19 We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him 20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. (NASB)
A friend of mine came across the following comment from Jamieson, Fausett, and Brown's Commentary on the The Old and New Testaments on 1 John 3:20, and asked me about a comparison with Calvin's comments and Luther's on the same verse:
Luther and Bengel take this verse as consoling the believer whom his heart condemns; and who, therefore, like Peter, appeals from conscience to Him who is greater than conscience. “Lord, Thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love Thee.” Peter‘s conscience, though condemning him of his sin in denying the Lord, assured him of his love; but fearing the possibility, owing to his past fall, of deceiving himself, he appeals to the all-knowing God: so Paul, 1 Corinthians 4:3, 1 Corinthians 4:4. So if we be believers, even if our heart condemns us of sin in general, yet having the one sign of sonship, love, we may still assure our hearts (some oldest manuscripts read heart, 1 Jo 3:19, as well as 1 Jo 3:20 as knowing that God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. [Link]Johann Albrecht Bengel's (a Lutheran 1687-1752) comments can be found here. He states, "Whatever or in whatever things, our heart shall condemn us, that we shall be able to tranquilize... Conscience is weak, and knows something of ourselves only, not without trembling; nor has it the ability to pardon: but God is great, knows all our affairs, present, past, and future, and those of all men; and has the right and will of pardoning." The gist of what JFB and Bengel are saying is that 1 John 3:20 is to be taken as a comfort "when our hearts condemns us" because "God is greater than our hearts." If one reads Calvin's view on verse 20, he appears to say something quite different- that if our hearts condemn us, it is a sign of God's judgment "that they in vain possess the name and appearance of Christians."
Martin Luther on 1 John 3:19-21
Luther's comments may be those from Luther's lectures on 1 John (1527) which were given to those who remained in Wittenberg when the plague struck (LW, introduction). In verse 16-18 Luther addresses loving one's neighbor and helping one's neighbor. Commenting on verse 17 Luther's commentary states, "If I have goods and do not expend them, do not give food, drink, clothing, etc.; that is, if I am greedy and niggardly, I am not a Christian" (LW 30:278). Luther then is recorded to have stated:
19. By this we know that we are of the truth.
This is the evidence with which we assure ourselves of our calling and by which it is established that we are standing in the truth. If I am not moved by the weaknesses of my brother, I surely do not love him. From the fruits of love we can learn that we have love. Faith is established by its practice, its use, and its fruit. For after one has devoted oneself to a life of idleness, it is difficult to raise the heart up to God. Faith alone raises us up. Hence faith must be put into practice, in order that we may be freed from an evil conscience.
And in His sight we shall set our hearts at rest.
The consciousness of a life well spent is the assurance that we are keeping the faith, for it is through works that we learn that our faith is true. And one day my conscience will bear witness before God that I have not been an adulterer, that I have loved my brother, and that I have come to the assistance of the poor, even though there are many things in which we have offended even a brother.
20. because if our heart blames us.
If you lack works, yet you should not lack faith. Even if persuasion is lacking, yet faith and hope are greater. If idleness of life blames you, still you should not yet despair. For it is the sum and substance of the Gospel that you should believe and hope. Although we should consider ourselves unworthy, yet we should accept the grace that is offered and the Gospel. Even if our conscience makes us fainthearted and presents God as angry, still “God is greater than our heart.” Conscience is one drop; the reconciled God is a sea of comfort. The fear of conscience, or despair, must be overcome, even though this is difficult. It is a great and exceedingly sweet promise that if our heart blames us, “God is greater than our heart” and “knows everything.” Why does John not prefer to say that He has done or can do everything? When the conscience blames, then man is distressed and says with David in Ps. 40:12: “My iniquities have overtaken me till I cannot see”; see also Ps. 49:6. Then a sinner sobs and says: “I do not know what I ought to do.” But in opposition to this darkness of the heart it is said: “God knows everything.” One’s conscience is always fearful and closes its eyes, but God is deeper and higher than your heart and examines it more intimately. He gives us a light, so that we see that our iniquity has been taken away from us. Satan often disturbs our conscience even when we do what is right. In case anyone were to be troubled because he had not celebrated Mass, the devil can confuse him and take away all Scripture passages that used to give him courage with respect to human traditions. But then one must close one’s eyes and consider that God is wiser in His Word and that we are not saved by such vain works. Thus the devil can disturb a person for having departed from the monastic life and can suppress the joy of his heart. But here one must resist him; for God, who strengthens you in the truth, is more powerful than the devil. As Matt. 15:9 says, “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Sometimes the devil interprets the best things badly and the bad things well, weakens the good things and makes much of the things that are bad. From a little laughter he can make eternal damnation. But you must always consider that
God is greater than our heart.
The heart knows nothing that is right. God knows everything and teaches me better things in the Word of the Gospel.
21. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence toward God.
Confidence and condemnation are mutually exclusive. For if you have confidence in God’s grace, your heart does not condemn you. Love cannot calm your heart, since one often loves in words and with the tongue, v. 18. But faith, which is victory over the world and hell, as 1 John 5:4 says, calms you. From this one now understands why the devil vexes us so much, opposes the Word, and strives to take the Word away. For if the Word has been taken away, faith is taken away; if faith has been taken away, calmness of the heart is taken away. If he cannot hinder the Word, he strives to hinder faith, lest we believe the Word; he confuses and muddles the Word. If he cannot hinder faith, he strives to hinder prayer and hurls a person into so many activities that he is unable to pray.Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, and H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, pp. 279–281). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
There's a balance to Luther's comments. In verses 16-18 he describes faith in action, in essence, how our actions prove faith. In verse 19 he speaks of the "evidence with which we assure ourselves of our calling and by which it is established that we are standing in the truth." "It is through works that we learn our faith is true." Then he continues to describe the comfort mentioned in verse 20 for those who struggle with the "fear of conscience" about their works. One can't help but wonder if Luther's being autobiographical at this point when he states, " Even if our conscience makes us fainthearted and presents God as angry, still 'God is greater than our heart.' Conscience is one drop; the reconciled God is a sea of comfort." Verse 20 is expounded as "consoling the believer whom his heart condemns" just like JFB states.
John Calvin on 1 John 3:19-20
There's also a balance to Calvin's comments. In his Commentary on 1 John 3:14, Calvin speaks of love as "the special fruit of the Spirit, it is also a sure symbol of regeneration." He balances this with stating that evaluating the amount of "love" in one's life is not the basis of confidence for salvation, because if it were, salvation would "recumb on works." Salvation has its confident "foundation in the mercy of God only." In verse 16 he describes how a Christian should seek to imitate Christ in his actions towards others, and doing this correctly requires those actions be done with "brotherly love." "Except this feeling prevails in our hearts, we have no connection with Christ." In verse 19 he reiterates that "love" assures our hearts in the sense that it is "an evidence that we are born of God," but this isn't to be used as a proof of certainty of salvation. "Love is accessory or an inferior aid, a prop to our faith, not a foundation on which it rests." Then comes Calvin's comment on verse 20:
20. For if our heart condemn us. He proves, on the other hand, that they in vain possess the name and appearance of Christians, who have not the testimony of a good conscience. For if any one is conscious of guilt, and is condemned by his own heart, much less can he escape the judgment of God. It hence follows, that faith is subverted by the disquiet of an evil conscience.
He says, that God is greater than our heart, with reference to judgment, that is, because he sees much more keenly than we do, and searches more minutely and judges more severely. For this reason, Paul says, that though he was not conscious of wrong himself, yet he was not therefore justified, (1 Corinthians 4:4; ) for he knew that however carefully attentive he was to his office, he erred in many things, and through inadvertence was ignorant of mistakes which God perceived. What then the Apostle means is, that he who is harassed and condemned by his own conscience, cannot escape the judgment of God.
To the same purpose is what immediately follows, that God knoweth or seeth all things. For how can those things be hid from him which we, who in comparison with him are dull and blind, are constrained to see? Then take this explanation, “Since God sees all things, he is far superior to our hearts.” For to render a copulative as a causal particle is no new thing. The meaning is now clear, that since the knowledge of God penetrates deeper than the perceptions of our conscience, no one can stand before him except the integrity of his conscience sustains him.
But here a question may be raised. It is certain that the reprobate are sometimes sunk by Satan into such stupor, that they are no longer conscious of their own evils, and. without alarm or fear, as Paul says, rush headlong into perdition; it is also certain, that hypocrites usually flatter themselves, and proudly disregard the judgment of God, for, being inebriated by a false conceit as to their own righteousness, they feel no convictions of sin. The answer to these things is not difficult; hypocrites are deceived because they shun the light; and the reprobate feel nothing, because they have departed from God; and, indeed there is no security for an evil conscience but in hiding-places.
But the Apostle speaks here of consciences which God draws forth to the light, forces to his tribunal, and fills with an apprehension of his judgment. Yet; it is at the same time generally true, that we cannot have a calm peace except that which God’s Spirit gives to purified hearts; for those who, as we have said, are stupefied, often feel secret compunctions, and torment themselves in their lethargy.Calvin, J. (2002). Calvin’s Commentaries (1 Jn 3:19). Galaxie Software.
Even though Luther and Calvin preface their comments similarly in regard to the way actions demonstrate saving faith, when they arrive at verse 20 they diverge. For Luther, he appears to have someone in mind with the "fear of conscience, or despair," the sensitive soul that realizes a look inside in light of a holy God produces a feeling of condemnation. On the other hand, Calvin says if one is lacking "the testimony of a good conscience" and has a guilty feeling, "What then the Apostle means is, that he who is harassed and condemned by his own conscience, cannot escape the judgment of God," and "The meaning is now clear, that since the knowledge of God penetrates deeper than the perceptions of our conscience, no one can stand before him except the integrity of his conscience sustains him."
Calvin though does go on to describe someone somewhat similar to the person Luther has in view. In his comment on 1 John 3:21 he states,
Here, however, arises a greater difficulty, which seems to leave no confidence in the whole world; for who can be found whose heart reproves him in nothing? To this I answer, that the godly are thus reproved, that they may at the same time be absolved. For it is indeed necessary that they should be seriously troubled inwardly for their sins, that terror may lead them to humility and to a hatred of themselves; but they presently flee to the sacrifice of Christ, where they have sure peace. Yet the Apostle says, in another sense, that they are not condemned, because however deficient they may confess themselves to be in many things, they are still relieved by this testimony of conscience, that they truly and from the heart fear God and desire to submit to his righteousness. All who possess this godly feeling, and at the same time know that all their endeavors, how muchsoever they come short of perfection, yet please God, are justly said to have a calm or a peaceful heart, because there is no inward compunction to disturb their calm cheerfulness.Calvin admits that if one seriously looks into their heart, something will certainly convict that person before a Holy God. Discovering such, a person will naturally feel "a hatred of themselves." This person however is to "flee to the sacrifice of Christ, where they have sure peace." He goes on to say that such a person discovering such dark truths about themselves are typically those who "truly and from the heart fear God and desire to submit to his righteousness." This is possessing a "godly feeling" and results in confidence toward God rather than conviction.
Are Luther and Calvin saying different things? I'm sure my Lutheran friends would completely think so. Calvin and Luther certainly diverge on their explanations of verse 20. However, they both seem ultimately to have the same thing in mind, or perhaps it would be better to state they arrive at the same place.
My view? I'm with Luther on verse 20, because that's the sort of conscience I have. For Calvin's view, it reminded me of B.B. Warfield's popular comment that John Calvin was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Notice in his comment on verse 20: "we cannot have a calm peace except that which God’s Spirit gives to purified hearts." The idea appears to me that Calvin relies on the inward testimony of the Spirit to avoid having one's heart feeling condemnation before a Holy God. He speaks of those who "possess this godly feeling"and have "a calm or a peaceful heart." Before someone thinks this is subjective mysticism, notice how Calvin explains how this inward testimony emerges, "but they presently flee to the sacrifice of Christ, where they have sure peace." Above Luther says in verse 21, "For if you have confidence in God’s grace, your heart does not condemn you." It sounds very much the same to me, but being expressed differently. No, Calvin was not a Lutheran, and Luther was not a Calvinist, but there are senses in which they overlap, even when at times it appears they are saying two different things.