The first epistle of John displays a unique writing style. One of the most characteristic aspects of this apostle’s letters is the way in which he frequently compares or contrasts spiritual situations.
In 1 John 1:9-10, for example, he contrasts “If we confess our sins” with “If we claim we have not sinned.” As we continue through his letter we find that he compares “Whoever loves his brother” with “whoever hates his brother” (1 John 2:10-11); “The one who does what is right” with “The one who does what is sinful” (1 John 3:7-8); “Every spirit that acknowledges … Jesus …” with “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus” (1 John 4:2-3), and so on.
This frequent use of comparison or contrast lends a dynamic force to what John writes – it is straightforward, to the point, and unequivocal. But sometimes the lesson behind the comparison is not quite as easy to see, and we may miss it if we do not keep an eye open for occurrences of the pattern. A good example of this is found in the third chapter of John’s letter:
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 … (1 John 3:19-21).
The immediate contrast between “If our hearts condemn us” and “if our hearts do not condemn us” is clear enough, but the lesson John points to here is perhaps not as obvious. At face value it might seem that John is simply saying if our hearts or “consciences” condemn us, God is greater than our hearts (vs. 20); but what does that mean?
To understand the contrast John is making, we must widen our view to look at the context in which these verses appear. Beginning in verse 10 of chapter 3, all the way up to verse 19 where John begins to talk about our consciences condemning or not condemning us, John speaks continually about whether we love one another or not: “This is how we know who the children of God are … Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another…. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other… Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:10-18).
John then states that “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 …” (vs. 19-20). Knowing that “we belong to the truth,” as John puts it, is not a result of what he says next – our hearts condemning or not condemning us – because we cannot always trust our own conscience to be a judge of our behavior (Jeremiah 17:9). Rather, John refers to what he has just said: that we love others in our behavior and in truth (vs. 18); and to what he says after this verse, that we have confidence before God because we keep his commands “… to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (vs. 23).
The theme of love is really the main point of the third chapter and of John’s entire letter, and this immediate context allows us to paraphrase the point of 1 John 3:19-20 something like this:
“… because we demonstrate our love for one another in actions and in truth, we know that we are the children of God and this sets our conscience at rest… Even if our conscience sometimes causes us to doubt our standing before God, we know our conscience is not the final judge and that God, who sees the love he has placed within us, accepts us and hears us – for ongoing love of others in our lives is the proof that God does not reject or condemn us, and that he hears us.”
We all occasionally groan under the weight of conscience and in our most discouraged moments we may wonder if we are really a child of God, or if God hears us. But John’s message shows us that the outgoing and ongoing love God places in us through his Spirit is the proof that we are indeed his children. It's a tremendously encouraging lesson, but – like many of John’s lessons – it is one we can only see properly when we consider what he wrote in its full context.