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A few days ago I heard someone mentioning fear, and he said, "Yes, I know perfect love casts out all fear, but who of you has perfect love?" But I thought to myself, "In the context of first John, I think it is proper to say that I do have perfect love." Looking at the narrow context, I'm inclined to say that this is true:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. —1 John 4:16-18

I also found this verse:

But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him. —1 John 2:5

It seems to me that the person who was saying that was trying to read his theology of sanctification (anti-perfectionism, de-emphasized regeneration) onto 1 John rather than just reading what John said. What is John saying about perfect love in his first epistle? Is love perfected already (in some sense) in those who know God, according to John?

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The NET Bible notes help:

The entire phrase fear has to do with punishment may be understood in two slightly different ways: (1) “fear has its own punishment” or (2) “fear has to do with [includes] punishment.” These are not far apart, however, and the real key to understanding the expression lies in the meaning of the word “punishment” (κόλασις, kolasis). While it may refer to torture or torment (BDAG 555 s.v. 1) there are numerous Koine references involving eternal punishment (2 Macc 4:38; T. Reu. 5:5; T. Gad 7:5) and this is also the use in the only other NT reference, Matt 25:46. In the present context, where the author has mentioned having confidence in the day of judgment (4:17), it seems virtually certain that eternal punishment (or fear of it) is what is meant here. The (only) alternative to perfected love, which results in confidence at the day of judgment, is fear, which has to do with the punishment one is afraid of receiving at the judgment. As 4:18b states, “the one who fears [punishment] has not been perfected in love.” It is often assumed by interpreters that the opposite to perfected love (which casts out fear) is imperfect love (which still has fear and therefore no assurance). This is possible, but it is not likely, because the author nowhere mentions ‘imperfect’ love, and for him the opposite of ‘perfected’ love appears to be not imperfect love but hate (cf. 4:20). In other words, in the antithetical (‘either/or’) categories in which the author presents his arguments, one is either a genuine believer, who becomes ‘perfected’ in love as he resides in love and in a mutually indwelling relationship with God (cf. 4:16b), or one is not a genuine believer at all, but one who (like the opponents) hates his brother, is a liar, and does not know God at all. This individual should well fear judgment and eternal punishment because in the author’s view that is precisely where such a person is headed.

John does follow fairly ridged, binary categories in this letter.


The other angle to look at this from the meaning of teleios <5046> (translated "perfect" in verse 18):

1) brought to its end, finished
2) wanting nothing necessary to completeness
3) perfect

The primary sense of the word in Greek has more to do with completion ("she ran the perfect race") rather than meeting a particular standard ("the telescope mirror was perfectly shaped"). In English, we tend to think of perfection the other way around. The word comes from telos <5056>, which is where we get the word teleology, the study of the purposes or, as Aristotle called it, final causes. In the context of the final judgment, it seems the connotation of completeness must be in John's mind.

But I don't think the translation "perfect" is inappropriate. That's because the love referenced is not our love for other people or for God, but God's love for us:

We love because he first loved us.—1st John 4:19 (ESV)

In this sense, the love that John is describing is perfect. After all, it isn't the love that we have for God which gives us confidence on the day of judgment, but His love for us. Presumably, we are afraid at times because we are not properly connected to God's perfect love rather than because our love is imperfect.

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1 John makes numerous references to love, especially in chapters 2 and 4, so much so that you could be forgiven for believing it is an epistle about love. However, New Testament scholars see the epistle quite differently, as a polemic.

W. Hall Harris III ('3. The Author’s Opponents and Their Teaching in 1 John') says 1 John 2:19 provides good reason for thinking that a split has taken place in the Johannine community and the author’s opponents now constitute a community of their own, just as thoroughly committed as the author’s to spreading their understanding of who Jesus is. He says that understanding the opponents as former members of the author’s community who have withdrawn from fellowship also helps to explain the author's emphasis on love for the brothers and sisters. By withdrawing (1 John 2:19) and splitting the community the opponents have shown that they do not love the brothers and sisters, in spite of the fact that they say they do.

Burton L. Mack, in Who Wrote the New Testament, pages 215-218, says that First John is a vicious polemic against this author's erstwhile compatriots. He was reduced at most points of direct confrontation to labelling his opponents ‘liars’ (1 John 1:6-10; 2:4; 4:20) or consigning them to demonic, cosmic or divine destruction (1 John 3:4 10) - hardly the language of 'love'.

In the following example, aimed at his former compatriots, the 'elder' (see 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1) exhibits hatred towards them, although not admitting as much. First, he says we (the community) love God, then he accuses his erstwhile brothers and sisters of hating those who remain with the elder, and therefore both of being liars and of not loving God:

1 John 4:19-20: We love him, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

Reading, without preconception, what 'John' said in the first epistle, it is not about about perfect, spiritual love. It is a diatribe in which the word 'love' is used to unite the remaining Johannine community and, by its supposed absence, to attack those who had departed from the community.

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