Vincent's Word Studies

Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union Theological Seminary New York.

The Epistle of 1, 2 & 3 John


It is generally conceded that the first Epistle was written at Ephesus. In the Latin Church the opinion prevailed that it was primarily addressed to the Parthians; but ecclesiastical tradition knows of no mission of John to the Parthians, St. Thomas being supposed to have carried the Gospel to them.

Its exact destination, however, is of little consequence.; “Its coloring is moral rather than local.” It is a unique picture of a Christian society, the only medium of the Spirit's work among men. There is no trace of persecution: “the world was perilous by its seductions rather than by its hostility;” the dangers were within rather than without.

These facts give character to the Epistle in two ways: First, the missionary work of the Church falls into the background in the Apostle's thought. The world is overcome by faith as represented in the Church, and the Gospel is proclaimed by the very existence of the Church, and effectively proclaimed in proportion to the Church's purity and fidelity. Secondly, attention is concentrated upon the central idea of the message itself rather than upon the relation of the message to other systems. The great question is the person and work of the Lord.

The peculiar form of error combated in the Epistle is Docetic and Cerinthian. In this teaching sin and atonement have no place. Christ came into the world, not to redeem it by the remission of sins, but to illuminate a few choice intellects with philosophy: Jesus is not God manifest in the flesh: Jesus and the Christ are distinct: Jesus' humanity was not real, but a phantasm. Against these views John asserts that no spirit is of God who denies that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (1Jo_4:2, 1Jo_4:3): that he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ is a liar, and that the denial of the Son involves the rejection of the Father (1Jo_2:22, 1Jo_2:23): that he who denies that he is sinful deceives himself, and impugns the veracity of God (1Jo_1:8, 1Jo_1:10). The Word of life which he proclaims was the real human manifestation of God, the human Christ whom he and his fellow-disciples had seen and heard and touched (1Jo_1:1, 1Jo_1:2). Jesus is the propitiation for sin (1Jo_2:2). The world is not overcome by knowledge, but by faith that Jesus is the Son of God (1Jo_5:4, 1Jo_5:5).

The principal evidence for John's authorship of the Epistle is internal, drawn from its resemblance to the Gospel in vocabulary, style, thought, and scope. There is the same repetition of fundamental words and phrases, such as truth, love, light, born of God, abiding in God. There is the same simplicity of construction; the same rarity of particles; the employment of the simple connective (καὶ , and) instead of a particle of logical sequence (1Jo_3:3, 1Jo_3:16); the succession of sentences and clauses without particles (1Jo_2:22-24; 1Jo_4:4-6, 1Jo_4:7-10, 1Jo_4:11-13; 1Jo_2:5, 1Jo_2:6, 1Jo_2:9, 1Jo_2:10), and the bringing of sentences into parallelism by the repetition of clauses (1Jo_1:6, 1Jo_1:8, 1Jo_1:10; 1Jo_5:18, 1Jo_5:20). Verbal coincidences abound. Such words as κόσμος (world), φῶς (light), σκοτία (darkness), φανεροῦν (to manifest), ζωὴ αἰώνιος (eternal life), ὁ ἀληθινὸς Θέος (the real God), ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός (the only-begotten Son), etc., are common to both. Coincidences of expression are also numerous. Compare, for example,

1Jo_1:2, 1Jo_1:3 Joh_3:11
1Jo_1:4 Joh_16:24
1Jo_2:11 Joh_12:35
1Jo_2:14 Joh_5:38
1Jo_2:17 Joh_8:35
1Jo_3:5 Joh_8:46
1Jo_3:8 Joh_8:44
1Jo_3:13 Joh_15:18
1Jo_3:14 Joh_5:24
1Jo_3:16 Joh_10:15
1Jo_4:6 Joh_8:47
1Jo_5:4 Joh_16:23

The Epistle presupposes the Gospel. The differences are such as would naturally appear between a historian and a teacher interpreting the history. This may be seen by a comparison of the Prologue of the Gospel with the Epistle. The Prologue and the Epistle stand in the same relation to the discourses, as appears from a comparison of the thoughts on life, light, and truth in the Prologue with passages in the discourses. Thus compare, on Life, Joh_5:26; Joh_11:25; Joh_14:6; Prologue Joh_1:4; 1Jo_1:1; 1Jo_5:20. On Light, Joh_8:12; Joh_12:46; Prologue Joh_1:4, Joh_1:7, Joh_1:9; 1Jo_1:6, 1Jo_1:7; 1Jo_2:8. On Truth, Joh_8:32; Joh_14:6; Prologue Joh_1:9, Joh_1:14, Joh_1:17; 1Jo_1:6, 1Jo_1:8, 1Jo_1:10; 1Jo_2:4, 1Jo_2:8, 1Jo_2:21, 1Jo_2:27; 1Jo_3:19; 1Jo_4:1, 1Jo_4:6; 1Jo_5:20.

The theme of the Gospel is, Jesus is the Christ in process of manifesting His glory. In the Epistle the manifestation of the glory is assumed as the basis of the exhortation to believers to manifest it in their life. The doctrine of propitiation, which is unfolded to Nicodemus, is applied in 1Jo_3:1. The promise of the Paraclete in the Gospel is assumed in the Epistle as fulfilled (1Jo_2:20). The Epistle deals with the fruits of that love which is commanded in the Gospel. (Compare Joh_13:34; Joh_15:12, and 1Jo_3:11; 1Jo_4:7, 1Jo_4:11; 1Jo_3:14; 1Jo_4:12, 1Jo_4:20, 1Jo_4:21) In the Gospel the divine glory is prominent; in the Epistle, Christ's humanity. The doctrine of propitiation and cleansing is more fully treated in the Epistle (1Jo_2:2; 1Jo_3:16; 1Jo_4:10; 1Jo_1:7, 1Jo_1:9).

The epistolary character does not appear in the form. It is without address or subscription, and bears no direct trace of its author or of its destination. But it is instinct with personal feeling (1Jo_1:4; 1Jo_2:12), personal experience (1Jo_1:1), and appreciation of the circumstances of the persons addressed (1Jo_2:12, 1Jo_2:22, 1Jo_2:27; 1Jo_3:2, 1Jo_3:13; 1Jo_4:1, 1Jo_4:4; 1Jo_5:18).

The Second and Third Epistles contain no direct indication of the time or the place at which they were written. They were probably composed at Ephesus. That the two are the work of the same author is apparent from their agreement in style and spirit. As related to the First Epistle, the resemblance between the second and first in language and thought is closer than between the first and third.

Critical Note on 1Jo_3:19-22.

The second great division of John's First Epistle treats of the conflict of truth and falsehood. This section extends from 1Jo_2:18 to 1Jo_4:6, and is subdivided under the following topics:

1. The revelation of falsehood and truth (1Jo_2:18-29).

2. The children of God and the children of the devil (1Jo_3:1-12).

3. Brotherhood in Christ and the hatred of the world (1Jo_3:13-24).

4. The Rival Spirits of Truth and Error (1Jo_4:1-6).

This passage lies within the third of these subdivisions; but the line of thought runs up into the second subdivision, which begins with this chapter, - the children of God and the children of the Devil.

Let us first briefly review the contents of this chapter down to the point of our text.

God shows His wonderful love in calling us children of God (τέκνα); as expressing community of nature, rather than υἱοί (sons), which expresses the position of privilege.

The world, therefore, does not know us, even as it did not know Him.

We are children of God; and in this fact lies enfolded our future, the essence of which will be likeness to God, coming through unveiled and transfiguring vision.

The result of such a relation and hope is persistent effort after moral purity. “Every one that hath this hope in Him, purifieth himself, even as He is pure.”

This attempt to purify corresponds with the fulfillment of our true destiny which Christ has made possible. Sin is irreconcilable with a right relation to God, for Christianity emphasizes the law of God, and “sin is lawlessness.” The object of Christ's manifestation was to “take away sin;” therefore, “everyone that abideth in Him sinneth not.” “He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous.” “He that committeth sin is of the devil;” but the Son of God was manifested in order to destroy the works of the devil. The divine seed - the divine principle of growth - the germ of the new life is in the true believer; and the ideas of divine sonship and sin are mutually exclusive.

The being a child of God will manifest itself not only in doing righteousness, but in love - the love to God, taking shape in love and ministry to the brethren. This is the highest expression of righteousness. The whole aim of the Gospel is the creation and strengthening of love; and the type of life in God through Christ is therefore the direct opposite of Cain, who being of the evil one, slew his brother.

Over against this love is the world's hatred. This is bound up, as love is, with the question of origin. God's children share God's nature, which is love. The children of the world are the children of the evil one, whose nature is lawlessness and hatred. Love is the outgrowth of life; hatred, of death. He that loveth not, abideth in death. For ourselves, children of God, we know that we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren.

Christ is the perfect type and revelation of love, since He gave His life for us. We, likewise, ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. The practical test of our brotherly love is ministry. The love of God does not dwell in us if we refuse to relieve our brother's need.

The fruit of love is confidence. “In this, we perceive that we are of the truth; and, perceiving this, we shall assure our hearts in the presence of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. It is of the very essence of Christian life that it is lived and tested before God. No assurance or confidence is possible except from being in right relation to God.

Through the consciousness of love, then, which is of God, and which marks the children of God, we perceive that we are children of God - of the truth; and in this knowledge we find assurance and confidence before the very highest tribunal. “We shall assure our heart before Him.”

This brings us to the heart of our passage. What is the specific character and direction of our assurance? Of what are we confident? Here we strike the differences in the exposition of the passage. The questions resolve themselves into three:

1. What is the meaning of πείσομεν (we shall assure or persuade)?

2. How are the ὅτις (that or because) to be explained?

3. What is the meaning of μείζω (greater)?

Πείσομεν may be taken either according to its primitive meaning, persuade, induce, prevail upon (Act_19:26; Act_18:4; 2Co_5:11), or in its secondary and consequent sense, to assure, quiet, appease (Mat_28:14).

1. If we render persuade, two courses are possible.

(a.) Either we may use it absolutely, and mentally supply something as the substance of the persuasion. “Hereby know we that we are of the truth, and shall persuade our hearts before Him.” The mind might then supply:

We shall persuade our heart to be confident in asking anything from God. Objection. This would anticipate 1Jo_3:21. “If our heart condemn us not, then have we boldness toward God, and whatsoever we ask of Him we receive,” etc.; or,

We shall persuade our heart to show love in life and act. Objection. This does not suit the connection; for we recognize ourselves by our love as children of faith, and do not need first to move our hearts to love which already dwells there; or,

We shall persuade our heart that we are of the truth. Objection. This is tautological. We know or perceive that we are of the truth, by the fact of our love. We therefore reject the absolute use of πείσομεν.

(b.) Still rendering persuade, we may attempt to find the substance of the persuasion in the following clauses. Here we run into the second of our three questions, the double ὅτι, for ὅτι becomes the sign of definition of πείσομεν. The different combinations and translations proposed center in two possible renderings for ὅτι: because or that.

If we render because, it leaves us with the absolute πείσομεν which we have rejected. We have then to render - “Hereby perceive we that we are of the truth, and shall persuade our heart before Him: because, if our heart condemn us, because, I say (second ὅτι), God is greater than our heart,” etc.

All the other renderings, like this, involve what is called the epanaleptic use of ὅτι; the second taking up and carrying forward the sense of the first. This is very objectionable here, because

1. There is no reason for it. This use of ὅτι or similar words is appropriate only in passages where the course of thought is broken by a long, interjected sentence or parenthesis, and where the conjunction takes up again the thread of discourse. It is entirely out of place here after the interjection of only a few words.

2. There is no parallel to it in the writings of John, nor elsewhere in the New Testament, so far as I know (but see 1Jo_5:9).

The case is no better if we translate ὅτι that. Here indeed we get rid of the absolute πείσομεν, but we are compelled to hold by the resumptive ὅτι. For instance,

“We shall persuade ourselves that, if our heart condemn us, that, I say, God is greater than our heart.”

Moreover, some of these explanations at least, commit the apostle to misstatement. Suppose, for example, we read: “We shall persuade our heart that God is greater than our heart:” we make the apostle say that the consciousness of brotherly love, and of our consequent being “of the truth,” is the basis of our conviction of the sovereign greatness of God. Thus: “Herein (in our brotherly love) do we perceive that we are of the truth, and herein we shall persuade ourselves that God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.”

The case is not improved if we render the first ὅτι as pronominal, and read as follows: “We shall persuade ourselves in whatever our heart condemn us, that God is greater than our heart.” The object of persuasion, then, is the greatness of God. The sense of condemnation is the occasion of our persuading ourselves: the foundation of our persuasion of God's greatness is our consciousness of being of the truth.

We conclude therefore,

1. That we must reject all renderings founded on the absolute use of πείσομεν.

(a.) Because it leaves the mind to supply something which the text leads us to expect that it will supply.

(b.) Because the conception of persuasion or assurance takes its character from the idea of condemning or accusing (καταγινώσκῃ), and becomes vague if we separate it from that.

2. We must reject explanations founded on the epanaleptic use of ὅτι for the reasons already given.

We turn now to the rendering adopted by the New Testament Revisers.

This rendering takes the first ὅτι with ἐὰν as relative pronominal, and the second as casual; and is as follows:

“Herein do we know (or, more properly, perceive) that we are of the truth; and shall assure (or quiet) our heart before Him in whatsoever our heart may condemn (or accuse) us; because God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things.”

The only grammatical objection to this rendering, which is entitled to any weight, is that the exact pronominal phrase ὅτι ἐὰν does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament; but this is little better than a quibble, since we have really the same combination under another form, viz., Gal_5:10, ὅστις ἐὰν (so Lach., West. and H., Tisch., Lightfoot), and possibly in Act_3:23, where Tisch. reads ἥτις ἐὰν. In Col_3:17, West. and H., Lightfoot, and Ellicott, read ὅτι ἐὰν (“whatsoever ye do in word or deed”). Moreover, it is born out by the frequent use of ἐὰν for ἀν after relatives (Mat_5:19; Mat_8:19; Mat_10:42; Mat_11:27; Joh_15:7). See Moulton's “Winer,” 2nd ed., p. 390.

This rendering introduces the third question: What is the meaning of μείζων? Shall we take it as indicating judgment or compassion on the part of God? i.e.:

1st. Shall we allay the accusation of heart by saying: “God is greater than our heart, His judgment is therefore stricter than ours; and so, apart from fellowship with Him we can have no hope;” or, as Meyer puts it,

“Only in conscious brotherly love shall we calm our hearts, for, if we do not love, our heart condemns us, and God is greater than our heart, and there is no peace for the accusing conscience:” or, again, as it is popularly interpreted:

“If our heart condemn us, then God, who is greater than our hearts, and knows all things, must not only endorse, but emphasize our self-accusation.” If our heart condemn, how much more God?

Or, 2nd. Shall we take μείζων as the expression of God's compassionate love, and say, “when our heart condemns us, we shall quiet it with the assurance that we are the proved children of God, and therefore, in fellowship with a God who is greater than our heart, greater in love and compassion no less than in knowledge?

The choice between these must be largely determined by the drift of the whole discussion, and here, therefore, we leave the textual and grammatical side of the question, and proceed to the homiletical aspect of the passage.

Generally, we may observe that the whole drift of the chapter is consolatory and assuring. The chapter is introduced with a burst of affectionate enthusiasm. “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the children of God, and such we are.” The darker shades - the origin and nature of sin; the truth that sinners are of the evil one; the hatred of the world, springing out of this radical opposition between the origin and motive of children of God and children of the evil one - are thrown in to heighten and emphasize the position and privilege of God's children. They are to be left in no doubt as to their relation to God. They are thrown for decisive testimony upon the supreme fact of love. If God the Father is love, and they are His children, they must share His nature; and they prove that they do by loving Him and His children. Hence, John elsewhere says (1Jo_4:7 sq.), “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and every one that loveth hath been born of God (or begotten) and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knew not God, for God is love.... If we love one another, God abideth in us, and His love is perfected in us. In this we perceive that we abide in Him and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.... We have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love, and he that abideth in love, abideth in God, and God in him.”

And again, in this chapter, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.”

This testimony of love all tends to the assurance of the heart. All comes to a head in this 19th verse. “Herein,” - in the fact and consciousness of love, - “herein, perceive we that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him, in whatsoever our heart condemn us.” In striking parallelism with this is the fourth chapter of this Epistle just alluded to, especially the way in which, as in this chapter, the evidence of love makes for assurance. Look at the verses from the 7th to the 16th - the burden of which is, as we have seen, that love is the evidence of our dwelling in God; and then note how this evidence runs into assurance in the 17th and 18th verses. “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness (compare 'shall assure our heart') in the day of judgment (compare 'before Him'), because as He is so are we in this world (like Christ). There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment.”

Now there was a very good and obvious reason for emphasizing this thought of assurance. John knew the misgivings of the Christian heart; and he knew, moreover, how they would be awakened by the high standard of Christian character which he set up in this chapter. Look at these statements: “Every one that hath this hope in Him, purifieth himself, even as He is pure.” “Every one that abideth in Him sinneth not. Every one that sinneth hath not even seen Him nor known Him.” “He that committeth sin is of the devil.” “He that is born of God doth not commit sin.” It is not difficult to conceive the effect of such statements upon a sensitive conscience. Let us bring ourselves to these tests. Shall we not need to assure our hearts? In the consciousness of infirmity, with the remembrance of error, under the pressure and thrust of daily temptation, is it strange if the heart accuses? Is it strange if the question is raised, “Am I indeed a child of God? Do not these errors and lapses prove me to be a child of the devil?”

Now I think we should all be led to anticipate, in view of this fact, and as the natural sequence of the former part of the chapter, a thought, not of severe criticism and judgment, based upon God's infinite knowledge, but of fatherly compassion and assurance dealing with our self-accusations, and quieting our misgivings.

The Christian consciousness exercises a judicial office in us, accusing or approving. Our heart passes judgment. But what we especially need to remember, and what, as it seems to me, is the very core of the teaching of this passage, is that the decrees of the heart are not final, but must be carried up to a higher tribunal for ratification. Even our renewed heart is ignorant and blind. God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things. Whatever power of discernment conscience has, it receives from God. Hence, in the interpretation of the passage more stress should be laid than is commonly done upon the words “before Him.” “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater” (1Jo_5:14. Compare Heb_4:16). It is, as already hinted, essential to the idea of Christian life that it is lived in the very sight of God. The true child of God sets the Lord always before his face. The prime regulator of his life is the sense of God's presence. God's manifestation in Christ's perfect obedience is his pattern: God's law imparts to his conscience its tone of rebuke or of commendation. This is a natural and necessary result of the relation assumed in the passage - children of God. As children of God, in our Father's house, life is regulated by the perpetual consciousness of our Father's presence and scrutiny. No assurance or confidence is possible which does not grow out of a right relation to Him.

John, then, does not mean to say that a child of God is sinless by virtue of his relation as a child; and that his self-accusation is quieted by being pronounced groundless.

He does not mean to say that the heart may not accuse him justly. God's judgment may confirm that of the heart.

He does mean to say that the heart is not the supreme and final arbiter.

The ordinary interpretation presents a radical defect in this; - that it assumes the infallibility of the heart, and brings in God to confirm and emphasize its decision. If your heart condemn you, then God, who is greater than your heart, condemns you more severely, because He sees your sin in the light of His omniscience. Further, it makes our confidence toward God depend primarily on the testimony of our hearts. If our heart condemn us not, then we may go before God with confidence and ask what we will, because God, being greater than our heart, confirms its testimony. The voice of the heart, in short, on this construction, is the voice of God. As I read it, John's teaching is the direct opposite of this. It is only God who knoweth all things. No assurance, no accusation is to be received as final until it has passed before Him. We must look outside of self for the highest tests of self. It is not before ourselves that we are either to assure or to condemn ourselves. Self-condemnation will not be allayed by self-communion. We need, not to be self-assured, but to be assured by Him.

It is almost needless to say, but it should be kept in mind, that these words are addressed to Christians; and this opens another and interesting question, - that of sin in Christians. The heart sometimes condemns unjustly, or unduly. The conscience is sometimes diseased and morbidly exacting, and the heart is distressed with accusations which are as fanciful as they are painful. But the heart's condemnation is, as has been already said, often just. This, however, as well as the other cases, is covered by the apostle's words: “We shall assure our heart before Him, whereinsoever our heart condemn us.” It may well be asked then, how, when God endorses the conviction of the heart, we are to assure our heart before Him? What, when the apostle himself has just told us that “whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin? - that he cannot sin, because he is born of God? - that whosoever sinneth hath not seen or known God? These utterances, by themselves, are terrible. They destroy all hope of assurance. They make sinlessness the test of being in Christ. How shall we assure our heart?

Here we must be particular to note that all through this chapter, and it might be said, throughout the Epistle, John is dealing with something broader than specific errors or good deeds. He is dealing with the question of a Christian's relation to God. Note the sharp and broad classifications of this chapter to this effect, indicating the order or economy to which the man belongs rather than his specific acts.

He that doeth righteousness.

He that doeth sin; where sin as a whole answers to righteousness as a whole.

He is righteous even as He is righteous. He is of the devil: where, in each case, the man's character is shown to be a reflection of his spiritual master.

So, too, the phrases, “children of God;” “of the truth;” “ passed from death unto life.” And in 1Jo_1:1-10, “in darkness;” “in the light.” Again, in chapter 4, “dwelleth in God;” “of the world;” “of God.” And, once more, the fact that the entire Epistle turns on a question of relation between man and God. Its key-note is fellowship - “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us; yea, and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.”

This being true, the tests applied are directed at this relation. “Hereby we perceive that we are of the truth:” that is our sphere, our genesis, our economy. And accordingly specific acts are treated in the light of this general relation. No man goes sinless before God. This is treated in the first chapter with reference to certain actual delusions in this matter. Those who maintain that sin is an accident and not a principle, a transient phenomenon which leaves no abiding issues, are met with “if we say that we have no sin (ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἔχομεν), we lead ourselves astray and the truth is not in us.” Those who deny that, personally, they have sinned, are met with “if we say that we have not sinned (οὐχ ἡμαρτήκαμεν), we make of Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” So that, I repeat, the test here contemplated is a test of relation and not of specific act. As Westcott truthfully says: “As long as the relationship with God is real” (if a man is truly born of God) “sinful acts are but accidents. They do not touch the essence of the man's being.” (Compare also Westcott on 1Jo_5:16). Consequently, when our heart condemns us of sin, and we appear before God, our assurance or quieting of heart comes through God's throwing us back upon this relation to Him, and its accompanying proof, love for the brethren. God teaches the heart to meet its self-accusation with the fact and evidence of sonship. Hereby we shall assure our heart before Him.

It is noteworthy how John exalts and emphasizes the sufficiency and decisiveness of this test. “He that abideth in love abideth in God, and God in him.” “We know that we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren.” And in the fourth chapter he is even more emphatic; asserting (1Jo_4:12) that love to the brethren is the only possible proof of love to God; for “God hath no man ever beheld. If we love one another, God abideth in us, and His love is perfected in us.”

So, then, the man takes his justly accusing heart before Him, and God says, “It is true, you have sinned. But you are my child, proven to be such by your love. Shall not I, your Father, forgive your sin? Do you fear to bring it to me? 'If any man sin, he hath an advocate with me, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for his sins.' If you confess your sin, I am faithful and just to forgive you your sin and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.”

If he goes under the accusation of imperfect love, he is met with the assurance that his relation to God is not determined nor perpetuated by the scant measure of the purest human love. “Herein is love; not that we have loved (ἠγαπήκαμεν) God, but that He loved us (ἡγάπησεν, associating His love with a definite act) and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

If the self-accusation is morbid and unfounded, a freak of a diseased religious fancy, rather than a truthful verdict of a healthy conscience, the complex and confused witness of our ignorant heart is resolved into the simple testimony of love. I am God's child. At my Father's hand I shall meet with no encouragement to continue in sin, but with pardon for my sin; with tonics for my morbid conditions; with allowance for my infirmity. Only by that perfect wisdom will the error be duly weighed; only by that perfect love will it be forgiven; only by that perfect strength will the soul be energized to renew the life-long fight with sin. If we are trembling lest the things of which our heart accuses us be the warrant for disinheriting us of our position and privilege, we are pointed past our individual lapses and errors to the great, dominant sentiment of our relation to God. We love Him, we love the brethren, therefore we are His children; erring children no doubt, but still His. Will He disinherit His child?

Observe again, how John finds comfort in the fact of omniscience. We shall assure our heart because God knoweth all things. The natural instinct of imperfection is to evade the contact and scrutiny of perfection. But that instinct is false and misleading. The Gospel creates a contrary instinct, in creating a filial consciousness. If God's holiness shames our sinfulness, and God's perfect wisdom dwarfs our folly, nevertheless, perfection is the only safe refuge for the imperfect. No man wants to be tried before an ignorant or a corrupt judge. If that omniscient knowledge sees deeper into our sin than we do, it also sees deeper into our weakness. If it weighs the act in more nicely-poised scales, it weighs the circumstances in the same scales. If it knows our secret faults, it knows likewise our frame and our frailty. If it discerns aggravations, it equally discerns palliations. If infinite knowledge compasses the sin, so does infinite love. There mercy and truth meet together, and righteousness and peace kiss each other.

So we shall assure our heart before Him in whatsoever our heart condemn us. Not with the conceited assurance of self-righteousness; not with a drugged and dulled perception of the vileness of sin; not with an elixir which shall relax our spiritual fiber and moderate our enthusiasm for spiritual victory; but with the thought that we are God's children, loving, though erring, in our Father's hand; with our elder brother Christ interceding for us; with the knowledge that the judicial element in our Christian experience is transferred from our own heart to God; with the knowledge that, being His, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As I read this passage I wonder if John, as he penned it, had not in mind that interview of Christ and Peter at the lake after the resurrection. There was Peter with a heart stung with self-accusation, as well it might be: Peter who had denied and forsaken his Lord: and yet Christ meets all this self-accusation with the words “Loveth thou Me?” And Peter's reply is in the very vein of our passage. “God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things:” “Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love Thee.”

On this interpretation, the remainder of the passage follows simply and naturally. Once assured that we are children of God, we have boldness toward God. That assurance, carrying with it the assurance of pardon and sympathy, is the only means by which the heart's condemnation is legitimately allayed. If, by which the heart's condemnation is legitimately allayed. If, under that assurance, our heart ceases to condemn us, “then have we confidence toward God.” It is noteworthy how the line of thought coincides with that in the latter part of the fourth of Hebrews. There too we see the Divine omniscience emphasized - the discernment of the living word, “quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight, but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” Then comes the priesthood and the sympathy of Jesus, the Great High-Priest, “touched with the feeling of our infirmities;” and then the same conclusion: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace.”

This latter part of the passage must therefore be interpreted by the former. That the heart feels no sense of condemnation is not, of itself, a legitimate nor a safe ground of boldness toward God. There is a boldness which is born of presumption, of spiritual obtuseness, of ignorance of the character and claims of God, of false and superficial conceptions of sin. A valid absence of condemnation must have a definite and valid fact, a substantial evidence behind it; and that it has, according to the interpretation we have given: “We shall assure our heart before Him in whatsoever our heart condemn us, by this; namely that the all-knowing God is our forgiving Father, that Christ is our Propitiator and Savior, and that the Spirit of love in our hearts, and the loving ministry of our lives testify that we are children of God. Note at this point how John answers to Paul. Look first at the fourth chapter of this Epistle. “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in Him and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.” Now turn to the eighth chapter of Romans. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and death. Ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear, but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness unto our spirit that we are children of God; and if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” And, in like manner, “the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity; the Spirit Himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and He that searcheth the hearts (being greater than our heart and knowing all things) knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because He maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God” - for the saints that love God, foreordained, called, justified, glorified. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that shall condemn? It is Christ Jesus that died, yea rather, that was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Even as it is written,

'For Thy sake we are killed all the day long;
We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter.'

Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Finally, the whole passage carries a protest and an antidote against an introverted, morbidly subjective and self-scrutinizing type of piety, which habitually studies self for the evidence of right spiritual relation and condition: which tests growth in grace by tension of feeling, and reckons spiritual latitude and longitude by spiritual moods. Feeling, religious sensibility, has its place, and a high and sacred place it is; but its place is not the judgment-seat; and right feelings in Christian experience is always based upon right relation to the facts of the plan of redemption. The Christian consciousness give no valid testimony, save as it reflects the great objective verities of the Christian faith. If our spirit witnesses with the Spirit, the Spirit must first bear witness to our spirit that we are children of God. 

Taken from: "Vincent's Word Studies" By Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

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