“Perfect love,” the Bible says, “casts out all fear” (see 1 John 4.18). I have heard those words for years, but have never really known what they meant. What does it mean for perfect love to cast out fear? Does that mean that if I love another person “perfectly” then I will have no fear? Or does it mean that if I love another person “perfectly” that they will have no fear? Or does it mean that the perfect love of God casts out all fear within my soul so that I can live life fearlessly in the face of any danger?
Turns out, if we read the context from which the verse comes from, the answer is “none of the above.”
13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4.13-18 ESV)
The key phrase for understanding the whole paragraph is found in verse 17, “that we may have confidence for the day of judgment.” We can have confidence on the day of His appearing (see 1 John 3.2), which will be a day of judgment, because we abide in Him and He in us (1 John 4.13). We have confidence on the day of judgment because we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, something that the spirit of the antichrist is unable to do (see 1 John 4.3). We have confidence on the day of judgment because of God’s great love for us, which leads to us abiding in Him and Him abiding in us (1 John 4.16).
But this great love is “perfected with us” (1 John 4.17). This word translated “perfected” means “to make perfect, to complete, to carry through completely, to accomplish, to finish, or to bring to an end” (Thayer’s Greek Dictionary). While the KJV says “herein is our love is made perfect,” most other translations translate the phrase in such a way that it is the love of God making us perfect or complete: “by this is love perfected with us” (ESV), “love is made complete among us” (NIV), “love is perfected with us” (HCSB), “love has been perfected among us” (NRSV), and “love is perfected with us” (NASB).
The meaning of the phrase is found in the significance between the different translations. The reason we have confidence on the day of judgment is that His love is made perfect in us. The reason we have confidence on the day of judgment is that His love is maturing us. The reason we have confidence on the day of judgment is that His love is accomplishing within us and bringing us to the end that as we remain in the world we will become “as He is” (1 John 4.17).
To abide in the perfecting love of Christ is to be set free from the fear of the day of judgment. There is no fear in God’s perfecting love, for whoever has been “perfected in love” (1 John 4.18) no longer fears the punishment associated with the day of judgment.
In the end, perhaps a better translation is “perfecting love casts out all fear.” The focus is not that the love of God gives us confidence to face all sorts of trials and tribulations. While that statement if true, it is not the apostle’s point in 1 John 4. The point is that we have confidence to face the day of judgment because we are being made perfect by the abiding love of Christ. And because we are becoming like Christ, there is nothing to fear on the day of judgment.
May the perfecting love of God give you confidence to stand on the day of judgment.