This Is How We Know
1 John 3:19-24
Key Verse 21
“Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God.”
Read verse 19. “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.” John says: “This is how we know.” We all want to know many things. Man is a curious creature. We wants to know everything. That’s why we explore and experiment and discover. And our desire to know is insatiable. As Christians we also so much want to know. We want to know if we are truly saved. Many have that problem, they are not sure whether they are really saved or not. Others want to know if the truth they have learned in church is actually the only truth or a just another version of the many existing truths. The Bible says that the origin of life is God himself, that he created human beings as we appear today— man and woman in the garden. Science says that we evolved from primordial soup of methane, ammonia and hydrogen. We also want to know the truth. We want to know if there is any true relief from this tenacious sin that has kept us bound for so long. Where can we find answers? John understood what goes on in the human heart. He understood how much we want to know the truth of things, especially things that belong to God and the things that belong to our own struggles as Christians. Even though the Bible is the wellspring of Truth which God has given us so we may know, in his letter John addresses our desire to know by getting to the point. Seven times he tells us how we may know (2:5; 2:18; 3:10; 3:16; 3:19: 3:24; 5:2), and eight times he tells us that we already know. (3:2; 3:14: 4:13; 4:16; 5:15; 5:15: 5:18; 5:20)
In this passage he says: “This is how we know that we belong to the truth.” Truth is the most precious thing to us human beings. We love the truth. We want to be told the truth all the time. A mother wants to know the truth about where her son has been. It doesn’t matter that she often lies to herself and to others about many things. She wants everyone to simply tell her the truth. A woman wants to know the truth about whether her husband is faithful to her or not. It doesn’t matter that she has lied to him many times. She just wants him to tell her the truth. We all love to be in the know when it comes to the truth about anything. That’s how news reporting thrives on digging up skeletons in people’s closets. They claim that they advocate the truth, but in reality, they will do anything to hide their own truth from others. There is, however, a truth that is far more important for us to know than any truth we may want to know here on earth. It’s the truth about the condition of our soul, the futility of any effort on our part to reform, and the solution to our sin problem. These are truths worthy of pursuing. But John does not say how to know the truth itself, because he has already told us the most important truth of all. He has told us of Jesus, the Son of God who himself is the expression of God’s Truth, who came to share the truth with us and to be for us the light that shines in the darkness of this world. The truth is self-evident when we look at Jesus Christ. The truth is that we are miserable in this life and nothing can bring us joy or peace other than full surrender to the Lord of glory. If we only open our hearts to see the Truth for what it is, we realize that beyond all doubt this truth is the most important truth in my life, that nothing else even come close. I should want to know the truth of God, that we may live in it and walk in it until the day we die. And we should be ready to embrace the truth God has shares with us through his Word.
John does not say how we may come to know the truth, but that we belong to it. He is talking to people who believe. The truth is that Jesus came in the flesh to be our Lord and Savior, that he sacrificed his life to deliver us from the lies that we can save ourselves— that we have any control over our lives— that if we only do so much good— we will be welcomed into heaven. Jesus died in order to offer forgiveness for those who ask for it, and peace and joy in this life and the next. But as I said, John does not say how we may come to know the truth, because those who believe God already know truth. He had just shared one important truth with us in verse 18 when he tells us that we should go beyond words in our calling or effort to love and to actively practice love. After that he says inverse 19: “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth.” This then is how we know we belong to the God of truth and are living by his truth. If we are practicing love rather than just talking about it, then we know that we belong to God and are living in his truth. The truth of God is not only the Word of God in the Bible. It is in fact a life patterned after the Bible. Jesus demonstrated for us what a life patterned after the Bible is all about. He loved us. He sacrificed for us. This is a truth the world knows nothing about. People only know how to love themselves. That is the lie that the devil has planted in all human beings from the beginning. He says that loving yourself is the right thing to do, the natural thing to do. He says that loving yourself is your responsibility, since your responsibility is first and foremost to yourself. But the Lord who patterned his life after the Bible showed us that every moment of our lives ought to be lived in love— in the practice of love— of loving God and others, and especially one another.
Living in love, and sacrificing ourselves in the cause of love and for love is not easy. We rather love ourselves and our own. But as we know it is very hard to love others. Remarkably John fully understood this. He understood perfectly well that the process of growing in love is not easy but long and arduous. He understood that we as Christians will struggle to love even those who belong to us, our families, our brothers and sisters in the Lord, our friends our neighbors, the stranger. Struggling to love is not a sin. It is a process of growth into the likeness of Jesus who himself is Perfect Love. So, John tells us in verse 18: “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.” He wants us to set our hearts at rest in God’s presence. He wants us to know that regardless of our struggles to love, if we are yearning, and struggling to love others as he commands us, we surely belong to the truth, and should set our hearts at peace in him.
Christians who often fail to love their brothers and sisters, sometimes really have a hard time believing that they are genuine Christians. We have this standard of love in Christ that, in our minds, is way higher than we can ever achieve in our lifetime. And every time we fall short of this standard, we begin to feel as if we are not even Christians, that we do no belong to God. This is what John is trying to counsel us in. No one can love the way Christ loved. But when we observe the apostles and all the Christians who went before us, we realize that love comes from God and is something he has destined us to mature in. We only need to know in our hearts that in God’s sight, as long as our faith is in Christ, Christ has fulfilled for us all that we could not fulfill ourselves in love. The standard Christ has set is not meant to condemn us but to encourage us to see how deep and wide God has destined us to grow in love. We only need to be sure that we are not only talking about love, but acting on love in everything. It is what Christ would have us do. And when we fail, all we have to do is to repent and ask his grace in helping us get up and begin loving again. Christians love. This is our primary mission in this world. There is no other greater purpose or mission for us than to love, especially to love one another. Love identifies us. We should not fail it.
Read verse 19 again. “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.” John goes on to the next step. He says that we ought to rest in his presence. In other words, we should have peace in our hearts about where we stand in him. If we are loving each other, there is a good reason for that. We are loving each other either because it is his command to do so, or because we have a personal conviction to do so. That is to say that sometimes we love because we have to— because he wants us to— and sometimes we love because his love in us compels us to. Either way, we know— we should know— that we belong to him because we are in fact loving each other. We know that we belong to him because we aren’t only talking about love but actually practicing it through personal sacrifices, through genuine concern, through compassion, through bearing one another in good times and in difficult times. When we’re doing that, John tells us that it’s a sure sign that we belong to the truth and especially to God who champions the truth. It’s also how we set our hearts at rest in his presence. It’s the way to be and remain at peace in God’s presence. If we’re practicing love with one another, nothing can shake our faith that we are right there in God’s presence where our hearts are at peace with him. But that’s the problem— our hearts! And that’s why, as I said before, John takes this to the next level. He talks about our hearts.
Our hearts! Who on earth can tame the heart! No one. The heart of man, as Jesus said, is like a field where anything and everything can grow. (Matthew 13) Whatever we sow in it grows. If we sow rubbish, rubbish will grow. If we sow rebellion, rebellion will grow. If we sow bitterness, be assured that bitterness will grow. If we sow lies, lies will grow. If we sow truth, truth will grow. If we sow faith, faith will grow. Whatever we sow, will grow in the enormous fields of our hearts. That’s why we need the Lord, who is the Spirit, to cultivate our hearts and remove the weeds and undesirable things that grow there. Those who have not received the Lord as King, their heart fields are ravaged by poisonous weeds and overrun by all kinds of dark spirits who hold sway over their hearts. They cannot control what comes in and out of their hearts. They have no protector! But those who have let their king Jesus enter the field, they experience a thorough and methodical cleansing, and are given a chance to cultivate again pure and noble things into their hearts, as the King sets his guard to protect them. Indeed the heart is precious and must be guarded at any cost because the day will come when all the secrets of men’s hearts, whatever good or evil have grown there, will be exposed and brought before the judgment seat of God.
But this is not what John is talking about as far as “heart” in verses 19-20. Read them. “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Here the heart is the seat of your conscience. We are all born with a conscience. Conscience also can either grow in our heart fields to health or die there in shame and guilt, depending on how well we tend to our conscience. John is not talking to ordinary people whose conscience is ordinary and earth bound. That is to say he is not talking to those who know right from wrong and are easily influenced to switch wrong for right depending on the situation. In this world that which is wrong today may easily become what’s right tomorrow. Most people’s conscience is subject to this dead world and its trends. John says that if our conscience condemns us, God is greater than our conscience and he knows everything. If you’re conscience condemns you, that you have not lived according to God’s will; if it condemns you that you have sinned; if it condemns you that you have done or acted wrongly either against God or your fellow man— that nagging in your heart is evidence that God is indeed greater than your heart, because he knows your heart and has given you a warning through your conscience. It’s also the evidence that God loves you and wants you to listen to your conscience, repent of your sins, ask his forgiveness and let your conscience be cleansed from acts that lead to death (Hebrews 9:14)
John, however, is not talking to those who do not believe, those with earth bound consciences. He’s talking to Christians whose consciences have been renewed and recreated through the holy spirit living in their hearts. This reborn conscience is different! It is not subject to this world but subject to heaven’s rule and is influenced by the word of God. In other words this conscience is extremely sensitive to God’s word and is subject to the higher laws of heaven. This conscience bothers us when we sin, when we fail to obey God’s word, especially when we’re not loving each other the way we should. Christians frequently experience the sting of their consciences. Those who don’t, have a serious problem. They may have numbed their conscience by shutting it off too many times or by resisting the Holy Spirit. But it is regarding this conscience that John tells us what to do if it condemns us. When we have sinned, or failed at loving each other, our conscience always kicks in. It will condemn us. That’s part of what it does. We need it to condemn us, or better yet, to bother us about our sin. Why? So that we might repent and seek forgiveness and healing. But when that happens John at the same time tells us not to fear God’s condemnation but rather to set our hearts at rest in him. Why? He says “because God is greater than our hearts”!
What does that mean? It simply means that God himself overrules our conscience. That is to say that if God says you’re not condemned then you’re definitely not condemned. Romans 8:1 says. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” God knows everything we do. There is nothing that we do that God is not aware of. There is no hiding from him. Especially a Christian knows this only too well. Therefore when we fail God, naturally our reborn conscience warns us that we have violated God’s word or shunned his will. That’s the time to repent and trust that God who is greater than our hearts is also the same God who promised that there is no condemnation for us who are in Christ Jesus. It is the best news ever in a world which now stands condemned by God. If you are in Christ, your conscience will often bother you. But there’s nothing to fear for God’s ruling stands much higher than the ruling of your conscience. Thank God that my conscience bothers me. It’s a way to keep me humble and trusting in his grace. It’s the way to keep me in repentance. As the prophet said: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) The apostle Paul confirms this when he too says: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.” (2 Cor. 7:10)
Read verse 21. “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God.” Very few Christians have fully banished self-condemnation from their hearts. Self- condemnation remains one of the foremost elements in a Christian’s life that weigh us down. Our hearts may condemn us when we’ve done wrong in the sight of God. But instead of repentance and tasting the forgiveness of God, many fall into self-condemnation instead. Self-condemnation serves no purpose other than to weigh us down under Satan’s cruel thumb for as long as we choose to remain there. Self-condemnation negates faith and trust in the God whose promises are brighter and true than anything our hearts tell us otherwise. Self-condemnation served no purpose other than to cripple us so that we fail to see the love of God and continue what doing what we are called to do. The apostle said “if our hearts do not condemn us”, meaning that if we do not give in to self condensation, we have confidence before God. This is what Jesus died for that we might have full confidence before God. He didn’t die and redeem us so that we might perpetually fall into self-condemnation and remain there for ages before we find a way to climb out of that pit. Jesus redeemed us that we may have the confidence that our God loves us so much that there is nothing he wants more than that we have a relationship with him full of confidence. Self-condemnation prevents us from having this kind of relationship with God. That’s why it neither serves God nor us any good purpose.
It is true that God wants us to have confidence to approach him and to be in his presence. But when we sin, unless we repent and find grace to stand up from our sin again, we sense that we are broken off from God. Like a child who does wrong, and knows it, he has a very hard time to run to his father. So also we experience the same with the Lord. When we’ve made mistakes we stay away. But we need not do so. Our hearts need not condemn us especially if we’ve repented. This is the difference between Christians who are useful to the Lord and those who remain of no use to him by their own choice. I say by their own choice because we choose self-condemnation over trusting and believing the love of God. Self-condemnation is an insult to God’s love for us. We need to fully retire self-condemnation and stand confidently before the Lord. Otherwise we can do nothing in our lives for the Lord except to groan and moan all day long and feel oppressed and useless. That’s what the devil wants. It’s not what God wants for us.
Read verses 21- 22. “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.” “If our hearts do not condemn us we have confidence before God”. While self- condemnation is based on doubts and distrust of God’s love, confidence is entirely based on the love of God. When we’re confident in God’s love, what does John tell us the result is? John tells us that when we ask anything of him in prayer he answers our prayers. We spent months exploring the essence of prayer. Still prayer is the hardest thing for Christians to do. Why? For many reasons. First of all because they don’t understand the essence of prayer. Prayer is communion with God— and not necessarily going to God with a shopping list. Second Christians find it hard to devote themselves to prayer because they see no immediate results. They think it’s a waste of time. Third Christians don’t pray simply because they’re lazy or busy with other things that seem more important than prayer. But in truth apart from love, prayer is the most powerful force in the universe. Jesus’ mother came to him and said: “They have no more wine.” (John 2:3) I cannot think of a more powerful illustration of prayer. She had a serious problem. She didn’t know what to do. She just brought it to Jesus in prayer and left it in his hands. She didn’t tell him what to do. That’s trust. That’s absolute confidence and trust in the love of our Lord. We think we have to tell him what he needs to do. When he doesn’t do what we ask if him to do, we give up. But prayer is communion with God and confidence that what we bring to him, he hears and responds accordingly.
John tells us that love is trust. When we can confidently come to God in prayer, God answers our prayers and gives us what we ask for. What then should we ask for? The remaining phrase tells us what ought to be praying for. We need to be asking for the grace to keep his commands and the grace to do what pleases him. I know that his phrasing seems as if he’s saying that God answers our prayers in response to our obedience to God’s commands and our commitment to please him. But if we love him, our deepest desire will anyway be to obey him and to please him. So we pray to remain in obedience to his commands and to do what pleases him. When we do so, how can God but answer this prayer and all else that we bring to him! He will surely receive what we have asked for. At the same time there is a close correlation between obedience to God and answered prayers. In the Bible those who have lived in obedience to God’s commands and have done what pleases him have all received anything they have asked for. God is not partial to anyone special. His promises are for all his children. He will treat us as he treated those who went before us with answers to our prayer. We must be confident in his love as we surrender our hearts to him in prayer.
Read verses 23-24. “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” John again repeats what he had been saying from the start. God commands not only Christians but people everywhere to believe in Jesus, to build their faith on the rock of our salvation. This is his command that we believe in his Son because he cannot express his love for us in a greater way than he already has through his Son. Those who reject the Son are rejecting God’s love. But for those who accept the love of God through his Son, John says that we also ought to love one another. How often does John repeat this teaching! Why? Because God’s love is not static but dynamic. God poured out his love on us that we might express his love towards ones another. This isn’t easy because we’re different from one another and weak and we often hurt each other. We even neglect each other and don’t think of each other’s welfare. But we should care deeply for one another, and love one another. We should be concerned that we make an environment where others can feel the love of God among us. If we do not give our hearts to what God is doing among us, how can we show the love of God in our midst! We should be concerned for the welfare of the fellowship, to be ready to sacrifice for the fellowship, to be eager to serve the fellowship of believers, young and old alike. Loving isn’t easy if we are serious about offering more than just words of love. Love is sacrifice. And whether we love each other or not tells a lot about whether we love God or not. Love is never words, it’s always action. Our actions say a lot about whether we really love or not.
Yet John tells us that it is God’s assurance that when we are living in obedience to his command, and loving each other, he lives in us and we live in him. We have an everlasting bond with him that cannot be broken. How do we know this? He tells us that we know this by the Spirit he has given us, who lives in those who confess Jesus as Lord and who obey his commands. Let’s continue to love each other as the Lord commands us to do. Let’s also love those who need the love of God revealed to them by us. God bless you.