1 John 4:16b, God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him (own Greek translation).
A long debated text. Some interpret this to mean that since God is love, He cannot be a God of wrath and anger; He can only impose on us good feelings. Such is the sin of prosperity gospel heretics, who impose their own meaning onto the text rather than doing disciplined exegesis to see what the text says about itself. Others also say we know we remain in God if we love others. But how is that measured? Who gets to determine who has loved rightly? What happens when we fail? Such an interpretation, then, becomes law, not gospel. Both misinterpretations impose their preconceived meanings onto the text rather than receiving the meaning from the text itself. Thus, for the second error we examine the immediate context, and for the first error we examine the Greek.
The second error presupposes loving one another is proof of true Christianity. Although we are certainly called to love our neighbour, it is not the basis for assurance of our salvation. It cannot be rightly measured, determined, and we always fail. This interpretation is a works righteousness. Thus, we go to the context. Just immediately before the text, John says, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God” (v. 15, own Greek translation). This means none other than that when we believe and confess Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Saviour, the Son of God, He becomes ours. Christ is the one who makes this possible. Ergo, assurance of our salvation is in Christ alone. When we need assurance, we need only to look to Christ and remember our Baptism, who has called us His own.
The first error presupposes that since God is love, nothing bad can ever come from Him. This interpretation is ignorant of God’s wrath and our culpability for sin and its consequences. Yes, God is love, but He is also a God of justice and wrath. If you don’t believe me, just read the book of Revelation where He will destroy unbelievers and the Devil with His wrath. Just because John doesn’t mention it here does not suddenly mean God is not wrathful. But let us focus more on love here. What does love mean?
The misinterpreter thinks, “Because God loves me, He will not allow bad things to happen to me. He will only bless me.” Such is the heresy purported by prosperity gospel advocates, such as Joel Osteen. The danger of such heresy is that when the person inevitably faces tribulation (cf. John 16:33), they begin to doubt God’s love and even His existence. This teaching is not only untrue, but also a huge danger to a person’s faith and salvation, which is why it’s a heresy. Thus, let’s examine the Greek.
In English, we have only one word for love, which can be used in a variety of ways, so it is only natural that the word becomes ambiguous to us. (For example, “I love pizza” does not have the same meaning as “I love my wife.”) In Greek, however, there are several different words for love to denote specific meanings, and even then it depends on the context in which it is being used, which is the case here. In the text, the word used for love is ἀγάπη (agapē). This is a word virtually all Christians know, and many misinterpret it as a romantic love.
When the New Testament Greek text uses this word vis-à-vis human action, that is the meaning it’s using, both sexual and non-sexual (e.g. love for spouse, love for neighbour). Regardless of its use vis-à-vis human relationships, it is a godly love—loving one another as God loves us. When it is used for God, however—which is its use here—it means something else entirely. Ergo, God is love in His faithfulness and self-sacrifice in Christ. God’s love is that in Christ, He remained faithful to us and died for us on the cross. When we confess Christ and remain in Him, therefore, we remain in His faithfulness and self-sacrifice for us, and this is all sustained by Him.