A sermon preached at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Edinburgh
Palm Sunday 2013 (March 24th)
1 John 3:18-24
Lord, we thank you for the blessing of your Word. We thank you, as we enter into Holy Week, that through the death and resurrection of your Son we have confidence to enter into your presence, and receive from you anything we ask. We pray that we would receive from you hearts open to your word, hearts free from condemnation and ready to hear your comfort, minds attuned to what John is trying to tell us here. I pray that your Spirit would speak through me today, that I might speak truly about you, and that I would be able speak to the hearts of all those present. In the name of Christ and the power of the Spirit we pray. Amen.
When we were very young—around age 10, I think—my sister and I went through a period of spiritual doubt. Being a no-nonsense sort of guy, even at that age, it didn’t last too long or strike too frequently for me, but I recall that for my sister, it was something of a regular ritual. We had picked up from somewhere—not from my parents, certainly, or even our church, but perhaps just from breathing the air in the Bible Belt—that we were supposed to “get saved” by “asking Jesus into our hearts” in a moment of prayer and penitence. The mechanics were frustratingly vague, but the idea was that, if you prayed really hard and really meant it, that you would experience a sudden wave of peace, and confidence that Jesus was in you, and had saved you, and you now had a free pass that you would you get you to eternity, and needn’t worry again. But of course, worry we did. After awhile, we would wonder, “Yeah, but did I really mean it? Did I say the words in the right order? Did I really feel Jesus in my heart, or did I just think I did? Maybe I should try again, to make sure.” And so it would go, time after time. I think my sister, being blessed with earnestness but cursed with a short attention span, must have gotten saved at least two dozen times.
By now this seems a bit silly. But we were, in our own little way, struggling with the problem that has tormented millions of souls through the centuries—the problem of assurance. How do we know that we belong to the truth? How do we set our hearts at rest before him? In hindsight, it seems clear why we had so much difficulty gaining genuine assurance this way. “Let us love in actions and in turth, and not with words or speech.” This prayer was just talk, and so it seemed much too easy. The momentary peace would pass, and we would ask, “Really? That’s it? Nah, that can’t have done the trick; I have to try harder. There must be more to it than that.” And in a way, we were right. There is more to it. To know that we belong to the truth, we have to live it. To know that God’s love abides in us, we must abide in love. When God loves us, and we receive that love, he makes us into channels of his love, pouring it out on our brothers and sisters. By living out that love, John says, “we know that we belong to the truth.”
But this leads to the opposite problem. If we must love in actions and in truth, how can we ever be sure that we’ve loved enough? Have we really loved as we should? The best of us fail over and over again. How then can we assure our hearts before him? One man’s struggle with this question may be said to have changed the course of history. Many of you probably know the story of Martin Luther, and how he spent years as a devout monk, fasting, praying, ministering, doing everything he could to “love with actions and in truth” in order to set his heart at rest, and finding instead that because of it he loved God less and less. He later wrote, “But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.” For him, the moment of liberation came when he realized the meaning of the verse, “The just shall live by faith.” “All at once,” he said,” I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.” Actually, this experience helped Luther see this passage in 1 John in a different light, as we shall see in a bit.
So John, like any pastor really, finds himself having to address both types of people. Some people think that following Jesus is easy, a matter of saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts. To them, John has stern words in this chapter: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” But he knows also that for others, these stern words will be a source of anxiety. Some people are following Christ seriously, are abiding in God’s love, and yet worry that they’re never doing enough. For these, he wants to offer comfort. There are some of us here who probably need to hear each message—perhaps each of us, at different points in our lives, need to hear both. How is John to fit both messages together? John loves to speak in paradox and in poetry, and in this passage we find him at his richest, most elusive, and most paradoxical, as he seeks to show us that abiding in love, and having faith, are not two different things, but two sides of the same coin. For even when he speaks of our “knowing” that we are of the truth based upon our acts of love—and John uses this sort of language repeatedly in the epistle—this kind of “knowing” turns out to be not an evidential knowledge, but an experiential knowledge, a knowledge of faith.
This theme of knowing is an obsession of John’s in this epistle. This tiny letter contains 1/10 of all of the New Testament’s occurrences of the word for “know”—ginosko. Another 1/4 of the New Testament occurrences occur in the Gospel of John. Why this obsession? Well, you may remember that the context of John’s writings, especially 1 John, is the appearance of “Gnostic” groups within the church. The word “Gnostic” comes from ginosko, because the Gnostics claimed a special inner knowledge. They had received true enlightenment, they had received certainty. Because they had the right ideas, they knew that they were of the truth. How could the other Christians know? “By loving one another?” they sneered. How could that ever give “knowledge”? John wants to reassure his readers that by abiding in the love of God, they can know, but their knowledge is one that comes through the experience of loving and believing, not from mystical illumination or philosophical insight.
John is also here intentionally recalling a passage from the Gospel of John—Jesus’s Last Supper Discourse in chapters 14-17—the words and themes from that passage appear over and over in these verses. As we begin Holy Week, we should imagine what it was like for Christ’s disciples that night, when Jesus suddenly tells them that he is about to leave them. Jesus begins his discourse there by saying “Let not your hearts be troubled” (14:1), even though, from now on, they will have to walk by faith and not by sight. But how will they know that Jesus is with them? How will they know they are still following in his footsteps? They ask this question, the same question with which we struggle, several times, and Jesus never gives a direct answer. He never gives them a scientific or philosophical proof. “Believe” he says. “Love” he says. “Abide in me,” he says. “Listen to the Spirit.” John gives the same answers in this passage.
He begins by saying that we can know that we are walking with Jesus if we love in actions and in truth. (Even though in the NIV that some of you have there, it looks like verse 19 is beginning a new thought, John is more likely starting off by referring back to verse 18.) Now John doesn’t mean that we earn God’s love by our love for one another, but that this is how we show it and experience the reality of it. God’s love in us can’t help but overflow into our love of one another, and our love toward one another can’t help but overflow into love God. We love, because he loved. This is why John says that “by this we shall know that we belong to the truth.”
But still, we worry, with Luther, that this answer doesn’t help us. Because we often don’t experience ourselves as loving one another in actions and in truth. Given that we are all sinners, how can we even begin to know we are of the truth based on our actions? Here we get to see John’s witty word-play. In verse 20, he says, “For whenever our heart condemns us”—the word for “condemn” there is kata-ginosko—literally, “to know something against.” This is our problem after all, isn’t it? Our consciences know us too well. They know about that time that we did close our heart against a brother in need, that time when we hated our sister, that time when we refused to forgive our parents, that time when we envied our coworkers or spoke evil of our boss. If we stop to ask ourselves, “Do we love in actions and in truth?” our hearts will rush forward like a crowd of tattling children, ready to accuse us before God, to remind us just how unloving we are. We want to know that we are in the truth, that we abide in God, but instead, our hearts know too much against us. No, we can’t be. Maybe we’re just not cut out to be Christians after all.
But what looks like humility here turns out to be pride. In our pride, we refuse to listen to what God says about us, we refuse to hear the word of forgiveness. Soren Kierkegaard speaks of “a pride too cowardly to submit to being helped, anguish for sin which shuns holy cleansing as disease shuns medicine.” And in one of his books he has a great discussion of what he calls “the sin of despairing over one’s sin.” When we do this, we may feel like we are hating sin more than anything, by recognizing how serious it is, but actually, we are giving ourselves over to sin. We are listening to sin and to Satan (who is called “the Accuser” throughout Scripture) instead of to God. When we do this, says Kierkegaard, sin “insists on listening only to itself, on having dealings only with itself; it closes itself up within itself, indeed, locks itself inside one more inclosure, and protects itself against every attack or pursuit by the good by despairing over sin.” When we do this, we often say, “I can never forgive myself.” This is technically true, because indeed we have no power to forgive ourselves; only God can forgive sins. But then we go further and say, “God can never forgive me.” What is this but to set ourselves against God? To tell him that he can’t do what he’s promised? This is us pretending to be greater than God. But no, says John. You are not greater than God, whenever your heart condemns you. “God is greater than our hearts, for he knows all things.” Your heart may think it’s so clever and sophisticated and serious about sin, because it knows something against you, but guess what? God knows all that and more. God is greater.
John’s image here is like a courtroom, in which we are arguing with our conscience, trying to convince our heart of our innocence, despite everything it knows against us. We are losing the battle. Witness after witness is called in on the other side. But then in steps God, and he has the trump card. “I know everything,” he says, “and you need not fear.”
But why should this be a comfort? If God knows everything about us, shouldn’t we be more terrified? If our heart knows something against us, and God is greater than our hearts, how much more must he know against us! He knows every evil thought, and secret desire, every bad motive, from when we were conceived until now. Actually, this is how most scholars had been reading this verse all through the Middle Ages. You had better love in actions and in truth, because if you don’t, and your heart condemns you, God is greater, and knows more, and will condemn you all the more. But Luther came along and said no, that is not what this verse means; that is not what John is trying to tell his readers. “If you lack works, yet you should not lack faith. Even if persuasion is lacking, yet faith and hope are greater. Although we should consider ourselves unworthy, yet we should accept the grace that is offered and the Gospel. Even if our conscience makes us fainthearted and presents God as angry, still ‘God is greater than our heart.’ Conscience is one drop; the reconciled God is a sea of comfort.” God knows all things, he knows everything we ever did, and yet he says that he loves us. Our conscience rushes forward, ready to condemn, “But what about the time I did this terrible sin?” But God does not need to listen. God already knows about that.
We see this over and over in the Gospels. Early in his Gospel, John tells us, “Jesus did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” This sounds ominous. But then, how does it play out? He comes to the woman at the well in chapter four, and “tells her everything she ever did,” as she puts it. He knows that she has had five husbands, and is currently having an affair with a sixth man. And yet what is his word to her? “I will give you water springing up unto eternal life” (4:14). In chapter 8, the Pharisees bring before him an adulterous woman. He knows all about her sin. And what is his word to her? “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (8:11). And in Luke chapter 7, there is “the woman who was a sinner,” as she is described, who comes in to a dinner party and anoints Jesus’s feet with oil. The host, Simon, is appalled, and mutters, “If Jesus were really a prophet, he would know how wicked this woman was and wouldn’t let her touch him” (7:39). But Jesus does know, he knows all about it, and what does he say to her? “Your sins are forgiven you. Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).
See, God knows all things, which means he knows one thing certainly that we, in our sin, can never seem to get a handle on—who he is, what he is like. He knows that he is a forgiving God. More than that, he knows what Jesus has done, what he has done in Jesus. This sacrifice, this forgiveness, is always before his mind, whereas we are prone to forget and doubt it. There is a beautiful hymn that declares, “Between our sins and their reward, we set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.” And that pretty much sums it up. We are in a courtroom, our conscience condemning us, and we, powerless to defend ourselves, and in comes God, God who is greater than our hearts, and he holds up before the court a lamb, the lamb that was slain for us, and says, “Your sins are forgiven you. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
But we will still object. How do we know this forgiveness is for us? After all, it’s not for everyone, is it? But John is speaking to us, us who have heard the word of life, who have heard Christ’s proclamation of forgiveness and his new commandment that we love one another, and who have tried to keep it. This is why our heart condemns us, is it not? If we didn’t even care about loving in actions and in truth, if we never bothered with the whole business at all, why would we find ourselves there, in an argument with our conscience? Some people shut their hearts against their brother and against the love of God, and go their merry way. But that’s not what John is talking about. He is talking those who hear this command to love, and say, “Yes, I want to do that. I want the love of God to abide in me. But I’m just not doing good enough.” “Aha!” says John, “Just what I needed to hear. Come to Christ and hear his comfort. Jesus says, ‘Your faith has saved you.’”
I love the story in the Gospels about a man who begs Jesus to come and heal his demon-possessed son. “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” he cries. Jesus replies, “If you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” The man answers “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief!” (Mk. 9:22-24). Isn’t this all of us? How often do we find ourselves crying out this way to God? “Yes God, yes, I believe, or want to believe, your promise. Please help my unbelief. I want to love you, please help my unlove.” And who is it who helps us in our weakness? It is the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promises to send in his Last Supper discourse. And so we have the same promise here at the end. How do we know that we abide in God and he in us? How do we know that we are in Christ, that his love flows through us? By the visible evidence of our love for others, yes, but that will not always be enough to convince our fickle hearts. “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
By this we come to the point where our heart does not condemn us, where we have confidence before him, confidence that we are in the truth, confidence that the love of God will make itself visible in our lives, confidence that we can come into the presence of God in prayer, and ask him whatever we want. John says here “we receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.” This sounds odd, doesn’t it? Whatever we ask? So, if I obey God perfectly (which I won’t do in any case), I could ask him anything, and he’d just do it? He’d make my son sleep through the night? No, this isn’t the idea. John returns to this in chapter 5—”This is the confidence which we have before him, that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us.” But isn’t that just circular? What’s the point of asking if it’s already according to his will? God’s already decided what he’s going to do. But this isn’t John’s point. The point is that when we are believing in Christ and obeying his commandment to love, we are becoming like him—our own wills are becoming conformed to his. We abide in Him and He in us. For this reason, we learn to want the same things he wants, and to ask him for the things he wants to give. As we grow closer and closer to him, we have greater and greater confidence that we are walking in his will, and hence, when we come before him in prayer, we will receive that which we are asking for. And again, our guarantee in this is the Spirit within us, who, as Paul says, comes to help us in our weakness when we try and pray: “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
As we come to the beginning of Holy Week, we too should be turning, with John here, back to the words of Jesus in the Last Supper discourse. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said. Why? Because although he was going away, it was for our sake that he went away, to make a way for us to come before the Father with confidence, fearing no condemnation. And he promises that we will not be left alone, in doubt and worry. For after Good Friday and Easter come Pentecost. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
Therefore, let us love in actions and in truth, let us love God whom we have not seen with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and let us love our brothers and sisters whom we have seen as ourselves. And whenever our heart condemns us, let us listen not to the accusing voice of sin, but to the testimony of the Spirit, for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.
May God give us the grace to listen to Him today.