WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER THREE (Lesson XCIII) 11/19/21

3:20 But if we have a bad conscience and feel that we have done wrong, the Lord will sense it even more, for He knows everything we do.

Bunyan continues: The witnesses are ready to testify, beginning with the Lord All-Powerful who says. “Then I will come to you and judge you. I will be quick to testify against those who take part in evil magic, adultery, and lying under oath, those who cheat workers of their pay and who cheat widows and orphans, those who are unfair to foreigners, and those who do not respect me.”[1]  The second witness is the prisoner’s conscience.[2] It has a thousand voices who all cry Amen to every word God testifies against the prisoner. Conscience is a frightening accuser; it verifies that everything God says is closer than the width of a hair. Therefore, the witnesses of conscience possess great authority. It demands guilt and convicts every soul which it accuses; and hence John says, “When our hearts make us feel guilty, we can still have peace before God because God surpasses our hearts. He knows everything.”[3] [4]

John Flavel (1627-1691) talks about those souls who feel overloaded with the burdensome sense of sinning. It all depends on the verdict and conviction of a person’s conscience, says Flavel. However, this is not the whole story. “Feeling condemned” is nothing more than applying the Law to a person’s wrongdoing.[5] An individual’s conscience applies the Law’s curse to their guilt as a sinner. It decrees the lawbreaker as guilty under God’s name and authority, from which there is no appeal. The voice of conscience is the voice of God, and what it pronounces as sinful in God’s name and under His authority, He will confirm and ratify.

This is what the Apostle John says here in verse twenty, says Flavel, that when our hearts make us feel guilty, we can still have peace with God because He is smarter than our hearts. He knows everything. It is the kind of anguish no person can endlessly endure. We see its effects in Cain, Judas Iscariot, and Sapphira;[6] it is a real foretaste of hell-torments. It is that worm that never dies.[7] In the same way that malignancy in the body breeds cancer, says Flavel, so do accusations and condemnation of conscience infect the soul with corruption and guilt.[8]

Augustus Strong (1836-1921) quotes Estonian theologian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), saying, “There is an inner law which compels the sinner to look upon God as a wrathful Judge…Yet [for them], no other feeling is possible.” We regard this confession as a demonstration of the psychological correctness of Paul’s doctrine of “surrogate atonement.”[9] God has so constituted human nature that it demands His holiness. That the conscience needs soothing is proof that God requires satisfaction. Some have declared that reconciliation is offered only to our conscience in that the Anointed One bore our sins, not in substitution for us, but in fellowship with us. Consequently, the verdicts of conscience are only indications of the higher rulings of God.[10]

James Morgan Gibbon (1855-1932), an independent minister, notes we’ve all heard about “heartache,” but when did we last hear of “heartease?” Therefore, it is hard to understand the logic in what the Apostle John says here in verse twenty. God’s children, out of spiritual necessity, “do what’s right, and love mercy.”[11] But there are times when the heart bows hushed and silent before God. It’s when conscience lays its trophy at the feet of the Anointed One. Yet, all that is within us stands up to bless the Lord, who forgives all our iniquities. Now in these blessed moments, “we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves but are bold and free before God! It allows us to stretch out our hands and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases Him.”[12] It proves that we are one with God because we love what He loves and hate what He hates, and His commandments are our law. And we pray to Him freely, confidently, unhesitatingly, as to One by whose compassion we feel secure.[13]

Alonzo R. Cocke (1858-1901) comments that the Christian’s spiritual discernment detects what is opposed to His life in us and condemns it. It goes without the saying that God is infinitely wiser because He is omniscient. The new life given to us acts in our hearts with unlimited strength in Him. Thus, with unerring accuracy, it senses any taint of evil in us. In addition, God’s authority exceeds our Christian consciousness. He is the Lord of mankind’s moral nature as an omniscient lawgiver. So then, having a bad conscience would disturb their confidence and peace in God’s presence. Therefore, communion would no longer be joyful; the sinning child would come into His presence with fear of disapproval, expecting to find a frown on His face instead of a smile.[14]

For James Morgan (1859-1942), we learn the connection between active godliness and spiritual enjoyment. Knowing we follow the truth assures our hearts that we have confidence in Him and delight in prayer to remain consistent and holy. It allows us to grow in brotherly love. Listen to the words of Isaiah: “This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your families. Do this, and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then, when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help, and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’ If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins. If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, and I will bathe your shadowed lives in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you an enjoyable life even in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. It will earn you a reputation as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.[15] [16]

Robert Law (1860-1919) says that the question whether we are “of the truth” is illustrated as a person putting their “heart” (conscience) on trial, with themselves as prosecutor and defendant. It is conducted in the presence of the Omniscient God, who serves as Judge and Jury. There are three elements in the case, (a) Our heart condemns us. We believe that we passed from spiritual death into life in the Anointed One, [17] but doubts about its validity have risen. When Conscience summons us into the inner tribunal, we are found guilty. By failing to do what was right for God’s children, [18] or our faith faltered—our vision of the Truth became dim. The evidence of our union with the Anointed One is obscured by inconsistencies that compel us to question whether we are “of the truth” or have deceived ourselves.[19]

The second element is, (b) “Are we “of the truth?” When conscience brings offers into evidence these allegations of insincerity, to what shall we appeal? To this, the Apostle John says: that we have loved “Not in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and truth.”[20] Again, there are things we can point to—not things we have professed or felt or imagined or intended, but things that we have done because of the Love God put into our hearts. Neither spiritual emotions nor vision can tell us anything without the practice of God’s Love. So, in bearing one another’s burdens, in denying ourselves to give to another’s need, [21] we are on solid ground. As a result of this, we can calm our self-accusing hearts—yes, even in the presence of God. And finally, the third element; (c) “Because God’s heart is greater in capacity than our heart, and comprehends all things.”[22] [23]

Daniel C. Snaddon (1915-2009) says that this verse is difficult to understand. The words heart and conscience seem to be interchangeable. It is serious when our conscience convicts us of our actions. Our conscience fails at times, but God knows everything about us fully and absolutely.[24]

For Robert W. Yarbrough (1948), the Apostle John’s reasons for blessed assurance may include accusations: “whenever our hearts condemn us.” The Greek word kataginōskō translated (“condemn”) occurs only once outside John’s epistle.[25] For instance, Sirach 14: 2 speaks of a person who is blessed because their “heart [psychē] does not condemn them.” Especially if one suffers from humiliation and estrangement from God by internal misgivings and condemnation in connection with a lack of love for others when trying to put things right, then John assures readers that “God is greater than our hearts.”[26]


[1] Malachi 3:5 – New Century Version (NCV)

[2] Romans 2:15

[3] 1 John 3:20

[4] Bunyan’s Practical Works: Vol. 1, The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Judgment, p. 305-327

[5] See Galatians 3:10

[6] See Acts of the Apostles 5:1-11

[7] Mark 9:44

[8] Flavel, John: The Method of Grace, pp. 158-159

[9] Surrogate atonement implies someone standing in for another.

[10] Strong, Augustus H: Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, p. 625

[11] Micah 6:8

[12] 1 John 3:21-22

[13] Gibbon, James Morgan: The Biblical Illustrator, 1 John 3, pp. 217-218

[14] Cocke, A. R. (1895), Studies in the Epistles of John, op. cit., pp. 88–89

[15] Isaiah 58:6-12 – The Message

[16] Morgan, James: (1865), An Exposition of the First Epistle of John, op. cit., pp. 272-273

[17] 1 John 3:14

[18] Ibid. 3:10

[19] Cf. Ibid. 2:4, 6, 9

[20] Ibid. 3:18

[21] Ibid. 3:17

[22] Ibid. 3:20

[23] Law, Robert (1909), The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., pp. 281-282

[24] Snaddon, Daniel C., Plymouth Brethren Writings, 1 John, op. cit., loc. cit.

[25] Galatians 3:20-21; cf. the LXX Exodus 22:9; Deuteronomy 25:1; likewise, 1 Kings 8:32; Job 10:2; 34:17; 40:8; Psalms 37:33; 94:21; Proverbs 12:2; 17:15; Sirach 14:2; 19:5

[26] Yarbrough, Robert W., 1-3 John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), p. 210

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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