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God's Good Purposes in Doubt and Assurance

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18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 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. 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.

We have found that one of John’s major purposes for writing this letter was to help those within the church have assurance that they were different from the apostates who left the church. In other words, he wants them to know whether or not they have really experienced the new birth. The Apostle John gives us three tests or proofs that form the basis for our assurance: belief in right doctrine, obedience to God’s commands, and love for other people.

Yet it is normal Christian experience to find ourselves lacking in these areas and so to experience doubt. Christians continue to sin, and when we do we appear to be no different from anyone else in this world. Or, our hearts grow cold, and we don’t feel any real affection for God or for his people. At times like these we may find ourselves wrestling with our faith. We may ask ourselves whether or not there is anything substantively different about us when it comes to our relationship with God.

What we find in this passage is that John expects Christians to have doubts. Crisis of faith will come. We will question some of the basic truths of the Bible. Maybe it will come when you have miscarried the baby. Maybe it will come when you lose your job or your house burns down or your spouse leaves you. Maybe it will come when you receive the tragic phone call in the middle of the night. There may be a million other ways it will come, but come it will!

And doubt is all a part of God’s plan for your life. My aim today is to show how God is glorified both in our struggles with doubt and in our flourishing with assurance. God has a good purpose and work to accomplish whether we are experiencing a crisis of faith or whether our affections for God are running red hot.

STRUGGLING WITH DOUBT

The very fact that this book is written for the purpose of helping true believers gain an assurance of their relationship with God indicates that doubt is a part of the Christian experience. Doubt can arise within us even at unexpected times. It can catch us off guard.

The believer’s need for assurance

Doubt is not the same as unbelief. But doubt can become a dangerous enemy. So while doubt is not a sin in itself, it is something that needs to be fought. John’s letter is helpful for us in our battle against doubt. The Apostle did not want his readers to continue to live in doubt.

So he gives us several ways that we can test ourselves and come to a knowledge that we are “of the truth” (v. 19). With words like “know” and “truth” John is indicating that there is an objective certainty that true believers may possess. This flies in the face of contemporary ideas of relative truth. In verse 18 John commands true believers in Christ to love in truth; now he wants the same ones by their obedience to his command to know that they are of the truth. As those who have been born of God, Christians have experienced the ultimate reality. It is reality that is the key to us attaining assurance.

No one can be truly content without assurance. Even the moral relativist contents himself on his belief that his relativistic theories are true. The Apostle John’s opponents in this letter apparently claimed that they had found the real truth, but John is not afraid to challenge their ideas and contend that any true believer who practices radical Christian love is a possessor of the truth.

But here’s the point of what John has to say in this passage. One can be a possessor of the truth and yet struggle with the assurance that it is so. Therefore, we need to be able to “reassure our heart.” Here in verse 19 John sets up a picture of our true selves standing apart from our heart. The heart condemns. But we are of the truth. Our hearts in this situation need to be put to rest.

What does John mean by “the heart”? He is referring to our conscience, that part of us that is sensitive to right and wrong and responds to both in our emotions, wishes, and desires. Now the conscience is our ally in this sense. So a troubled heart, or a troubled conscience, should not be ignored. John wants us to look objectively at ourselves at times like these and see if we can defend ourselves from our condemning heart.

What’s at stake here is much more than trying to be at peace with one’s self. The goal is not to merely satisfy the conscience. The Apostle Paul tells us that it is possible to have a clear conscience and still be guilty (1 Cor 4:4). What’s at stake here is attaining peace with God. John’s concern is that we reassure our heart before him. God is the judge who will decide the case between us and our conscience. John seems to have in mind the time when we will all meet God, and he wants us all to be able to meet him with assurance and confidence and not shame and doubt. But if we have doubts now, how can we be sure we will not doubt then? So John wants to help us with the doubts that trouble us.

Assurance known even when it is not felt

And here’s how he helps us. He wants us to remember that our heart does not always tell us what’s right. Feelings can change. The heart can condemn. So how do we know if our heart is correct when it condemns us? How do we know if our doubts about our relationship with God are true or not?

John gives two answers to these types of questions. First, we should look at the evidence. The two words “by this” point back to our previous passage and suggest that the key to putting doubt to rest is truth and facts and evidence. In a little book called Doubt and Assurance, pastor and scholar R. C. Sproul reminds us that doubt and assurance are matters of the mind. We may experience feelings and other physical symptoms related to our doubt, but these symptoms come from the mind and not apart from it. Assurance enters into us only when our minds are convinced of a truth. So, Sproul contends, “when assailed by doubt it is time to search diligently for first principles that are certain. We build upon the foundation of what is sure.”[1] Everything the apostle just said in the previous passage is brought to bear upon this issue of assurance in our present passage. “By this” (v. 19) act of demonstrating radical, Christ-like love, we will be able to put our hearts at ease. 

And the second answer John gives is this: the reason why we can look to the evidence of faith in our lives and quiet our hearts by it is because “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” At first this may seem even more unsettling, for if my own conscience is troubled, how will it help to remember that God knows even more about me than my own conscience? Surely that will only trouble me more! But this is clearly not John’s intention. Rather, he wants us to reflect on the fact that, as one commentator writes, even “when believers are most aware of their shortcomings, in respect of God’s standards, the love and mercy of the Father are present to heal their troubled consciences.”[2]

In other words, we must not allow our feelings to be the sole indicator of our spiritual status. Instead, we should remember that God is the final judge, and that “in his omniscience he knows that our often weak attempts to obey his command spring from a true allegiance to him.”[3] That is why I said last week that what we should do when our feelings falter is resort to duty. God will accept our duty when he knows our desire is not duty but love. So read the Scripture even when you feel distant from God. Participate in the community even when you don’t feel any love in your heart toward others. This ability to persevere when joy wanes will be a way for you to answer your heart when it condemns you for your failure to live up to God’s standards.

What then is the good that God wants to accomplish in our struggle with doubt? I think the answer is this: Doubt forces us to see the greatness of God. The only answer that we can give to the questions that trouble us is “God knows all things.” This is true in tragedy: God knows why your child was born with a deformity. And it is true in our salvation. When we are troubled by our sinfulness, when we wonder why we still struggle with some particular sin, and when our conscience tells us that we cannot be a child of God when we feel the way we do, we should stop and ponder the fact that God is greater than our feelings. He is there even when we do not sense his presence. And he knows all things. It’s true that he also knows our shortcomings. But since he knows them even more than we do, he is not surprised by our struggle with them. He knows the extent to which we have been forgiven. 

FLOURISHING WITH ASSURANCE

Now what we have seen so far in this passage is that doubt is not incompatible with faith. We’ve seen that the truth of who we are in Christ does not depend upon our feelings but on the reality of what has happened to us. Even when we feel condemned by our conscience, God knows the truth of who we are, and since he is the judge it matters most what his opinion is toward us.

But we also learned that while doubt is not incompatible with faith, it is to be overcome by faith. God may have a good purpose to accomplish in doubt, but his purpose includes overcoming it. John wants us to be able to put our doubts to rest. Our feelings do matter, and the life lived without any affection is not a Christian life. If we can overcome our doubts, our relationship with God will flourish.

Assurance brings confidence

First of all, John says that if our heart does not condemn us, that is, if we can overcome our struggles with doubt, we will have confidence before God. Imagine that. We can come before the God of the Universe and be confident.

In 1 John 2:28 John said that the way to have confidence before God was to abide in him until he comes. Otherwise, our appearance before God will bring us shame. Here he says that confidence is the result of having a heart that does not condemn. John’s hope is that we will enjoy real, continuous fellowship with God that will produce confidence rather than timidity when we see him. In other words, confidence comes from a vibrant relationship. It’s the difference between friends and acquaintances. Even more, it’s the difference between friends and family. The closer my relationship with someone the greater access I have to them. So the confidence John is describing is the confidence a son has before his father. There is no timidity in approaching God because we know him. We abide in him. We have been born of him. The more assured of this we are, the more confident we can be in our relationship with God.

Confidence brings answered prayer

So confident does John want us to be in our relationship with God, that, according to verse 22, “whatever we ask we receive from him.” This is a daring promise, but it is not the only time it occurs in the Bible. Consider a few other examples:

  • (Psalm 34:17) When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.
  • (Proverbs 15:29) The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.
  • (Matthew 7:7) Ask, and it will be given to you; see, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
  • (Matthew 21:22) And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.
  • (John 14:13) Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
  • (John 15:7) If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

The first thing I want to point out about this promise of answered prayer is the invitation that God extends to his children to ask. He wants us to pray, and apparently is delighted to answer the requests of his children. Your prayer life is a good indication of the health of your relationship with God.

Second, there is an element of conditionality to the promise of answered prayer. In our sample of verses we find that God answers the prayers of the righteous but not the wicked, that faith is required for receiving what we ask for, that God answers our prayers so that he receives the glory, and that we must abide in Christ to receive our requests. In our present text we have already seen that we need a heart that does not condemn to even be able to approach God with our requests. And verse 22 tells us that the reason why we can receive from God whatever we ask is “because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”

In other words, the Bible is clear that God answers our prayers to the extent that he is pleased with our request and glorified in answering our request. God does not answer our prayers because we somehow merit his favor. He is not like Herod who was so pleased by the performance of his step-daughter that he promised to give her as a gift whatever she should ask for. God will give us what we ask for provided what we ask for is pleasing to him as well. The reason why we get what we ask for is because “we are keeping his commandments and doing the things that please him.” So if that is true, then what we ask for will be those things that help us to please him and keep his commandments. And God will always be pleased to answer such requests.

So what we are basically saying is that God answers our prayers only if our request is in accordance with his will. This is exactly what John will say later in this book in 1 John 5:14-15. The key to answered prayer is asking for the things that please God. Obviously this rules out our requests for selfish gain. And for many Christians, this “small print” is what keeps so many of them off their knees. After all, if God only answers the prayers that further his will, and if God will accomplish his will regardless, then why bother praying? Surely there are more important things to do with our time.

But such a conclusion misses the point of prayer and God’s eagerness that we participate in it. Since the beginning of this chapter (see 1 John 3:1) John has had in mind the relationship we have with God, calling it the relationship of a father to his son. While it is true that our sovereign God will surely accomplish his will, it appears that the means by which he will do so is through answered prayer. And the reason this is so is so that we might be allowed to participate with God in seeing his will accomplished. In other words, God invites us to pray for his glory and for our joy.

So our question is this: how is God glorified in our assurance? And the answer is that when we fully enter into the relationship that we have with God as his children, the more our desire will be for the things that God desires most. Our prayer will be for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We will be radically different from a world that cares nothing about God’s values. We will not ask for bigger houses, newer cars, fatter paychecks, and the latest fads. We will not ask for things that make us look good but for things that make God look good. And he will be pleased to answer such prayers. God will be glorified, and we will be satisfied.

Conclusion

Obedience: The Necessary Condition

John ends this chapter by wrapping up everything he has said to this point. First, he wants us to remember the commandment we must keep in order to please God. Notice in verse 23 he uses the singular commandment although he has two things in mind. God’s commandment is that we believe in his Son and God’s commandment is that we show radical love to one another. In saying that these two things form the one commandment John is again arguing that the two go together, and our assurance derives from our obedience to both and not just from one of them.

But obedience is not the means for God’s relationship with us; it is the necessary condition. In other words, our obedience does not earn us a relationship with God; obedience proves we have entered into a relationship with him. It is the evidence we need to put our heart at rest. We have not entered into the type of loving relationship with God that John is talking about so long as we refuse to live as God has commanded us to live. And his commands are straightforward: right belief about who Jesus is, and loving action toward other people.

The Spirit: The Proof for Our Assurance

But if obedience to these commandments is our evidence to overcome doubt, we have a problem. None of us can live up to the demands of these two commandments. Because of sin we will fall short. We will never love others as we should. In other words, we will sin.

That is why John has already told us that it is not sinless perfection which proves we are born again; it is our right response to our sin (1 John 3:6, 9). The true Christian has a new attitude toward sin in his life. John says this very thing in another way in the final verse of our chapter. “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him.” If that is the case, what might we expect to be the answer to what John says next: “and by this we know that he abides in us...”? He doesn’t say, “when we keep his commandments.” He says, “by the Spirit whom he has given us.” In his attempt to give us some assurance about our position with God, John is not now getting more subjective. He is saying that the Spirit is the source of our obedience, and this is what makes obedience an indication of our regeneration. Our obedience is no longer forced; it comes from the Spirit that he has given us who creates a longing in us for God’s glory over our own.

We need to see the evidence of God’s Spirit at work in us, causing us to obey God’s commandments of faith and love, and then we will have the evidence necessary to overthrow doubt.


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[1] R. C. Sproul, ed., Doubt and Assurance: Looking for Certainty when the Heart Doubts (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 9, 18.

[2] Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1984), 203.

[3] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 198.

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