Regeneration, Faith, Love—In That Order

by John Piper

In this chapter, we pick up on the very important text, 1 John 5:1–5, which we began to unpack in the last chapter. There is so much more. One of my aims here is to show that our ability to love others imperfectly is based on our assurance that in Christ we already love them perfectly. In other words, I want you to see for yourselves that, even when you fail to love as you ought, Christ’s perfection stands before God in place of that failure. And I want you to see that faith in Christ, not love for people, is the way you enjoy that union with Christ. Therefore, faith must come first and be the root of love and be different from love. Otherwise, love will be destroyed.

If you don’t come at love this way, your failures will probably overwhelm you with guilt and hopelessness. If that happens, you will give way either to hardworking legalism or fatalistic immorality.

Let’s start where we left off at the end of the previous chapter, namely, with the chain of thought in 1 John 5:3–4. The reason we are starting here is to see how regeneration, faith in Christ, and love for people relate to each other. And what will make all the difference is whether you see it for yourselves in the Word of God, not whether you read what I believe about it. That will guide how I lay it out.

The First Link: Loving Others

Verse 3 says, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Sometimes people equate keeping commandments with loving God. Often they quote John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But this text clearly distinguishes loving Christ from obeying his commandments. If you love me—that’s one thing—then you will keep my commandments—that’s another thing. The one leads to the other. If you have the one, you will do the other. Love and commandment-keeping are not identical.

It’s not wrong to say that loving Jesus, or loving God, includes doing what he commands. But that’s not all it is. Which is why John says in 1 John 5:3, “And his commandments are not burdensome.” Loving God is not just external obedience; it means having a heart for God that doesn’t find his commandments burdensome.

And if the commandments are not burdensome, what are they? They are desirable. What you desire to do with your whole heart is not burdensome to do. Listen to the psalmist. Psalm 40:8: “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” Psalm 119:24: “Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.” Psalm 119:35: “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” Psalm 119:92: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” Loving God means admiring and valuing and treasuring and desiring him with such ardency and authenticity that his will is our delight and is not burdensome.

Which Commandments?

Before we go to the next link in the chain of 1 John 5:3–4, let’s be sure that we know what commandments of God the apostle John especially has in mind when he speaks about keeping the commandments of God as an expression of loving him. It’s pretty obvious if we follow the train of thought from 4:20 forward. John says in 4:20, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” So it appears that the primary obedience that John has in mind which would show we love God is loving others, especially other believers.

He stays on this point in 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” So there it is again: The sign that you love God is that you love others, especially other believers. Then verse 2 turns it around and says that loving God is the sign that you love his children: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” I think the point of this is to guard against sentimental reinterpretations of what love is—reinterpretations that leave God and his commandments totally out of account. John is saying: Don’t do that. You don’t love anybody if you don’t love God. You may think you do. But John says in verse 2, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God.”

If you don’t love God, you can’t do anybody any ultimate good. You can feed them and clothe them and house them and keep them comfortable while they perish. But in God’s mind, that by itself is not what love is. Love does feed and clothe and house—and keeps the commandments that include helping others know and love God in Christ. But if you don’t love God, you can’t do that. So if you don’t love God, you can’t love people in the way that counts for eternity.

So we have our answer: When John says, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,” he mainly means the commandments summed up in loving other people, especially believers, and loving them in a way that counts forever. So we could paraphrase verse 3 like this: “This is the love of God, that we love others, especially his children, and that this life of sacrificial Christ-like love is not burdensome. It’s what we most deeply desire to do as an expression of our love for the Father.”

The Second Link: The New Birth

Now the second link in the chain of thought in 1 John 5:3–4 is the first part of verse 4: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” Notice the word for at the beginning. John says that he is now going to explain why loving God by doing his commandments—that is, by loving other people—is not burdensome. It’s not burdensome, he says in verse 4, “because everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” How is that an argument?

We are able to love God and love others because in the new birth we have conquered the world. “Everyone who has been born of God conquers the world.” This must mean that there are forces in the world that work to make us not love God and not love each other. And in the new birth these forces have been overcome.

What would those forces be? Let’s go to 1 John 2:15–17 for the clearest answer in this letter:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Here are the forces in the world that have to be overcome (verse 16): “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride in possessions.” That could be summed up as desires for what we don’t have, and pride in what we do have. When we don’t have what we want, the world corrupts us with covetousness. And when we do have what we want the world corrupts us with pride.

This is what keeps us from loving God and loving each other. We love stuff. And when we don’t have it, we crave it. And when we do have it, we love to talk about it incessantly, and waste time on it. And where is God in all that? At best, he’s there as the cosmic Sugar Daddy. We may even thank him for all our stuff. But there is a kind of gratitude that proves that the gift, and not the Giver, is our god.

The main reason we don’t love God and find it burdensome to love people is that our cravings are for the things of the world. They may be good things. They may be bad things. They may be material things. They may be relational. Whatever their form, they are not God. And when we crave them above God, they are idols. They replace love for God and love for people. That’s the universal problem of the world. What’s the solution?

John’s answer is in 1 John 5:3–4. He says that the reason loving God and loving people is not burdensome (verse 3) is that we have been born again, and this new birth conquers the world: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” Now we can see what that means. It means that the new birth severs the root of those cravings for the world. Overcoming the world means that the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride in possessions don’t rule us anymore. Their power is broken.

The Third Link: Faith in Jesus

How does that work? That’s what the last half of verse 4 tells us (the third link in the chain): “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” The reason the new birth conquers the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride in possessions is that it creates faith.

The most immediate and decisive work of God in the new birth is that the new life he creates sees the superior value of Jesus over all else (2 Cor. 4:4, 6). And with no lapse of time at all, this spiritual sight of the superior value of Jesus results in receiving Jesus as the Treasure that he is. That is faith: Receiving Jesus for all that he is because our eyes have been opened to see his truth and beauty and worth.

That is why faith conquers the world. The world held us in bondage by the power of its desires. But now our eyes have been opened by the new birth to see the superior desirability of Jesus. Jesus is better than the desires of the flesh, and better than the desires of the eyes, and better than the riches that strangle us with greed and pride (Mark 4:19).

The Order: New Birth, Faith, Love

Now we are in a position to answer our original question about the relationship between regeneration, faith in Christ, and loving people. Here’s what we can say and why it’s so important.

We can say, first, that regeneration is the cause of faith. That’s plain in 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes [that is, has faith] that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Having been born of God results in our believing. Our believing is the immediate evidence of God’s begetting.

Second, we can say that loving people is the fruit of this faith. That’s the way John argues in verse 4: The victory that overcomes the world—that is, that overcomes the obstacles to loving others—is our faith.

So in the order of causation, we have: 1) new birth, 2) faith in Jesus, and 3) the doing of God’s commandments without a sense of burdensomeness, namely, loving others. God causes the new birth. The new birth is the creation of new life that sees Christ for who he is and receives him; and that receiving severs the roots of the cravings of the world and sets us free to love.

Now why is this order so important?

It’s important because it will keep us from confusing saving faith and love for people. There are some today who are combining faith in Christ and love for people. They are saying that faith really means faithfulness and that faithfulness includes love for people, and so there is no way to distinguish faith in Christ and love for people.

Faith and Love: Inseparable but Distinguishable

I think that is a deadly mistake. I’ll try to say why. Faith in Christ and love for people are inseparable. But they are not indistinguishable. They are so inseparable that John can sum up all God’s demands in these two: faith and love. First John 3:23: “This is his commandment [singular], that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” That is the summary of all the tests of life in John’s letter: Believe on Jesus and love each other.

But the order of causality is crucial. The reason it’s crucial is this: There is going to come a day when you do not love as you ought. What will you do if your heart condemns you because you know that love is a sign of the new birth? How will you fight the fight for assurance at that time?

Jesus the Righteous

Here is one crucial way to fight for your hope at that moment, and it depends on a clear distinction between faith in Christ and love for people: Go to 1 John 2:1 and read, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin [that is, fails to love others as you ought], we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” John assumes that even when you fail—even when you sin, when you do not love as you ought—you have an advocate before God. And this advocate is called “the righteous one.” That is, he is perfect. (See Rom. 8:33–34.)

Even if you have sinned, he has never sinned. Even if you have failed to love as you ought, he has never failed to love as he ought. And this perfect one stands before God and advocates for you—not against you, but for you. Precisely because you have failed. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate . . . the righteous one.”

The emphasis falls on his righteousness—his sinlessness. His perfectly doing what we have failed to do. The reason this works for us is that faith is what receives him. And when faith receives him, he is everything that we need before God. He is our righteousness and our perfection and our perfect love. This is the bottom of our hope before a holy God.

This is why it is so crucial to see that believing in Jesus is different from loving people and is the root of it. Believing in Jesus means receiving him. Loving others means going out to them. We are able to go out to them imperfectly because we have received Jesus as our perfection. Receiving Jesus means that he is the ground of our salvation. He is the bottom of the foundation of our hope. It is his righteousness and his perfection and his love ultimately that counts for us before the Father. Faith in Jesus, not love for people, receives Jesus as my substitute righteousness and perfection and love.

That is why I can have hope even when I stumble. My standing with God does not go up and down, or in and out, with my walking and stumbling. My standing with God is the righteousness of my Advocate. My perfect Advocate, Jesus Christ, says today, “Father, for my sake, look with favor on your imperfect servant John. For the sake of my perfect love, look with favor on him in his imperfect love. You know all things, Father (1 John 3:20). You know that in his heart he is banking on me and trusts me. Therefore, I am his, and my perfect love counts as his.”

Our Perfect Advocate

God sees me in Christ. And I don’t despair because of my failure. I am not paralyzed with hopelessness. I confess my failure to love (1 John 1:9). I embrace the forgiveness he bought. I take my stand on the wrath-removing propitiation he provided (1 John 2:2). And I reassure my heart (1 John 3:19) that God sees me through my Advocate—my perfect Advocate.

So I end where I started. I wanted you to see for yourselves that our ability to love others imperfectly is based on the fact that in Christ we already love them perfectly. That is, his loving them perfectly counts as our loving them perfectly if we are in him by faith alone. He is the perfection that we need before God. And we have it not by loving others, but by trusting him. This very assurance is the key to loving others. And if we lose this key, we lose everything including the power to love others.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
1 John 3:1–10

This is chapter 11 from the book, Finally Alive by John Piper