What does 'perfect love casts out fear' mean?

The Bible says that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). What is perfect love and how exactly does perfect love cast out fear? To truly understand this verse, we must look at the passage leading up to it. John writes, "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. … 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 his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:9–18).

In this verse, the Greek for the phrase "perfect love" is teleios agape and "perfected in love" is teleioo agape. "Perfect" here is referring to that which is mature or complete. It is not just a love that is whole, but it is a love that has been completed. The Greek word used here for love, agape, is the highest of the four Greek words for love. It refers to a self-sacrificial, unconditional love, full of good will toward its object. To say that "perfect love casts out fear" is to say that "mature, completed, unconditional love that wants the best for you casts out fear."

God is the only one who has such love. The Bible says that God is love, and all of our love stems from Him (1 John 4:7–8), and as such God is the only one who has perfect love. The perfect love of God has been "completed" on the cross when God sent His only Son to die for our sins, so that we may live in relationship with Him, and now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). It is by grace we are saved through faith, and there is nothing we have done to earn our salvation, nor is there anything we must do to maintain our salvation; we are secure in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–10; John 3:16–18; 10:29).

First John 4:18 says that "fear has to do with punishment." Judgment is coming at the end of our lives, but for the Christian, there should be no fear of punishment in his or her relationship with God. God's love has made a way for our sins to be atoned for. As 1 John 4:10 explains, Jesus is the propitation for our sins, or satisfaction for the penalty our sins deserve from God. The Christian's sins have been paid for on the cross and there is thus no fear of judgment—"perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).

It is not only that we need not fear eternal judgment; we can also approach God without fear now because of His perfect love. His love is not dependent upon us following the Law or "doing the right thing" all of the time. His love is a constant in our lives. We know that in Jesus Christ our sins have been forgiven and we know that God is a God of grace, eager to cleanse us and restore us to full fellowship with Him when we sin (1 John 1:8–9). Hebrews 10:19–23 says, "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful." Hebrews 4:16 says that we can "with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). There is no fear in the love of God because we know that He is always ready to forgive, always ready to show mercy.

John says that the one who fears "has not been perfected in love." The non-believer is afraid of God because he knows that he faces judgment for his sins (John 3:18), but the believer knows that God is full of mercy and love, and that he is promised eternal life in paradise with Him (John 3:16). But even believers sometimes have fear, especially when we find ourselves in sin. But this fear is simply a result of immaturity in faith. So how does one mature in love?

In the passage in 1 John, right after stating that God is love, John says "whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this love is perfected with us" (1 John 4:16–17). We are perfected in love by abiding in love. When we spend time with God, learning who He is, and understanding His character as revealed in the Bible, we become mature in love because we know who Love is. We know that God is faithful when we are faithless (2 Timothy 2:13). We know that He disciplines us in love (Hebrews 12:6). We know that He walks alongside us in hardships and trials, using them to mature and sanctify us (James 1:2–4; Romans 5:2–5). We know that He teaches us truth and equips us with all we need for life (2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:3). We know that He is with us (Matthew 28:19–20; John 14:15–17; Ephesians 1:13–14; Hebrews 13:5–6). We know that "he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). We know that Jesus has defeated sin and death and that God has given us victory through Him (1 Corinthians 15:54–58). We know that Jesus is returning (Philippians 3:20; Titus 2:13; Acts 1:11; James 5:8). We know that nothing can ever separate us from God's love (Romans 8:38–39; John 10:29). We learn that God has given us His spirit to live in us, not one of fear, but one of power, and of love, and of a sound mind, so that we do not have to fear (2 Timothy 1:7).

When we come to know God we know that we can trust Him. We learn that He has done more than enough to earn our trust. So now we do not need to fear, 1) because we know that Jesus has born our judgment on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:17–21), and 2) because we know that the God of love is the God of this universe and He is on our side.

Related Truth:

What does it mean that God is love?

Is God's love really unconditional?

Does God love me?

How does the Bible address fear?

What is the fear of God?

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