What does it mean when it says in Scripture, ‘perfect love casts out all fear’?
Yesterday I wrote a piece on the fear of God. I spoke about how little of it is found in our churches today, even though the Bible speaks about it so very much. I shared it on the social media, only to have one guy come back and say: “God is love … nothing to fear.”
I wrote back and said that God is also holy, and I quoted Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” He came back with a dismissive remark, saying the Bible is just a book that has been changed by men, etc. At that point I realised our discussion needed to come to an end. But that short debate ties in to this text.
The verse I am examining today says this: “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.” This passage reads easily enough. It seems pretty straight forward.
Yet it certainly seems to clash with other biblical passages that speak about fearing God. In yesterday’s article I mentioned that almost a thousand times in the Bible we read about the fear of God, fearing the Lord, and so on. So the question is, do we have a contradiction here?
Which is it: do we fear God or do we not fear God? As always, context is king. 1 John 4 – especially verses 7-21 – is talking about the assurance of the believer, and the certainty he has in Christ. We need not fear coming judgment. And that is just what the previous verse talks about: “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.”
And verse 18 says the same when it speaks about punishment. Loving God is a sign that we really belong to Christ. And if we are in Christ, then we have no fear of coming judgment. So the context greatly helps us here. And so does the basic rule of biblical interpretation: Scripture interprets Scripture. The Bible must be interpreted by the Bible.
For Latin fans we have this: Sacra Scriptura sui ipsius interpres. That is, the Holy Scripture is its own interpreter, interpreting itself. There is a unity to the Biblical message. The 66 books of the Bible give us one complete storyline. Therefore, properly understood, one part of Scripture will not contradict another.
One simply has to turn to other biblical passages to see the bigger picture here. For example, we know that Jesus fully loved the Father, yet he also had due reverence for him as well, as we read in Hebrews 5:7. In this sense there is nothing incompatible with a proper reverential fear of God and a love for God.
As mentioned, both verses 17 and 18 speak of punishment and judgment, and how fear relates to those things. But the key question is this: what sort of punishment are we speaking about here? It is the eternal punishment of the lost. As Colin Kruse reminds us,
The type of fear meant here is fear of punishment. The word translated ‘punishment’ (kolasis) is found in only one other place in the NT, Matthew 25:46: ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life’ – the words with which Jesus concludes the parable of the sheep and the goats. Punishment there is what God metes out to the unrighteous on the day of judgment. Punishment here in 1 John is also the punishment to be meted out to the unrighteous, and it is fear of this punishment that is driven out by love. People cannot love God and fear his punishment at the same time.
If we are spared such punishment, does that mean the believer will never know the chastisement of God? No, for a proper sort of punishment or chastisement is what any loving father does for a child whenever necessary, and that is just what Father God does for his own children.
We read all about that in Hebrews 12:4-13 for example. So the heavenly Father will discipline or chastise his children as part of his love for them. But this sort of punishment is not the punishment being spoken of in 1 John 4. That is the eternal punishment meted out by God to unbelievers in the day of judgment.
But the Christian is excluded from that. While we will face a judgment of our works (as we read about in places like 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:10), we will not face the final judgment of God when the lost are cast out of his presence. So Christians have no fear of that horrible fate.
As mentioned, John is writing so that Christians can have boldness, assurance, confidence and certainty in their faith and their standing with God. As Karen Jobes comments, “if God so loved the world that he sent his unique Son to deliver the world from perishing (cf. John 3:16), the punishment has already been meted out to Jesus Christ on our behalf.”
And as Gary Burge puts it,
The most immediate result of this perfect love is assurance. We will have boldness or confidence on the Day of Judgment. John refers to this boldness four times in his letter (2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14). The use in 3:21 (as well as in the book of Hebrews) defines confident, childlike speech in prayer….
We are not irreverent but assured, not flippant but forthright. Because of his indwelling we know that despite our continued life in the world, we are different: “We are like him” (v. 17b), that is, we are like Jesus. We enjoy a privileged place with God.
We can have “blessed assurance” now in this life. I have had Christians tell me that you can’t know if you are saved until the judgment. That is not what John is teaching here. Sure, we do not want to be presumptuous and cocky, and we do need to see godly fruit as evidence of being reconciled to God.
But we need not wonder and doubt all our life, hoping we just might make it into heaven one day. As Thomas Johnson puts it, “fear has to do with punishment, and, although we will be judged (4:17; Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27), we will not be punished or condemned (John 3:18; Rom. 8:1). In Johannine theology, the believer in Jesus has already passed from death (spiritual death and its concomitant punishment) to life (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14).”
So we have no fear of future everlasting punishment. Because of what Jesus Christ did on our behalf, we can have confidence and assurance that we will not be facing that in the next life. But a healthy fear of God is always a very real part of the believer’s life.
As I. Howard Marshall writes, “There is, of course, a place for fear in the life of the Christian. . . . There is also a sense in which the believer must serve God ‘with fear and trembling’ (2 Cor. 7:15; Eph. 6:5; Phil. 2:12). Clearly there is a distinction between reverence for God and fear of judgment.”
In sum, a healthy fear of God is part and parcel of the Christian life. But we have no fear of future judgment as does the non-Christian. Instead, we have confidence and assurance that we have passed from death to life. Being accepted in the beloved means we need not fear eternal punishment.
And that is terrific news indeed.