1 John 3:18-24


The study of this text involves us in a problem of paragraphing. Whoever chose these verses (18-24) as the text for this day evidently was of the opinion that verses 18 and 19 belong to the same paragraph. Thus NIV, NEB, and NKJV. By their paragraphing, others indicate that there is a break after verse 18. Thus Nestle's Greek text, AAT, TEV, and RSV. What causes this "problem" is the meaning of the words "And in this" at the beginning of verse 19. Do they point back to verse 18 or forward to verse 20? TEV entitles verses 11-18 with "Love One Another," and verses 19-24 with the words "Courage Before God." We believe that this constitutes the correct paragraphing. We are not saying that TEV is the best translation at this point. But we agree that there is a break between verses 18 and 19. Nonetheless, since the appointed reading is verses 18-24 we shall keep the text intact as suggested.

1 John 3:18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

This is the last verse of a section on love. RSV paragraphs verses 11-18 without a break. TEV paragraphs the same with a break at verse 13. AAT paragraphs verses 11-24 with breaks at verses 14,16, and 19 entitles the whole with "Love One Another. We shall give our reasons under verse 19 who we do not consider verse 18 a part of this paragraph." 

This is the fifth occurrence in 1 John of the word "Dear children." It certainly denotes affection. Evidently the word "love" here denotes reality as opposed to sham and hypocrisy.

Stott: Indeed, if our love is to be genuine (in truth), it will inevitably be positive and active (in deed).
Lenski: Let us not pretend love with sham, empty evidence, but let us furnish genuine evidence.
Marshall: Their love is to be demonstrated 'in truth,' which is a call not just for actions to prove the reality of their inward feelings but also for a love which is in accord with the divine revelation of reality in the love shown by Jesus.

Christians, too, know that it is very easy to fake love, real love.

Kretzmann: This admonition is certainly timely in these latter days of the dying out of true love, Matthew 24:12.

1 John 3:19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence

Verses 19 and 20 involve us in a number of textual problems. The three major problems are:

  1. The meaning of "and this then." 
  2. The correct reading and meaning of the first word in verse 20; and
  3. Whether or not the second "when" in verse 20 is textual.

To make a long story short, we think that AAT translates correctly: "This is now we'll know we're born of the truth and will reassure ourselves before Him: Whenever our conscience condemns us, God is greater than our conscience and knows everything." This translation implies that the words "And this then" point forward to verse 20, not backward to verse 18; that the first word in verse 20 means "whenever"; and that the second "when" is not textual.

We are assuming that "truth" here is a synonym for the Gospel. Surely we do not gauge our attachment to the Gospel by our own actions (verse 18) and attitudes but rather by the fact that our heavenly Father is merciful to us (verse 20).  "Truth" has a different meaning in this verse than it did in verse 18. Rienecker suggests that here we translate "to reassure." Thus AAT above. He also tells us that "heart" means "conscience." Bengel suggests that "set at ease" means "to tranquilize" as it does in Matthew 28:14. The last phrase denotes our standing before God by faith now, not on Judgment Day.

Lenski has a slightly different interpretation here. He translates verses 19 and 20 thus: "In connection with this we shall know that we are from the truth, and shall persuade our hearts before him, if in regard to anything the heart condemns us, that God is greater than our heart and knows everything." This means that "and this then" points back to the previous section but that the individual looks to God for help.

Marshall has another suggestion.

Marshall: but it is also possible to make a break at the end of verse 19a and begin a new thought: 'And we shall set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.' If we adopt this view, the thought is that even if we have no grounds for assurance in ourselves, nevertheless we can commit ourselves confidently to the mercy of God who knows all things.

1 John 3:20 whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

Verses 19 and 20 have been called a locus vexatissimus, which means "a most vexing passage." The meaning of the word "whenever" is much discussed. With RSV, NIV, and AAT we understand these words to mean "whenever." Incidently, RSV gives a very good rendering which says essentially the same as AAT: "By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything." 

Kretzmann: This paragraph contains comfort of a singular kind, since it reassures the believer against himself. . . As the Christian grows in sanctification, he will often find that his heart is dissatisfied with the progress made, and therefore proceeds to accuse him of lack of love. . . . We are far from perfection. . . . God is greater, a more reliable Judge than our heart, and He has given us the definite assurance in His Word that all our shortcomings in the matter of perfect righteousness will be made up through the perfect righteousness of our Savior, as it wa imputed to us by faith.

The English translations cannot reproduce the play on the key words here in Greek.

Luther: Though conscience weighs us down, and tells us God is angry, yet God is greater than our heart. The conscience is but one drop; the reconciled God is an ocean of consolation.
Bengel: This (from Luther) is the best interpretation among the many suggested.
Marshall: The view of some of the early fathers and of Calvin, that John's point is the greater severity of God's judgment, compared with our own standards (1 Corinthians 4:3-5), is quite inappropriate in the present context.

Well said. Verse 20 is not speaking of Law, but Gospel. It does not speak of God's judgment but of His compassion and mercy.

Bengel: Conscience is weak, and knows something of ourselves only, not without trembling; nor can it pardon; but God is great, knows all our affairs, present, past, and future, and those of all men; and has the right and the will of pardoning.
Stott: The emphatic purpose of this paragraph is to heal the wounded conscience, not to open its wound wider.
Lenski: To be sure, he knows all our failures in love, all that our own heart finds against us; but he knows vastly more, namely, all about our real spiritual state, that the measure of love we do have shows that we have stepped over from the death into the life (verse 14), that although we are as yet imperfect in love, our own hearts in repentance acknowledging it, we have been born from him and are his children.

Lenski is saying that God also takes into account the times when we have shown love. But we must be careful here not to say or infer that God is gracious to us because of our sanctification.

1 John 3:21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God

In a footnote Marshall makes this important observation:

Marshall: The sense of the clause must be 'when our heart therefore no longer condemns us.

He lays stress on the elliptical words "no longer." On the words "condemn not" Bengel observes: "As never wounded or as again calmed." The words which interest us here are the words "again calmed." This observation by Bengel and that of Marshall point us to the fact that the heart (conscience) of the Christian ceases to condemn when the assurance of the Gospel has been applied. If this is the case then verse 21 grows out of verse 20. When God who is greater than our consciences forgives us for Jesus' sake, then the conscience no longer condemns.

In any case, this verse is saying that when the heart does not condemn we have boldness before God. The opposite would be true too: while our heart and conscience condemn we are hardly bold enough to stand before God with our petitions. Here the pastor must be very careful to tell his hearers that the moment their sins bother them they must flee to the promises of the Gospel. Without the forgiveness offered in the means of grace the individual will lack the boldness to stand before God. The boldness mentioned here is that boldness which the Christian should have daily. In 2:28 the text speaks of boldness at the parousia. Read Hebrews 4:16 and the parallel passages there.

By the way, note that the complex sentences in verses 20, 21 and 22 are all built on the analogy of what classical Greek calls "present general conditions." they are like the conditional sentences at 1 John 1:6-10. Add "ever" to protasis and "always" to apodosis. For example, verse 21 means: "Beloved, if ever our heart does not condemn, we always have boldness in the presence of God." 

1 John 3:22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.

Marshall: This astonishing statement ranks with the statements about the believer's sinlessness (3:6,9) and his perfection in love (2:5; 4:17).

First and foremost we must state that this verse is not a "quid pro quo" idea; receiving to the extent that we give. We suggest that the "and" at the beginning of the verse means "and therefore." Verse 22 grows out of verse 21 just as verse 21 grew out of verse 20. Verses 20 and 21 should convince us that first our relationship to God, in Christ, must be of the right sort. When it is, we have confidence before God. And when we have confidence before God we receive the things for which we ask. The causal clause at the end of verse 22 does not mean that we merit or earn something before God but rather than we have confidence that all our prayers are heard inasmuch as we are living in His Word.

The latter part of verse 22 is a description of the faithful believer similar to that found in Psalm 119 or in Psalm 1:2: "In his law he meditates day and night." The person whose daily diet is contrition over sin and faith in Jesus for forgiveness is doing exactly what verse 22 is describing. He should be assured that Jesus means what He says in Matthew 7:7 and John 14:14. The devil and our flesh whisper terrible thoughts to us. For example, they tell us that our prayers are not answered just as we want them because we have unforgiven sin or because we are not good enough or because we do not please God as we ought.

Now, of course, if someone is living in unrepented sin he must be told forthrightly that not only will his prayers not be answered but also that he is living in danger of eternal hell-fire. But our text, verses 18-24, is not speaking of that kind of person. Until death we will be simul justus et peccator. Our text is not driving us from Jesus but inviting us to Him.

1 John 3:23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

Verses 23 and 24 are a summation of the thoughts in our text.  "And" is the narrative "now." The antecedent of "his" is God. One injunction contains two parts: faith toward Jesus and love toward people. This verse reminds us of the Thanksgiving Prayer after Communion (TLH p.30 and LW p.153) where we pray for "faith toward you and fervent love toward one another." It reminds us of Galatian 6:5 where Paul reminds us that what counts is "faith which operates through love." 

There are those who call "believe" the effective aorist. If that is so it means "truly believe." Perhaps that is right. It surely is not ingressive. It is not easy to answer why we have the aorist here. "Love" is present tense for obvious reasons. "In the name" means the revelation of Jesus in the Word of God. His name is everything that He stands for. We are reminded of Acts 4:12. "Son" reminds us of His divinity.  "Jesus Christ" reminds us of His humanity and His office as Savior.

The second use of "command" in this verse covers both believing in the Savior and loving one another. John is assuring us that God's total will is given us in these two commands: "Believe in Jesus and love one another." That says it all. It is simple and basic.

1 John 3:24 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.

In verse 23 "command" was found in the singular. Here we have it again in the plural as in verse 22. In verse 22 the singular means something like "His will." God's total will toward us in summed up in one command: "Believe in your Lord and love your neighbor." But this one command expresses itself in many ways in the Scriptures. The command to believe in Jesus is found in a variety of ways. The command to love our neighbor is given in a variety of ways.

Marshall: Obeying God's commands is not so much the condition of living in Him, as rather the expression of our spiritual life.

True. Our attitude toward the Word of God, Law and Gospel, is expressive of the fact that God lives in us.

Kretzmann: Keeping the Lord's commandments and loving the brethren is a fruit of faith and an evidence of the presence of the Savior in the believer's heart.

Compare the prayer of Jesus at John 17:21. Also His words at John 14:23. Just as "and this is how" pointed forward in verse 19 of our text, so here in verse 24 the words point forward. God remains in us because of the evidence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God has been sent to us and cries within our hearts. Galatians 4:6. when we use the Gospel and Sacraments rightly we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is present. How often does it not happen that suddenly the tune of a favorite hymn wells up in our hearts! Or maybe a fitting Bible passage comes to our remembrance. This is the gift of the Spirit in our lives. He assures us that God lives in us and is our God. He causes us to believe in Jesus and to love one another.

As mentioned above, "believe" or "truly believe" appears for the first time in this Epistle. The only possible explanation for its aorist (as opposed to present) usage is that it is effective. As mentioned above, it very likely means "in order that we truly believe." Faith in Christ delivers us from the guilt and power of sin, from the condemnation and dominion of the Law. the fruit of such faith is love toward man. It is not a love of compulsion but a fruit of the Spirit for Jesus' sake. (Look at verse 24). This is not an antinomian statement. Insofar as a Christian is regenerate he does not need the third use of the Law. But, insofar as he is still a sinner (though sin is not his master) he needs the guidance and obligation of the Law, the third use of the Law.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Epistle Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 100-103. Used with permission.

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