There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears punishment has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4:18 NET)This verse is often quoted to refute the need of the fear of God. It is asserted that since perfect love drives out fear, we need to get rid of the fear of God so that we can have perfect love. But this is completely misunderstanding the point of this passage and reverses the order of what is actually happening. We are told that we do not need to fear God because our love has been perfected, but our love can only be perfected by a fear of God. This is a process, and the perfecting of our love must come first before we can have complete confidence before God.
When a person believes on Jesus Christ for salvation, they are justified before God. That is, they are declared righteous and holy because of the payment for their sin by the death of Jesus Christ. But at this point, their love is not perfected. The love that John describes here is a love that comes as a result of a life of abiding in Christ and following His example.
John has gone to great lengths in the passages leading up to this great promise laying out the groundwork of holy living. He repeated stresses the need for obedience, abiding in God, and loving our fellow Christians. This is the completion of the thought that he began in the fifth verse of chapter 2:
But whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has been perfected. By this we know that we are in him. (1 John 2:5 NET)But we need to recognize that this is the process of sanctification. We cannot have the lack of fear until we have removed that which produces fear in our lives: our sin. This is not an issue of salvation – a believer is already justified – but an issue of our relationship with God.
Do we really think there would be no fear or shame when, upon the arrival of Jesus Christ in glory as He returns to judge the world of sin, He finds His children in the very act of committing a sin – speaking out in anger, engaged in viewing pornography, or speaking a lie? Do we honestly think we will be able to stand before God at that point with perfect confidence? It is just like a child whose parent catches them in the act of disobedience. They know through the love shown to them in the family that they are not in danger of losing their parent’s love or their position in the family, but they are filled with shame and fear of what form of discipline will be lovingly carried out to correct them.
Fearing the LORD is the beginning of moral knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7 NET)We must start with a proper fear and reverence for God. This involves an understanding of the utter holiness and righteousness of God and His ability and desire for justice against all wrongs. We dare not forget that even in the Church, there is discipline from a holy God toward His people whom He has called to be holy:
Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. (Hebrews 12:7-8 NET)And notice how the writer of Hebrews concludes this passage on discipline:
Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11 NET)The fruit of peace (the driving out of fear) comes as a result of the training of righteousness that comes through obedience to discipline.
Perfect love is not just something that comes automatically. It is something that comes through our submission to the cleansing work of sanctification – the process of revealing and dealing with the sin in our lives as we strive to conform our lives to the example of Jesus Christ. While our salvation is not based on works, our sanctification is, and we receive a great blessing from our works of righteousness enabled by the power of the Spirit of God in us.
And now, little children, remain in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink away from him in shame when he comes back. (1 John 2:28 NET)