Perfect Love

  • Brian Overholtzer
Lights that say love

I remember writing my wedding vows and carefully thinking through what to include in them. On one hand, I wanted to express in them my love for Elizabeth to the superlative degree. I wanted to stand face to face with my bride and tell her that I would love her perfectly. On the other hand, I was keenly aware of my imperfections. Additionally, the pre-marital counseling classes at our church also encouraged us to think through our vows carefully. The pastors encouraged us to keep them realistic. So, I was careful to not promise something impossible: perfect love.

God’s Love is Perfected in Christians

However, the Bible does relate perfected love to Christians. In 1 John 4:12 God’s Word says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). So, which is it? Can we love perfectly or can’t we?

A Nerdy but Helpful Look at the Word “Perfection”

The apparent paradox is resolved when we understand that John used the word “perfect” not with the concept of faultlessness but in the sense of a goal.  The word John used here “telos,” is translated “perfect” in several translations (NASB, ESV, NRSV, KJV, CSB, and NET). However, “telos” is also translated in several other ways in the New Testament, in Jewish literature, and even as far back as the ancient classical Greek writings of Homer. The word “telos” is also used in situations where there is a goal in view. We can look to the final words of Christ on the cross as a heartwarming example. The Apostle John records that “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:28). Here the words, “it is finished” are translated from “telos.” While we can indeed see the finished work of Christ on the Christ as “perfect,” Jesus uses this word in this context to tell us that He has finished the goal to which God sent Him to accomplish. In John 4:34, Christ looks forward to the cross and says, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” In this verse, John uses the word “telos” to reference His goal of going and dying and the cross for the forgiveness of sins. John continues to use “telos” to look forward to the goal of obeying what God sent Him to do in 5:36 and 17:4.

What is the goal of Christian Love?

Ok, so I hope that I have “achieved my goal” of convincing you that John probably didn’t have the idea of sinless perfection in 4:12. Instead, John speaks of the goal for God’s love to manifest itself in the life of believers. If we look a few verses back to 4:7–12, we find three applications in how God’s love ought to be a reality in our lives.

The Foundation of Love in a Christian’s Life

 “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (4:7–8).

Starting the applications to love, John first provides the foundation of God’s love in a Christian’s life. This foundation is that love is exclusively defined by who God is. Those who are born again believers experience this love. 

Love Takes the Initiative

 “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world” (4:9a).

The invisible God made His love for us visible in the incarnation of His beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This was an action that God initiated. God sought out those he foreknew and had chosen. Ephesians 1:5 reminds us of his rich love for us in that, “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” God is the initiator of love. Likewise, His love is not passive in the Christian. We do not wait around for people to love us first before we show love to them. To expect to be treated kindly as a condition to love others is not the love that shown to us by God.

Love is Interested in the Benefit of Others

 “that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (4:9b).

The benefit that God achieved for us by sending His Son to die on the cross, is the salvation of His people, the forgiveness of our sins. In John 15, Christ told His disciples that the greatest love one could have is to lay down His life for His friends. When we love others in such a way that prioritizes them even at our own expense, we picture what Christ did on the cross. We model the redemptive work of Christ that was only possible through an excruciating experience.

Love is not Interested in Our Own Comfort

 “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (4:10).

That Christ was sent to be the propitiation for our sins speaks of the excruciating pain that He suffered on the cross. This is more than the nails in His hands or the crown of thorns that pierced His scalp. This speaks to the full weight of God’s anger and wrath and judgment that was directed toward us. Christ bore this on the cross satisfying the full breadth and depth of God’s holy wrath toward us. Jesus was fully aware of this agony that awaited Him. In the garden of Gethsemane, He prayed to the Father asking Him to spare Him from this judgment. However, the love of Christ was not interested in His own comfort. He submitted to the will of the Father for the ransom of many. God’s love was made visible on the cross. 1 John 4:12 does not ask us to be martyrs. Rather, we ought to martyr our preferences for the preferences of others even when it hurts.

We will not love perfectly until Christ brings us home to Heaven. In 1 John 4:12, we are instructed to love one another as God loved us as Christ loved us. This is the goal of God’s love in the Christian life.