John’s primary purpose in writing what we call 1 John is to foster assurance within the church and the hearts of God’s People. John is quite clear about his purpose. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). In 1 John 3:22, the apostle wraps together three things: answered prayer, keeping God’s commandments, and doing what is pleasing in His sight. “Whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.” The late Dr. John Gerstner was fond of saying, “Beware of the theology of the first glance.” We need to keep in mind this counsel as we take a closer look at 1 John 3:22.
Verse 22 begins, And whatever we ask we receive from Him. As a trusting relationship with a loving earthly father promotes conversation, a trusting relationship with the loving heavenly Father also leads to talk, prayer, with Him. “The latter follows from the former” (Calvin, 1961, p. 280). But John’s next words seem to require specific works to obtain answers for our prayers: Because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight. Calvin responds, “Woe to us if we look to works, which contain nothing but a cause for trembling” (Calvin, 1961, p. 280). Stott (1981) draws this distinction, “Obedience is the indispensable condition, not the meritorious cause of answered prayer” (p. 149). Following Stott, John mentions two so-called conditions, keeping God’s commandments and doing what pleases Him.
What about keeping God’s commandments? Jesus declares, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). This text teaches us that “obedience is a certain inevitable consequence of affection for Christ. The Reformers … believed that while justification is not based on our works, true justification always generates a response of obedience. Sanctification always and ever flows automatically and necessarily out of justification” (Sproul, 2009, p. 271). In other words, obedience, keeping God’s commandments, is evidence of God’s love in our hearts.
In Philippians 2:12-13, the Apostle Paul argues that God is the enabling power working in believers. “So then, my beloved … work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Paul encourages the Philippians, Work out the implications of your salvation. And he adds, “God is the one who empowers you in this regard” (Fee, 1995, p. 237). This empowerment is twofold. “Not only does God empower their ‘doing’ … but also the ‘willing’ that lies behind the doing” (Fee, 1995, p. 238). This willing and doing is evidence of God’s good work in the believer.
What about “for His good pleasure”? God’s purpose is, “To carry out His own gracious will” (Nicoll, 1961, p. 441). The pronoun His is in italics in both the KJV and NASB, indicating the original language lacks this word. However, it appears that Paul “intends the definite article to function as a possessive and thus to refer to God’s empowering their [the Philippian’s] obedience for his own eudokia [good pleasure]” (Fee, 1995. p. 239). Therefore, the text declares that “it is God who works in you the willing and the working in order that he may carry out his good pleasure” (Vincent, 1968, p. 67). This personal work of God is an expression of His grace, and “His efficacious grace is at His own sovereign disposal” (Eadie, 1977, p. 133).
Going back to 1 John 3:22, this text speaks of “the things that are pleasing in His [God’s] sight.” Philippians 2:13 teaches that God works in us is “for His good pleasure.” These texts speak of two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, believers please God by doing His will, by carrying out His commands. On the other hand, God carries out His desires by working in believers to empower them to keep His commandments. Also, God calls us to pray “according to His will” (5:14). We please God by doing so, and it is His pleasure to empower us to do so; and so, whatever we ask we receive from Him. Why? Because we are His dearly loved children. And we put this crucial fact on display as “we habitually keep [present tense] His commandments and practice doing [present tense] the things that are pleasing in His sight.” We have nothing to prove to God. Instead, He is showing us that we are His dear children.
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Calvin, J. (1961). The Gospel According to St. John 11-21 and the First Epistle of John (T. H. L. Parker, Trans.). D. W. Torrance & T. F. Torrance (Eds.). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Eadie, J. (1977). A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. Minneapolis, MN: James and Klock.
Fee, G. D. (1995). Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Sproul, R. C. (2009). John. Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust.
Stott, J. R. W. (1981). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Vincent, M. R. (1968). The Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.