Question: "What does 'perfect love casts out fear' mean?"
Answer: The Bible says that “love is of God” and “God is love” (1 John 4:7–8); in other words, love is a fundamental characteristic of who God is. Everything God does is impelled and influenced by His love. There is a distinct word for the type of love that God displays. In the Greek, this word is agape, and it refers to a benevolent and charitable love that seeks the best for the loved one.
First John 4:18 says that “perfect love drives out fear,” or, in the KJV, “perfect love casteth out fear.” The whole verse says this: “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.” The context here is important: verse 17 says, “This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.”
The “fear” that perfect loves casts out is the fear of God’s judgment. We know that Judgment Day is coming, but those who are in Christ know the love of God, which drives away fear of condemnation. The dismissal of the fear of judgment is one of the main functions of God’s love. The person without Christ is under judgment and has plenty to fear (John 3:18), but, once a person is in Christ, the fear of judgment is gone. He is reconciled to God, and “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Part of understanding the love of God is knowing that God’s judgment fell on Jesus at the cross so that we can be spared: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus’ sacrifice propitiated (appeased) God’s justice and won His good favor (1 John 2:2, ESV). Jesus spoke often of His mission: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). The only person who must fear judgment is the one who rejects Jesus Christ: “Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (verse 18).
The Bible says that nothing can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:38–39). God’s love does not wax and wane; it is not a fickle, emotional sensation. God’s love for sinners is why Christ died on the cross. God’s love for those who trust in Christ is why He holds them in His hand and promises never to let them go (John 10:29). That divine love should take away our fear: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
“God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV). A spirit of fearfulness and timidity does not come from God. Sometimes this “spirit of fear” overcomes us, and to overcome it we need to trust in and love God more completely. “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). If, as a child of God, we still fear God’s punishment, we have not yet reached the point of maturity in love. To help us be complete in love, God has liberally sprinkled encouragement against fear throughout the Bible. God tells us not to be afraid of being alone, of being too weak, of not being heard in our prayers, or of being destitute of physical necessities. These admonishments cover many different aspects of the “spirit of fear.”
The key to overcoming fear is total and complete trust in God. Trusting God is how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced the fiery furnace without fear (Daniel 3). Trusting God is how Stephen stood before his killers fearlessly (Acts 7). To trust God is to refuse to give in to fear. Even in the darkest times, we can trust in God to make things right. This trust comes from knowing God and knowing that He is good. Once we have learned to put our trust in God, we will no longer be afraid of the things that come against us. We will be like the psalmist who said with confidence, “Let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you” (Psalm 5:11).
In summary, the word perfect in 1 John 4:18 means “complete” or “mature,” and the love that is referred to is God’s selfless agape love. The fear that this perfect love drives out is the fear of punishment. We have God’s promise that believers in Jesus Christ will not be judged with the world: “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:32). We can say with the psalmist, “In God I trust and am not afraid” (Psalm 56:11).