One of my favorite verses on fear has always been 1 John 4:18, which begins like this:
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear…
I had that phrase memorized, and it came in handy anytime I needed to face my fears. I always understood it to mean that God’s perfect love would cast out all the fear in my life. I think that is the traditional way to understand that verse, and I have never heard it taught any other way. However, this verse also would occasionally trouble me, causing me to wonder something like this: “Seeing that I am afraid of x, does that mean I am not loved by God? And if God doesn’t love me fully (enough to drive away my fear), does that mean I am not saved?”
Fortunately, I no longer think that is what God is saying through John in this passage.
To get at the meaning of “perfect love casts out fear”, we need to read the whole passage in 1 John.
Here it is in the NKJV (I have bolded some key ideas):
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us.
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.
The flow of thought in this passage can be summarized like this:
- God is love
- God loved us so much that He gave His only Son to be the payment for our sins so that we could live in relationship with Him
- We know that we are in relationship with Him when we love each other
- Loving each other is evidence that we abide in Him, and that we have His Spirit in us.
- This abiding in Him and loving each other is the “perfection” (or “completion”) of His love in us
- When we exhibit this “perfect love” (or “complete love”), we have no need to fear judgement (because we are abiding in Him)
- If you fear judgement, your love has not been made “perfect” (“complete”).
- If you claim to love God but continue to hate your brother; you are lying to yourself.
Therefore, the idea of 4:18 – “perfect love casts out fear” is this: when your love has been perfected (as evidenced by loving God and loving others), you have no reason to fear judgement.
There are many other NT passages on fear, and how faith should dispel fear (Mark 4:35-41 is a great example). Maybe a further discussion of the relationship between faith and fear would be good material for another post. But, I think it is fair to conclude that 1 John 4:18 is very specifically referring to our love being completed, and how that allows us to live free of fear of being punished by God’s judgement.