By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: Please explain 1 John 3:19-21.
Reply: The passage of Scripture under consideration (1 Jn. 3:19-21) reads: “Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him: because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God. . .”
The first thing we need to notice is that the apostle is informing his readers that they should have assurance or boldness. This boldness is based upon doing the will of God – obeying His commandments. This fact is stated in the next verse (v. 22). Here John writes: “and whatsoever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight.” We have assurance when we keep God’s commandments. We are not to suppose that God grants our every prayer request unconditionally. This is not what John is saying. What he is saying, is that the petitions which are granted to us are those which are in harmony with His will, and because we are keeping His commandments.
Verse 19 begins with the word “hereby,” i.e., in view of what has been written in verse 18. It reads: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.” Love is demonstrated, not by mere words, but by action. Jesus said to His disciples: “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). We must remember, then, that the boldness or assurance that is emphasized in these verses is dependent upon our keeping the commandments of God. Thereby we can know that we are of the truth. Jesus before Pilate said: “Every one that is of truth heareth my voice” (Jn. 18:37). Thus by our knowledge of the truth and by our practice of the truth, our hearts are assured. The word “assure” is from the Greek verb peitho which means “to persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe. . . to cause belief in a thing” (J.H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon, p. 497). The heart of one is assured or persuaded by the truth, producing a genuine love for God and others in word and deed.
In verse 20 the writer then says, “because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” When does our heart “condemn” us? It is when we have some doubt or uneasiness (due to our imperfections) that we are pleasing God. The honest heart is aware that we all sin. But keep in mind that John is addressing Christians, not depraved men whose hearts are hardened. Children of God, although having assurance, may sometimes or even often doubt that they are living up to the measure in their lives that God desires. But “God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things.” He knows us better than we know ourselves. He will rule upon all of our thoughts and conduct and He will judge us upon the basis of His standard of right and wrong. That standard is His word (Jn. 12:48; Acts 17:31). He is aware of all of our failures and short comings. He knows our spiritual state. He is a righteous judge and will do right (Gen. 18:25).
“Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God” (v. 21). We have boldness from God when we do His will, as we have stated. In addition, we have the approval of our own heart. Our heart, or conscience, sits as a judge or witness upon our moral actions. When our moral actions result from what God teaches us in His word, then God approves us and our heart also approves us. This gives us great boldness. When we as Christians realize that we have sinned, we are to repent and pray (Acts 8:22; 1 Jn. 1:9), knowing that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn. 2:1). We are thankful that God has provided us with these conditions. When we comply with them we can also be thankful that we can trust in His mercy and compassion to save us. This is “blessed assurance” about which we sing., It is the assurance Paul had after he had “fought the good fight, finished the course and kept the faith.” He expressed his assurance in the words: “henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day, and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Every child of God has such confidence when he does the will of his heavenly Father.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 5, p. 133
March 5, 1987