In the last essay, we studied 1 John 2:18-29 in which we saw John giving a warning about antichrists and a second major theme: Truth versus Error. In this essay we take up 3:1-10 in which we shall see, first, the hope of the children of God (in 3:1-3) and second, an important teaching about sin (in 3:4-10). First, at the beginning of chapter 3, John springs from the subject of the wonderful results of abiding in the truth to the great hope that we have as children of God. He mentions the fact that we are God’s children now, in the present; but there is hope for an even greater glory in the future at Christ’s coming. “See what love the Father has given us,” says John. John is excited! He’s excited about the love of God. And he has good reason because God has made those of us who believe his own children. That’s worth getting excited about!
In the second verse, John emphasizes the fact that he has been talking about the present aspect of our relation to God as children. He writes; “We are God’s children now.” But then he begins to bring in the future aspect of it: “it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Here are three more important truths. First, he reminds us that Christ will come again. We easily could miss that, because John refers to the second coming in the phrase “when he appears.” “When he appears,” means, when he comes again.
The second truth is related to the first. When Christ appears, when he comes again, we shall see him as he is. We have seen John present Jesus as a complex God-man about whom many things are revealed in the scriptures, but in spite of all that revelation, we still do not see him as he is. But when Jesus comes again, we shall see him as he is!
Now then, not only will Jesus come again; and not only will we see him as he is; but also, third, we will be like him. Of course we are taught in the NT to be like him now. And we already have seen John teach us that. And yet there is a “being like him” that is beyond what we experience in this life. I don’t know exactly what that means. And I don’t think John knew either. That’s why he said, “it does not yet appear what we shall be.” But he is certain that, whatever it is, “we will be like Jesus.” And that’s good enough for me. Indeed it sets me on fire to think about it.
Verse three both concludes this little section, and makes the transition to the next subject. What John has been expressing in verses one and two is our Christian hope. We believe, by faith, that we are children of God. We believe that the Lord Jesus, the risen Son of God, is coming again. And we believe that when he comes, we shall see him as he is; and we shall be like him.
But when Christ comes, if we are to reflect his image back to him, as a good mirror reflects back our image, then we must be pure, because he is pure. Therefore, in verses 4-10, John returns to the subject of sin and how sin relates to our being either children of God or children of the devil.
John tells us several things about sin in these verses. First, he tells us what sin is: It is lawlessness. John does not explain exactly what he means by that term, but it is easy to figure out. If this statement were in the Old Testament, we would know immediately that the Jewish Law, the Mosaic Law, of the Old Testament was meant.
But in New Testament times the law of God was understood more broadly than that. It means almost the same thing as the will of God. To fail to do the will of God is to break the law of God. It is to sin. And as you know, we can sin either by commission or omission, by doing what God has forbidden, or by not doing what he has commanded. Thus sin is lawlessness.
In addition to telling us what sin is, John tells us secondly where sin originates. Look at verse eight: “He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning.” When people sin they simply are expressing their family likeness. They are “of the devil,” who has been a sinner from the beginning.
A third fact that we learn here about sin is why sins are committed and a sinful attitude remains in so many people. Verse 6 says, “No one who abides in him [him being Christ] sins.” Therefore, the reason that people sin and maintain a sinful attitude is because they refuse to abide in Christ. Of course for non-Christians we have to back this up a step. They not only are not abiding in Christ, they have not yet believed in him by faith. But many Christians, who sin, do so because they are not abiding in Christ.
The fourth fact about sin that we learn is the opposite truth to that just discussed. If we sin because we fail to abide in Christ, then we can avoid sin by abiding in him. As we saw earlier, this idea of abiding in Christ is one of John’s favorite images. He uses it extensively in chapter 15 of his gospel, where he likens it to the abiding of a branch in a vine. Unless a branch abides, or remains, in its vine it can never bear any fruit. And non-fruit-bearing branches are pruned away and burned. But when a branch abides in its vine, it bears much fruit. And the same is true of the Christian. When a disciple abides in Christ, the disciple bears much fruit.
John gives us one more fact about sin in this passage. He has told us what sin is (lawlessness), where it originates (the devil), why people do it (because they don’t abide in Christ), and how to avoid it (by abiding in Christ). He also tells us why we can conquer it. Again we go to verse eight: “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” The Christ in whom we believe is a conquering Christ, and he has given us power over the devil and his hosts.
Now then, this brings us to the problem verse in I John, which is one of the classic problem verses in the entire Bible, namely, verse 9: “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” Let us begin by getting a proper understanding of one of the key words. I’m referring to the word “seed.” The Greek word is sperma, which you immediately recognize is the origin of the English word “sperm.” The first question we must ask is what did John mean when he said, “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s ‘seed’ abides in him.”
John obviously is not using the term “seed” literally. Look at chapter 4, verse 13, which I believe will help us to understand the term: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” When we are abiding in Christ and he is abiding in us, God’s Holy Spirit (who is the Spirit of Christ) is abiding (that is, dwelling) within us. And when that is true, God’s “seed” is abiding within us.
Now let us attack the main problem. It is this. In our earlier study of chapter 2, verses 1 and 2, we saw John (who was writing to Christians) clearly indicate the following. Though he was writing that we might not sin, he recognized that sometimes we do sin and need forgiveness. And he assured us that Jesus Christ is our advocate in such situations and that Jesus became our forgiveness, by dying on the cross for our sins.
All of that is very clear. But here in 3:9, John seems to be saying something totally different. He is saying that no person “born of God,” that is, no Christian, sins. Indeed, he says that a Christian is unable to sin, because God’s seed dwells within him.
There are several ways of dealing with the problem. First, some radical scholars have suggested that John simply contradicted himself. But that is an insult to John’s intelligence, let alone to the Word of God. No, John did not contradict himself in back to back chapters.
A second way of dealing with the tension between 2:1-2 and 3:9 is to suggest that one loses one’s salvation every time one sins.
And a third way of dealing with this problem is the typical Wesleyan approach. Wesley took this verse at face value. If it says that persons who are born of God cannot sin, then that is what it means! And this is where his definition of sin becomes so important. Wesley defined sin as “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God.”
Wesley recognized, with everyone else, that everyone transgresses the law of God at one time or another. The difference, he said, was whether or not it was a willful transgression; persons born of God do not willfully transgress the known laws of God. Thus in this view John had in mind only voluntary, willful, transgressions of God’s law.
I like to understand this matter in terms of Wesley’s image of abiding, and in terms of our free will. As long as we Christians abide in Christ, we will be free from sin; indeed we cannot sin. It is only when we choose to no longer abide in Christ that we are able to, and do, sin.
The typical Reformed approach is different. Since persons in the reformed tradition consider any transgression of the law of God, whether willful or accidental, to be sins for which we will be held equally responsible, we cannot escape sin in this life. Therefore they interpret John to mean that a Christian is not able to regularly, habitually continue sinning. The Greek verbs in verse 9 are in the present tense, and thus the verse is interpreted as it is rendered in the NIV: “no one born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (NIV).
John rounds out this section with a “bottom line” type of statement in verse 10: “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.” John says that we children of God are distinguished from the children of the devil by what we do. Children of God do not do sinful acts; the children of the devil do. It is just as Jesus said: “you shall know then by their fruits.”
Now let me summarize. Beginning at 2:18 John gave us a second aspect of light as a moral way, by means of a second major theme. The first aspect, seen in the first major theme (light verses darkness) gave us a choice between walking in the light or in the darkness. The second aspect, seen in the second major theme (truth versus error) gives us a choice between the true and the false, as we are enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
Now here in chapter three, John has taught us about sin, and the way we can overcome it. If we will get our will in harmony with God’s, that is, if we will abide in him and let him abide in us, we will not sin. As he told us in chapter one, “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, he will cleanse us from all sin.” Praise his name!