You may experience the same theological divide I felt at the Justice Conference last week. Whenever one is listening to a parade of speakers there is not a lot to do but compare and contrast. So I did. And I felt an interesting contest going on. It was a fascinating smorgasbord of evangelical do-gooders and I enjoyed snacking on various goodies.
Strangely enough, I think my most long-lasting good impression has less to do the the speakers and more to do with the wonderful notebook the organizers made for each participant. Across from a nice bio of each speaker they had a page for “notes,” the “key quote” and the “key take away.” I am so unused to going to conferences that I forgot that we are often encouraged to get a takeaway from a speech. We are not supposed to immerse ourselves, relate, understand or resonate, necessarily; we are to sift the data for something that moves us, or is useful to us.
Well, I think I learned to do that a bit.
We were talking about justice at the conference and one of the scriptures used was I John 4. One interpretation dissected my understanding of that chapter more clearly than I can remember. I had forgotten how it could be divided up.
In his letter, John is defending the incarnation. Most commentators think he has some opponents in his congregations that are tilting the gospel toward Greek, “gnostic” thoughts that would not tolerate a God in the flesh or tolerate relating to God in a personal way. So it was surprising to see that even while thinking about John’s letter it is possible to divide up John’s thoughts in such a way that one can strain out the personal and end up with principles. One of the speakers seemed so steeped in his principles and committed to a sovereign God who was so “other,” that he had a difficult time figuring out how to argue for doing justice, which is so incarnational.
But he gave it a noble try. This Bible study is my takeaway.
1 John 4:9-11 — This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Why do justice? Here is what I stereotype as an Evangelical way to look at it, according to the passage above.
- You should do justice by applying the principle: God loved us so we should love others.
- Then, moving along with what John says, you could add the principle that: Our love means nothing; it’s all God’s love that changes the world.
- If you are really going for it you could add: We should show love like God showed it in Jesus by being sent into the world so others might live through Jesus.
I don’t think those thoughts are all wrong. But I don’t think it is all John is trying to say, or that he would ever say it. Especially since he immediately says.
1 John 4:12 — No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
John is not merely applying principles, he is explaining the reality of God’s love living in him and God’s love being made complete in the body of Christ as they love one another and show his love to the world.
The incarnation of justice
I never would have become a Christian in the first place, had I just been signing up for the impossible task of applying biblical principles. I had enough guilt motivating me already. To be honest, the arguments that well-meaning Christians presented to me were not that convincing until I met God personally, which happened in spite of their arguments.
They were doing things like making principles out of the following nuggets from 1 John.
1 John 4: 16-17 — God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.
One could read 1 John 4 like it was a very good argument for what a Christian ought to do. One can take the sentences above and focus on the last clause: “In this world we are like Jesus.” The principle could be:
- Jesus cares about people so you should care.
- Jesus desires justice, so do it.
- Obeying the principles is the only way to have confidence on the day of judgment because you can demonstrate that you actually followed the commands of your teacher.
- Doing what is written is the way that love can be complete and not flawed under God’s scrupulous eye.
- God is love. If you say you are saved, you’d better be loving.
I don’t think those ideas are all wrong, but they might be missing the main thing John is talking about.
1 John 4:18 — 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.
It is only the love of Jesus at work in our hearts that can transform us into lovers. No amount of proper principle-applying will do it – especially when we apply the principles because we are afraid we will be disobedient and possibly judged if we don’t! Doing the work of justice no longer has to do with punishment, either; it is mainly about fearless lovers bringing the presence of Jesus with them as they dive into tangled-up humanity.
Nevertheless, one could reduce 1 John 4 down to one verse:
1 John 4:19 — We love because he first loved us.
That was a key verse the Baptists gave to me as a child. It was so short almost anyone could memorize it and get a prize! And even a child can get the point:
- Jesus loves me.
- And because Jesus loves me, I should love.
Only that is not all that John is saying. I’d say that sentence does not mean that at all, all due respect to Mrs. Roadhouse, my second grade Sunday school teacher. He means: Our capacity to love is set on fire by God’s love for us. We are rebooted for love by his love alive in us. Without God in us, we won’t be loving like God. John is experiencing an ongoing incarnation and he does not want it stolen by people who do not have God in the world, just a set of religious principles. I think he, again, quickly says just that:
1 John 4:20 — Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
It is not so much what you say, it is whether the love of the living God is in you.
It’s not that John is not making an argument. It’s that he is making an argument for incarnation. His God is not “up there” and we worship this remote God by effecting empathy — like Jesus demonstrated, and like he left us word about in the Bible before he returned “up there.” To the contrary, John’s God has entered into our experience and into our lives. We enter into the difficult tasks of love, like loving people we can actually see today, because the Spirit has entered into us and Jesus is entering into our situation with us.
What should be your takeaway from my Bible study? I don’t know. Did Jesus tell you anything? Did God’s love move you? If nothing personal happened between you and God, then there wasn’t much point in writing anyway. Especially when it comes to making an impact for justice in the name of Jesus, we’ll just be arguing if Jesus is not in us causing love to break out.