Sixty-five percent of Americans readily identify themselves as Christians. But it’s a statistic that completely fails to square with reality. No one would argue that Christian ethics and morality dominate a culture decaying under the weight of rampant sin. The actual number of Christians in this country is obviously less than the polling suggests. But how much less? What better indicator is there of authentic Christian faith than verbal profession?
The apostle John offers several litmus tests in his first epistle. Of those, perhaps his most critical barometer of authentic Christian faith is found in chapter four. When he says that “love is from God” (1 John 4:7), he is pointing out that God is the origin of all true love. Love is therefore the best evidence that a person truly knows God: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:7–8). In other words, love is the proof of a regenerate heart. Only true Christians are capable of genuine love.
Clearly, the kind of love the apostle is speaking of is a higher, purer form of love than we commonly know from human experience. The love of which he speaks does not flow naturally from the human heart. It is not a carnal love, a romantic love, or even a familial love. It is a supernatural love that is peculiar to those who know God. It is godly love.
In fact, the apostle employed a Greek word for “love” that was highly unusual in first-century culture. The word was agapē, not a common word until the New Testament made it so. When a typical first-century pagan thought of love, agapē was not the word that would have come to mind. In fact, there were two other common Greek words for love: phileō, to describe brotherly love, and eros, to describe everything from romantic love to sexual passion.
Phileō is occasionally used as a synonym for agapē, but generally the word agapē is used as a more refined and elevated term. In the sense that John uses it here, agapē is unique to God. He is the sole source of it.
Love for one’s family, romantic love, and the love of good friends all fall into the category of what Scripture calls “natural affection” (Romans 1:31; 2 Timothy 3:3, KJV). Even these expressions of “natural affection,” or human love, can be marvelously rich. They fill life with color and joy. They are, however, merely pale reflections of the image of God in His creatures. His love is perfect love. It is that pure, holy, godly love which can be known only by those who are born of Him. It is the same unfathomable love that moved God to send “His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9).
Donald W. Burdick gives three characteristics of this godly sort of love:
It is spontaneous. There was nothing of value in the persons loved that called forth such sacrificial love. God of His own free will set His love on us in spite of our enmity and sin. [Agapē] is love that is initiated by the lover because he wills to love, not because of the value or lovableness of the person loved. It is self-giving. [Agapē] is not interested in what it can gain, but in what it can give. It is not bent on satisfying the lover, but on helping the one loved whatever the cost. It is active. [Agapē] is not mere sentiment cherished in the heart. Nor is it mere words however eloquent. It does involve feeling and may express itself in words, but it is primarily an attitude toward another that moves the will to act in helping to meet the need of the one loved.  Donald W. Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1985), 351.
All true believers have this love, and all who have it are true believers.
This kind of love cannot be conjured up by the human will. It is wrought in the hearts of believers by God Himself. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Love for God and love for fellow believers is an inevitable result of the new birth, by which we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Just as it is God’s nature to love, love is characteristic of His true children. “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
Godly love, therefore, is one of the most important tests of the reality of one’s faith. And as we’ll see next time, the flip side of that truth also applies.
(Adapted from The God Who Loves)