I’ve really had to chew on this passage and, to some degree, am continuing to chew as I write to see if what I’m thinking makes sense. John says in 1 John 4:18 that, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Honestly, I think that verse is often used divorced from the rest of the section and without context. I often hear that used in reference to taking risks to love other people. In the narrow context, I think that misses the point, though in the broader context, it is still applicable. However, if we don’t look at the context, we can miss the central meaning.
This verse (and the entire section that we’re looking at today) must be taken together with the verses that we read yesterday. John talked in 13-17 about the witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives, giving us internal assurance of our place within the family of God. In essence, he says that because of the love God has shown them (the apostles) through Christ, they have come to believe in the love of God which leads us (by extension through their testimony) to a confidence that we will not face judgment. That is the verse leading into the section for today, so the context is that we need not fear judgment because of the love of God. That is the central idea: Because of the perfect love of Christ, if we are abiding in Him (finding our hope, contentment, purpose, etc.), we will have no fear of the future because perfect(ed) love casts it out.
So, really, John is giving us yet another test of how we can be certain of our standing with God through the absence of fear for the future, knowing in our souls (because of that indwelling testimony of the Holy Spirit) that we have been made right with God. It doesn’t stop there, though. John goes back to the idea of loving others as being partnered with this indwelling testimony. There must be an outward expression of the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. Namely, loving others.
Sure, it’s great to feel the confidence of our eternal security by a lack of fear of death. Yet, if that is not coupled with unconditional love for others (which is commanded–see verse 21), we are still dealing with emotionalism or religiosity (which can often mimic a real relationship with Christ). THAT is the marker of a life having been transformed into the likeness of Christ, not that we simply love those who love us or who are easily lovable, but especially those whom we find it difficult to love: the least of these, the poor, the outcast, the obnoxious! With these tests, we can certainly get a pretty accurate read on our standing with Christ. This is John’s continued goal and mission from his Gospel: “…these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”