Overcoming a Condemning Heart

Mike Miller, Speaker

1 John 3:19-24 | July 30 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
July 30
Overcoming a Condemning Heart | 1 John 3:19-24
Mike Miller, Speaker

Father, we do ask You to make that song and hymn we just sang, that we’ve sung perhaps many, many decades, to be true in our hearts, that we would have the blessed experience of being assured of our relationship with Christ. Father, thank You for Your Word, thank You that it is powerful and active, sharper than any two-edged sword and able to judge our hearts and our thoughts. May it be a bomb of hope and Gospel assurance to us this evening as we continue to look at this book of assurance, 1 John, together. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

I invite you to turn in your copy of God’s Word to John chapter 3. We’re going to be following from Dave’s sermon this morning. We’re going to be looking at chapter 3, verses 19 to 24. I’ll begin by reading that following from Dave this morning. I’m going to connect the two tonight, I hope to.

“By this,” John says, “we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before Him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do what pleases Him. And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as He has commanded us. Whoever keeps His commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.”

So in the landscape of the Church’s history, many Christians have struggled with assurance, with doubt and fear concerning their relationship with God. Am I saved? Am I truly saved? Why do I lack the confident assurance that I’m on my way to heaven? Why am I gripped with fear in my standing before God? You’re not alone if this is your experience, to struggle at times in your Christian life. Yet I want you to be encouraged this evening. God has gloriously used those who doubt over the centuries.

Realize that growth in assurance is like growth in your walk with Christ. It is developed, it needs to be fed, and it takes time to mature. As Dave preached so well this morning, from the preceding verses he mentioned that John was answering a basic question for us in his text – how do we love? To which Dave answered, by looking at the text, saying to open our hearts to the tangible needs of others in love, in deed, and in truth.

So our section tonight, verse 19 to 24, introduce us to John as an aged pastor who is concerned for his little flock and their troubled conscience, or heart. Their assurance, if you will. So he writes these few verses not exhorting them to open up their hearts as he just did in earlier verses, but to reassure the doubting heart or conscience. He gives three markers to look for, all centering around knowledge.

First. Is there a sincere knowledge that I have taken, trusted, believed Christ to be my Savior and Lord?

Second. Is there ample evidence that I sincerely love others?

Thirdly. Have I grown in the grace of holiness? Have I made progress?

To these three evidences, he adds, or perhaps as one commentator said, super adds the rich blessing of the Holy Spirit’s witness to the child of God. We will talk about that.

John is a very good pastor and he sets forth for his people, and for us in the Church in history, this important theme of assurance. This section of John’s letter must be understand, especially as it relates to our personal experience that every believer in Christ has, and that is a condemning heart, a condemning heart. However long we have been walking in the Lord, whether it is for decades, or mere weeks, our assurance will wane at times. Doubt rises in the soul, will plague the mind, to bring doubt and fear sometimes to the level of questioning our salvation. Has it happened to you? It has to me.

No Christian is exempt from it. At some point in his or her life, perhaps even today, you sitting there in the pew are plagued with doubts and fears as to whether or not you are truly in Christ. The conscience, or the heart, as John puts it, is a very tricky thing. Yet a great blessing that we must learn to manage as we grow in Christ. So my feeble attempt tonight with a 3500 word, give or take some, will not suffice. If you are hungry for more, may I recommend a wonderful book that I’m re-reading now, Sinclair Ferguson ‘s book The Whole Christ, and in particular looking at chapters 9 through 11. He does such a wonderful job exploring the assurance of the Christian.

Now notice that John writes in verse 20, “Whenever our hearts condemn us.” It seems what he is saying is it is certain and it is certain to mean this – it is not unusual or even infrequent that our hearts are disturbed out of their serene assurance, or we might say confidence that I am in Christ.

Many Christians are paralyzed, as I’ve said, by this nagging question. It grows in complexity when you understand that God has given us the conscience as a great blessing and the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who lives inside every believer to convict of sin. Many times these accusations from our conscience that we sense are true ones. All from the Holy Spirit are certainly true.

At other times, though, they’re false and distorted when from the conscience. Those false accusations clearly the Scriptures say are inspired by the very enemy of our souls, the devil, who John mentions in Revelation 12 as the accuser of the brothers, and the outcome is that our confidence is clouded, our judgment and joy in the Christian life diminished.

In either case, the accusations are not to overcome us, and certainly not to rob us of joy and usefulness as a believer in Christ. John says emphatically in verse 19 to reassure our hearts before Him, or as it might be said, to set our hearts at rest in His presence. The safest place for reassurance is not on healthy introspection, but to set the heart at rest in God.

So how do we do this? How do we silence the false accusations that attack our confidence in Christ? John implies that we can do this only if we know that we belong to the truth, only if we know we belong to the truth.

Verse 19 – by this, by this. The verse preceding it. What Dave preached on this morning. We shall know that we are of the truth.

Boice writes of the importance of knowledge, and this is what he says, James Boice – The Christian must simply take himself in hand and confront himself with what he knows to be true concerning God and God’s work in his life.

In other words, faith, which is the opposite of doubt, being based on knowledge, must be fed by it.

You notice that John uses the phrase “by this.” This is looking at the previous verse. It is love. Everyone who loves in deed and in truth.

John Stott writes love is the final objective test of our Christian profession. For true love in the sense of self-sacrifice is not natural to fallen human beings. Its existence is evidence of the new birth and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. So this gives us tangible actions and particular markers to point to in our doubts, not just that we have felt or professed or imagined or even intended the things we have done, even of the things we have done.

Westcott writes it this way – the fruit of love is confidence. The fruit of love is confidence.

So how does this work out? How does this work out? The drama plays out like a courtroom where accusations are flying. Three characters are present in this inward debate going on in the believer’s heart. The heart is the accuser, the believer is the defender, and God is judge.

Verse 20 – whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and He knows everything.

We must properly assess our lives to pacify or reassure our hearts before the presence of God. First by knowing that we belong to the truth as he says in his opening defense from verse 19 and to realize that God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. The conscience, when guided by God’s Word, is a great blessing, yet it is not infallible. Its condemnation can at times be unjust. John’s solution is that God knows your heart, he knows my heart. In other words, we’re an open book to him.

As the writer the Hebrews says, “for the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edge sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from His sight but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account.”

He knows the secret motives and thank God, thank God He is more merciful toward us than our own hearts.

Stott writes again – His omniscience should relieve us, not terrify us.

Ferguson says of this in his wonderful book The Whole Christ concerning assurance, Gospel assurance is not withheld from God’s children, even when they have not shown themselves to be strong. What good father would want his children’s assurance of his love to be possible only when they have sufficient accomplishments in life to merit it? Shame on such a father. Yet how sad it is that we impute such an attitude to our heavenly Father.

So John says one of the tools to battle in the fight against the nagging, heartfelt condemnation is to ask ourselves honestly, for God is greater and knows all things, to look and see is there evidence of a sincere loving in the truth of my fellow brothers and sisters?

Now we need to explore that for a moment. How are to understand the extent of this loving the truth? Dave certainly did that well this morning. We need to see, though, there is a connection of that passage to the previous one, as I’ve said I think two times now. Verse 19 looks back at verse 18 and asks us if there is a sincere loving in the truth. Does that mark my life? Not perfectly but progressively, growing.

I want to go back a few centuries and quote from a pastor, Robert Candlish, in his commentary on 1 John. He’s writing about verse 18 and he says this: Let us love in deed and in truth. He says it is only when we are doing just that can we know ourselves to be of the truth, or to be true, and so can assure our hearts before God, for if our heart condemns us, how can we face Him who is greater than our heart and knows all things.

Here is the principle that Candlish says. Listen to this – there can be no faith where there is no conscience. No more of faith than there is a conscience, no firm faith without a clear conscience. In plain terms, I cannot look at God in the face if I cannot look at myself in the face.

Or said another way. If you cannot face your own heart, then how can you with an open eye and upward gaze face your God?

In other words, when we try, when trying to pacify a doubting heart, we might as well be completely honest with God. He knows it. He knows all things. Ask and see. Is there any evidences of saving faith in me? Such as a sincere love for others in deed and truth, not meritoriously, but from a changed heart, changed by the Gospel of free grace in Christ.

In good pastoral balance for us, Candlish writes an encouraging and uplifting exhortation after saying these other things. Why is that we see so many joyless, cheerless, one might say useless Christians? Why are so many living and walking in such a way as to give the notion of godliness being all about gloomy doubt, painful discipline, self-absorbing, anxiety, listless musing. Awake, arise, shake off the chains that bind you. Go forth in open day under the open sky to meet your God and Father with your heart open to Him as your heart is open to yourself. Stand fast in the liberty with which Christ makes you free. Be upright, be honest, frank, and fearless. Be of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Be honest, thoroughly honest in the privacy of your own heart, in the family, in the marketplace, and in the home. My honest and sincere knowledge of loving and the truth, in truth and deed, quiets the condemning heart.

Ultimately, let us understand that God knows the heart more than we know our own. The whole purpose of this section is John trying to heal the wounded conscience, not to open it wider, but to give assurance and not to strike terror into the heart.

John now turns from the curse of a condemning heart and at least in part how we reassure it, we’ll come back to another reassurance, to the blessing of one who has an untroubled conscience before God.

Look at verse 22 and 23 – Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do what pleases Him.

Three distinct yet connected truths here. First, John says when we are free from a condemning heart, we have bold confident access to God, a certain and sure communion with Him. Secondly, access to our Father opens the gate of receiving answers to our prayers. Lastly, thirdly, it is dependent on a condition, not meritorious, but a condition, namely that we keep His commandments and do what is pleasing to Him.

As one commentator rightly qualifies this, obedience is the indispensable condition, not a meritorious cause, of answered prayer.

So a rightful position before God granted petitions in our life of prayer and the life of loving obedience, John will clarify this and expand on these answered prayers in this 1 John again in chapter 5, verse 14 and 15. This is the confidence he will say that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us, and if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know we have the requests we have asked of Him.

So here is this trinity of blessing, for every believer arising from a heart that doesn’t condemn. This leads John to follow with the ultimate one foundational command before every person, and that is to embrace by faith, by trust, the incarnate historical Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Look at verse 23 – And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as He has commanded us.

John will express this one command in various ways throughout this letter. Chapter 4 verse 3, simply to confess Jesus. Chapter 2, verse 22, to believe and acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ. Chapter 2, verse 23, to believe the Son. 4:14, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. 4:2, that Jesus has come in the flesh. Here is the confession given in full to believe then name of His Son Jesus Christ.

The second part is distinct yet fits perfectly with the theme John has established, to love one another as one we confess and trust in Christ, we love one another as He has commanded.

In his Gospel, John wrote Jesus said a new commandment do I give you, that you love one another just as I have loved you. You are to love one another. So in verse 23 John brings faith or believe and love together.

As Stott writes, faith is regarded as a decisive act in love for the brothers as a continual attitude. Both are tests of a true Christian.

So John comes back again to say what he has repeated throughout this letter. There is a link between the practice of righteousness and brotherly love.

So we might come to this point and say to ourselves, well, who can possibly do this? John concludes by reminding us again of his recurring theme. He says the one who keeps His commandments mutually abides in Christ and has been given the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Verse 24 – Whoever keeps His commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.

John says for those who keep His commandments, not perfectly, but in a trajectory and keep His commandments with loving obedience, there is mutual abiding or remaining in, as Derek used last week. We in Him, He in us. This is familiar territory for John, and certainly a favorite theme of the aged apostle, as he has already written about abiding in his letter, he writes most thoroughly about this great truth and his Gospel. You’ll know it probably, John 15, the great truth of abiding in the vine, Jesus, as the branch, who is identified as the Christian.

John 15 – abide in Me and I in you as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit for apart from me you can do nothing.

So in both his Gospel and in his letters, the condition of continuous abiding in Christ is loving obedience.

John 15:10 – if you keep My commandments you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and abide in His love.

So John in a sense ties at the end of his argument for assurance a scarlet ribbon around this section of his letter by bringing up the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives witness to us to know that He abides in us and we in Him. How does He do this? The Spirit unites all these strands of evidence, if you will, together and as Paul says, and Walker read this passage in Romans 8:16, the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

John says plainly that no one can make a claim to be a Christian, to have the Spirit, to be mutually abiding in Christ, unless they have been obedient to three foundational commands. In order: Belief in Christ, as evidenced in love for others, and moral righteousness.

Walking with Christ, my friends, is not some esoteric experience which anyone can claim, but shows itself true by a firm confession of Jesus as the Son of God by a love for others and a progressive growth in holiness. The Holy Spirit brings these together by His operation. What does He do? He produces a new life in a once dead one and He enables and empowers the Christian to do exactly what Dave was talking about this morning, to love in word and deed. He enables and empowers the Christian to keep His commands and He witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God.

Sinclair Ferguson helps us again in a connection here in his book, The Whole Christ. He says this – so the Holy Spirit’s testimony with our spirits, that we are God’s sons and daughters, does not exist in isolation, from the family characteristics that the Spirit produces in our lives. His witness is a joint witness with our spirits and takes place within the complexity of our own consciousness of our son-ship.

Then he quotes B. B. Warfield, a Princeton theologian, and this worth the read – The witness of the Spirit is in a word not a substitute for the proper evidence of our child-ship, but a divine enlightenment of that evidence.

Do you hear that? He enhances the evidence that your heart sees.

A man or a woman who has none of the marks of a Christian is not entitled to believe himself to be a Christian, only those who are being led by the Spirit of God are children of God, but a man who has all the marks of being a Christian may fall short of his privileged assurance. It is to such that the witness of the spirit is super-added, not to take the place of the evidence of signs, but to enhance their effect, to raise it to a higher plane. He goes on – but to cure a disease of the mind, which will not profit fully by the evidence. The Spirit does not operate by producing conviction without reason nor yet apart from the reason, nor by producing more reasons for the conclusion, but by giving their true weight and vitality to the reasons which exist and so leading to the true conclusion of divine assurance the function of the witness of the Spirit of God is therefore to give our halting conclusions the weight of His divine certitude. The Spirit of God works with our spirit, saying, “Look there and look there and see this and see, enhance that up, bring it to a higher plane.” That is evidence that you indeed have been saved by Christ and are loving others and are progressing in keeping His commands.

So let’s summarize John’s words here. If we find that our hearts, if we find our hearts at rest in His presence, we must continually look for the evidences of His Spirit working.

First, we are to look to Christ, to the author of our salvation. He has paid for all of my sins. So there is no condemnation for those in Christ. That is a sure promise. This we must by all means get right.

Secondly, to take Paul’s words in Galatians if we live by the Spirit, who now indwells us as believers, let us also keep in step with the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit will mean the production of the fruit of the Spirit in character and conduct.

Do I see the works of the Spirit in my life when there is doubt? Do I see the works of the Spirit in my life? The bearing of fruit, however small, growing. The loving of others. The progression of growth in Christ’s likeness. Are they there? Are these good evidences present in my life? If so, John would say to the doubtful heart, to the person whose assurance ebbs and flows with life experiences, he would say rest assured in Christ’s presence.

Let’s pray. Father, thank You again for the Holy Spirit, who bears witness with our spirit that we indeed are sons and daughters of God. We thank You for saving grace, that is the one command that John has stated, that we would trust, believe, confess, look to Christ alone for salvation. And from that, as the Spirit works in our lives, we would see evidences of the work of the Spirit in us, to love in deed and truth, to care, to look to Christ to produce the fruits of the Spirit in our lives as we obey lovingly the commands You have given us. So Father, I pray again, as I prayed earlier, that You might encourage the faint-hearted, the doubting one, plagued in their conscience, and bring them at rest before Your presence. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.