Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything. – 1 John 3:18-20 NLT
1 John 3:11-24
All John’s talk about sinning and unrighteousness, being of the evil one, and abiding in death could easily leave someone wondering if they were ever saved at all. After all, John makes it quite clear that Jesus “appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5 ESV). So the natural conclusion one might make is that if I have sin, I might not be saved. John even seems to confirm this conclusion when he says, “no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6 ESV). This entire section of 1 John has caused many to question their salvation or at least begin to wonder if they could lose their salvation. Could the presence of sin in the life of a believer indicate a “falling away” or a loss of their “savedness?” John seemed to know that those to whom he was writing were going to struggle with the same issues. After all, there had just been an exodus from the body of believers on the part of some of their so-called brothers in Christ. These people had left the church over some major disagreements regarding the deity of Christ, the nature of sin and the truth regarding the gospel. So John was encouraging those who remained behind to remain or abide in Christ. He was telling them to keep believing in the message taught to them by the apostles and confirmed in them by the presence of the Holy Spirit. His letter was designed to build confidence in his audience, not instill doubt. Which is why he wrote, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink back from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28 ESV). For John, abiding in Christ was the key to confidence. But it would be easy for us to draw the conclusion that our confidence lies in our ability to NOT sin. In other words, we somehow have to figure out a way to do MORE righteousness and LESS unrighteousness. We have to get rid of all of the sin in our life or we won’t measure up when the Lord returns. But this is not John’s message. He is not out to cause doubt, but to encourage confidence. Which is why he keeps driving his readers back to Christ. Abide in Christ. Remain in Him. Place your trust in what He has done, not what you are trying to do.
But John did expect life change. He did believe that there would be fruit in the lives of those who had placed their faith in Christ for salvation and remained fully trusting in Him for their sanctification. In fact, their love for one another was evidence of that life change. Only Christ could have brought that about. John’s argument seemed to be that those who had recently left the church were not of Christ because they did not love their brothers and sisters in Christ. They had walked away. They had left. And the inference seems to be that their departure was marked by hate. Which is why John warned, …We should not be like Cain” (1 John 3:12 ESV). Those who had left were more like Cain than Abel. They were marked by a love for the world, not the love of God. Their lives were loveless and marked by an abiding in death. In other words, they lived as if they had never passed from death into life. But John told those who remained to keep on loving one another, and to make it practical by caring for the everyday needs of those in their fellowship.
Then John deals with a very real issue for us as believers. Those times when we feel like we are not measuring up. When we aren’t loving enough, doing enough, sinning less enough. In verse 19 John writes, “by this we know” and when he does, he is referring to when we love in deed and in truth. In other words, when we our love shows up in practical acts that are in keeping with Jesus’ command to love as He loved, selflessly and sacrificially, “we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him” (1 John 3:19 ESV). I love the way the New Living Translation puts it. “Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God.” The very fact that we love at all is proof that God is at work in us. His Spirit resides within us. So we can come before Him with confidence. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16 ESV). Even when our hearts condemn us and accuse us of not measuring up, of not loving enough, of not being good enough, John says, “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20 ESV). This isn’t a threat, but a word of encouragement. God knows. Don’t panic. We can come before Him confidently. Not because of what we have or have not done. But because of what Christ has done on our behalf. Remember, Jesus is our advocate, our mediator. He is our High Priest, who intercedes on our behalf before the Father. Enter His presence with boldness. He knows and He cares.