In this essay we continue our study of 1 John. The section we will look at is 3:18-24. In these verses John provides a strong statement of Christian assurance. We dealt with verse 18 in the last essay, because it added an important element to that lesson. But it also is part of the section we are studying today, so we are including it.
When John said, in verse 18, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” he meant that we must not simply talk about sharing our goods, but we must do it. Those of you who are familiar the book of James will remember James 2:15-16, where James said the same thing even more clearly, “if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” John is making the same point here in verse 18.
And when John goes on to say, in verse 19, “And by this we will know we are from the truth,” the “this” is the loving one another of verses 11-18, which includes the giving to others of verses 17-18. We know we are of the truth, because we love one another and act on that love. But John continues in the same sentence to say that our hearts also are reassured by that love and action. In other words, Christians who love and act on that love are given an inward assurance by the Holy Spirit that they are of the truth, and that gives them confidence before God.
All of us have known Christians who do not have inner assurance. They tend to have a self-condemning heart. Perhaps we have experienced a self-condemning heart ourselves. But John is saying that if we are right with God, there is no need for self-condemnation, because God knows our hearts.
Many years ago when I was in seminary, I pastored a little church in Washington County, KY. We had a series of revival meetings one year; and the evangelist, who was a friend of mine, was making some home visits with me.
As we drove from one place to another, we were talking; and I remember making a statement like the following: “I’m glad that God knows my heart.” What I meant was, I’m glad that God knows my motivations. I’m glad he knows I want to do what is right, whether or not I succeed all of the time. I was able to say that, because I love God, and he knows that I love him, regardless of my performance. He knows that it is the desire of my heart to do his will in everything, despite my failures. He not only knows my sins, he knows my heart.
I no longer remember why I made the statement. That is, I don’t remember the context of our conversation. But in any case, my friend Don responded immediately with, “Really?” I did not expect that response. It was unexpected, because as I told him, I thought all Christians felt that way.
“No,” he said, “many people don ‘t feel that way. They wish God did not know their hearts.” I was taken back a little at the time; but now I realize that my thinking was rather naive. He was right. Many Christians wish God did not know their hearts, because they have secret sins. And although they can hide those sins from people, they cannot hide them from God. So there is both a positive and a negative side to this issue. On the negative side, God knows when we are insincere, just as he knew Cain was insincere. But on the positive side, God knows when our hearts are right with him.
Well here in verse 19, John is speaking about the positive nature of God’s knowledge of our hearts. He is affirming what I instinctively understood nearly forty years ago. He is saying that when we genuinely love others and act on that love, we have confidence regarding our relationship to God, because God knows our hearts.
All right, we who love God and neighbor have confidence in regard to our relationship to God. Next, in verses 21-22 John tells us that we also can have confidence regarding our prayers. The confidence before God that we gain from loving others leads to boldness in prayer. Indeed John declares, “we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”
Now obviously this teaching easily could be misunderstood as works righteousness. It can be interpreted to mean that we can get what we want from God by doing works he wants. No, John was not teaching works righteousness. This is a family relationship situation, not a works righteousness situation. Children are to obey their fathers out of love, not to get things. And fathers are to provide for their children according to what’s best for them, not according to what the children want. Good fathers, and mothers as well, never give their children everything they selfishly desire. It is true, as John says, that obedience is a condition for answered prayers; but obedience isn’t the key to the answers we receive from God in response to our prayers. Our relationship to him is the key.
So how then are we to understand this fantastic promise that we will receive from him whatever we ask? Again the relationship is the key. Later in the letter, in 5:14-15, John writes, “And this is the boldness [or confidence] we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.” Did you catch it: “if we ask anything according to his -will, he hears us.” When our relationship with God in Christ is right, we will ask only for what is God’s will. That is, we will only ask for what is best for us and for those we love, not for what we prefer.
All right, having mentioned the importance of obeying God’s commandments, John next offers three specific commands that essentially summarize the section. As you see, the three commands are quite clear. First, believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus, which of course simply means believe in Jesus. This is a doctrinal command. And it’s important. John has been stressing loving one another, but faith in Jesus is of prior and superior importance. Our love of neighbor must flow out of our commitment to Christ, or it will have limited value. So first and foremost, believe in Jesus. But there is something else here that we do not want to miss. John reminds us that this Jesus isn’t any old Jesus. This Jesus is the Son of God, the one who can redeem us from sin and death. That is why doctrine is important.
The second command is ethical in nature. Love one another. Since John has been stressing this, I don’t think it needs any further comment from me.
And then third, John commands us to abide in Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. As we have noticed, John keeps repeating this idea of our mutual abiding relationship with God in Christ. We abide in Christ (hopefully completely); and the Holy Spirit abides in us (again hopefully completely); and that relationship delivers us from sin and empowers us for life.