This lengthy section focuses on righteousness in terms of love, a theme to which the writer returns again and again. He elaborates the theme first by emphasizing a contrast between love and hate, illustrating the latter with a hate-motivated fratricide, Cain's murder of Abel. As Jesus taught, the attitude of the heart is as heinous and guilty before God as the act.
Then he illustrates the reverse by the model of Christ as self-giving love. Just as the Incarnation is the criterion of truth, so it is the paradigm of love. Here we learn that God's kind of love is more than an emotion but is defined by self-giving action. The most graphic expression of such love is to lay down our life for our brothers. Although few face this necessity, most believers have occasion to show this love by sharing. Love is “the willingness to surrender that which has value for our own life, to enrich the life of another” (Dodd, 86).
Loving behavior is now described as the basis of confidence before God (3:19-24). Knowledge that one has eternal life is the major concern of this epistle. John now addresses an important issue in connection with this matter—confidence before God: If love (agape) were merely an emotion and not a lifestyle, it would be a tenuous basis for certainty since the ebb and flow of emotions would make for vacillating certainty. The confidence that one has love, and thus that he knows God (has eternal life), is evidenced by this self-sacrificing way of life.
Whenever our hearts condemn us may refer to a guilty conscience or perhaps to an uncertainty about our acceptance by God. God is greater than our hearts may be interpreted as suggesting that God condemns us the more. However, this is no consolation. The context makes it clear that John is suggesting that God's knowledge of us and the life of love lived out is more significant than our own feelings about acceptance. As Barclay says, “The perfect knowledge which belongs to God, and to God alone, is not our terror, but our hope” (Barclay, 103).
Wesley's mature understanding of the witness of the Spirit is informed by this truth. He spoke of those who, in the early days of the revival “made sad those whom God had not made sad.” They would ask, “Do you know that you are a child of God?” If the answer was not a clear affirmative they would respond, “Then we know you are not.” Wesley came to see that the “witness” was not essential to acceptance with God. It was, on the other hand, the privilege of ordinary believers, and one they should seek diligently (see Letters, 5:235, 359; Works, 7:199; and Dunning, 441-48).
The relationship of a sense of acceptance (does not condemn us) and confidence gives a boldness in God's presence that Wesley would call the “faith of a son.” Such a confidence has a twofold result: (1) the freedom to ask largely with expectation that the Father's love will respond, and (2) not merely keeping commandments, which might be mere legalism, but doing that which pleases the Father, even going beyond the letter of the law.
The commandment we are to keep calls for faith and love. Their relation is one of the most important considerations in a proper theology of the Christian life. “Here the faith is the initial act of believing which leads to the life of faith. . . . Faith in Christ, then is the first step of life in the family of God, and this life is a life of love as well as a life of faith” (Bruce, 100).
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