The Apostle John’s teaching here is at once simple and deep. The simplicity isn’t because John was a simpleton; and the depth isn’t a secret knowledge intended only for a scant few. We find here a depth that comes from maturing faith & love. A bride & groom avow their love on their wedding day, but as it is nurtured year upon year, decade upon decade, the depth of that trust & love grows sweeter, truer, lovelier. That, in part, is how Scripture teaches us to understand the doctrine of assurance of grace.
We live in a perpetually insecure culture. This is the result of a desertion of true faith in Jesus Christ alone. This is why there is such widespread seeking after security, whether it be the security of State run programs, or LARPing as very religious people in grand cathedrals. But we must maintain, that security is found in Christ alone.
19 And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. 20 For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. 21 Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. 22 And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. 23 And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.1 John 3:19-23
Summary of the Text
John’s entire argument has been leading up to this important exhortation as to how the believer can be assured in their heart of their acceptance before God (v19). He gives us an if/then argument as the way to assure our hearts that we are “of the truth.” If your heart condemns you, God is greater than any real or imagined condemnation you face; after all, He knows all things (v20). He knows all the truth about you, and still offers Christ to you to be your dwelling place (2:6), righteousness (2:28), Advocate, and Propitiation (2:1-2).
The “if/then” argument in verse 20 is inverted by the “if/then” of verse 21.
20: If your heart condemns you, then God is greater.
21: If your heart doesn’t condemn you (because God is greater), then you have boldness to come to God.
This boldness is made most evident in our prayers. We ask “whatsoever” sort of prayers (v22). We can ask boldly, trusting God to answer our requests, because we are walking in the light (1:7), and have a clear conscience (v22). The nail in timidity’s coffin is that the command we are to keep is uncomfortably simple to the self-righteous or self-pitying, but is a deep comfort to the feeblest of saints: believe in Jesus, and love one another (v23).
The Accusing Heart
It’s vital to notice that condemnation is a legal term. This “legalese” picks up on the legal language used earlier regarding Christ as our Paraclete (2:1)––the one who comes alongside us to plead our case—and our Propitiate (2:2)––the one who covers us. Your comfort is found in this: your gracious Savior has freed you from and forgiven you for both your sinful state and your sinful actions. But the comfort goes gloriously beyond even this.
The comfort extends forward. If the saint sins in the future, the Lord Jesus remains as your faithful Advocate. The Greek word here means, “one summoned to your side”, implying coming to your legal defense.
Our Accuser is cast down, as John’s apocalyptic vision assures us (Rev. 12:10). Which means you need not heed the Accuser’s voice, when the Advocate’s voice is declaring that the Gospel reckons you forgiven, cleansed, and pardoned. This forms the foundation of Christian assurance. We need not sin, because we’ve been given a new nature; but if we sin, we are no less a saint––for Christ the Righteous is our eternal Advocate before the Father.
Having destroyed Satan’s grounds for accusation (Cf. 3:8), John wants to address the accusations which spring from your own heart. Here in our passage, the heart lays a charge against us. While there’s an emotional component here, the legal terminology should lead us to think not in terms of subjective feelings but objective fact.
Does your heart condemn you? Whose heart doesn’t? After all, we bear the guilt and shame of our sin. Our heart bears witness against us that we are violators of God’s Law. Our heart is deceitful (Jer. 17:9). Our heart is stone (Eze. 36:26). But God is greater. Sweeter words have never been spoken.
God is Greater
How do we know that God is greater? We often want to point to the glories of creation as an argument for God’s greatness. No doubt the heavens declare His glory, DNA strands are amazing testimonies to the wisdom & knowledge of God’s creative power, the beauty of the Swiss Alps leaves us longing for the eternal glory found in God. But if we follow John’s argument accurately, the greatness of God which he has in mind is not to be found in the first place by creational glories. We have to go back to the prologue of 1 John to see what greatness John has in mind.
The Eternal Word has been made manifest in the flesh for your joy (1:1-4). Those born of God believe two things: that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (4:2), and that Jesus is the Christ (5:1). Jesus dwells in you, as you dwell in Him by faith (2:24). Do you believe that? Then be assured that Christ dwells in you, by the Spirit, to tell your condemning heart to hush.
A.A. Hodge, in one place, teaches that, “Full assurance, therefore––which is the fullness of hope resting on the fullness of faith––is a state of mind which it is the office of the Holy Ghost to induce in our minds. […] [The Holy Ghost] gives origin to the grace of full assurance––not as a blind and fortuitous feeling, but as a legitimate and undoubting conclusion from appropriate evidence.”
Assurance isn’t a feeling, it is the conclusion of a legal proceeding. A lost child is not concerned with whether they have been disinherited; they are solely concerned with finding their parents and have a certainty of the welcome which they will receive when they are found. This passage is the crown jewel of God’s evidence to the saints of their assurance of welcome. Christ has not only conquered Satan, but He has quieted your condemning heart by His great love, and now you have boldness to ask the Father for grace & mercy to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).
So Say Your Prayers
John’s argument is a flowchart of sorts. Does your heart condemn you? If, yes? God is greater than your heart. Now, in light of that, does your heart condemn you no more? Good, then say your prayers.
To come to God in prayer is to come to Him by the Son, by the Intercessor. Only a fool will try to come before God in order to pull off a heist; as if he could dupe God by coming in any other way than by the Son. When God’s greatness is displayed in Jesus Christ manifested in the flesh, prayer becomes like the no-doubt 3-pointer. We pray “Thy Kingdom come”, and we are certain that near and far, in our heart and in our homes, from shore to shore Christ is King and shall be exalted in all the earth.
Now, curious point is made here. The text asserts a certainty of receiving our requests and it grounds this certainty in the fact that “we keep His commands, and do those things which are pleasing in His sight.” At first this sets us Protestants ill-at-ease. Sounds like works-righteousness. But this is to miss the simple point John is making. He answers this objection immediately. God’s commandment is to believe in Jesus, and love the brethren. Once again, our confidence towards God is on the basis of faith in Christ alone, and this is the key signature of our prayers.
Of course, this boldness in prayer isn’t to be used to glut our lusts (Jas. 4:3). But we also must be careful not to so narrowly limit what Christ & the Apostles’ frequently make broad. The saint is invited to ask for whatsoever (Cf. Jn. 16:23), and as you are walking with the Lord your requests will not be amiss or improper or carnal, but will be the sort of requests that please the Father.
Boldness in prayer is a mark of true evangelical faith. A clear conscience (by walking in the light and keeping His commandments) produces a fearlessness to make your petitions and requests known to your Father.
Instead of getting swallowed in the nets of doubt, and asking yourself if you’re really, really, really saved, John points you to prayer. Every time you pray you are defying an accusing heart. An accusing heart will object to going before God. But prayer forces you to humble yourself and admit in faith God is Greater. Instead of endless seeking for security, either in yourself, or in the State, or in the Cathedral, or in the family, or in your wealth, the Word that was manifested in the flesh, calls you to trust in Him alone, and then get busy.
Look To Christ
Faith looks to Jesus. Assurance of grace flows from looking, it is not the prerequisite of the looking. Looking comes first, the seeing comes after.