Editor (Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D.) John examines the question of whether the person who is born of God can commit sin. In 1John 3:6 we are told that “No one who abides in Him sins,” but in verse 8 it says, “The one who practices sin is of the devil.” Then in verse 9 we have the emphatic declaration that “No one who is born of God practices sin . . . and he cannot sin.” But if it is possible for a Christian to sin, and experience teaches that it is, does there not appear to be a direct contradiction between these portions of Scripture? While, on the one hand, John says that if it is not possible for those who are really born again to sin, must it not be a fact that there can be but very few genuine Christians, if any? One doctrine appears to be prevalent; that those who are Christ’s cannot be eternally lost and though they may fall into sin, this does not affect their sonship, or eternal salvation. (See note on Hebrews 6:1-6.)
In this Epistle, the Apostle is striking a deadly blow at two erroneous doctrines which from his own time until now have been prevalent: antinomianism and perfectionism. Antinomians (anti, “against”, and nomos, “law”) contend that the covenant of grace, even as the Abrahamic Covenant of the O.T., is not established on conditions; therefore, man cannot be held accountable to any moral law. It is only required for him to believe that he is justified. The so-called perfectionists believe that the sin nature is eradicated from them as though surgically removed as a cancer. The life of the believer, in spite of occasionally missing the mark and bearing responsibility for it, is equivalent to the Sinaitic Covenant of God in the O.T.
In 1John 2:1 the Apostle strikes a blow at these doctrines in the command, “My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone (of us) sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” This is how this portion should be rendered, but our A.V. conveys the idea of a habit of sinning, and not a mere act of sin. If there was no other portion of Scripture to disprove the doctrine held by some that in this life the sin nature is completely eradicated from them, this passage alone would be sufficient to disprove it. If any mere man since the fall attained to that high standard, then it would be John himself, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” And yet he speaks even of himself, as well as those whom he addresses, as capable of committing sin‒ sin considered, however, not as a habit, but as an uncharacteristic act. In regard to 1John 3:9, it should be rendered, “He cannot continue in sin, because he is born of God.” If, however, the Apostle had really said, “He cannot commit an act of sin,” the so-called perfectionists would have been justified in using it as a proof text in support of their favorite dogma. These two passages (1John 2:1; 3:9) form then, as it were, a two-edged sword which destroys the doctrines of the anti-nomians on the one hand and the perfectionists on the other. Whereas, if the present continuous tense had been implied in the former passage, and the aorist in the latter, both doctrines would have been established. The moods of the aorist as in 1John 2:1 (a Greek tense expressing time of an indefinite date or character) usually express single definite actions not contemplated as continuing; those of the present tense (as the verb poiei, 4160, and the noun hamartian, 266, “does or practices sin habitually”) contemplate them as continuing.
In the days of the Apostle there were those who taught that a mere intellectual knowledge was enough to recommend men and make them acceptable to God though they lived impure lives. John, therefore, inculcates (3:7) that only those who did righteousness, that is, in a continued course (ho poiōn, 4160, “the one habitually doing”), living conformable to the Gospel, were righteous; not only making the righteousness and holy life of Christ the object of their trust, but also the pattern of their walk and practice. See dikaioō, (1344).
John’s idea of committing sin on a permanent customary basis is further explained by 3John 11, “The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.” There are two participial nouns here, ho agathopoiōn (215), “the one being a doer of good, a benevolent person,” and ho kakopoiōn (2554), “the one doing evil, the malevolent person.” This is the same as in 1John 3:7, “the doer of or the one practicing (ho poiōn) righteousness is righteous.” He does not imply that an attempt at an act of goodness makes one righteous any more than someone pounding a nail into a piece of wood makes that person a skilled carpenter. We term a man an artisan who has acquired a skill and works at that trade as his calling or occupation. This is really the meaning of the Greek word poieō (4160) rendered “practices sin,” a worker or maker of sin. In other words, he is a habitual or customary sinner; one who sins deliberately and from a prevailing habit, not unwarily. In the same sense the Apostle uses the expression, “practices sin,” (hamartanei, 264) in verse 6.
The expression, “he cannot sin,” (3:9) simply means he cannot sin habitually, deliberately, easily and maliciously as Cain (verse 12) did out of hatred of goodness. The divine nature of man, of course, cannot sin. But while John speaks of the divine nature in this abstract way, he does not, on the other hand, ignore the existence of the sinful nature in the believer, who is still in a mortal and corruptible body and living in a corrupt world. Consequently, in 1John 1:8 we find him saying, “If we say that we have no sin (meaning the sin nature occasionally manifesting its ugly head), we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Dreams of perfection in the flesh would be little entertained if we kept clearly in view the distinction between what we are in Christ and what we are in ourselves. To be in Him is to be saved once and forever from the condemnation of sin, but not immediately from the presence and inworking of sin, as the lives of the saints testify. We are saved from the guilt and power of sin, but not from its presence while in this body and world. That is a state of being that will yet come when our bodies are redeemed when our resurrection takes place (Romans 8:23). Christ had sin upon Him, though there was no sin in Him. Therefore, he that is in Christ has no sin upon him (in the sense of condemnation), though he still has sin in him in the form of the sin-nature in the mortal body. The believer is unconditionally saved from sin and conditionally saved from the power of sin. Victory is conditioned in proportion to the believer’s unequivocal obedience to Christ and His command.
Let us, therefore, not be deceived and claim to have reached a state of practical and completely realized sanctification, merely because the Spirit addresses us as those who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1Corinthians 1:2). For while it is perfectly true that we are in Him, and in Him is no sin, yet “if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” While the forgiven soul may and does occasionally sin and come under God’s fatherly displeasure and thus needs daily renewal of the joys of salvation at the mercy seat, he can never come again under the divine wrath and curse. His Father in heaven may visit his transgressions with a rod of correction, “but I will not break off My lovingkindness from him, nor deal falsely in My faithfulness.” (Psalm 89:33). See note on Galatians 3:22