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1 John 3:4–6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 5 And you know, too, that one was revealed in order that he might take away sins; and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.
1 John 3:4–6. The succession of brief statements continues. When scrutinized more carefully, they defy common understanding and lead to disagreement among Bible teachers. I have found no two commentaries that agree on what John meant in these verses. Therefore, if we have a difficult time understanding this passage, we can take some comfort in the fact that everyone seems to find it difficult. Whatever we end up believing, we must hold our opinion graciously, recognizing that other godly, well-taught people hold a differing position.
The opening statement appears obvious: when we sin, we break the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. This is one of a number of biblical definitions of sin. Other biblical definitions of sin include:
- “The schemes of folly are sin” (Prov. 24:9).
- “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
- “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (Jas. 4:17).
- “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17).
The Bible does not give one all-encompassing definition of sin. All these different definitions are facets of the “whole” of sin. This verse emphasizes that sin is lawlessness. This lawlessness is characteristic of the spirit of Antichrist. Sinners see no reason to concern themselves with God’s laws. Thus, in 2 Thessalonians 2:3–4, “the man of lawlessness … will oppose … God.”
The man of lawlessness does not reign. Sin is not removed from the world by simply creating a theology or philosophy that says we are above sin or incapable of sin. Sin has to be dealt with. God has dealt with our sin. You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. Jesus dealt with sin in the only way suitable to God. He lived a sinless life, and then made the ultimate perfect sacrifice. His perfect life became the model, the new creature God wants to make of all his children.
The next statement is breathtaking: no one who lives in him keeps on sinning. This statement is followed by an even more absolute statement: no one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. To put a cap on it, verse 9 says the person who has been born of God cannot go on sinning.
These statements can be alarming to the Bible reader. We know we have sinned. We may be wrestling with sin that keeps cropping up in our lives. If this letter intends to comfort us with the assurance of our salvation (5:13), statements like these can have just the opposite effect. We must seek further understanding.
Our starting point is obvious: Christians do sin, as acknowledged elsewhere in this letter (1:8–2:1; 5:16–17). Repeated exhortations not to sin (2:1, 15, 29; 3:12, 18; 5:21) would be needless if we could not sin or if we did not sin. Bible teachers suggest several different interpretations:
- The Willful-Sin Position. According to this interpretation, the statement is referring to willful, deliberate sins, as opposed to involuntary, unintentional sins and errors.
This interpretation raises three problems. First, even saintly people can commit major, premeditated sins. Second, distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary sins is very difficult. Third, the text gives no indication that such a limited definition of sin is meant. Rather, the text clearly talks about all sin.
- The Habitual-Sin Position. According to this view, the text means we cannot adopt a lifestyle of willful, unrepentant sin. The verbs in these sentences are present tense, which means, as the niv has translated it, don’t “keep on sinning.” We will sin. We may sin badly, as Peter did—cursing and denying Jesus, or as the Corinthians did—tolerating adultery (1 Cor. 5:1–12) and committing violations of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–33). We may go through a spell of “backsliding,” as the churches of Asia did (Rev. 2–3).
But we will never settle down into a lifestyle that is characterized by sin. We will never adopt the extreme lifestyle of the false teachers who had blatant disregard for the standards of holiness set by Jesus. No one who practices the litany of evil deeds in Galatians 5:19–21 will inherit the kingdom of God. Any of these deeds, as individual acts, may be forgiven. But when people have no regard for holiness and claim that they are free to sin—as the antichrists in this letter seem to have done—they have indicated by their own attitude that they are not Christians.
Remember the context. False teachers claimed that Christians do not sin, or cannot sin, or are free to sin, and that if they do sin, it is of no great consequence. It is an extreme situation that calls for extreme language, so Scripture dispels this groundless teaching.
- The Ideal-Character Position. Those who hold this view point out that the text’s claim that a Christian does not sin states what ought to be the character of the Christian, not necessarily what is the character of all Christians. We ought to strive for the ideal, even if we know we will not reach it. We will be better off by trying and failing than if we had never tried at all. The extreme situation in the church required hyperbole (deliberate exaggeration) to make the point. The truth might be that you cannot keep from sinning, but the balancing truth is that you ought to try.
- The New-Man Position. According to this view, Scripture teaches that the “new man” is a perfect new creation. In Ephesians 4:24 the apostle Paul says the “new self” is “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” The New American Standard version reads, “And put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” This is in keeping with the assertions in Romans 7:15: “[What] I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” But (v. 17), “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”
Thus we are torn. “In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (vv. 22–23). Paul concludes (v. 25) by saying, “In my mind [I] am a slave to God’s law, but in my [flesh] (NASB) a slave to the law of sin.” (The NIV translates the word flesh as “sinful nature.” This is an unfortunate translation. The NASB is more accurate at this point.)
John MacArthur writes clearly about this issue in his commentary on Ephesians:
Biblical terminology does not say that a Christian has two different natures. He has but one nature, the new nature in Christ. The old self dies and the new self lives; they do not coexist.… The Christian is a single new person, a totally new creation, not a spiritual schizophrenic. It is the filthy coat of remaining humanness in which the new creation dwells that continues to hinder and contaminate his living. He is no longer the old man corrupted, but is now the new man created in righteousness and holiness, awaiting full salvation (Rom. 13:11) when he dies and is given a new body (p. 164).
Zane Hodges writes in a similar vein in The Bible Knowledge Commentary:
The regenerate life is, in one sense, an essentially and fundamentally sinless life. For the believer, sin is abnormal and unnatural; his whole bent of life is away from sin … Insofar as God is experienced by a believer, that experience is sinless.
The “new man” (or “new self”; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) is an absolutely perfect new creation. By insisting on this point, John was seeking to refute a false conception about sin. Sin is not, nor ever can be, anything but satanic. It can never spring from what a Christian truly is at the level of his regenerate being (pp. 894–895).
Because this new self, the inner man, is regenerate, there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), in spite of the fact that sin might occur. It remains for our adoption to be completed by receiving a new body (8:22–23), so that the power of sin will be completely removed from us. Until then, we battle—the regenerate inner self with the flesh. The “flesh” does not refer to the physical body. The body is neutral. Rather, the flesh is a spiritual gravitational pull to sin that we cannot escape until we receive a new body.
This does not answer all questions. In fact, it tells us more than we really understand. The point seems to be that our inner man is regenerate and does not sin. Yet, we are responsible for the sins of our whole person (Rom. 6:1–2, 15). Paul says, in essence, “Heaven forbid! How can those of us who have been born again be content to keep presenting the members of our body as instruments to sin? It is inconceivable!”
Perhaps 1 John 3:5 applied the same principle: the person born of God does not go on sinning. In the Romans 7 sense, that is true. The inner man, the regenerate self, does not sin. Yet when the “filthy coat of remaining humanness in which the new creation dwells,” as MacArthur put it, “continues to hinder and contaminate his living,” he participates in the work of the devil. But the one who is born of God (inner man) does not sin because God’s seed remains in him, and he cannot sin because he has been born of God.
There are still other positions on this passage. Most are variations of these views. The lack of consensus among Bible teachers about the meaning of this text suggests to me that whatever position we hold, we might hold it gently and without arrogance. There are good people who hold to all these differing views. Perhaps if the truth were known, elements of more than one of them might be true. We must also recognize that the problem in understanding these difficult statements in 1 John is due in large part to the historical and cultural distance that has been created with the passing of nearly two thousand years. John’s readers apparently understood what he was saying well enough that he felt no need to explain himself further.
Bible teachers agree what is not said here. First John 3:6 does not say that in his everyday life, the Christian will never commit sin, or that if he does, he will lose his salvation.
David Walls and Max Anders
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