Last week's text addressed the problem of sin in the believer's life. This week, the problem seems to be guilt.
There are some styles of preaching and piety that prey on feelings of guilt, either to maintain pastoral power or to keep people coming to church (and, at times as a higher priority, giving their money). On the other hand, there is no scarcity of voices offering shallow psychological platitudes designed to banish all unpleasant feelings about oneself. This passage from 1 John offers sturdier stuff.
This text begins with the concrete reality of love known and lived because of Jesus. In contrast to Cain who robbed his brother of life (3:12-15), Jesus laid down his own life for us. The author is not interested in explaining just how Jesus' voluntary death benefits us. The point is that Jesus' act is the deepest meaning of "love", and so Jesus himself defines the character of the church's life. His self-giving death is love's story and love's shape. The church proclaims and lives love not as a vague ideal rooted in the human potential for good. Love is identified and known by what Jesus has done, and that act is the ground of all Christian thought and hope.
But the author insists that this love is not known only as a story from the past; this same love ought to be made visible now in relationships with one another within the church. As is characteristic of the Johannine tradition as a whole, love for the rest of humanity, while certainly not rejected, is not the topic here. We ought not to criticize this narrow focus too quickly. It is often easier to express love for those who are distant from us than for those who are constantly face to face with us. The author is blunt: we ought to do what Jesus did (see John 13:12-15). 1 John does not reflect a situation in which it is likely that members of the church will actually die for one another; there is no fatal persecution of the church expected here.
Rather, life-giving will be lived out in ways that are much closer to the situation in most of our congregations, and therefore much more challenging. Anyone who has the "life of the world" (NRSV "the world's goods", which expresses this phrase's referent but loses its connection to the laying down of life discussed in verse 16), and sees a brother or sister in need, can live out the life-giving of Jesus. The call is not just to the wealthy, or for rare acts of heroism. This is the more mundane material of daily discipleship for the church's multitude. Any disciple of Jesus, with the means to sustain life, is called to share that (i.e., to "lay down life") where it is lacking.
To fail at this point is more than selfishness with our stuff. It is to shut off one's compassion from the brother or sister in need (NRSV verse 17 "refuses to help" is a pale rendering of the more graphic language of the text, "closes one's innards"). The love of God is not present in anyone who can do that. The phrase "love of God" in verse 17 could be taken to mean either our love for God (since love for God is reflected in love for God's people; see 1 John 4:20-21), or God's love for us (since God's love for us is to be the force that prompts love from us; see 1 John 4:19). Either way, to give one's life in this way, in imitation of Jesus' own love, is more than simply a result of believing; it is the concrete shape that belief takes in the world,1 and the presence of such giving is a sign that God's love is present and active.
Verses 19-22 address the question of how we know we are "of the truth." Perhaps this question was raised, whether explicitly or implicitly, by the opponents who left the Johannine church. Unfortunately, the grammar of verses 19-20 is notoriously tangled. It seems most likely, contrary to the usual pattern in 1 John, that "by this we will know" points backwards: it is by loving in truth and in action (verse 18) that we know that we are "of the truth."
Verses 19b-20 often have been understood as a stern warning: if our hearts condemn us, then we must remember that God's condemnation will be even greater, since God knows absolutely everything, even those sins which we may succeed in hiding from ourselves. However, in this context the point is almost certainly one of comfort and reassurance, as most recent commentators have recognized. Human conscience is not an infallible guide. Even when we would condemn ourselves, God's grace is larger than our sin, and God's mercy is greater than our ability to grasp it.
It may be surprising good news for some that the faithful stance is not one of constant fear and self-loathing. The author finds it possible that our conscience may not be plagued (verse 21), which is identified as boldness in God's presence, the assurance that we may ask and God will graciously give. However, God is no cosmic vending machine operating to serve our desires. Verse 22 speaks of keeping God's commands, and doing what is pleasing to God. Whatever requests rise from belief in Jesus and from love for one's brothers and sisters will be pleasing and acceptable to God.
These two commandments for faith and for love are identified as one in verse 23. Love for others is the core of the Son's revelation of the Father, and so such love is the very essence of the One in whom we believe. Faith and love are the marks of the church, and for the Johannine believers (and us as well), bruised by church schism and by questions about whether God is truly at work among us, these marks are both the calling and the comfort of the church. They are in fact nothing less than what it means to dwell within the life of the Father and the Son, brought to reality and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit (verse 24).
1David Rensberger, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 102.