We are continuing our study of 1 John this morning. I have been saying since we started our study that this epistle is written to those who have trusted Christ. John's purpose in this epistle is to instruct his readers on how to have fellowship with Yeshua and the Father. Many see this epistle as a series of tests to show who is saved and who is not. John MacArthur says,
The immediate aim then of this epistle is to lay down the tests by which someone's spiritual condition can be determined.
Those who hold this view focus in on today's passage in an attempt to prove their point. But we must understand that 1 John 3:4-10 is a difficult passage of Scripture. My approach today will be different from the norm. I am going to first of all provide an overview of these verses and tell you what I think they are saying. Then in the following week, we will come back and work through them verse-by-verse.
Let's start by looking at verse 9 in the Christian Standard Bible because I think it translates this verse correctly.
Everyone who has been born of God does not sin, because his seed remains in him; he is not able to sin, because he has been born of God. 1 John 3:9 CSB
This is saying that if you are born of God you do not sin because you cannot sin. How does that make you feel? Do not go questioning your salvation just yet. Pragmatically we have to question what is being said here. Do you sin? Then, according to this verse, you have not been born of God. Look at what Paul said about how we are to live:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4 ESV
Here Paul calls believers to have a mind, attitude, or thinking of humility. This was Christ's attitude. In fact, his whole chapter is about humility. So, to not act this way is to be proud--which is a sin. Clearly, 1 John 3:9 is a big problem because we all sin.
This verse is not only a problem pragmatically; it is also a problem doctrinally. It does not fit with the primary rule of hermeneutics--the analogy of faith. The Analogy of Faith is the rule that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. This means that no part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. Does Scripture anywhere teach that believers sin? Yes. It continually calls believers to stop sinning. What John wrote earlier seems to contradict what he writes here.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8 ESV
1 John 3:9 says that believers do not sin and even cannot sin, but here it says that we are self-deceived if we say we do not have sin. Consider 1 John 2:1.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Yeshua the Christ the righteous. 1 John 2:1 ESV
Here Christians are told not to sin; but if they do sin, they have an advocate with the Father. So which is it? Do Christians sin or are they unable to sin? When we read 1 John 3:9 in the Christian Standard Bible or in the KJV, we are faced with what seems like a blatant contradiction. It is my opinion, however, that the CSB and the KJV accurately translate this verse. Look at how YLT puts it:
every one who hath been begotten of God, sin he doth not, because his seed in him doth remain, and he is not able to sin, because of God he hath been begotten. 1 John 3:9 YLT
The problem is apparent. Does Scripture contradict itself? NO! There must be a way to reconcile these verses. But the means of reconciliation is far from agreed upon.
John R. W. Stott, in "The Epistles of John" in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, gives seven traditional interpretations of this passage. Many more solutions than seven have been offered to relieve this tension. Most, however, either soften the force of the plain language of the passage, or they interject theological constructs that are foreign to the context of the epistle. We are not going to look at all of the different views, but I want to go over several of them.
The Habitual Sin View: The most popular view by far among evangelical interpreters is that while John teaches that Christians are not free of sin (1 John 1:8 and 10), he makes it clear that no true Christian will have a lifestyle of sin. They argue that 1:8-9 clearly teaches that believers sin occasionally but that 3:6-9 rightly proclaims that those born of God cannot sin habitually. This distinction is based upon the use of present tense forms of the verbs in 3:6-9. They argue that this use denotes habitual sinning. Many of the modern translations reflect this view:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 1 John 3:9 ESV
Here we see that they cannot practice or keep on sinning.
Everyone who has been born from God does not practice sin, because his seed abides in him and he is not able to practice sin, because he has been born from God. 1 John 3:9 MLV2019
This is anything but a literal translation. The problem with these translations is that the use of the present tense says nothing about the habitual or nonhabitual character of the sinning. It only shows that the author has chosen to depict the sinning as something in progress, rather than as a completed action.
The present tense is also used in 1:8 where the author says,
If we say we have no sin, (if we say that we do not sin habitually) we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8 ESV
Sinning is said to be impossible for those born of God (1 John 3:9) and those who deny they have sin are said to be self-deceived. In both passages, the present tense of the relevant verbs is used, depicting the sinning as something in progress or ongoing.
Zane Hodges writes, There is no doubt that in an appropriate context the Greek present tense can have a present progressive force like he is sinning. But the introduction of ideas like continue to sin or to go on doing require more than the Greek tense to make them intelligible. For this purpose, there were Greek words available, words actually used in the New Testament.
and were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24:53 ESV
Here continually is the Greek word diapantos. This same word is used in:
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Hebrews 13:15 ESV
The Greek present tense did not by itself convey the idea of continually or habitually or of a practice. If John wanted to say No one born of God makes a practice of sinning he would have used the available Greek words to make his point. No first century Greek reader or hearer was likely to get a meaning like practice sin.
John Murray, commenting on 1 John 3:9, writes,
The interpretation that the regenerate person does not habitually sin labors under two liabilities: (1) The term "habitually" is not a sufficient well-defined term. (2) This characterization leaves too much of a loophole for the incisiveness of John's teaching; it allows that the believer might commit certain sins, though not habitually. This would contradict the decisiveness of such a statement that the one begotten of God does not sin and cannot sin. (John Murray, Collected Writings, Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 283).
Smalley also unmasks this misuse of the present tense when he points out that 5:16 uses the present tense to describe specific sinful acts, not chronic transgression. The present tense cannot bear the weight that the translation keeps on sinning places on it in 3:6, 9.
The Sinless Perfection View:
Those who hold this view take 1 John 3:9 at face value and say that they no longer sin. The Quietist Movement, originally popular among the Quakers and which became part of the Arminian perfectionist movement, believed you could come to a post conversion experience in which you momentarily became so totally surrendered that you never sinned again. This is sinless perfection.
One of the popular Quietist writers was Trumble who wrote, "In this condition a Christian does not even experience temptation for it is defeated by Christ before it has time to draw him into a fight."
Think about this. Sinless perfection and no temptation!! But sinless perfection is a myth. Do you know anybody who is sinlessly perfect? I do not. Because if we hold to this view and we sin (and we will), whose fault is it? It cannot be our fault because we have surrendered.
Within the sphere of Preterism, there are some who are saying that sin ended in AD 70, and therefore, we do not sin today. This is a self-serving view that allows them to engage in all kinds of sinful behavior and say it is OK. But beyond AD 70, men still sin—hang on to this one—Christians still sin. You still sin.
If 1 John 3:9 were talking about sinless perfection, it wouldn't be something we had to work at. The perfectionist says that the Christian can reach a place where he does not sin. But 3:9 says it would be something that everyone who was born of God would have from the moment he trusted Christ. If John were talking about sinless perfection, then 3:9 would prove too much. In that event, every regenerate person would be sinlessly perfect and only sinlessly perfect persons would be regenerate.
The Not Real View:
This view says that John is not describing reality but rather the ideal. Swadling argues that the problem is more apparent than real. His suggestion is that the troublesome texts, 3:6 and 3:9, are in fact quotations of heretical secessionist slogans claiming that Christians cannot sin (i.e. their spirits are unaffected by their behavior). However, this approach is faulty because the author uses these so-called slogans as the basis for his criteria for distinguishing the children of God from the children of the devil, and, therefore, they cannot be written off as heretical secessionist slogans.
Agreeing with Düsterdieck, Alford takes this view. Both C. H. Dodd and William Barclay mention it as a possibility. I don't see John intending to deceive a Christian by writing of ideals. In 3:7 he says Let no one deceive you.
The Absolute View:
Kubo argues that the affirmations of 3:6-9 must be interpreted absolutely. In other words, sinning in this context is an absolute impossibility for those born of God, and to deny this is to weaken the point being made by the author. To resolve the tension between this text and 1:8-9, Kubo contends that what the author is rejecting in 1:8-9 is the claim of sinlessness made by those who walk in darkness. It is not inappropriate for those who walk in the light to make such a claim. However, this stands in contradiction to:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Yeshua Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2 ESV
Believers, don't sin, but if you do, we have an advocate.
The Projected Eschatological Reality View:
While several interpreters take this essential view, this exact phrase was coined by Daniel B. Wallace. Speaking of the present tenses in 1 John 3:6 and 9, he writes:
The immediate context seems to be speaking of a projected eschatological reality. The larger section of this letter addresses the bright side of the eschaton: Since Christians are in the last days, their hope of Christ's imminent return should produce godly living (2:28-3:10). The author first articulates how such an eschatological hope should produce holiness (2:28-3:3). Thus, the author states in an absolute manner truths that are not yet true, because he is speaking within this context of eschatological hope (2:28-3:3) and eschatological judgment (2:18-19).
Kotzé also argues that the contradictory statements about sinning are to be understood against the background of the author's eschatology. The believer is born of God but he is ‘not yet' what he will be when Christ comes again.
Schnackenburg also says the tension between the two passages is best explained in terms of the eschatological tension in which believers live. However, the Kotzé and Schnackenburg approach also undermines the author's purpose. You cannot distinguish the children of God from the children of the devil by saying the children of God in one sense do not sin, but in another sense they do.
This view holds that 1 John 3:6-9 is speaking in terms of a projected eschatological reality. Therefore, John is projecting the eschatological reality of sinlessness on believers. He is talking about what we will be like after the Lord returns. But because he has already returned, we know this is not what these verses are saying.
The New Nature/Old Nature View:
Zane Hodges has advocated what we might call the New Nature/Old Nature view. In his comments on verse 9, he states As a total person, we do sin, and can never claim to be free of it, but our ‘inward self' that is regenerated does not sin. He goes on to argue that sin exists in the Christian, but it is foreign to his true, internal self. Sin is an impossibility for the regenerated self, which is the believer's true identity. All I can say here is that at least Hodges' view takes the phrase whoever is born of God does not sin at face value on a grammatical level. But his theological construct is hard to justify in this context.
Brooke is another scholar who wants to solve the problem by taking into account the nature of man. The fact that he has been begotten of God excludes the possibility of his committing sin as an expression of his true character, though actual sins may and do occur, in so far as he fails from weakness to realize his true character.
I cannot buy this view. It claims that although we sin, it is not really we who are sinning. I do not believe that John was talking about our inward self. It sounds very much like the Gnostic view which holds that the physical does not matter.
The Contradiction View:
Raymond Brown, a renowned Catholic Johannine scholar, believes that a contradiction does exist and that it cannot be explained away. He says,
No other NT author contradicts himself so sharply within such a short span of writing. (Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1982)
Bogart, likewise, says there is an unresolvable contradiction in 1 John in the matter of perfectionism. He also recognizes two types of perfectionism in 1 John but rejects Brown's suggestion that they both may be traced to different interpretations of the Fourth Gospel.
None of these views are satisfactory to me. Can we interpret John's statements about sin and perfection without accusing him of contradicting himself and without nullifying the argument of 3:4-10? I think we can. Let's call it:
The Specific Sin View:
If we go back to the Fourth Gospel and look at how Yeshua uses the word sin, it may help us understand what John means in our text. Let's look at John 9:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? John 9:1-2 ESV
Yeshua responded to their question:
Yeshua answered, It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. John 9:3 ESV
Was Yeshua saying that the son and his parents had never sinned? No, he is saying that the blindness was not due to some specific sin.
At the end of this chapter, Yeshua said to certain of the Pharisees:
Yeshua said to them, If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,' your guilt remains. John 9:41 ESV
The word translated guilt here is the Greek hamartia. It should be translated as sin. Was Yeshua saying that if the Pharisees were physically blind, they would be sinless? No. Again, he is talking about a specific sin characteristic of the Pharisees—the sin of rejecting Christ.
In the Upper Room discourse Yeshua told his disciples:
If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. John 15:22 ESV
Is Yeshua saying that they (in context, this is the world) would be sin free if he had not spoken to them. No. He is speaking of the sin of rejecting Him.
In each of these cases, the terms are absolute. Some specific sin is in view. The same principle must apply to the language of 1 John 3:6-9 where John is also speaking of a specific sin. What is that sin?
Hall Harris suggests that in 3:6-9 John is not talking about sin generally but rather is focusing on one sin specifically, namely, a failure to love one's brother. He notes that loving the brethren is a theme that runs throughout the epistle, and that failure to do so is the only specific sin his opponents are ever charged with. Loving the brethren is undoubtedly a major theme in 1 John as seen in the following context (3:11-15) in which the author gives explicit warnings against not loving each other.
What do you think about this view? Let's interpret 3:9 in light of Harris' view:
Everyone who has been born of God (loves others) does not sin, because his seed remains in him; he is not able to (be unloving) sin, because he has been born of God. 1 John 3:9 CSB
Does that make this verse easier to take? No. Each and every one of us are unloving at times. This view does not help a bit.
Colin G. Kruse in the Pillar New Testament Commentary has this to say,
Is Anomia the Key? One way forward is to recognize that the passage, 3:6-9, is part of the treatment of the connection between knowing God and doing righteousness found in 2:29-3:10. In this passage the author provides a basis for distinguishing the children of God from the children of the devil. In doing so he makes a connection between sin and the devil three times. This connection is made both by explicit references to the devil (3:8, 10) and implicitly by equating sin (hamartia) and lawlessness (anomia) (3:4). Anomia is found only in 3:4 in 1 John.
Everyone who commits sin practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 1 John 3:4 CSB
The word lawlessness here is anomia. In the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, we find anomia used to translate no less than twenty-four different Hebrew words. The most frequent one is the Hebrew, awon, for which English words like wichedness or iniquity are good equivalents. In some places in the Septuagint, anomia has satanic associations, and in two places, it is used to translate Belial (2 Sam 22:5; Ps 17:4). These things pave the way for the teaching in later Jewish texts that the sins of the people of Israel were brought about by the powers of wickedness—by Satan and his spirits (cf. e.g., T. Dan 5:4-6; 6:1-6; T. Napht. 4:1; 1QS 3:18-21; 4:9, 19-20, 23). People who commit sins are then called the children/men of iniquity (1QS 3:20; 5:2, 10; 10:20).
Among the Gospels, only Matthew uses the word anomia. He consistently does so in association with false prophets or with others who oppose God's kingdom and always in association with the last days or the final judgment (Matt 7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:21).
In the Pauline corpus, the singular form of anomia, in all cases but one, is used to denote a sinful power at work in the world—a power to which Christians must not submit themselves (Rom 6:19; 2 Cor 6:14; 2 Thess 2:7). Paul uses this word to describe the man of iniquity in 2 Thessalonians 2:3.
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. 2 Thessalonians 2:3 ESV
In the New Testament, anomia (transgression of the law) is completely absent. All this suggests that when John says, sin is anomia (3:4), he does not mean sin is the violation of the Mosaic Law. The word nomos (law) does not even appear in 1 John. Rather, he is saying that human sin is anomia when it involves opposition to and rebellion against God, and so it is similar to the opposition and rebellion of Satan.
A number of exegetes consider anomia to mean more than lawlessness. They contend that the word may have the meaning of rejection and opposition to God's will and rule.
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Romans 8:7 ESV
The sin which distinguishes the children of the devil is sin which has its roots in anomia (i.e. rebellion against God). It is this sin that believers cannot commit because God's seed remains in them. The children of God do sometimes commit sins (2:1), but the one thing they do not do is commit anomia or the sin of rebellion, the sin of the devil.
We could say that the sin that John is talking about in 1 John 3:4-10 is the sin of rejecting Christ.
I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins. John 8:24 ESV
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Yeshua the Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Yeshua is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 1 John 4:2-3 ESV
Notice how John closes this epistle:
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. 1 John 5:16-17 ESV
I think we can identify the "sin unto death" with something that fits the grammatical and historical context of the epistle. Many writers have supported the idea that the "sin unto death" is the sin of unbelief or rejection of Christ--a major theme in the Johannine writings. If we connect 3:6,9 and 5:18, we see that the impeccability of the Christian is seen in terms of the rejection of Christ. The "sin unto death" is the sin of unbelievers not of believers. This explains the statements that the one who is born of God "does not sin" and "cannot sin."
In 1 John 3, John is writing with two distinct and radically different groups of people in mind. This is clear from the first verse:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 1 John 3:1 ESV
We see two groups here. The first one is the children of God and the second one is the world. In verse 10 it is clarified that the term "the world" used here means "the children of the devil."
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. 1 John 3:10 ESV
This way of radically dividing the human race is typical of John. We see a similar thrust in two passages from the Fourth Gospel where Yeshua says:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. John 15:18-19 ESV
We see the same division in John 17.
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world… I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours… I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. John 17:6-15 ESV
So, we have children of God and children of the world.
Everyone who commits sin practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 1 John 3:4 CSB
The term "everyone" in this verse does not include the children of God. It is not universal in the sense of including both classes of people under consideration. It is clear that "everyone who commits sin" does not apply to the children of God because verse 6 categorically states that "no one who abides in him sins." And verse 9 adds that "no one born of God commits sin."
Parallel constructions are found in verses 3 and 4.
And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself just as he is pure. 1 John 3:3 CSB
Everyone who commits sin practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 1 John 3:4 CSB
These are mutually exclusive classes of people.
"Lawlessness" (anomia), therefore, as a definition for sin in this context, applies only to the children of the devil. It is a kind of sin in the sense that it represents disobedience or rebellion, colored or fostered by a particular orientation to sin.
The people whom John was warning his readers about held beliefs that involved a denial that Yeshua was the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3) and that his death was necessary for the forgiveness of sins (1 John 5:6-7).
John uses anomia only once in the epistle. He uses it to define the sin of the world (the children of the devil). What is the sin of the children of God? John does say that God's children do sin:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 CSB
Here the context clearly has reference to the sins of the children of God, and the key word is "unrighteousness." In 5:17, where again the context clearly has reference to the sins of the children of God, we find this:
All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin that doesn't lead to death. 1 John 5:17 CSB
The word unrighteousness here and in 1:9 is adikia. In 3:4, we see that lawlessness (anomia) is sin, and in 5:17, we see that unrighteousness (adikia) is sin. The first applies to the children of the devil; the second applies to the children of God. The first issues from alienation and estrangement from God in Christ Yeshua; the second issues from a fallible and imperfect commitment in faith to God in Christ.
So, John sees two categories of sin—
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 1 John 5:16 ESV
The children of God have an "advocate," and that is why their sin does not lead to death:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Yeshua the Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2 ESV
The term "world" has at least ten meanings. Christ did not propitiate the wrath which God has against everybody. But He laid down His life for the sheep. They are scattered throughout the world in every tongue and tribe and people and nation. Scripture does not teach that He purchased all people out of every group but that He redeemed some from out of every group. World here means Jew and Gentile alike. The children of the devil are without an advocate. Their sin, therefore leads to death.
Everyone who has been born of God does not sin [reject Christ], because his seed remains in him; he is not able to sin [reject Christ], because he has been born of God. 1 John 3:9 CSB Note: words in brackets added (DBC).
Believers, we sin, and quite often on a regular basis, but our sin is not unto death. This verse is telling us that we cannot commit the sin that unbelievers do—the sin that leads to death (i.e. rejecting Christ).