The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©


'By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us' (3:19-24).

This letter has said some very strong and challenging things about those who profess to know God and yet have actually no right to claim to be children of God, enjoying the life of God and having fellowship with Him. In 2:4 we have read, 'He who says "I know him" but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him'. In 2:9 we have read, 'He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still'. Now verse 19 says 'by this' - that is, by loving others in deed and in truth' (verse 18) - 'we shall know that we are of the truth'. But how can the sincere Christian be sure that he is a child of God and not be afraid to stand before God as Judge (remember 2:28)? His own heart and conscience may condemn him because often in his life he has disobeyed God and acted in an unloving way towards others. Can he then be sure? These verses give three reasons for assurance.

a. God's acceptance and forgiveness.

There is a way that we can know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us' (verses 19, 20). When it says, 'God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything' (verse 20), it might seem much harder to stand before God as Judge than before the judgement of our own conscience. God knows the wrong things that we do and say and even think when perhaps our conscience is not stirred to realize them. But this is not the meaning here. God, in His perfect knowledge, knows when in repentance we turn from the wrong we have done and look to Him for forgiveness, His forgiveness is the answer to the condemning conscience. That was what Peter meant when he answered his Master: 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you' (John 21:17). He was not saying, 'You know I have done no wrong', but, 'You know I am sorry for my failures and that I turn back to You in penitence and love'. So we can have confidence before God as we rely completely on His mercy and His acceptance of us.

b. God's answering our prayers.

We have a further way of being sure that God accepts us. He hears and answers our prayers. We receive from Him the things that we ask (verse 22). This shows that He treats us as His children. If He did not accept us, He would not answer our prayers. We need to be careful, however, that we understand rightly what verse 22 says about prayer. 'We receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments.' This makes us ask two questions:

1. Does God answer prayer when we deserve His help by our obeying Him? No, we should never think this way. We all have so often failed to 'do what pleases him' that we could never deserve His help. But it means that in prayer -and in our daily living - we will be seeking His will to be done. When we want to do His will, He will surely strengthen us to do it. When we ask for His will surely answer our prayers.

2. Can we really ask whatever we want and know that we will 'receive from him whatever we ask'? Is prayer the way that we can get God to do our will in the world? The world would be a terrible place if God's power could be used to do man's will. Here, rather is the secret of prayer. Prayer and the obedience of our lives are the two ways given to us of having God's will done in the world. That is the tremendous thing that we ask when we say, as Jesus taught us to pray, `Thy will be done'.

If we have any common sense, would we really want anything else - for ourselves or for others - than what God in His perfect love and wisdom wants to do? What a wonderful thing it is that we have prayer and Christian living as the two God-given ways of getting done in the world what the apostle Paul calls the 'good and acceptable and perfect will of God' (Romans 12:2)!

c. God's gift of His Spirit.

Much is said in this letter about the conditions on our side of our being able to say truly that we know God and have fellowship with Him. Verses 23, 24 sum this up by saying, `This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them'. But there is the other side. It is not just by what we do or by what we sincerely try to do that we can be sure, but by what God does. His accepting us and His answering our prayers, help us to be sure - and now the third way to be sure is 'by the Spirit which he has given us' (verse 24). Our lives are completely different if the Holy Spirit is in us and this makes us sure that we belong to Him.

Some people say that the proof of the presence of the Spirit in a person's life is speaking in tongues or some other dramatic sign. God may give a person such an experience, but neither the Bible nor Christian history indicates that every genuine Christian must realize the Holy Spirit is in his life in such a way. What the Bible does say is that the Holy Spirit gives us the inner confidence that God is our Father and we are His children (see Romans 8:14-16 and Galatians 4:6). The Holy Spirit helps us to have love in our hearts for others (Romans 5:5 and Galatians 5:22). The Holy Spirit strengthens us when we are weak (Acts 1:8 and 2 Timothy 1:7). The Holy Spirit guides us in the way that we should go (John 16:13 and Acts 16:6-10). If we know such work of the Holy Spirit in our lives we know that God, in His grace and love and goodness, has come to us, He has made us His people and He will not let us go.


Lord God, we thank You for accepting us who have failed so often to obey You and to serve You. Thank you for Your forgiveness and pardon, for Your willingness to hear our prayers and for the gift of Your own Spirit to be in our lives. Help us to use the great privilege of prayer and the opportunities for service in our lives each day, to carry on the work of Your kingdom, to do Your will and to uplift Your name before other people. AMEN.

For further thought and study.

1. Look up the references given in section (c) above and any other Scripture passages in your mind, that indicate the working of the Holy Spirit that the Christian should know in his or her life.

2. Along with verse 22 think of other conditions that the Bible gives for our prayers to be right prayers and to be answered by God. See especially Matthew 7:7-8, 18:19, 21:22, Mark 11:24-25, John 14:13-14, 15:7, 16, 16:23-24, James 1:5-7, 4:3 and 1 John 5:14. Try to think how these different conditions can be linked together.


Believing 'in the name' of Jesus Christ (verse 23) means believing in Him for who He truly is, to 'believe as true the message which the name conveys' (Westcott): that is, that He is Jesus, the Saviour; He is the Christ, the sent One of God, sent to be Lord and King; He is the Son of God, as well as truly Man, the Son of man.