A few years ago I decided to preach through the book of 1 John for the college ministry. I knew there were some difficult passages in the book, but that reality didn’t fully sink in until it was time to preach 2:28-3:10. My heart sank as I ran across the following in vv. 6-9:
No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
What in the world is this passage about? Is John really saying that Christians never sin, and if they do then they don’t know God?
There’s no doubt that Christians do sin. We know this through experience, but John also discusses it earlier in this same book! 1 John 1:8-9 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So we can’t conclude that 3:6-9 is teaching sinless perfectionism.
If you look at certain translations of the Bible (e.g. English Standard Version), you’ll notice that they’ve translated the tough parts to say something like this: “Nobody who habitually sins has seen Him or knows Him.” If we take that translation, the idea is that true Christians don’t sin on a regular basis — they can sin here and there, but if they make a habit of sinning then they were never saved in the first place.
A big problem with that interpretation is that it’s based on a questionable understanding of the Greek present tense used for the verb “sins.” The present tense can carry a habitual meaning, but it normally doesn’t; unless there are strong reasons in the immediate context to believe that it’s a habitual present, we shouldn’t translate it that way. In a nutshell, the best way to translate this is simply, “No one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.”
The above interpretation also contradicts our experience. Christians do habitually sin. If continued sin disqualifies me from salvation, then I’m in big trouble. Further, how do we decide when we’ve sinned too much, when our ongoing sin finally separates us from God’s grace? It seems like this understanding of the passage leads to unhealthy introspection and fear.
So how should we understand this very difficult passage?
First, John is answering a group of false teachers who have infiltrated the early church (2:18-29, 26). Apparently their false teaching includes the lie that sin isn’t really a big deal. They’re teaching that Christians are free to engage in immoral behavior because they’re forgiven in Christ.
John responds in no uncertain terms that their doctrine is false. Sin is lawlessness, he says, and the person who sins is aligned with the devil rather than with God. The point is simply this: sin is not okay. He uses very stark and absolute language to convey his point (something John does quite often).
It’s not that sin (even habitual sin) proves that you’re an unbeliever; it’s just that sin is inconsistent with how a believer ought to be acting. At my alma mater, we memorize the Aggie Code of Honor: “An Aggie does not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.” Of course, in a literal sense this is untrue: Aggies do those things every day. However, when you do those things, you aren’t acting like an Aggie ought to act. Similarly, when we sin, we aren’t acting like a person born of God ought to act. Instead, we’re siding with the devil. We’re acting like people who have never met Jesus at all, even though we have met Him!
John makes it clear that no true teacher of Christ would encourage people to sin. Teachers who wink at sin, who sin openly, and who hate their brothers are not really teachers from God. And Christians who believe those liars are headed down a terrible road.
So what is the application for us? Take sin seriously. There isn’t some threshold of “acceptable sin”. It’s all a big deal to God — so much so that His Son died because of it. So every day let’s pray that God will overcome our sin and allow us to reflect His character, as men and women born of God are called to do.
: My interpretation of this passage does not reflect the views of every pastor at my church. My view is not an “official” teaching of the church, but it is within the boundaries of my church’s doctrinal statement. As you might imagine, it’s nearly impossible to agree on a universal interpretation for a very difficult section of Scripture like this one.]
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