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Today’s post continues an examination of St John’s epistles, often overlooked as most of the passages have been omitted from the standard three-year Lectionary.

These omissions are ideal additions to my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to our understanding of the Bible.

Today’s reading is taken from the King James Version with commentary from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 John 3:19-24

19And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.

20For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.

21Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.

22And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.

23And 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.

24And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.


Last week’s reading ended with this verse:

18My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.

John goes on to explain more about truth in verse 19. Essentially, he is saying that if we believe we know the truth of Jesus Christ and bear it in our hearts and minds, then we have assurance that we have life in Him and share the promise of eternal life.  We know that we are saved.  Therefore, we should be joyful and happy at this prospect and, by extension, not worry so much about the world around us.  A further product of this assurance is a greater freedom and ability to love those around us.

John MacArthur explains assurance of salvation in a Pauline context. Assurance can pose a serious problem for some Christians (emphases mine):

Assurance is a spiritual reality that we should enjoy. Ephesians 3:12 says, “In whom,” that is speaking about Christ, “we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.” Those are very strong terms. In Christ we have boldness, in Christ we have confident access. In other words, we are assured that we have a right to enter into the presence of God. The writer of Hebrews puts the same thought this way, “And let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” That is to say, “Go to God with whatever’s on your heart, fully assured, boldly confident that you are His child and that He awaits your arrival, the meeting of your needs.” Hebrews 6:19 says, “This hope, or this confidence, we have as an anchor of the soul both sure and steadfast.” We should be anchored strongly in the hope that is ours in Christ so that we have both assurety and a steadfast confidence in our relationship to the living God and His fulfillment of future promises. Colossians 2:2 puts it this way. “We should attain to all riches of the full assurance” …

I’m saying all that just to remind you that God doesn’t expect you to go through your life worrying and wondering about whether you really belong to Him. There are theologies that say that, there are teachers and preachers that say that. They are the same ones who think you can lose your salvation and they’re therefore afraid that you living in confidence might step over the line of sin, going too far in your confidence and therefore forfeit your salvation. And so it’s better for you since you could lose it not to think it was too secure, that keeps you more on your toes and makes it more likely that you’ll hang on to it …

You cannot lose it and so you might as well enjoy having it. That’s exactly what God desires …

Because God has chosen from before the foundation of the world to whom He will give it and all to whom He has chosen to give it He will give it. Everyone whom He has chosen He calls, everyone whom He calls He justifies, everyone whom He justifies He glorifies. So from the elective purpose of God in predestination before the foundation of the world, to the consummate glory of the saints, everything works according to the perfect plan of God in giving salvation so that the purpose of God in the beginning is the end of the redemptive work. What God intended to do is exactly what He will do. He intended to give salvation to sinners whom He chose before the foundation of the world and that is exactly what He is doing.

The work of Christ also was complete. It was so complete that there is no way you can forfeit salvation. That would undermine the efficacy and the completeness of the work of Christ. If His work was not sufficient to hold you, then it would be a deficient work. Furthermore, you have the intercessory work of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, making sure that no successful accusation is ever brought before the throne of God against you.

You also have the work of the Holy Spirit who is your guarantee of eternal life. He is the down payment, the arrabon, the engagement ring, the firstfruits by which you were sealed and held until the day when you see the Lord.

It is an excellent reminder of a sovereign yet merciful God.

MacArthur adds:

One of the worst things taught today is dominant kind of teaching in the Charismatic Movement that says essentially that Satan can come along and steal your salvation, so you have to stay alert and pray the demons and devil away so he doesn’t come and steal your salvation. How would you like to live under that kind of fear? That’s not at all what God wants us to do, He wants us to enjoy the security that we have by being sure we are His.

But postmodern clergy who no longer believe in the necessity to repent are also to blame. These men and women find it difficult to preach on the eternal truths of the Gospel, which, contrary to popular belief, do not change over time:

much of the preaching today is neither strong or convicting, doesn’t set a holy standard at all. About the only time the subject even comes up, the subject of assurance, is to argue with those who are unwilling to give psychological assurance to someone just because they made a profession of faith in Christ. And I’ve had that personal experience. In dealing with other pastors or dealing with other ministries, the subject of assurance doesn’t come up unless I would bring it up and say, “Why are you giving people who make a profession of faith in Christ some little psychological formula to make them feel secure, when you don’t know their faith is genuine until you’ve seen the fruit of it?”

If you or people today in the evangelical world struggle with assurance, perhaps than any other earlier time, because the preaching lacks a strong call to holiness, it lacks a strong and clear definition of faith and repentance.

And there is the doctrine of grace — God’s mercy and goodness working through us. Until a couple of years ago, I never thought much about grace. Certainly, growing up Catholic, yes, we left Mass or the confessional in ‘a state of grace’. If we were mown down by a bus at that point, we were assured of heaven. Well, when does grace expire after Mass or Confession, I used to wonder. With the first sin a few hours later; grace would have to be renewed.

However, to orthodox Protestants, grace has another dimension, whereby God enables us to obey Him. Through the Holy Spirit, He helps us every minute of the day. I don’t mean to sound simplistic, but this is God’s non-stop commitment to us — 24/7.

Speaking of Catholicism, MacArthur relates a story which a couple of the nuns I had as teachers in primary school used to tell:

There’s a second reason why people might lack assurance. Some might lack assurance because they can’t accept forgiveness. They can’t accept forgiveness. They really are tyrannized by their emotions, feeling they’re too bad to be saved. There’s just too much garbage in their mind, there’s just too much sin that they can’t get rid of.

I always remember a story my father used to tell and…about a man who came to his pastor and he was concerned about all of the sin in his life. And so he said, “I don’t know how bad a sinner I really am.”

And so the pastor said, “Well, every time you consciously commit a sin, go hammer a nail in the barn door.”

And I don’t know how long it was before the man came back and said, “There’s no more room for nails.”

And he [the pastor] said, “Now if you want to understand the forgiveness of God, it’s like pulling all the nails out.” And the man was able…the pastor was able to lead the man to Christ. And he said, “Now, every time you do something in your life, I want you to go in the barn and pull one nail out.”

Well, many months went by. Little by little the nails came out. And one day he said to the pastor, “The nails are out.”

And the pastor said, “Isn’t that wonderful?”

He said, “No, the holes are still there.”

And there are some people who don’t get over the holes, you know? All the scars of the past. This is because…there’s a reason for it, this is because conscience speaks against forgiveness, it really does. I mean, it is the essence of conscience to berate you. It is the essence of conscience to accuse you. It is the essence of conscience to hold you up before the bar of God as wanting. That’s what God designed your conscience to do. Your conscience never should let you off the hook. Your conscience is not designed to mollify or pacify you and it does not go away when you become a Christian. In fact, it functions after you’ve been saved better than it did before because it was purged and purified, the Bible says. And it’s clean now and it’s clear and it has a function, and that function is to waken your heart to sin, and it will never let you off the hook. Conscience knows nothing of forgiveness. The more you’re exposed to the preaching of the Word of God, the more you’re exposed to the Law of God, the more you know about sin, the more active your conscience is and the more your conscience berates you in a relentless fashion and yields nothing to the issue of forgiveness, the more possible it is for you to feel the loss of assurance.

Having heard that story as a child I became obsessed by the holes. The two nuns — separate years at school — would say that the absolution of Confession pulled the nails out and left the holes. All I could think about was the significance of the holes, the reminders of my sins. I had an overly-active conscience at the time. That lasted about two or three years until my adolescence and a talk with one of the nuns after class who advised me to focus more on the assurance part, although she didn’t use that word. It had been a harrowing time up until then.

MacArthur says:

God will give you mercy, your conscience won’t. It is relentless in plaguing you about your iniquity. And you can be thankful for it, right?

But he cautions against going overboard with it:

One Puritan writer put it this way. “He that lacks assurance converses too much with Satan. As he that has that assurance of God’s love converses with Christ, the Spirit bearing witness to him that he is a child of God. So he that lacks assurance converses with Satan and Satan, though falsely, bears witness to his spirit that he is not a child of God. And is it not a misery to be in these converses with Satan and to be under his hellish droppings? The devil is always following and tempting me to suspect the love of Christ, to be suspicious of grace, to distrust mercy. And the more suspicious I am of the love and grace and mercy of God, the more I embrace Satan’s love.” The Puritan writer says, “The truth is, beloved, this lack of assurance of God’s love or personal interest in Christ is an inlet to many sins and miseries for first a man doubts of his own salvation, afterwards he has continued doubting. Then he rises up into a full conclusion saying, ‘Now that I know that Christ does not love me, I did but doubt before but now I know He does not love me,’ and after he has risen to this conclusion then shortly he rises higher and he goes further and says, ‘Thus, if Christ does not love me now, He will never love me. And if I have not an interest in Christ now, after all the preaching and believing of my life, and all the ordinances I have enjoyed, I shall never have that interest in Christ. So the longer I live the more I aggravate my condemnation.'”

Stop that process. Let the Law do its work. It is … to drive us to Christ. Let conscience do its work, it is to prevent us from sin by inducing pain over iniquity. Let the justice of God do its work and that is to make us thankful for forgiveness and grace. Both strong preaching of the holiness of God and the requirements that He lays before us and the refusal to accept forgiveness, cause people to have a lack of assurance.

With this conviction by the Law and our conscience comes, as John says, the condemnation of our hearts (verse 20). However, despite our own self-condemnation comes an even deeper one from an omniscient God. That said, this is where repentance — turning away from sin — enters the frame. Someone who does not have a finely-attuned conscience is unlikely to seek God’s favour and go about it through repentance.

John goes on to say that if our consciences do not condemn us, neither will God (verse 21).

These are two puzzling verses. After all, hasn’t John already spoken of our assurance in Christ? Matthew Henry explains that God is a merciful judge of His children:

But, possibly, some presumptuous soul may here say, “I am glad of this; my heart does not condemn me, and therefore I may conclude God does not.” As, on the contrary, upon the foregoing verse, some pious trembling soul will be ready to cry out, “God forbid! My heart or conscience condemns me, and must I then infallibly expect the condemnation of God?” But let such know that the errors of the witness are not here reckoned as the acts of the court; ignorance, error, prejudice, partiality, and presumption, may be said to be faults of the officers of the court, or of the attendants of the judge (as the mind, the will, appetite, passion, sensual disposition, or disordered brain), or of the jury, who give a false verdict, not of the judge itself; conscience-syneideµsis, is properly self-consciousness. Acts of ignorance and error are not acts of self-consciousness, but of some mistaken power; and the court of conscience is here described in its process, according to the original constitution of it by God himself, according to which process what is bound in conscience is bound in heaven; let conscience therefore be heard, be well-informed, and diligently attended to.

We are assured of His mercy and good favour through our desire to obey His commandments (verse 22).

The commandment God gave us, John states, is to believe in Christ as Saviour and to love each other (verse 23). We love each other by obeying the Law of the Ten Commandments.

In verse 24, John concludes that those who keep His commandments have life in Him. Henry unpacks this for us in a trinitarian context:

We dwell in God by a happy relation to him, and spiritual union with him, through his Son, and by a holy converse with him; and God dwells in us by his word, and our faith fixed on him, and by the operations of his Spirit. Then there occurs the trial of his divine inhabitation: And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us (v. 24), by the sacred disposition and frame of soul that he hath conferred upon us, which being a spirit of faith in God and Christ, and of love to God and man, appears to be of God.

Next week: 1 John 4:1-6

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