An age-old but classic question is: “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” This is a cliché example, but people often get puzzled, thinking of the need for an egg so the chicken can hatch, but knowing that a chicken had to lay the egg.
A person can easily become disoriented. Based on Scripture, we know that the chicken did come first (Genesis 1:21). However, we could also apply the question to the matter of love: “which came first, our love for God or His love for us?”
When we read the Bible, we quickly find many references to love, especially in the context of how God relates to us. Although we might think that humans would respond in loving devotion to the Lord’s awesome glory, that is not what we find in Scripture.
Instead, we have the message of 1 John 4:19, which tells us, “We love because he first loved us.” So, is this true?
In 1 John 4, the Apostle John wrote about “testing the spirits” (vv. 1-6) and then included a section about how God’s love affects how we relate to others. He described how we should love others because God loves us, and that love comes from God (1 John 4:7-8).
Love does not originate in us because God the Father sent His Son to die for us and save us from our sins (1 John 4:9). As the Bible records, “This is real love — not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:10, NLT).
Since the Lord showed His love to us, we should love others (1 John 4:11, 20-21). John presents a love for others as the fruit of salvation and proof that the Holy Spirit lives inside of us (1 John 4:12-13).
If we trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we receive salvation and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Loving acts do not save us but are evidence that we have the love of Christ living in us (1 John 4:15-16).
Believers who have trusted in Christ’s redemptive act for salvation do not have to fear judgment. At the Judgment Seat of Christ, we can have confidence because the One judging us is the One who loves us and died for us (1 John 4:17).
Our salvation is not in question at the Judgment. Rather, we will receive rewards or loss of rewards depending on how we lived as believers (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Those who fear punishment at the Judgment Seat need to consider the extent of God’s love (Ephesians 3:18). Love and fear of punishment cannot exist together (1 John 4:18).
The Order of Love
Scripture teaches us that “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). John explains that God loved us first, as shown by His act of sending His Son to die for us.
We did not love Him first, but He loved us. Individuals might think that they fell in love with Christ and then placed faith in Him, but this is not what the Bible teaches.
In the Literal Standard Version, and other versions like it, the verse is translated as, “we love Him, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Again, the emphasis is on God loving us.
People are only capable of loving the Lord because He loved us first. Love comes from God and originates in Him. God loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Receiving His love through salvation enables us to love Him.
In addition to showing love for God, the verse includes love for others. The surrounding verses imply that we can love others because of God’s love (1 John 4:19-21). Loving others is the proper response in the life of the believer who has experienced the love of God.
Jesus specifically told the disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Therefore, the order of love is that the Lord loved us, even while we were still sinners, and sent His Son to save us. When we trust in Jesus, we receive His love and experience love for Him. As a result of God’s love in our life, we then love others.
The Truth of 1 John 4:19
We can know that the message of 1 John 4:19 is true because of what Jesus did for us. The essence and meaning of love are found in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
Throughout John’s epistle, he presents Jesus’ sacrificial death as the highest example of love and the standard for what love is (1 John 3:16; 4:9-10). If we ever wonder what true love is, we need only look at the cross.
Nothing in us compelled Jesus to come to earth to save us. Love is inherent to the Lord’s character, which is why John wrote that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Christ chose to humble Himself and add humanity to His divinity so that He could die in our place and pay the penalty of our sins (Philippians 2:5-8). In the greatest act of love, Christ willingly suffered on the cross.
Another reason to believe the truth of 1 John 4:19 is that the Bible is the Word of God, completely true and without error (2 Timothy 3:16).
Although men penned the various books in the Bible, they were “carried along” by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). God is the author of the Bible, and He never makes mistakes.
Therefore, people who are looking for “proof” of the message in 1 John 4:19 should study Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The scriptural accounts of the cross and empty tomb prove that God loved us first.
Implications of 1 John 4:19
There are practical implications to the biblical truth that “we love because He first loved us.” In context to the rest of the passage, we cannot truly say that we love God if we do not love others. John says that if we claim to love God, but hate others, then we are liars (1 John 4:20).
If the Lord loved us so much to save us from our sins, demonstrating love to us while we were rebels against Him, then we have no excuse to hate other people.
Believers have the Holy Spirit living inside of them, and one of the fruits He produces in us is love (Galatians 5:22-23). This love is Christlike and seeks the good of others.
It is not self-serving but an active love that motivates us to care for the needs of others (1 Corinthians 13:5-7; 1 John 3:16-18). When we genuinely love others, we reflect the love that God gave us.
A final implication of 1 John 4:19 is that we cannot boast about our loving acts to God or others. Without His love, we would not be able to love Him in return.
Likewise, only in Christ can we truly love others the way He commands us to. Instead of taking pride in the ability to love, we should give all praise to God and thank Him for His loving grace.
What Does This Mean?
In John’s epistle, he elaborates on how God first loved us because love is inherent to His nature (1 John 4:7-21). Because of God’s love for us, we respond in love to Him and to others. John presents Jesus’ sacrificial death as proof of the Lord’s love for us. Truly, Jesus loved us and died for us even though we do not deserve His love and mercy.
For further reading:
Why Did Jesus Ask ‘Peter, Do You Love Me?’
What Is the Significance of ‘For God So Loved the World’ in John 3:16?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/AaronAmat
Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.