John tells us why he wrote this epistle, so we can understand how the phrase “perfect love casts out fear” fits with his purpose. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life”(1 John 5:13).
Perhaps you’ve heard that perfect love casts out fear. Maybe you’ve been told that Christians shouldn’t be scared of anything, no matter how large or small. Or maybe you’ve doubted your standing with God because of an anxiety that grips you.
Context matters. When we learn to read the Bible carefully—instead of picking out verses and phrases—we will see that some familiar passages mean much less than we thought.
The Context of 1 John 4
Let’s read this phrase “perfect love casts out fear” in its immediate context.
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 4:16–18)
John explains what “fear” means in this passage. Fear has to do with punishment (verse 18), and perfect love pushes this fear away. When love is perfected in us, we can have confidence (instead of fear) for the day of judgment (verse 17).
The matter of understanding “perfect love” remains, but we also learn this through context. Love is perfected in those who abide in God and in whom God abides (1 John 4:16). “We know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13). There is tangible evidence of God abiding in us—we love one another (1 John 4:12) and we confess that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 4:15). The love of God is the basis and motivation for our love for one another (1 John 4:11).