how they would answer this. – Eric Jul 17 '13 at 20:37
  • Why are you making a distinction between "secular" love and "Christian" love? Love is love is love. From my point of view, I think John is simply expressing metaphorically the relationship between love and God. Your two conclusions from analyzing the text sounds like the Protestant way, separating works from faith arbitrarily. How about looking at it the Catholic way? – Double U Jul 17 '13 at 20:54
  • @Anonymous The common secular notion of love is often one of emotion and possessive desire. Biblical love (agape) is a self-disinterested act, seeking the good of another as other. – svidgen Jul 19 '13 at 19:59
  • @svidgen Well, the Greeks had four types of love - agape, phileo, storge, and eros. Would phileo, storge, and eros fall under "secular love"? – Double U Jul 19 '13 at 20:22

Taking a simple definition of love as 'desiring actual good for someone because you care for their actual happiness', we can see that love arising from faith, is different in nature to secular love. Here are some of the differences:

  • Faith brings light and knowledge upon what is actual good, therefore it produces the desire of true good for others. Secular love may seek evil for others, through ignorance, although accompanied by human affection. For example, a wife might not want her husband to go to church and worship God (which is for his actual good) because in her ignorance she denies the value of it. She loves him and would rather that he stay home to his personal harm.

  • Faith produces love for God by believing in his love for us. Therefore the love that springs from faith, seeks to enjoy the highest good (God) and out of that spring, seeks good for men. Human love has self as it's goal, or at least just a few humans under the title friends and family, which is in many ways just an extension of our self-identity. Although human affection can make someone care deeply for another and be attended with many sacrifices, like a Mother over her infant, there is no higher spiritual motive and spring lifting those emotions onto a higher ground, having a higher object that arouses them, namely the glory and goodness of God.

  • The love produced by faith endures and can't be defeated. Human love often fails. Two people deeply in love hate one another a few years later. Christian love continues and endures as it is accompanied with holiness and so can't be smothered forever in anger, jealousy, ambition, greed, etc. Rather in suffering and loss it often flutters with more peace, patience and inhuman endurance, growing more and more gracious as it lives under the awe of God's glory.

  • Love arising from faith is a fruit of a spiritual life by the direct working of the Holy Spirit in those whose hearts are filled with him. Therefore there is a spiritual loving influence that animates human affections within a Christian so that the fragrance of Christ is an accompanying aroma into the love of a Christian. The spiritual element is a communion with God whereby his divine loving nature brings the heat of his light into our emotions, so that our deepest yearnings become loving desires that are inexpressible even as our own sinful nature opposes that inward yearning of love. Human love has no additional sense of a spiritual holy realm diffusing it's life into ours. Human love is often mixed with the unholiest of passions and appetites within hearts driven about by their lusts like wild animals.

  • Christian love causes actions not just sentiments. And this from faith, not mere self righteousness and a desire for the respect and love of others.

On each of the points I have raised I could add many biblical quotes but I did not want to create a thesis paper here, I had a feeling you are just looking for some overall concepts to divide the two. But to leave a couple verses that illuminate principles above a bit let me just leave a few:

Even as a believer human love is not that great:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (NIV, Matthew 7:11)

Human affection can go quite far, but still be secretly selfish based love:

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (NIV, 1 Corinthians 13:3)

The Spirit produces Christian love:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, etc. (NIV, Galatians 5:22)

Before we were Christian we actually all hated one another because we did not desire eternal salvation for anyone, nor did we desire the only great and good life in God:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. (NIV, Titus 3:3)

One could go on on on separating love produced by the Spirit and mere human affection, but I am sure we can start to see the diference.

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The short answer is that the natural man cannot love properly, and they hate the Lord and His Church (which is the focus here, cf. "let us love one another"), only the regenerate by the work of God can.

For the longer answer I'll give you John Gill's commentary, both on this and 1 John 3:14 which addresses the same issue.

1 John 4:7

Beloved, let its love one another

The apostle having finished what he proposed to say concerning the trying of spirits, returns to his former exhortation to brotherly love, and which comes with fresh force and strength; for since worldly men follow, hear, embrace, and cleave to the false teachers; such as are of God, and on the side of truth, should love one another, and their faithful ministers, and stand fast in one spirit by the truths of the Gospel, in opposition to every error:

for love is of God:

to love one another is the command of God, it is his revealed will, and is well pleasing in his sight; it comes from him, is a gift of his grace, and a fruit of his Spirit, and which he teaches regenerate ones to exercise:

and everyone that loveth

God, as the Alexandrian copy reads, or Christ, and the saints, who seem to be particularly meant:

is born of God;

for love to the brethren is an evidence of regeneration;

and knoweth God;

he knows God in Christ, and therefore loves those who have the grace of God in them, and the image of Christ upon them; he knows the mind and will of God, being taught of God to love the brethren; and he knows the love of God, and has had an experience of the grace of God, which influences him to love the saints.

1 John 3:14

We know that we have passed from death to life

From a death in sin, a moral or spiritual death; which lies in a separation from God, Father, Son, and Spirit; in an alienation from the life of God; in a loss of the image of God, of righteousness, holiness, and knowledge, in which man was created; in a privation of all true sense of sin, and in a servitude to it, which is unto death, and is no other than death: and from a legal death, or death in a legal sense, under the sentence of which all men are, as considered in Adam; and which God's elect are sensible of, when convinced by the Spirit of God, and are in their own apprehension as dead men. Now in regeneration, which is a quickening of sinners dead in sin, a resurrection of them from the dead, the people of God pass from this death of sin, and the law, to a life of sanctification, having principles of grace and life implanted in them; and to a life of justification, and of faith on Christ, as the Lord their righteousness; and to a life of communion with Christ; and to such a life as is to the glory of Christ; and to a right to eternal life. And this passing from the one to the other is not of themselves, it is not their own act; no man can quicken himself, or raise himself from the dead; in this men are passive: and so the words are rendered in the Vulgate Latin, Syriac, and Arabic versions, "we know that we are translated"; that is, by God the Father, who delivers from the power of darkness, and death, and translates into the kingdom of his dear Son, which is a state of light and life; or by Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, who is the author of the resurrection from the death of sin to a life of grace; or by the Spirit of life from Christ, by whom souls are quickened, and of whom they are born again: and this passage from death to life, or regeneration, is a thing that may be, and is known by the regenerate man; who, as he knows surely, that whereas he was blind he now sees, so that whereas he was dead in sin, he is now alive; and among other things it may be known by this,

because we love the brethren:

this is not the cause of passing from death to life, but the effect of it, and so an evidence of it, or that by which it is known; brotherly love being what the saints are taught of God in regeneration, and is a fruit of the Spirit of God, and is what true faith works by, and is what shows itself as soon as anything in a regenerate man; nor can anyone love the saints, as such, as brethren in Christ, unless he is born again; a man may indeed love a saint, as a natural relative, as a good neighbour, and because he has done him some good offices, and because of some excellent qualities in him, as a man of learning, sense, candour, civility though he has not the grace of God; but to love him as a child of God, a member of Christ, and because he has his image stamped on him, no man can do this, unless he has received the grace of God; so that this is a certain evidence of it:

he that loveth not [his] brother, abideth in death;

in the death of sin, in a state of nature and unregeneracy; under the sentence of condemnation and death; and he is liable to eternal death, which is the wages of sin, under the power of which such a manifestly is. This is said to deter from hatred, as also what follows.

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"Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."

It's simple, it is the essence of Christianity. A non-christian cannot love as a christian because christian love is a love that goes against our human nature. Our human nature tells us to love those who love us and hate those who hate us. But God's love says do good to those who persecute you, bless those who curse you, and to look upon fellow human beings through God's eyes. Since God loves his creation and wants them all to be saved we should also do this by focusing on the long term, the soul.

A christian who understands God's character, and that we are really spiritual beings, will treat people differently, they will be more gentle in their reproofs when their fellow christian stumbles, they will be more encouraging, more compassionate, and instead of wishing hell on unbelievers (like I see on youtube comments quite often) they will genuinely pray for their salvation. A real christian will not force someone to convert to their belief system because a christian's duty is to spread the word, and be a light to the lost, the rest is up to God and the nonbeliever.

A real life example: My Dad's brother is not a christian, he hates christians, avoids family gatherings, does a lot of unfair things to my dad. The natural thing to do in this situation would be to tell him to go to hell, ignore him, stop inviting him, exclude him, etc. But the christian thing to do would be to continue to pray for him, continue to invite him, even if he doesn't come, continue to treat him like the rest of your family,during holidays drop of gift baskets or wtvr. He acts like he doesn't care but his wife says he actually cares a lot despite trying to alienate everyone... this is one way to demonstrate God's love. Love the un-loveable.

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  • Welcome to the site! This is a great answer, I especially liked that you gave a Bible verse, explained it, and then showed a real life example. – Jeremy H Sep 12 '14 at 0:45
  • The act of loving is impossible unless we have been born of God.

This one.

The key to understanding this verse is knowing the definition of the word "love." The ancient Greek language had more words for "love" than we do in English, so it sometimes can be misunderstood. In this chapter, the Greek word is "agape," which refers to an unconditional love that is entirely focused on the person being loved, with no regard to the well-being of the lover, and it is described further in 1 Corinthians 13. This is the love that Christ showed us when he died for us, and this is the love that we as Christians are commanded to show to "one another" in these verses.

The chapter continues past these verses to explain further. We as humans are not capable of this pure agape love on our own. It is only because God has showed us this love first (1 John 4:19) and lives in us that we are able to show it to others.

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The entire book of 1st John shows how to tell a believer from an unbeliever, and is meant to bring joy to the believer (1 John 1:4) and confirm their fellowship (1 John 1:3). The uniqueness of the believer is shown in their response to their own sin, their belief in Christ, and their love for other believers.

1 John 3:13-14 states, "Marvel not my brethren, if the world hate you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death."

True believers are drawn to other believers and love them because they are believers. Loving your brother in the context of 1 John means loving believers because they are believers. People outside the faith do not love us because we believe.

1 John 4:7 starts with "let us love one another" meaning love other believers.

Elsewhere in the Bible we are also to "love our enemies". We are called to give God's love to everyone. But 1 John is talking specifically about the unique love believers have for other believers because they share faith in Christ.

To put it in negative terms (1 John 4:20), if you hate people because you see their love for Jesus or hate people who truly love Jesus then you aren't a real believer.

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it claims that non-Christians are incapable of love

Like most complex subjects it is good to start with a definition of terms.

The Biblical definition of love can be found in 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 The love is long-suffering, it is kind, the love doth not envy, the love doth not vaunt itself, is not puffed up,
doth not act unseemly, doth not seek its own things, is not provoked, doth not impute evil, rejoiceth not over the unrighteousness, and rejoiceth with the truth; all things it beareth, all it believeth, all it hopeth, all it endureth. - YLT

By this definition one might call love selflessness.

However, even unsaved people are capable of selflessness.

Romans 5:7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. -KJV

While unsaved people are capable of selfless love, it is not always sustained or consistent. The love a Christian is capable of is by virtue of our connectedness to God through our new life in Christ.

1Jn 4:19 We love him, because he first loved us. - KJV

Another factor that bears on understanding this verse are the verb tenses that do not readily come across in some English translations. Consider the Weust translation of these verses.

1 John 4:7 7-8 Divinely loved ones, let us be habitually loving one another with a divine and self-sacrificial love, because this aforementioned love is out of God as a source; and everyone who is in this manner habitually loving, out of God has been born with the present result that he is regenerated and knows God in an experiential way. The one who is not habitually loving in this manner has not come to know God, because God as to His nature is love. - Weust

I think a more correct assertion than non-Christians cannot love, is that non-Christians are not capable of sustained selfless love because this originates with God and one needs a connection to God to be able to show this continuously.

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