Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Have you ever bought something that you thought was leather only to discover that it was not? There was a time when fake leather was easy to detect but manufacturers have gotten so clever that it can be very hard to tell genuine leather from fake leather. Nevertheless, there are certain things that will always distinguish the real thing from the fake.
Well, if you have been here for any of this 1 John sermon series, you will know that the same is true with a profession of faith. A big part of this letter is the THREE PROFESSION OF FAITH TESTS that distinguish the real thing from the fake. And John is currently working his way through the three tests for the second time. And as we arrive at our passage, we are between what John said about the second test and what he will say about the third test, beginning with ch. 4.
Now, there are TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT about the passage before us. One interprets the passage as a kind of turning the blowtorch up even hotter in relation to the first two tests – a sort of And don’t let yourself get off too lightly by trotting out the old ‘Oh well, we will never be free of sin’ line to excuse yourself. So, looking at v20, this interpretation has the sense of If you are troubled by your failures, that is good, because God knows everything and He can see even your hidden motives, so it is actually worse than you think. Don’t expect any assurance about salvation and to be confident in prayer if you are not really serious about obeying God and loving others. And many good commentators interpret the passage this way.
You see, this passage is not easy to understand, even in English. Some of the Greek words can be translated a number of ways, which is why you will find some variation in English versions. In addition, the idea that our behaviour affects our prayers is seen elsewhere in Scripture, for example, in 1 Peter 3:7. So there are good reasons for this first school of interpretation.
However, having carefully considered all the arguments, I find myself more persuaded by the other way of interpreting this passage, which is that this passage is PASTORAL ENCOURAGEMENT. You may remember that when John introduced the tests for the first time, he paused between the second and third tests to give pastoral reassurance to believers. He understood that the moment we start hearing or reading about how we ought to behave as believers, it is so easy to become discouraged by our failures. So John paused there to reassure believers that they were children of God. Well, I believe that John is doing that again in this passage.
Once again, he is between the second and third profession of faith tests. And the first two are about behaviour. SO HERE TOO, PASTOR JOHN PAUSES TO SPEAK TO BELIEVERS WITH A TROUBLED CONSCIENCE. And it is fitting that we come to this passage on this Lord’s Supper Sunday. Because it may be that some of us have heard about practicing righteousness and loving our brothers and sisters and we have doubts about our profession of faith. So let’s look at these verses and consider the BASIS for reassurance and then the BENEFITS of reassurance.
I. We begin then with the BASIS for assurance in vv19-20.
A. Verse 19 begins with similar words to verse 16. But while v16 pointed us to something we know now, v19 points us forward to something we will know in the future. Verse 16 said, “By this we know…” but v19 says, “By this we shall know…”
1. John has just been telling us that practicing righteousness and loving our brothers and sisters in practical ways is evidence of truly being God’s children. But these are things we ought to examine ourselves about regularly. This is why, for example, we read the Preparatory From before each celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is good to regularly do a kind of spiritual warrant of fitness.
a. And John knows that times will surely come when we fall into sin, sometimes serious sin, and break God’s commands or fail to keep them as we ought. And he knows also that there will be times when we are unkind or harsh with our brothers and sisters, or we fail to love them as we could. And our conscience will accuse us of these things.
b. But we also have a weak and fleshly nature – our health and feelings and fears and anxieties can influence how we behave. Or we can feel inadequate for a particular task or we can be overwhelmed by the sheer load of work that could be done. And of course, some people have a tender conscience, such that they very easily feel guilty and are just crushed by their failures when there is really no need for this to be the case.
c. So there will be times, for all sorts of different reasons, when believers doubt their salvation – How can I be a child of God if this is how I behave? How do I dare go to the table given what I have done or not done in recent weeks?
2. Have you experienced these times? Earlier we read PSALM 32. It is a vivid picture of what we are describing. David was wrestling with unconfessed sin; probably the sin of adultery! He spoke of a feeling like his bones were wasting away and groaning and having no strength, and feeling like the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him. Do you know what he speaks of in relation to your own conscience accusing you?
B. So, whether it be specific sins that need to be confessed and repented of before we go to the table, or just a general awareness of our failure to obey God and love our brothers and sisters as we ought, these things can weigh very heavily on a believer’s heart, such that he or she doubts their salvation. And this is when we need to reassure or persuade our hearts, as it says in v19, so that we know again that we really are “of the truth.”
1. And the first thing we may do is to THANK GOD FOR AN ACTIVE CONSCIENCE. If your sin did not trouble you, that would be a problem. So boys and girls, young people, and brothers and sisters, it is a sign of spiritual health when our sins trouble us; when we feel that we have displeased our Father in heaven. So thank God for an active conscience.
2. But in terms of how we reassure our hearts, WE MUST LOOK OUTSIDE OURSELVES. Yes, we may be encouraged by the evidence of faith – the things we do out of love for Christ. But because we will always sin until we are with the Lord in heaven, we must ultimately look to God for the assurance of faith. As someone once said, For every minute you spend looking at yourself, spend 2 minutes looking at Christ! So John says, “For whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything.”
a. Now, there are many things we could say about this point, but we will have other opportunities in this sermon series to return to this matter. So today we will simply use one illustration from elsewhere in the Bible that uses the language of this verse to explain what is meant here. And it is the account of PETER’S RESTORATION in John 21. You boys and girls will remember that Peter denied Jesus, three times. Serious sin! Well, after He had risen from the dead, Jesus was with the disciples. And three times, He said, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter replied, “Yes Lord … Yes Lord … [and then, the third time] Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Peter was saying, Lord, I failed you. I know that. I am so sorry. But you can see in here (heart) that I love you!
Can you say that with Peter? Can you say, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you”? Do you know that in the very core of your being, you love Jesus Christ? If so, then God knows this too! So you take your sins and you go back to 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
II. So, when our heart or our conscience condemns us, we turn to God and the work of Christ on the cross and God’s promises in Christ as the BASIS for reassurance. And then, with a reassured heart, we can consider the BENEFITS of reassurance that the rest of this passage explores.
A. The first, as we see in v21, is CONFIDENCE. John says, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God in prayer, and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do what pleases Him. 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.”
1. And I am sure we all know how this works. You young people will occasionally cross the line at home and get into trouble. Right? You don’t do your chores or you spend too much time on your device, or you get a bad mark on an exam. And Mum and Dad are not happy. And now you need to ask Dad if you can spend Friday afternoon with your friend doing some fun activity. Are you confident? NO. In fact, you struggle to even ask the question because you expect a NO! But what about when you have finished your chores without having been asked, or you have just got an A+ on your exam, are you confident then to ask Dad about the Friday outing. YES! So the state of our heart affects our confidence. Right?
2. Well, in PSALM 32, David spoke of grief and illness and depression while his sins were unconfessed. But then he turned to the Lord and he confessed his sins and experienced forgiveness. And he described the forgiveness of sins as a great blessing and spoke of a sense of being rock-solid in the love of the Lord. And then he committed himself to ongoing obedience. So David was confident as he prayed to God. He knew that he would be forgiven and enabled to live a life of obedience.
3. And in JOHN 21, where we read the account of Peter’s restoration, do you remember what Jesus said to Peter after Peter’s response? He said, “Feed my sheep.” And we can imagine Peter’s joy and happiness and assurance as he experienced the forgiveness of His Saviour. And what do you think Peter was then very eager to do? To feed the sheep of the Lord Jesus. To be an ambassador for Christ. To tell others of the grace and forgiveness in Jesus that he had experienced.
4. And that’s what John is describing here: Once you have a fresh assurance of salvation and you know that you love Christ and that you do obey His commands and you do love your brothers and sisters, you will pray to your Father in heaven with CONFIDENCE! That’s what v21 is describing, “we have confidence before God.” You appear in His presence not as a guilty criminal but as a dearly loved son or daughter.
5. And you will ask Him to help you believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ even more, and you will ask Him to help you keep His commandments even more, and you will ask Him to help you love your brothers and sisters even more, and you will ask Him this knowing that you will receive His help because this is His will for you. That’s what VERSE 22 is about, “Whatever we ask we receive from Him.” What is it that a child of God who is saved by grace alone wants above everything else? To do what his Father commands him to do. And your Father in heaven will empower and enable you to do these things because He wants you to do these things!
B. And that brings us then to v24, which kind of completes the circle of reassurance: “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.”
1. An active conscience is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work within you.
2. A love for the Lord Jesus Christ is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work within you.
3. A trust in the finished work of the Lord Jesus as the only basis of our salvation is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work within you.
4. An eagerness to confess your sins is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work within you.
5. A desire to more faithfully keep God’s commandments and to more eagerly love your brothers and sisters is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work within you.
So you must TRUST IN GOD who is greater than your heart and who knows everything.
He knows that your flawed, inadequate attempts to obey His commands and to love your brothers and sisters are genuine acts of faith and love.
And while you might be tempted to look at yourself and see zero progress in godliness, trust that God knows exactly how His Spirit has changed you and continues to change you for good.
So don’t turn away from faith in Christ and loving others. Abide in Him. Amen.