February 21, 2021
There is an issue I want to briefly address this morning that has made the evangelical news. An elder and friend texted me this week and said of the issue, “To me, it was the worst thing that happened in 2020 – more that the riots, worse than COVID. Millions trusted the words, teaching and ministry of Ravi Zacharias.” I agree.
If you don’t know, Ravi Zacharias, born in India, immigrated to Canada, was a Christian apologist of the highest order. He was the founder and president of RZIM, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, based in Atlanta. He was in high demand to speak at conferences and college campuses across the world. He was a prolific author – an evangelical hero who defended the Christian faith well. His biblical and evangelical brilliance was perhaps unequaled. I’ve heard him speak in person several times, always challenged and moved by his words. I’ve read several of his books. I had the opportunity to meet him personally at a C&MA conference several years ago in Nashville. You see, you may not know that Mr. Zacharias was licensed and ordained by the Christian & Missionary Alliance – our small denomination. While his organization was not officially a denominational ministry, he was always considered a leader in our movement.
Allegations of sexual impropriety were first raised in 2017. A surface investigation was performed – after all, this was Ravi Zacharias – and the allegations were summarily dismissed. He died of cancer in May of last year, and the floodgates of accusations opened. A more serious investigation was conducted with results recently released – on February 11. Ravi had indeed engaged in sexual immorality for years. I won’t go into details, but they are egregious. Last week, the C&MA posthumously revoked his ordination and license – some saying, perhaps rightly, too little, too late.
I am deeply disappointed and saddened by the news of this scandal, as are some of you. He used his power and position to violate many victims. Ministry funds were used. The credibility and cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ have taken a serious hit. And so today, Christian talk shows, podcasts and blogs are filled with the news. Many asking questions like, “Did the ministry know?” “Did his family know?” “How could an evangelical leader engage in such horrible sin for so long?” Most penetrating: “Where is Ravi now?” “Was he even a Christian?”
I won’t try to answer those questions. Only God knows the heart. In fact, that is the central teaching of the text before us today. But, the Apostle John has been clear, in order to truly be a Christian, you must pass those three tests – the theological, moral and relational tests. It’s clear that Ravi’s theology was strongly orthodox and inimitably faithful. His morality and love of others, however, have been rightly brought into question. Of course, issues of the gospel come to the fore – is a person a Christian because he lives a moral life? Well, it depends on what you mean by that question. Evangelicals readily agree the Gospel of Jesus alone saves – right? The Five Solas and all that, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, to God be the glory, alone. Of course, we believe that.
But again, we have seen in our study of I John (and frankly the consistent teaching of the NT) that once saved, redeemed, made a new creation, the gospel changes people. It begins believers on a lifelong process of sanctification – that is, being made more holy. Indeed, Christians aren’t sinless, but the practice of their lives should not be that of sin. So, we are left to grieve and wonder. Again, Ravi’s eternal soul is in the hands of the Savior. On the one hand, I don’t want his life to give us salve for guilty consciences or permission to engage in sinful behavior. On the other, I don’t want to engage in soul-bashing judgment – either on him, nor on ourselves. Again, the point of the text today.
You see, John has had some strong things to say. Most Christians aren’t used to that – we like to have our ears tickled – to hear messages of encouraging hope and leave behind messages of biblical accountability and holiness. Tell me how I have sins forgiven, God as Father, Jesus as Savior, the Spirit as guide, heaven as my home, streets of gold, crystal rivers. Tell me how I can be prosperous even here, how I can have a good marriage, good kids, healthy bank account, nice church. And most of that is true. But as we make our way verse by verse through Scripture, we are finding it has lots to say about pursuing Christ, seeking holiness, mutual accountability, being filled with the Spirit so that our lives are changed. And if they aren’t, something is amiss.
And that’s been challenging – I know. In fact, last week we talked about loving one another as evidence of our genuine faith. And I made some strong COVID applications. Having received some feedback, let me clarify a couple of things.
First yes, I do want to encourage you to return to our gatherings – worship gatherings, Life Groups, Connections Groups, Bible Studies, etc. We are doing our best – in fact, I think we are doing a good job following CDC guidelines with masks, social distancing, etc. It is safe to return, and I do want to encourage you to do so. I miss you – we miss you, and we love you. I believe, biblically and historically, the church is meant to gather.
Second, as it relates to that CDC guideline – in fact, the executive order to wear masks – we are doing so. I was not advocating ditching the masks. I understand some of you heard it that way – I’m deeply sorry for the miscommunication. I relistened to my sermon – and I said three times, let’s wear the masks. We have been wearing them, and we have had no COVID outbreaks here.
Further, let me say this – some in our church family have wanted to return, but when they’ve been here, they’ve noticed while many wear masks, some don’t, and some pull them down. I want to say gently, let’s love one another well. Let’s make it as safe and comfortable as possible for all who want to come, to come. Listen, I want to lose the masks as much as the next person. In due time.
So, last week, John unequivocally outlined the relational test. This is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Don’t be like Cain who took life; be like Christ who gave His life – who laid down His life. Look for ways to intentionally be involved in each other’s lives – look for intentional ways to meet needs. Not just in your own circle – but in this big circle. Let’s love one another.
Now, John seemed to understand that was a daunting command. How do you know if you’re passing that test? Is it a pass/fail? Is sixty percent good enough? Not that I want to do the minimum, but do I even do the minimum? It’s one thing to say, I love other Christians; it’s another thing to prove it in action. How much action? How do you know if you’re doing enough? Do you give away all to the poor, the needy, until you are poor and needy? Should I, like Paul said, give all I have, because I love? Do I give my body to be burned? Do I quit my job and go to the mission field? Do I give everything to the church, to a missionary, to a mission hospital, to an orphanage? Should I just eat beans and rice, or is an occasional steak ok? Global warming, notwithstanding.
And what about the moral commands? I really want to be holy – sanctified – pursuing Christ. But how do I know if I’m obedient enough? Not that I only want to be so obedient, again, meeting the minimum, but I do occasionally sin. How do I know if I’ve sinned too much so as not to pass the test? How do I know I’m not a Ravi? If indeed he didn’t pass the text. Did he? Do I? It’s easy to point the finger at others, but the mirror is much more challenging.
How do I know if I believe enough? I mean, I believe in Jesus. I believe He was the Christ, the Son of God. I believe He died on the cross for sinners – for my sin. But sometimes, I’ve doubted. Or even neglected gospel truth. I haven’t always shared my faith. When others have ridiculed or questioned or persecuted, I’ve wondered – are they right? Am I?
All of a sudden, all these tests seem a little daunting. John is writing to encourage us, to indeed give assurance – but now, I’m not so sure I’m feeling assured. I’m not feeling very confident. How do I know I’m okay, saved, when my own heart sometimes condemns me? Do you suppose Ravi’s heart ever condemned him? Our text today – I John 3:19-24. He just said, love one another. Little children, let us not love with word or tongue (the idea is, only), but in deed and truth. We will know by this – by our love for one another – that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. (Verse 21…)
This is a challenging text, which I don’t think John actually meant it to be. He meant to encourage us through it – but the wide variety of interpretations through the centuries has led to some confusion. As we jump into it, here’s what I want you to know – John understands your struggles. More than, God understands your struggles, and knows your heart.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories. It’s found in John 21. It’s after the crucifixion and resurrection – also after Peter’s three denials in the courtyard of Caiaphas that he even knew Jesus. Earlier that evening, Jesus had told the disciples, strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter. On this very night, you will all scatter because of Me. And Peter boasted – not me, Jesus. Even if all deny You, You can count on me. I’ll follow you anywhere. Is that right, Peter? Before the rooster crows, you will deny that you know Me – not once, but three times. And Peter did – the rooster crowed, and Peter made eye contact with Jesus, fled the courtyard, and wept bitterly.
Now, it’s a week or two after the resurrection. Jesus told His disciples to go to Galilee and wait for Him there. One night, while they were waiting, Peter said, I’m going fishing. You know the story, several of the disciples went with him. I believe Peter was quitting – going back to his old way of life. Well, that night they caught nothing. Jesus appeared on the shore, told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They caught so many fish they had to drag the nets into shore. It was like déjà vu – they’d seen this before – back when Jesus called them to be fishers of men. John whispered to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So, Peter didn’t wait for the boats – he swam to shore, where he found Jesus already had some fish cooking over the fire.
After a seemingly quiet breakfast, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Peter, do you love Me?” You said you did. You said you loved Me more than all these – the boats, the nets, the sea. Or perhaps, you said you loved me more than these other disciples. He asked Peter three times – corresponding to Peter’s three denials. After the third time, Peter was grieved, and listen to what he said to Jesus, “Lord, You know all things. You know that I love you.” I know that I haven’t proved it by my actions. I denied You. I deserted You. I failed You. But notice – You know all things. You know my heart. Don’t look at my miserable failures – look at my heart – and know that I love You.
Have you ever felt like that? Like you’ve failed one too many times, and you have to cry out, Lord, you know all things. I’ve not acted like it, but You know my heart. Please examine my heart and know that I love You. Don’t let the doubts and even failures derail you. Discourage you. Defeat you. Keep pressing on. Keep looking up. Keep your eyes focused on the prize. You are going to make it, by the Holy Spirit whom God has given us. That’s what this text is saying. The outline goes like this:
- Loving One Another Assures our Hearts, Even When our Hearts Condemn Us (19-20)
- An Assured Heart Leads to Confident Trust in God (21-22)
- A Reminder of the Commandment (23)
- The Resulting Mutual Abiding in Him by His Spirit (24)
I know – that’s the most complicated outline I’ve ever written. But I’m hoping it helps us understand this challenging text. Again, the overall interpretation of the text is not too difficult – but it is the translation of the text, leading to various nuances, that is difficult. So here we go.
First, by this – by loving one another in word and action – we know that we are of the truth. By the way, notice how the paragraph beings with, we know by this, and ends in verse 24 with, we know by this. John is wanting to encourage, not discourage us. Yes – there are those whose lives may cause us question, even discourage us. I want you to be encouraged today. We believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ. We seek to obey His command, starting with the command we’ve heard from the beginning – love one another. And in all our frailties and failures – God knows our hearts and commends us in the passage. Sometimes, you can be Peters, but God knows your heart.
Listen, I’ve already preached most of the truth of the text. Let’s make our way through it and be mutually encouraged. By this – by our love for one another demonstrated in word and tongue and action and truth – however imperfect – confirms we are of the truth. The truth of the gospel found in the Christian faith. Meaning, if you seek to know Christ, love Christ, obey Christ, and love Christ’s people – you can lay your head down tonight and know you are of the truth. I. Howard Marshall writes:
“John says that we can set our hearts at rest whenever they condemn us…. For God understands us better than our own hearts know us, and in His omniscience He knows that our often weak attempts to obey His commands spring from a true allegiance to Him.” In other words, our assurance does not spring from within, but from without – the objective truth of God’s mercy in the gospel of Jesus Christ and His faithful work on the cross for us. In our attempts to obey, and our failures to do so.
Remember, this was written to a church wondering. There were those who had left, claiming to have the truth. In their leaving, they denied the faith, they denied Jesus, they weren’t obeying His commands, they weren’t loving Christians. John says, my little children, brothers and sisters – you’re okay. I know it’s been confusing and challenging – you can know you are of the truth.
As you seek to love one another, you will know you are of the truth, and this will assure your hearts before God. You can have confidence. Remember Hebrews 4:16, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.” This is why the veil of the Temple was torn in two – from top to bottom, signaling that God tore the veil, opening the way into His very presence through the blood of Christ. Enter boldly, confidently, because of the work of Christ, made effective in your life through belief in Jesus – and proved by your love – for Him, and one another.
Even when your own heart – one commentator called it an inner voice – some suggest the accusing conscience – even when your own heart condemns you: “You’re not good enough, you don’t love enough, you don’t believe enough.” Know this, brother and sisters, God is greater than that broken heart – that deceived heart – that imperfect heart – He is greater and knows all things. He knows you.
So, take from this the confidence John intends. And so, believing in Christ, if our heart does not condemn us, because God does not – He has forgiven us, called us His children – we can have confidence before Him – point 2. This confidence or boldness does not mean arrogance. There is a place for proper reverence and respect, even fear. But He invites us into His presence through the work of His Son – and we can go boldly. To ask and receive from Him. Let’s lop off the two opposing extremes of this truth…. God is open to His children and will never withhold any good thing from those who ask – if He knows it’s for our good.
Now, this is not a blank check, as some want to teach. This is not a promise of prosperity – of name and claim health and wealth. There are a number of qualifications for answered prayer in the Scripture, starting with keeping His commandments and doing the things that are pleasing to Him. Meaning, not only do we not do what we should not, but we do, do the things we should – those things that are pleasing to Him. Prayers for self-exaltation and self-gratification are not pleasing to Him. We are supposed to be laying down our lives for one another – not fleecing them for our benefit.
What are other qualifications for answered prayer? In chapter 5, John will say, “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests we have asked from Him.” The key qualification? That we ask according to His will. That’s consistent with what he says in our text – if we obey His commands and do those things which are pleasing to Him.
This is what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. In the Farewell Discourse (16:23-24), Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be full.” Again, don’t take that as a blank check. The idea of praying in Jesus’ name is praying for His sake, for His will to be done. So ask, but when you get to the end of your prayer and say, in Jesus’ name, you may have just negated everything you asked for – because you asked for Jesus’ will to be done. Sometimes we ask for things we shouldn’t, and He says no, and we must remember that no is an answer. Sometimes we say, He doesn’t answer my prayers – yes He does. He always does. We just don’t like the answer sometimes. Further, sometimes, we don’t ask rightly. But that’s okay – that’s why we ask in His name. For His will to be done.
James said it this way in James 4, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” I sometimes wonder if the prosperity teachers have ever read that verse.
Quickly, in our third point, John reminds us to believe in His Son Jesus Christ, obey His commands, love the family. Conditions for answered prayer are believing in Jesus, obeying His commands, and loving one another. Those now familiar tests. Further, the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. John’s Gospel and letters both speak to this dual abiding. As we abide in Him by keeping His commands, He abides in us. This is the teaching of John 15:
1 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.
2 “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.
3 “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.
4 “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.
5 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
6 “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.
7 “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
Do you see where John got what he wrote? My brothers and sisters, believe in Jesus. Seek to obey His commands. Love one another. Then, trust your hearts to God – who knows all things. Obedience leads to assurance. Yes, He knows your frailties, your failures, but He also knows your hearts. When our hearts condemn us, look to Christ. In the end, we don’t look to ourselves – we look to God. And the Holy Spirit lives in you, so that we abide in Him, and He in us.
I close with this. This assurance does not give permission to sin. True believers don’t want to sin, and disappoint our Father. But, true believers know when we fail, we are grieved, like Peter, and God reassures us with these words, I see your heart.