John moves from his discussion of loving in deed and truth in verse 18 to now explain how active love (and active obedience overall) leads to assurance of belief. Much like he has stated in other parts of the book, he makes the point here that actions are the proof of belief; without actions there is no assurance that we are actually His.
The first phrase of this text is the key to understanding all six verses. We shall know by this that we are of the truth. A believer is of the truth – the truth refers to both Jesus and the gospel. Either we are of the truth or we are not. We are either a child of God or a child of the devil (vs. 10). The remaining verses of this passage explain what is true of those who are of the truth.
Verses 19-20 are difficult to understand. The grammar can be translated several ways and the meaning of the text is debated by commentators. Does by this refer back to loving in deed and truth in verse 18 or forward to God is greater than our heart, and knows all things? Is John trying to encourage his readers that when their hearts condemn them they should remember that God is greater than their hearts and thus reject the condemnation and rest in their assurance before God? Or is he telling them that the condemnation they feel from their hearts is actually just an echo of what God sees, for He is greater than their hearts and knows all things? A strong case can be made for both interpretations of both questions – the key is to understand that regardless of interpretation, the reader largely ends up at the same place.
It seems to make sense that by this refers back to loving in deed and truth in verse 18. John has just said that those who love like Jesus love in deed and truth – they practice their righteousness instead of just claiming it or feeling it. So it follows that those who do this are the ones who know they are of the truth. Loving in truth causes us to love in deed. Loving in deed is evidence that we are of the truth.
The evidence of loving our brothers and thus being of the truth gives us assurance before Him. It is when we come before Him in prayer that we are either assured or condemned. If our actions match our words we stand before Him assured. If our actions contradict our words, the knowledge of our state causes our hearts to condemn us. As stated above, there is no assurance apart from obedience.
This brings us to the last phrase of verse 20 and the crux of the controversy. Are we to be encouraged that God is greater than our heart and knows all things? Or are we to be sobered by this truth? Since John’s theme from verse 10 forward has been to urge his readers to examine themselves, it seems to make sense that he continues that direction here by warning them. If their hearts condemn them over their actions, how much more will God who is greater than their hearts and knows ALL things? The heart’s condemnation is actually just a reflection of God’s condemnation which is based on a much greater knowledge. God’s omniscience is sobering to the believer in sin and is awesome and horrible to one who is not of the truth.
Conversely, the other argument is that our assurance is based in God alone and not on our feelings; thus John urges his readers to make God the final judge of their standing and not their fickle hearts. We do not look into our hearts to see if we feel secure and then use this as evidence of our security in the truth. If our conscience condemns, God overrides its verdict. (Gary M. Burge, Letters of John, The NIV Application Commentary; 102.) In this case the heart’s condemnation is false – it is not a result of sin but the work of the enemy or our own insecurities. In the face of false condemnation it is encouraging that God is greater than our hearts and knows everything about us – He knows our true status before Him even when we are not sure.
Two quotes elaborate on the “sober” view:
- The reason we must love one another in deed and truth and thereby reassure our hearts before God that we are of the truth is this: if our heart condemns us for lack of love, it is because God is greater than our heart and knows all things. In other words, our heart, or our conscience, is an echo of God’s opinion of ourselves. If our conscience, imperfect as it is, can sense a contradiction between what we profess and what we practice, how much more God, who knows all things. (Tom Steller, desiringgod.org)
- It seems to me that to interpret this verse as one of comfort is to contradict the whole purpose of the passage, which is to warn us, to exhort us. Read the whole passage on brotherly love again and you will find that its whole purpose is to search us and to make us examine ourselves and warn us against assuming glibly that all is well when it is not. It is to warn; and not only that, it seems to me that if we regard this as comfort, we are doing something which is very dangerous. We are silencing the voice of conscience and of the heart by talking about ‘the love of God.’ (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 122.)
The quote above mentions this but it bears emphasizing again. If we assume this statement of John’s is intended to comfort us, does it not lead to the danger of ignoring our conscience or ignoring the urge to examine ourselves? If John means for us to disregard the condemnation of our hearts because our hope is in God, does it not somewhat contradict his repeated exhortations to make sure our practice matches our words (for which our hearts would condemn us if they are inconsistent)?
This is not to say that our hearts are not subject to attack or that Satan cannot accuse us falsely through our conscience. Satan can indeed form in us an unhealthy view of God that says He is against us and that He will never accept us after all we have done. And it can certainly be argued that this section is a pause in the letter for John to encourage believers who are under attack and questioning their beliefs (similar to 2:12-14). But to ignore our conscience and assume we are right before God seems to go against John’s overall message of making sure we are truly children of God.
If this view is correct, verses 19 and 20 could be rewritten as follows:
We shall know by loving in deed and truth that we are of the truth and our actions shall assure our heart before Him. For if our heart condemns us it is because God is greater than our heart and knows all things.
The one who stands before God without condemnation is the one who practices righteousness. The heart does not condemn the one whose life is consistent. And the one without condemnation is the one who comes to God in confidence. Our actions – specifically our active love for the brethren – enable us to come before God assured that we are truly His. And when we have assurance it spawns confidence. And confidence in prayer is a wonderful thing! We are confident that He hears us – we are confident that His Spirit prays for us – we are confident that He advocates for us before the Father – we are confident that we are accepted in the throne room of the Creator because we come dressed in the righteousness of the Son. We are not simply addressing the Sovereign of the universe – we are addressing our Father. We are not only creatures – we are sons.
This confidence affects our expectations. We expect that He will give us what we ask. When we pray without condemnation we expect our petitions to be granted. This is an idea that is repeated throughout the Bible. When our lives are aligned with God’s and our will is aligned with His, we can ask for anything and it will be granted. The caveat to remember is that our will must be aligned with His – the promise is conditional. The one who asks for happiness and prosperity is asking for himself – he is not concerned with God. It is when our lives are centered on Him and we live for His glory that our prayers reflect His will and are answered.
Jesus said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). He said in Matthew 7:11, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him?” Toward the end of this letter, John says “And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (5:14). David said, “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4). Note the conditions: we must abide in Jesus and His words must abide in us – God as a good Father will only give what is good to His children (and many times we ask for what is not) – we must ask according to His will – and we must delight in Him (which will ensure the desires of our heart are His desires).
John’s words at the end of verse 22 dovetail with these other verses – our prayers are answered because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight – the promise is conditioned on our actions. John does not mean that we earn our answers – God does not answer prayer based on merit. But doing what pleases Him is proof that we are of the truth. And the one who is of the truth – and whose actions give him assurance that he is – has confidence that his prayers will be answered. The one who is not of the truth – the double-minded man or the man who loves the world (James 1:5-8, 4:3-4) – has no confidence that his prayers are heard.
John makes sure his readers understand what the commandment is that the child of God keeps. He says the commandment (singular) is to believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another. This appears to be two commandments until we understand that one does not exist without the other. We cannot love one another without first believing in the Son. The one who is not of the truth does not love his brother (with a godly love not contingent on relationship or worthiness) because ultimately he cannot. We know what love is by looking at the Son (verse 16) and what He did for us. When we believe on Him we can then love others as we have been loved and as we have seen love modeled on our behalf. And if we believe in the name of the Son, we WILL love one another – neither side exists alone.
John finishes this section by giving a second reason for assurance (which is really an elaboration of the first). The one who keeps His commandments abides in Christ (Him could mean “God” or “Jesus” – it does not matter) and Christ abides in the one who keeps His commandments [Let that sink in for a moment. Do not let familiarity with Bible terms make you miss this statement – He ABIDES in us and we ABIDE in Him. How foolish is it to become enamored with the world when we have this kind of privilege as believers?]. And the evidence we have that He abides in us is the Spirit whom He has given us. Obedience is evidence of intimacy with God. And intimacy comes from the Holy Spirit. That we obey Him and abide in Him is evidence of the Holy Spirit indwelling us. And if the Holy Spirit indwells us then we are of the truth.
The indwelling of the Spirit reinforces our confidence in prayer. Paul tells us that the Spirit actually prays FOR us because we do not know how to pray. The Spirit’s prayers lead to the Son interceding on our behalf. We can have enormous confidence before the throne of God when we realize that our prayers are Spirit-driven – our prayers TO God actually come FROM God (Rom 8:26-27).
- The one who has assurance of belief before God is the one who is of the truth.
- The one who is of the truth keeps God’s commandments and does things that are pleasing in His sight. Doing what pleases God is evidence that one is of the truth – without obedience there is no assurance.
- God’s commandment (and thus what pleases Him) is to believe in the name of His Son and love one another (just as the Son commanded).
- The one who is of the truth has confidence before God in prayer and receives what he asks.
- The one who is of the truth has intimacy with God – Christ abides in him and he abides in Christ.
- No one who believes and obeys and loves does so without the Spirit; thus obedience and belief are evidence of the Spirit’s presence in the one who is of the truth. The one who has the Spirit knows that he abides in God and God abides in him and he has assurance of belief before God.