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; and whatsoever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments abideth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us (1 John 3:19-24).
John has been speaking of many themes in his first letter: God is light, and we should follow His commands (1 John 1:1-2:6), concerns about false teachers (1 John 2:15-29), and a contrast between the righteous and the wicked (1 John 3:1-16). John has also spoken of the “new old” commandment, the need to love one another (cf. 1 John 2:7-14). In 1 John 3:16-18, John shows that we know love through Jesus’ sacrifice, and how we ought to “down our lives” for the brethren. Christians who have the world’s goods ought to show compassion to their less fortunate brethren and are to love in deed and truth, not by word or tongue.
1 John 3:19-24 continues in this line of thought. John wants the Christians to understand that they can have assurance in their faith and their standing before God, and if they love in deed and truth, they can have that assurance (1 John 3:19).
John then speaks in 1 John 3:20-21 regarding the “condemnation of the heart” and our confidence before God. Many believe that this “condemnation of the heart” involves remorse and past guilt, and is a demonstration that God is greater than that past remorse and guilt. Nevertheless, John indicates that if our heart does not condemn us, we can have confidence before God (1 John 3:21)– therefore, it is more likely that John is speaking of present matters. Even if we ignore the pangs of conscience and sin– or can sin without offending the conscience– God is greater than our heart, and He will not miss what we have done! The goal, therefore, is to have a heart that does not condemn us: a conscience properly trained according to God’s will, and living according to His will.
That is the basis of our confidence before God: not that we can earn favor from Him, but that we stand before Him in faith in His Son and are striving to do His will. John presupposes that the Christians to whom he writes are actively following God’s commandments and seek to please Him, and proclaims on that basis that “whatever we ask we receive from Him” (1 John 3:22). John also informs us regarding that commandment: to believe in Jesus His Son and to love one another (1 John 3:23), akin to what he has already established (1 John 2:8-10, 3:10-11, 16), and will continue to say (1 John 4:7-21). John makes clear that those who keep God’s commandments abide in God, and God in him, and we can have assurance of God’s presence in us through the Spirit whom He has given us (1 John 3:24; cf. 1 John 2:2-6, 27).
We have already had opportunity to see that John’s absolute statements can easily be misconstrued, and this is a danger here also. Many may read that “whatever we ask from Him we receive” and then believe that they can ask God for a million dollars, or a specific healing, or a new car, or some other such thing, and that they must receive it. We would do well to remember James’ exhortation in James 2-3: if we make petition to “spend on our passions,” we ask wrongly! By saying that “whatever we ask we receive,” John indicates that all things we seek that provide spiritual benefit and are consistent with God’s purposes will be given (cf. Matthew 7:7, James 1:5-8).
John’s reassurance to the Christians is based in God’s power, certainly, but also in their obedience. Christians must believe in Jesus the Son of God and to love one another. Those who keep such commandments remain in God, and God provides of His Spirit. This is consistent with Romans 8:3-11, where Paul provides a strong contrast between those who walk according to the flesh versus those who walk according to the Spirit (Romans 8:3-8), and then indicates that the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead must also be in us (Romans 8:9-11). There is no reason for us to be left in doubt: let us keep God’s commandments and abide in Him!