Post Series on 1 John 3:11-24:
- Why Righteousness Attracts Persecution (1 John 3:11-15)
- Righteousness Looks Like Love (1 John 3:16-18)
- How Righteous Love Offers Assurance (1 John 3:19-24)
In 1 John 3:16-18, John is very direct about the fact that our righteousness expresses itself as love, and as a very particular kind of love. Righteousness-love is by nature sacrificial and generous, eager to meet the needs of fellow believers. If we do not express this kind of righteousness-love in deed and truth (and not just in talk), John writes, then the love of God does not abide in us.
But if righteousness-love is present in our lives, John had also written back in 1 John 3:14 that we should see that as evidence that “we have passed out of death into life.” This kind of love is not natural, and so the only way for it to be present in our lives is if it flows from God’s giving us eternal life. In some way, this love offers us assurance of our salvation.
Now, in 1 John 3:19-24, John picks up that topic again to look at it more closely. Specifically, John wants us to know the ways that righteous love does offer assurance, as well as the ways that righteous love does not offer assurance. Here is what John writes:
19By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22and whatever we ask we receive from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 John 3:19-24 ESV)
How Righteous Love Offers Assurance
Verses 19 and 20 are notoriously difficult to interpret. Donald Burdick warns us that “There are at least ten different possible ways of understanding verses 19-20” (The Letters of John the Apostle: An In-Depth Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 273), but John Stott has a helpful explanation to understand the kind of exegesis we need to do to understand what the Apostle John is doing here:
This passage is a locus vexatissimus. Its general sense is clear, but it is grammatically confused, and the variant readings betray the difficulty which even in the earliest days was found in interpreting them. (The Epistles of John: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 147.)
The general sense of this passage is actually fairly straightforward, even if we will have to work a bit at betting at why John uses the grammar that he does. So, let’s break this passage down by answering the three most difficult exegetical questions.
First, when John writes “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him,” the immediate question we should answer is whether “By this” refers backwards the previous context, or forwards to what John writes in v. 20 and following.
The best answer is that John is looking backwards since John doesn’t give anything that might be the “By this” after v. 19; instead, he continues to build on his topic by talking about the need for persuading our hearts before God. So, “By this” most likely refers to the way that Christians do not close their hearts from fellow believers who have needs, but instead love one another in work and in truth.
Second, what does “reassure” mean? The word choice of the ESV tilts our interpretation toward reading this as a word related to “assurance,” but the basic meaning of this word in Greek is “persuade,” which is a bit more vague. Still, the ESV is almost certainly correct to understand the word this way, since John contrasts this “persuasion/reassurance” with the alternate possibility that our hearts might condemn us in the next two verses.
Third, what does John mean in v. 20 when he says that “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything”? Some (like Calvin) believe that this phrase refers to God’s strictness in judgment, pointing to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 4:4: “For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”
But it’s probably better to understand this statement within the context of reassurance, since in the immediate context of verse 19, John was explaining how it is that we go about reassuring our hearts before God. Instead, John is probably discouraging us from riding the endless roller-coaster of basing our confidence on whether or not we feel that God is doing enough work in our lives. John wants to move us away from perpetual navel-gazing introspection by insisting that we simply don’t have God’s eternal perspective on the work he is doing in our lives to give us eternal life and to create genuine love for our brothers.
C. S. Lewis has a fantastic passage on our inability to judge progress in his book Mere Christianity:
Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern.
We must, therefore, not be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract ‘such awful people’. (p. 210, 213)
Here, John is teaching us to look for the evidence of righteous-love in our lives without going overboard and too harshly critical of our inevitable failures. God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything about where we began, where we are in our progress, and where he is taking us over the course of eternity.
How Righteous Love Does Not Offer Assurance
Even though I disagree with Calvin’s interpretation that the phrase “God is greater than our heart” refers to God’s strictness in judgment, I nevertheless feel that Calvin’s direction with this passage is very important to clear up a ditch that we might fall into by putting too much emphasis on our ability to look for love as evidence that we have passed out of death into life. Calvin writes this important warning from the phrase in v. 21, “if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God”:
Here, however, arises a greater difficulty, which seems to leave no confidence in the whole world; for who can be found whose heart reproves him in nothing? To this I answer, that the godly are thus reproved, that they may at the same time be absolved. For it is indeed necessary that they should be seriously troubled inwardly for their sins, that terror may lead them to humility and to a hatred of themselves; but they presently flee to the sacrifice of Christ, where they have sure peace. (Commentaries on the First Epistle of John)
It is critical that we find our ultimate confidence in eternal life in the promises of Jesus, and not in anything within ourselves. Only in the sacrifice of Jesus do we have real, sure, lasting peace before God.
This is what John is telling us when he reminds us of God’s commandments in v. 23-24:
And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
The commandment is first to believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ, and second to love one another, as Jesus commanded us. John is very clear about the fact that it is only after we believe in Jesus Christ that we are able to love one another. Here’s why: it is through faith in Christ that we receive eternal life (1 John 2:24-25), and it is only through eternal life that we find the ability to love one another (1 John 3:14).
Then, John couples the commandment with a promise that by keeping God’s commandments (believing in Jesus and loving one another), we abide in God and God in us by his Spirit.
True peace and assurance can come only as we receive and believe the promises that God makes in his word. Recognizing the spiritual fruit of righteousness-love in our lives is helpful, but we can’t always evaluate it correctly. So, instead of incessant self-evaluation, we do much better simply to believe in the promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.