“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)
John-the-letter-writer is talking about being afraid of God.
He’s talking about the kind of fear of God that’s not awe or reverence, but cowering fear that convinces us God is out to get us, that he is keeping a list and we are on the bad side, and sooner or later he is going to let us have it for all we’ve done wrong, or all the good we’ve forgotten to do.
I don’t know, but I guess that John is familiar with the kind of religion that makes hay off that sort of thing. Because John goes on at length to point out that God has already shown us how he feels about us: “this is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God has already made a huge investment in rescuing us and bringing us back home, and he made the first move. If we have the idea we need to show God some adoration and some life change before he might turn his face toward us, we’ve got it wrong – he already came here looking for us.
And what about the punishment we might deserve? That’s what Jesus was doing: taking the penalty for our sin.
The amazing thing is that God has shown where he’s coming from: he wants us. He loves us completely – “perfectly.” He has shown his cards – he’s not keeping anything back. He’s poured it all out for us, so we could come home to him.
He doesn’t want our fear.
Love? Yes. The respect that goes with love? Yes. Our worship and praise? Yes – when we realize who he is. But God has shown us in Jesus that he is not interested in our trembling fear – that’s what John is saying.
Instead, he is out to make us new – to finish us and make us whole – make us “perfect” – as we were meant to be – in his love. There is no fear in this love.
So, if someone wants you to be afraid of God, they are not talking about God, the father of Jesus Christ, and they’re not talking about the good news of Jesus. If they’re trying to reinstate fear, they’ve missed the point – that’s really what John is saying here.
I’ve heard this verse used other ways – like, because Jesus loves us we don’t have to be afraid of tornadoes or snipers. Maybe that’s true, although all humans come equipped with a fear of things that might kill us, Jesus included. It’s true that because Jesus loves us, if we have turned toward him in faith, we don’t have to fear death ultimately – we know that we are eternally safe, in Him. So, in that way, his perfect love does cast out fear.
But what John was talking about, was the devil’s attempt to make us fear and suspect God, in fact, the devil’s accusation of God, to us, that he wants to keep us afraid.
We have the ultimate demonstration that it isn’t true: Jesus.