First published 1 April 2011
Back in parts six, seven and eight of this series we looked at some passages in John’s gospel where Jesus appears to promise that we can ask for literally anything we want and that He will always grant our requests. Now we come to the part in the series where we look at John’s letter to Christians in the early church. And it ought to be no surprise when we find that the statements we find in John’s letter are very similar to the ones he records Jesus saying in his gospel.
This time I want to have a look at the following verses:
“Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:21-22)
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15)
I think I said earlier that I have found John’s writings very difficult to understand. You really have to wrestle with them. John does not write in a standard way. He says nothing without a lot of theological packaging. Whereas Luke, Matthew and Mark wrote gospels that are mainly historical narrative, John wrote a gospel that is a theological treatise. Whereas Paul may have written letters containing fairly linear arguments (where each point is based on the truth established immediately before), John seems to have written in circles and patterns – almost poetry. His arguments tend to be couched in symbolic language about light and darkness, anointing, purification, truth and lies, seeing and blindness, and so on. And I don’t think this style is necessarily just a literary device being deliberately used. In my opinion (for what it’s worth) I think John’s mind worked like that. God gave him a gift of seeing things differently and presenting truth in rich, vivid, complex language, in ways that would engage our minds to meditate on God’s Word. Remember he also gave us the book of Revelation! Often we find, however, that John makes some very simple points, but illustrates them in many and various intertwining ways.
So where shall I start with these two verses?!
Ok let’s back up a bit and take 1 John 3, starting from verse 11 and going through to v24. I’ll reproduce it all here, just in case you don’t have a Bible to hand:
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
“This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives 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.”
I’m now going to reduce it down a little so you can see the thought process, which in spite of what I said earlier is reasonably straightforward. The words “this is” shows where the argument moves on. I’ve put in bold the key words in each segment of the argument:
“For this is the message… We should love one another…”
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us… let us… [love] with actions and in truth…”
“This is how we know that we belong to the truth… God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything… we have confidence in God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him…”
“And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another… The one who keeps God’s commands lives 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.”
So we should love one another. How do we know what authentic love is? Jesus showed us in dying for us, so we should love in the same sacrificial way, not just in words but authentically. And how can we know that our love is authentic and truthful? Because God knows everything, including our hearts. The fact that we keep his commands, even imperfectly, gives us some assurance that He is at work within us. He knows that we trust Him and want to do what He commands. And what is His command? It is to believe in Jesus and love one another. If we believe in Jesus and love one another then this shows that we are living in God and He is living in us. But how can we know that He is living in us? Because His Spirit works in us and assures us.
The interesting thing about this is that believing in Jesus and loving one another, with sacrificial love, just as Christ loved us and died for us, is not the reason that God lives in us. It is the fruit of God’s work in our lives. It is God’s evidence to us that He is working in us.
But as we know, this does not happen in the blink of an eye. It is a lifelong struggle to bring ourselves into line with what God has called us to be. As we obey his commands more and more, we show more and more evidence that God is at work in us.
John has said this earlier, in 1 John 2:1-6: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
Living a life consistent with the way Jesus lived is not what makes God love us. But living a life consistent with the way Jesus lived is evidence of God’s love at work within us. If someone claims that they are a Christian, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and yet they do not pay attention to the need for faith working out in holiness, then they are liar. God is not at work within them, no matter what they claim. But for someone who has faith in Christ, if we sin, He is the atoning sacrifice (literally, the propitiation, the one who turns God’s wrath away from us).
Returning to 1 John 3, we see that this is all about assurance. And indeed, a bit more investigation shows that this is what John’s whole letter is about. How can we know that God is working in us? How can we know that we have eternal life? 1 John 2:5 says, “this is how we know we are in him…”. 1 John 5:13 says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” And in our passage, we see, “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.” (1 John 3:19-20)
The evidence we need is in our obedience, as the Spirit testifies within our hearts. And as our obedience increases, we have increasing confidence that God is in fact working in us. “If our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in before God” (v21). Our hearts condemn us less and less as our obedience grows, through the work of the Spirit cleansing us from within. And we grow in confidence in God.
And as “we obey his commands and do what pleases him” we have more and more confidence to “receive from him anything we ask” (v22). At last we come to the point. We had to go through all of the above to understand that in context this verse is not all about getting whatever we want from God. It is all about the fruit of God’s work in our lives giving us confidence in our eternal status in Christ. But can we receive from him anything we ask?
Well, let’s just think. If our priorities are those John commends in his letter – to have more faith in Jesus and to love others more and love them more authentically, to live as Jesus did – what will we pray for? We will pray for that assurance! We will pray that God will work more obedience in our lives. We will pray that we may love others as Jesus loved the world. And yes, when we pray for that, we will receive it.
If I were a perfect father (which is far from the case) I would not give my children whatever they asked for unless it was in their best interests and those of the whole family. The more their priorities became aligned with what I knew to be their best interests and the good of the family, the more naturally they would ask me for things in keeping with those priorities. And therefore the more I would feel able to say yes and grant their requests.
So John is not saying that we should be obedient in order to buy God’s favour, and be able to get good things from Him. He is challenging us and encouraging us that God is at work in us, and that as our desires fall more into line with His we shall see our requests granted.
So we should pray for whatever we want, and pray that we would be given grace to want the same things as God does.
We’ll look at 1 John 5:14 next time.