1 John gives us three ways that we can know we are God’s children.
- One is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. “And the one who keeps his commandments resides in him, and he in him. And by this we know that he abides in us: by the Spirit whom he has given to us.” (3:24).
- A second is grounded in the nature of God and our true belief in him. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (5:1, see also 4:2).
- The third is the fact that we are obedient to his commands. “Now this is how we can be sure that we know God: if we keep his commandments. The one who says, ‘I know God,’ yet does not keep his commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, truly in that person is the love of God brought to fulfillment. This is how we can be sure that we are in him: the one who claims to abide in God ought to walk just as Jesus walked” (2:3–6).
The question today is where does 3:19–20 fit, as part of #2 or #3. More specifically, is the idiom ἐν τούτῳ in 3:19 anaphoric, pointing back to the previous thought, or does it point forward?
ἐν τούτῳ occurs 14 times in 1 John, and possibly every time it points forward. For example, “By this (ἐν τούτῳ) we know that we love the children of God: whenever we love God and obey his commandments” (5:1).
Several translations say ἐν τούτῳ points forward, emphasizing this not only by the translation but also by starting v 19 as a new paragraph, thus removing the possibility of ἐν τούτῳ being anaphoric. “By this 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” (ESV, see also NIV). This interpretation puts the verse in category 2; even when we sin, our confident belief in God’s greatness and omniscience assures us of our position in Christ.
Other translations view ἐν τούτῳ as anaphoric, pointing back to the previous discussion (see NASB, NRSV, NET [see their extended note]). Our love for one another is our assurance that we “we have crossed over from death to life” (3:14), but this love must show itself in actions and not merely with words. If we hate our fellow believers (3:15), if we do not share our wealth with them (3:17), then we cannot be God’s children. And it is precisely our love put to action (3:18) that assures us “that we are of the truth and will set our conscience at rest in his presence” (3:19). As a result, even when our conscience condemns us, we can be assured that God is greater than our conscience and knows all things (3:20). “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” (NLT).
Decisions like this are always hard, especially in a writer like John who is very much stream of consciousness. The fact that in most other places (if not all) ἐν τούτῳ points forward is significant, but context (I think) favors an anaphoric interpretation.
Practically speaking, this is an important decision. So many people who attend church apparently approach Christianity as a series of transactions, a series of disconnected actions like going to church on Easter and Christmas, or perhaps every Sunday but nothing else. But the truth of the matter is that we must love others with both words and actions. If we don’t, then there is no assurance we truly are God’s children. We can espouse all the good theology we want (#2 above). We can have warm fuzzies about God (#1 above). But if we are not obedient, if our love does not have feet, then there can be no assurance of our adoption into God’s family.
Considering the amount of gossip and backbiting and absence of love and lack of any real obedience on the part of so many who went to church last week on Easter, it should drive a little fear into the heart of every preacher and affect the clarity of their biblical preaching.