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Most of use are quite conscious of sinning from time to time. Does this mean that we are not born of God? If we read three verses earlier, in 1 John 3:6 we find "No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him." This sounds even worse. Even stranger is the fact that in this very context the elder can write, "This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence" (1 Jn 3:19). These passages are hardly likely to set our hearts at rest! Could they mean that if we sin after our conversion or baptism we are damned (as was thought by some in the period of the church fathers)? If not, what do these passages mean? How can we truly set our hearts at rest?
This passage, which includes the whole of 1 John 3:2-10, is quite difficult, and there have been a number of solutions suggested:
1. One group of commentators notes that the verbs for "sinning" in these verses are in the present tense, which in Greek is a continuous tense. The NIV stresses this continuous aspect by translating "keeps on sinning" and "continues to sin" and "go on sinning." The argument is that while true believers may sin on occasion (so 1 Jn 1:7-9), they will not habitually sin. The weakness of this position is that it depends on a grammatical subtlety which an interpreter cannot stress in other places in the New Testament where this tense is used. Furthermore, in 1 John 5:16 the same tense is used for a believer seen by a fellow believer "committing a sin." Here is a true believer who is doing the same thing that is denied in 1 John 3:6, 9. Why doesn't the NIV translate consistently and so translate this passage "continuing to sin"?
2. Another group of commentators, noticing 1 John 5:16-17, suggests that "the elder" is thinking of two types of sin, a "sin that leads to death" and a "sin that does not lead to death." The true believer cannot sin a "sin that leads to death," but may sin the other type of sin. What these sins are is debated, some thinking that they are deliberate versus involuntary sins and others opting for other distinctions among sins (such as the difference between mortal and venial sins in the Roman Catholic tradition). Yet if this is what the elder means, why does he wait until 1 John 5:16 to mention this difference? His terms here appear rather absolute.
3. Still others suggest that John is pointing to an ideal or expressing a tension in the Christian life between the ability not to sin, expressed here, and the reality of sin, expressed in 1 John 1:7-9. That interpretation is also possible, yet does it adequately express the strength of the language used here?
4. Finally, there are commentators who suggest that this passage must be taken in the context of the whole of 1 John, which shows that John is arguing on two fronts. On the one hand, one group the elder opposes is arguing that they are beyond sin. He addresses them in 1 John 1:7-9. Another group is arguing that their sins do not matter, since they are enlightened within. He is addressing them here. The weakness of this position is that the author does not make any clear distinction between groups. He does not say, "Now addressing the other group," or make any similar transition.
How can we evaluate these positions? Any conclusion which we draw must be both exegetically and pastorally sound. On this basis, I believe that while none of the four solutions is impossible, it is the last of them which is the most likely.
The elder is addressing a church situation in which there are some people who hold that Jesus was not really incarnate, probably believing that he only seemed to be a human being. Such beliefs in their full-blown form (which happened in the second century) are the foundation of Gnosticism, a system of belief in which salvation is based in knowledge or enlightenment and in which the physical world is disparaged, while the spiritual world is held in honor.
With respect to sin there are two directions that Gnosticism took. One direction was to deny sin. On the basis of ascetic practices and inner enlightenment the Gnostics believed that they were beyond sin. Naturally such beliefs were underpinned by a good dose of denial. The author addresses such people in 1 John 1:7-9. Rather than think that we are beyond sin and deny that what we do is sinful, Christians should confess their sin and get it removed.
Another direction that Gnosticism took with respect to sin was to claim that sin was irrelevant. Sin was something done in the body, and the body, in their view, was (at best) simply the outside shell of a person. The real person was the spiritual being who through enlightenment was living in communion with God. So one's body might be sleeping with a prostitute, but one's spirit was not involved in the act. In this passage the elder is addressing such people in no uncertain terms.
Starting in 1 John 3:6 the author makes a series of contrasts: (1 Jn 3:6a) no one who lives in God sins, (1 Jn 3:6b) no one who sins knows God, (1 Jn 3:7) those who know God live righteously, (1 Jn 3:8) the one who sins belongs to the devil, (1 Jn 3:9) the one born of God cannot sin. Thus we have an A B A B A pattern, shifting back and forth between those who sin and those who do not sin. The person who is saying that it is fine to sin, since sins are only part of the body and thus irrelevant, is condemned in no uncertain terms.
So what is the elder saying? He is saying (1 Jn 3:6) that if believers remain in Christ (which the NIV translates "who lives in him"), which means to stay in intimate connection with Christ, they will not sin. Christ is not the one producing the carelessness about sin that could be seen in the semi-Gnostic opponents of the elder (we say semi-Gnostic or proto-Gnostic, because the full Gnostic systems did not develop until the second century). Far from it, the one who sins is showing that to that extent he or she does not know Christ. The next statement makes the point clear: it is the one who does right who is righteous, for that is what Christ is. If a person really knows Christ, they will live like him. On the other hand, sin shows a person's inheritance in the devil, so acceptance of sinful living shows where such people are from. It is these very works of the devil that Christ came to destroy.
Then the author makes it clear in the verse we started with that being born of God puts a new nature in a person and that new nature will not sin. John has already admitted that Christians do sin (1 Jn 1:7-9), but that sinning is not due to the new nature. The author draws from the Old Testament picture of God's putting a new "heart" into believers ("I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees," Ezek 36:27). This was later picked up in intertestamental literature such as 1 Enoch 5:8 ("And then there shall be bestowed upon the elect wisdom, and they shall live and never again sin"; compare Psalms of Solomon17:32; the Rule of the Community from the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1 QS 4:20-23; Testament of Levi 18:9). The elder, with a background in John 3, expresses this using a picture from typical first-century ideas about human procreation: the male's sperm (seed) determines what the child will be like. So God's spiritual "sperm" determines what his children will be like. Those born of God have a nonsinning nature. This is a far cry from the indifference to sin asserted by the opponents.
One way which a believer can see this difference practically is in the love of fellow Christians. The love of fellow Christians is what God has implanted in our heart, while neglect or hatred of fellow Christians shows that we are pseudo-Christians (not born of God, 1 Jn 3:10-18).
So how do believers set their hearts at rest? By noting the nature of God within them, giving them love for fellow Christians and leading them into other righteous deeds. Will "our hearts condemn us"? Yes, they will, for all people will sin from time to time. Yet the God who put his very nature in the believer is greater than "our hearts."
Is 1 John saying that a true Christian will never sin? No, for he has already admitted that true Christians do sin and will be liars if they deny this truth (1 Jn 1:7-9). What he is saying is that a true Christian has within him or her by virtue of their new birth a power not to sin. God within them is causing righteous living. He is not causing sin. In fact, the secret to not sinning is intimate fellowship with Christ, or "remaining in Christ," as John puts it. If a person does not experience this new life in them, if they can be indifferent to sin, then they are likely not born of God, as Paul also says (1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21). On the other hand, even if a person is struggling with temptation and at times falling prey to it--indeed because they are struggling and cannot be content with simply sinning--they can have the assurance that because they know the power of God within them impelling them away from sin and toward the love of their fellow believers, they are in fact one of his children and his new life in them will win out in the end.
Here, then, is the tension. We have the picture of a life totally free from sin which will be ours in the future. We have the reality of that new life already being within us. And we have the realization that that new life is not yet totally victorious, so that we must admit our sins, confess them, and appropriate that new life again each day.