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Bible Commentaries
1 John 4

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

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Verses 1-21

1 John 4:1-3 . Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God. Whether those teachers believe that Christ is come in the flesh, which to the present hour the unbelieving jews deny. Try them by the faith of all the holy apostles and confessors, whether they confess that Christ is the Son of the living God. Whether he be the glory that shone in the ancient church, and dwelt on the mercyseat. The Eternal Son, the Word, the Wisdom of God, crucified for sinners. False teachers will neither follow the crucified Redeemer, nor suffer for his sake. The cross offers no charms to the concupiscence of such apostles.

1 John 4:6 . Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error. The one preaches and confesses Christ: the other, which denies him, is the spirit of antichrist, a lying spirit, which deceives the world as the serpent beguiled Eve.

1 John 4:8 . He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love. If he knew God he could not but love his brother, for the knowledge of God would inspire him with that sentiment and feeling, and make him a happy partaker of the divine benevolence. Love would kindle his heart into a flame of pure desire, and of godlike charity towards all mankind.

1 John 4:10 . Herein is love, the free and unmerited love of God to fallen man. The apostles are uniform in these declarations. Grace is grace. God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. Our songs are to him that hath loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood. Love was the sphere in which John moved, before he went to bathe his soul in the ocean of divine charity. He indeed could truly say, he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.

1 John 4:16-18 . God is love in all his works, in all his ways, and even the stroke of death is in unison with his lovingkindness in the gift of life. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear. This is the love of confessors in the day of trial, when put to the bar of Roman tribunals. John admits here, that there are degrees of love. The pious archbishop Fenelon traces five degrees of this holy affection. I translate his words almost verbatim. “ 1. We may love God, not for himself, but for the good things he confers; gifts which depend on his pleasure, and which we hope to obtain. Such was the love of the carnal jews, who kept the law because he gave them harvests and rain.

2. There is also a mercenary love of God, when we regard him merely as the instrument of our happiness, and happiness which we can find in no other object. This may be regarded as loving ourselves, rather than God.

3. We may love God, if we may so call it, with a love of hope. This is mixed with a degree of loving God for himself, yet the motive is the reigning principle of self-love. And such is the love we feel in the commencement of our conversion.

4. There is a love of charity, which is mixed with some remains of self- love, but which nevertheless is the true regenerating love, because its predominating motive is disinterested. Sales says, Le souverain amour n’est qu’en la charite. Supreme love consists wholly in charity. This love can regenerate the heart, because it prefers God and his glory to our own interest.

5. We may love God with a love of pure charity, and without any mixture of the motives of self-love. When we love God in the midst of sufferings, and in such sort that we could not love him more, even when he loads the soul with divine consolations. In this love, neither the fear of chastisement, nor the desire of recompense, has any share. The purity of love consists in desiring nothing for ones-self; and in looking solely at the good pleasure of God.”

In short, true love to God consists in a supreme affection for his character, in a ravishing delight in his transcendent purity and benevolence, exclaiming with the prophet, How great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty! Zechariah 9:17. That which fills all heaven with ceaseless praise and adoration is the infinite and unapproachable purity of the divine nature. Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory! Isaiah 6:3. Revelation 4:8. A love like this, which is centred in God himself, is that alone which can meeten us for the society above, and to join in their adorations before the throne.

1 John 4:19 . We love him, because he first loved us. His love, as in 1 John 4:12, being “perfected in us,” constrains us to love him in return. There is an entire harmony between the regenerate heart and the law of love. “Draw me, and I will run after thee.” Grace reigns in the hearts of all those who are thus sanctified, and made perfect in love. He loves us in all the work of redemption, in all the alarms of conscience, and the terrors of a fiery law. He loves us by opening his arms to receive sinners, and by unfolding wide the gates of glory to call us home.

1 John 4:20-21 . He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? Our poor brother was made in the image of God, is the special object of redeeming love, and is praying, working, and warring with us in the same pilgrimage. He shall by and bye be with Christ in his kingdom, and probably higher in glory than we. Let us then love him as a brother beloved of the Lord.


St. John, anxious to see his children established in grace, and perfected in love, was equally cautious that they should be nourished by a holy ministry. He would have ministers tried (and the life will manifest the heart) by all the marks of grace laid down in this epistle, and especially by this test, their preaching the godhead and glory of Christ made manifest in the flesh. This would prove that they were neither judaizing teachers, nor the wily disciples of Cerinthus. This caution is of equal force at this day, and of equal necessity. We have had boys dressed as for the theatre, who have stood up in the pulpits of our puritan fathers, and pledged themselves to prove the doctrine of the Trinity to be untrue, by a species of reasoning both impious and absurd. Adorable mystery, profaned by ignorance and presumption. Of such the Lord might complain as he did by the prophet, I have nourished and brought up children, and by going to the seminaries of philosophical hypocrites, they have rebelled against me. Children that have gone backward a seed of evil doers. They feed the people with wind, with sophistries which their fathers knew not, instead of the wholesome milk of evangelical truth.

False teachers are destitute of love, and they will never stand in the day of trial, when called to suffer for Christ. True teachers have eternal life in Christ, and have Christ formed in their hearts; and though they have not seen God, they love his image seen in their brother. They love God perfectly, and by a reaction of his own love to them. They go on to that degree of love which casts out fear of exile, of stripes, of martyrdom. Their confidence is founded on purity; because as he is, so are we in this world. So St. John had proved before the jewish council, and before the heathens. Believer, love is the end and consummation of religion. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love. Go on to perfection; go on to a perfect faith, a perfect love, and a perfect resignation, that thy heart may always triumphantly decide for God; and still grow in grace, for the perfection taught in the new testament always admits of growth and encrease.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 John 4". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/1-john-4.html. 1835.
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