It says “this is His commandment”. There is no duality, no horizontal and vertical. It is a unity, a monolithic statement. There is no loving one another without belief in Christ, and there is no case in which belief in Christ does not lead to love for one another. They are a single unified case, they are one thing.
19 We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him,
20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.
21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God;
22 and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.
23 And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.
24 And the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And we know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.
(1 John 3:19-24, NASB).
The sense of the idea of “keeping” His commandment (1 John 3:22) has not changed a bit from its usage in 1 John 2:3. No human keeps His commandments in any better sense than maintaining that they are right, and confessing constantly in prayer that in our sin we fall short of them. This is truly keeping them – we do not water them down to something that seems more comfortable and doable for us. We hold them high and keep them stringent and through confession scour ourselves clean in His merciful blood. Again, confession is far more powerful than trying hard, and is a far more honest way to say that one “keeps” His commandments.
Now we come to this amazing statement – “this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another”. It is a singular commandment, not two commandments. It doesn’t say “these are His two main commandments”. It says “this is His commandment”. There is no duality, no horizontal and vertical. It is a unity, a monolithic statement. There is no loving one another without belief in Christ, and there is no case in which belief in Christ does not lead to love for one another. They are a single unified case, they are one thing.
How can this be? As long as justice stands against me, and justice stands against you, and as long as our sins against one another remain unpropitiated and unjustified, we can only rightly be at enmity with one another. In fact, as long as we remain in the camp of the self-justifiers, we rightly stand with God in standing apart from one another. The evil we have visited on one another really is unjust, and where there is no propitiation there is no basis for forgiveness or acceptance. The right thing which our conscience demands is to hope for and justice, which involves some form of retribution or punishment against a person’s evildoing as a show that it ought not be tolerated. As soon as our own sin is propitiated, and our conscience is satisfied that justice has truly been visited upon our own chosen evil, we enter into a great freedom and choose what we choose from the heart instead of from fear (1 John 4:18).
It is thus that we enter into a universe where the divided good of moral and aesthetics are reunited, and we do what we do from freedom and holiness. There is no choice except holiness because every action is ultimately under His blood when we have come to belief in Christ. So we enter into love – a complete and eternal and unbreakable love from God for ourselves. In this community, with propitiation at its very center, the response of the new person we are in Christ is to love, because love is the very air we breath in that universe. It is one or the other: judgment or love. There is either self-justification (non-belief in His Son Jesus Christ) and subsequent and very appropriate withholding of love, or propitiation (belief in His Son Jesus Christ) and subsequent love. This is why this is a single command, because the propitiation solves the problem of the judgments we really must hold against one another under the right demands of justice. His blood is the narrow door through which we escape the universe of good and evil, right and wrong, of constant judgment and condemnation of ourselves and of others.
And so when it says that His commandment is that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, this is not a thing to be glossed over. It is not to be minimized. It is the only way out. It is our only hope and our only escape. There may be love in the realm of self-justification, but it violates the conscience and this violation will trump the survival of the relationship in the end.
There is a lot of drivel about forgiveness out there even in Christian realms, such as that unforgiveness hurts us more than the person who harmed us, and so we ought to let go of that. The problem is, we are asking people in that case to transgress justice, and to sweep things under the rug and leave them undealt with. Forgiveness in this sense doesn’t even make any sense at all. It isn’t a Christian notion of forgiveness at all. In Christ, we forgive from the heart with a clean conscience because we have the propitiation. If the other person is not a Christian, we leave vengeance with God (Romans 12:19), but we can at least relate to them from the standpoint that we ourselves are truly and completely forgiven and that justice has been fully served on our behalf in Christ. We can relate to them with compassion because we know that they are laboring under justice, hiding things that would show that justice stands against them, and in their self-justifying schemes they are working very very hard for a losing cause. We understand that we don’t have to worry about being the sceptre of vengeance upon them, we can release that project to God and understand the dynamic which is driving them.
So, if belief in Christ and His propitiation is the magic bullet in relational love, why is there a commandment at all? Isn’t He asking us to do something? It is a command, right? Yes He is. He is asking us, in our faith, to walk in the light. He is asking us to admit our sin and shortcomings. He is asking us, in our belief in His propitiation for all of our sins (1 John 1:7), to confess our current existential struggle and apply His blood to our present fears (1 John 1:9). In doing so, we walk in the light with one another, and the result is love. When we temporarily forget that His blood is enough for my current sin or my brother’s current sin, we walk in the present in a season of darkness, and the judgment of good and evil begins to reign over our experience instead of grace. When we go back to the light and confess, in effect we return to the singular command to believe in Jesus His Son and to love one another. The two come flooding back into our lives as one. This does not mean we fell from grace or became unsaved because we didn’t believe for a season. By faith we have entered into this grace in which we stand (Romans 5:1,2), and the blood of Jesus is sufficient for all of our sins forever, past present and future (1 John 1:7). We just forgot that that is the land we live in, we didn’t consider it to be so (Romans 6:11).
So the issue, as John says right here in our main passage, is abiding. We find our comfortable home that we always return to, in Christ. When we keep this singular commandment, belief in Christ and love for one another, we return to the blessed universe of grace. It is through His blood that He can give the gift of His Spirit for anything beyond the conviction of sin, because justice is completely served and God’s hands are thus freed to bless us in Christ.