I attended a military college after high school. The freshman year introduced us to military life and placed upon us many rules that a civilian would consider strange. For example, if an upperclassman asked you “why” you were doing something, the answer was always, “no excuse, sir!” It didn’t matter if you had a valid excuse. If you had broken your leg and a higher-ranking cadet asked you, “why are you limping?” you were to say, “no excuse, sir!”
One reason for this, of course, is that people in general (and young people in particular) love to give excuses. The military was saying, “we don’t want to hear your excuses.” Another reason for this strange practice was that in the military you are called upon to endure hardships and to obey orders. They wanted to instill in us the idea that we were to do what we were told and not to give reasons why we couldn’t.
It occurred to me recently that John does a similar thing in 1 John 4:20–5:5. God has commanded us to love our fellow believers (4:21). As the history of the church and our own experience demonstrates, we can come up with many excuses for not doing so. It seems that John addresses three of those excuses in this section.
While many have said that if we don’t love our fellow believers, we are not “truly” saved, that is not the point at all. John is talking to believers here, and he is saying he (and God!) don’t want to hear our excuses for not loving one another.
The first excuse we might give is that it is enough to love God. That is, as long as I love God, I am fulfilling my Christian duty. In this vein, we might say that God deserves our love, but our fellow believers often do not. Perhaps they are living a lifestyle that we disapprove of and, unlike God, don’t deserve our love. John gets right to the point. If we don’t love a brother whom we see, we cannot love God whom we can’t see (4:20).
A second excuse we might give is that we don’t know who our fellow believers are. This is like the lawyer in Luke 10:29 who asked Jesus who his neighbor was. Jesus told him he needed to love his neighbor, and the man wanted to know how he could know who that was. Perhaps we might not love those who claim to be believers because we are not sure they are. Once again, John gets straight to the point. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God (5:1). For John, this means everyone who has believed in Jesus as the Christ Who gives eternal life (John 20:30-31) is a believer. Such a person has been born of God. If we love the Father, we must love His children (5:1).
The third excuse we might give for not loving our fellow believers is that it is just too hard. Other people, even other Christians, can be irritating. We can at times be more likely to be angry and irritated than to love others. We just might feel like throwing up our hands and saying it is impossible to love some folks.
But God has given us the commandment to love them. Once again, John gets to the point. For the child of God, God’s commandments are not hard to do. The reason this is the case is that the believer has overcome the world (5:3-5). We can love other believers because as children of God, the power of sin has been broken. We no longer have to serve it (Rom 8:1ff). The Spirit lives within us, and through Him we can do what God has commanded us to do. After all, the power of living the Christian life is in the power of Christ, not in our power (Gal. 2:20).
How easy it is to come up with excuses in our everyday lives. That first year in a military college it took me a long time to break the habit of giving excuses when somebody asked me “why” I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to do. It took me a long time to automatically say, “no excuse, sir.”
When it comes to loving our fellow believers, John is very much like the higher-ranking cadets who trained me. We can come up with many reasons for not doing so. Other believers don’t deserve my love. It is enough to love God, so I don’t really have to love them. Besides, it is just too hard, and I don’t have it in me to do so. But John makes it clear. To be honest, in the military there may have been times when I had an excuse for “why” I was doing something. But when it comes to a believer loving his fellow believers, there really is “no excuse.”