1 John 3:11-24, “11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 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. 24 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.”
At the very end of the preceding section John once again transitions directly from the moral test to the love test (1 John 2:6-7), showing that our love for one another is an integral part of the total transformation of life brought about and by God through the gospel.
John states explicitly that genuine love for other believers is a right ground for assurance of genuine belief (3:14), just as hate is a sure sign that one is “of the evil one” (v.12) and is without the “eternal life” possessed by those who believe (v.15). A believer’s love flows out of and resembles the love he has received from God through Jesus Christ (vv.16-18). This will make our love exceedingly practical (vv.17-18). The presence of this love will provide right grounds for assurance in the face of uncertainty and feelings of condemnation, reminding us that what god knows to be true of us is what is right (vv.19-21).
In verses 23-24 John begins to intertwine the tree tests he has already laid out, speaking now of the connection between right belief (v.21), genuine love (v.23),which enable us to know that we “Abide in him.” and ongoing obedience (v.24), all of which enable us to know that we abide in him. While reference to the presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer does not emerge with the same phase as these other grounds of assurance do in John’s letter, here (v.24) and again latter (4:13; 5:6), John speaks of the presence of the Spirit as another ground of assurance that God abides in us and we abide in him. The New Testament elsewhere speaks of the Spirit as a guarantee or down payment (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14) of our eternal salvation. The new belief, new behaviors, and new affections generated by the Spirit evidence his presence in us and grant assurance of our relationship with God (Romans 8:5-7, 13-16).
In all this we remember the great consolation of 1 John 3:20: when we feel accused and condemned, we can look to Christ and know that all of our sins are forgiven. God’s sentence of acquittal overrules our heart’s sentence of condemnation. And that is not because God does not see all the facts or has overlooked some of our failures; quit the contrary, “he knows everything” (v.20) but forgives us anyway! This is profound liberation to haunted consciences.
By a preeminent love for God, we are also liberated from selfishness so that “whatever we ask we receive from him” (v.22). Such prayers are not for worldly priorities and selfish gain but for “what pleases him.” God is thus willing to grant that which enables us to “keep his commandments” (vv.22-23) and “abide in God”—the eternal priorities of heaven, not of earth (5:14).
1 John 3:11-24 addresses the issue of Christian assurance. In doing so, it answers the question, “How can we know that we are Christians” the first answer in verse 11-18 is that we demonstrate Christlike love for Christians. The second answer in verses 19-24 is that we possess God-given, Spirit-abiding heart confidence. The last two phrases of that answer are especially important but before we explore what I mean by Spirit-abiding and heart confidence note first the connection between the two halves of the text. Verse 19 starts with “By this.” That phrase takes us backward to verses 11-18, linking our assurance to our acts of love, a theme that John reiterates in verse 23b. We must read 19-24 with this clear connection in mind: the evidence of our assurance is absolutely linked to our obedience of the love command (vv.23-24).
With that connection in mind we turn to the last half of our text in 1 John 3:19-24, “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 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. 24 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.”
These verses can be summarized as follows. Because God abides in us through his Spirit (“the Spirit whom he has given us,” 1 John 3:24; 4:13), he produces three visible fruits in his beloved (3:21) children:
- We “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (3:23);
- We “love one another” (3:23); and
- We “keep his commandments” (3:22, 24), which likely centers on the two commandments above.
Therefore, it follows that if we believe in Christ and love the brothers, then God reassures our hearts (1 John 3:19-21), answers prayer (3:22), and, as we will see here soon, casts out fear of God’s judgment (4:17-18).
Echoes of Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse are clearly heard. Just as Jesus spoke of the love command (John 13), followed by the promise of the indwelling Spirit (John 14) and the call to abide in him so that the disciples’ prayers would be heard (John 15-16). Those same themes resurface here. We will explore these themes by moving from the internal (“Spirit,” “our heart”) to the external (keeping his commandments,” 1 John 3:22, 24, and answered prayer, v.22).
1 John 3:19-20 center on the internal elements of our assurance, “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”
Demonstrating Christ-likeness to Christians (“by this”) gives us the assurance (“we shall know” that we have koinonia with Christ (John 18:37) and his church (1 John 1:1-4; 4:6). It also sets our hearts at ease before God’s judgment throne (“before him,” 3:19).
Our heads do not always align with our hearts. We might know that we are forgiven, but not feel forgiven. The reason for this heart disease likely relates to our inability to comply flawlessly and continually with the love commandments. 1 John 3:20 provides two reasons to put our whole weight on this olive branch of assurance: “God is greater than our heart” and “he knows everything.” When our hearts accuse us (“you failed the love test again!”). God’s benevolent omnipotence and omniscience provides CPR.
When our hearts are weighed down with guilt, here John reassures us that “the great God, the Great King above all Gods” (Psalm 95:3), eases the burden. When we agonize over our lack of love the place to turn is not farther inward but outward and upward toward God. If our hearts are troubled, we should call to mind the greatness of God, a greatness that descends to offer forgiveness each and every time we confess our sins (1 John 1:9).
Moreover, recall the God who “knows everything” (1 John 3:20). While the Bible applies God’s omniscience as a warning to refrain from sin (Eccles. 12:14; Romans 2:16; 1 Cor. 4:5), here it is a comfort for the sinner. God is not blind to our unloving actions. He knows every detail of every sin. He knows that even the littlest lack of love carries the weight of eternal condemnation. But here is the gospel according to John, God still forgives. Accept his forgiveness through Christ. Rejoice in the renewed relationship. Pray. And return to practicing righteousness (1 John 2:29; 3:7, 10).
1 John 3:21-24 follows, addressing the mostly external elements of our assurance, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 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. 24 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 logic of the argument is straightforward. If God sets our hearts at ease before him, we have the confidence to approach him in prayer (1 John 3:21-22). What a marvelous truth! “By the blood of Jesus,” we have unrestricted access to “enter the holy places” (Heb. 10:19). Let us then press past “internal impediments (deficiency in faith, ethics, or relationship…) and external challenges (e.g., the deceivers of 1 John 2:26, 3:7). And even an accusing heart, “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). For we know we should expect our prayers, if made according to his will, to be answered (1 John 5:14; John 14:13-14). Obedience assures us that the line of communication is open “because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22). This teaching is similar to James’s abomination and Elijah’s example, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16 KJV). The obedience of faith opens God’s ears!
God delights in answering his children’s prayer when we trust in his Son- “we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 3:23). To believe in the name” is to confess Jesus’ “incarnation (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7), his baptism and atoning death on the cross for sin (1 John 5:6; Rev. 1:5), his self-disclosure and divinity (1 John 5:20), his role as heavenly witness and ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Rev. 1:5). God also delights in answering our prayers when we love like his Son- who love his own until the end (John 13:1), as well as his enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35). In John’s letters as in Paul’s fait and love work hand in hand 1 John 3:11; 4:7, 11-12; 2 John 5; Gal. 5:6; Eph. 1:15; 2 Tim. 1:13). Together they open heaven’s hand of blessing.
In 1 John 3:24, John ties together his flow of thought with a Trinitarian conclusion. Moving from our confession and commitment to Jesus Christ, John concludes with the Father (“God”), Son (“his commandments,” “he abides in us,” “he has given”; John 14:16-20), and Holy Spirit (“the Spirit”).
This is the first of six references to the Spirit in this letter (1 John 4:2, 6, 13; 5:6, 8), and his connection with our assurance is important. We know that we are Christians because the Spirit abides in us. We have a God-given, Spirit-abiding heart confidence. Here John returns from the external elements of assurance to the international indwelling of the Holy Spirit. He lives in us. And because he lives and remains in us, we remain in the Father and the Son.
Enjoy the God-given Spirit! Understand that our assurance does not spring form the vigorous works of obedience or orthodoxy, but from the interior life. Ask for such knowledge from the Lord if you don’t have it.
In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson discovered how we can know the earth’s weight, the age of rocks, the difference between a quark and a quasar, and something about salt. 1 John 3:11-24 is about acquiring not scientific knowledge but saving knowledge. We know something! We know that we are Christians because we demonstrate Christlike love for Christians (vv.11-18) and possess that God-given, Spirit-abiding heart confidence (vv.19-24). Such knowledge is invaluable. Incomparable!