VERSE 5a: The Love of God Perfected
But whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected.
This verse contrasts John’s negative exposition (v. 4) of his second proposition (v. 3) with two positive expositions (v. 5a; v. 5b-6). I’ve divided this verse because it properly presents two thoughts:
5a: But whoever keeps his word, truly in him the love of God is made complete.
5b-6: This is how we know we are in him: 6 The one who says he remains in him should walk just as he walked.
The verse presents the positive side of knowledge: whoever knows Christ will keep his word because God’s love has been brought to fruition in their life.
Every other world-religion has this backward; works are seen as the means to transcend human nature and gain God or the object of their faith, but Christianity sees the fruit of someone’s life as the result of their “knowing” or “not knowing” God. Those who do not know God walk in darkness because God is light and they do not know the light, while those who know God walk in the light because they have fellowship with God.
“The love of God is perfected”: this phrase requires some analysis to make my point. Some translations render this along the lines of “love for God” (NIV; NLT; CEV; GNT; Weymouth), while others render it “the love of God” (ESV; NASB; CSB; ISV; NET; GWT).
So we’ll look at this and then reconcile these differences after we’re finished.
Exegetically: “ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ τετελείωται”: formally rendered as “The” “Love” “the” “God” “completed/perfected”.
The definite article, “ἡ” (i.e. the), is important because it indicates that John is describing “the love” of some subject, whether “God’s love” or “our love”. Unfortunately, Greek does not determine the subject or object for us, so we have movable lenses based on whether God is the subject (the love of God) or the object (love for God).
The difference occurs based on where the Subject and Object are assigned.
NIV: But if anyone (S) obeys his word, love for God (O) is truly made complete in them.
NASB: But whoever keeps His word, in him (O) the love of God (S) has truly been perfected.
Hermeneutically: this exact phrase is used by John in the Gospel of John 5:42 and 1st John 2:5; 3:17; 4:9; 5:3.
We see a fairly even divide between “the love of God” and “love for God” within the different translations, but of particular note is how the NIV renders this exact phrase as “the love of God” in John 5:42; 1st John 3:17; and 1st John 4:9 and only renders it as “love for God” in 1st John 2:5 and 5:3 when paired with “our obedience”.
The NIV’s rendering makes “our obedience” the governing principle of love in human expression.
The NASB’s rendering makes “God” the governing principle of love in the human heart.
Theologically: John’s theological propositions about love centers on God’s move towards us and sees human love as being responsive to God’s love as John brings the whole “love-discourse” to the great proclamation of God’s love:
1st John 4:19 (CSB) We love because he first loved us.
John’s primary concern in his first epistle is “declaring the fellowship of eternal life” (1:1-4), and the impetus of this verse explains how believers are inwardly strengthened by the fellowship of God’s love to demonstrate their love for God by their obedience to his word as the fruit of love is matured in those who walk in the light.
Hilary of Arles (401-449) wrote:
Love sustains all those who try to put God’s commandments into practice.
Bede the Venerable (672-735) wrote:
The person who really knows God is the one who proves that he lives in his love by keeping his commandments. Love is the sure sign that we know God. We know that we are truly children of God when his love in us persuades us to pray even for our enemies, as he himself did when he said: “Father, forgive them.”
The atoning sacrifice of Christ restores the lost sinner to a proper relationship with God in the light (1:3, 5, 7, 9; 2:2), this restored relationship causes the newly reborn saint to know God in the fellowship of eternal life (1:2, 7, 9) and the love of God is worked into our life by the ministry of Christ until it is brought to perfection (1:1, 4, 7, 9; 2:1-2, 3, 5-6).
Apologetically: the difference between these renderings begs the question, “does this undermine our confidence in the inerrancy of God’s preserved word?”
This does not undermine confidence in God’s word or the process of translation because both renderings are internally and theologically consistent.
Although “the love of God” seems to be the primary focus of John’s internal theological argument, John’s internal theological development of “love” indisputably draws strong conclusions from the human response of love:
1st John 3:16 (CSB) This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
Likewise, Biblical theology develops its concept of love on two plains, both “from God” and “in human response”:
Matthew 5:44-45, 48 (CSB) But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Both renderings are necessary in order to provide readers clear access to the text so that they can understand the full extent of God’s word. And more importantly, both renderings function like two lenses, bringing the whole range of meaning behind God’s word into clear view.
“Love truly perfected”: love is perfected and brought to maturity as we obey God’s word.
Our love for God comes to completion as we keep his commandments.
God’s love matures in us as we keep his commandments.
The word of God is absolutely necessary for the maturity and completion of love. God’s word is the means by which his love matures in our live and the means by which we love God. This verse does not run in only one direction, but allows us to refocus the lenses of this verse to see the amazing depths being revealed by the Spirit of Truth.