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First John 3:4-10a

I.               Introduction: The Apostolic Message - 1:1-4

II.             The First Series of Tests - 1:5-2:27

III.           The Second Series of Tests - 2:28-4:6

A.             The Moral Test (3) - 2:28-3:10a

1.              the influence of Christ's second coming - 2:28-3:3

2.              the influence of Christ's first coming - 3:4-10a

Having encouraged holiness in view of Christ's second coming, John now argues based on the purpose of Christ's first coming. He builds his argument, first, around the nature of sin (vv. 4-7), and second, around the origin of sin (vv. 8-10). The essential nature of sin is lawlessness, and it finds its origin in Satan. But, insofar as Christ is without sin and insofar as He came to destroy the works of the devil, it is evident that sin in the Christian is unthinkable. Thus he who practices sin is blatantly opposed to the very purpose of the life and death of Jesus.

As to structure, both paragraphs have an introductory phrase, a stated theme, an explanation of the purpose of Christ's coming, and a logical conclusion to be drawn.

a.              the nature of sin is lawlessness - 3:4-7

1)             introductory phrase

"Every one who practices sin also practices lawlessness."

2)             a stated theme

"Sin is lawlessness." Sin, writes Westcott, "is the assertion of the selfish will against a paramount authority" (102). Sin is not merely a negative failure but an active rebellion against the revealed will of God.

3)             explanation of the purpose of Christ's coming

John again appeals to the knowledge of his readers concerning the purpose of the Incarnation. If they will but reflect on the design of his death and resurrection they will abhor sin. He came to take away sin (cf. John 1:29) and did so by bearing it in his body (1 Pt. 2:24). Such could only be accomplished by someone who is himself sinless (cf. 2:1-2).

4)             a logical conclusion

If Christ was sinless and came to remove sin, how can one abide both in him and in it simultaneously? The one who abides in Christ does not sin as a prevailing habit. Conversely, an indisturbed persistence in sin exposes the individual as one who has neither seen (with the eye of faith) nor heard him. Verse 7 simply restates the basic idea of 2:29 with an added refutation of the claim of the false teachers that somehow you could "be" righteous without necessarily "practicing" righteousness.

b.              the origin of sin is the devil - 3:8-10

1)             introductory phrase

"The one who practices sin is of the devil." It was Augustine who said, "The devil made no man, begat no man, created no man, but whoso imitates the devil, becomes a child of the devil, as if begotten of him." The phrase "of the devil" indicates that such a one draws from him the ruling principle and power of his life as does a son from his father.

2)             a stated theme

Sin begins or originates with the devil who has persisted in evil from beginning.

3)             explanation of the purpose of Christ's coming

To "destroy" is literally "to loose." Says Westcott: "'The works of the devil' are represented as having a certain consistency and coherence. They show a kind of solid front. But Christ by his coming has revealed them in their complete unsubstantiality. He has 'undone' the seeming bonds by which they were held together" (106-07).

4)             a logical conclusion

"No one who is born of God practices sin." See the study below on v. 9.

In sum, "if . . . the whole purpose of Christ's first appearing was to remove sins and undo the works of the devil, Christians must not compromise with either sin or the devil, or they will find themselves fighting against Christ. If the first step to holiness is to recognize the sinfulness of sin, both in its essence as lawlessness and in its diabolical origin, the second step is to see its absolute incompatibility with Christ in his sinless person and saving work. The more clearly we grasp these facts, the more incongruous will sin appear and the more determined we shall be to be rid of it" (Stott, 125).

3:10 is both the summation of what has preceded (3:10a) and the introduction to what follows (3:10b). 3:10a summarizes the substance of the moral test by indicating that the failure to practice righteousness is the criterion by which to distinguish the children of the devil from the children of God. 3:10b introduces another such criterion, namely, the social test which is John's concern in the subsequent paragraph.

What is the 'seed of God that abides in those born of God that prevents them from sinning? Options: Christ, the gospel message (2:24), the anointing, i.e., the Holy Spirit (2:27), God himself (3:24; 4:12,15,16), the new nature imparted through regeneration, etc.

Note: What does 3:10 teach us about the supposed "Universal Fatherhood of God" and "Universal Brotherhood of Man?"

In summation of 2:28-3:10 -

"We are in a position now to look back over the foregoing twelve verses . . . in which the moral test has been elaborated, and feel the compulsion of its argument. If Christ appeared first both 'to take away our sins' and 'to destroy the works of the devil', and if, when he appears a second time, 'we shall see him' and, in consequence, 'we shall be like him,' how can we go on living in sin? To do so is to deny the purpose of his two appearings. If we would be loyal to his first coming and ready for his second, we must purify ourselves, as he is pure. By so doing we shall give evidence of our birth of God" (Stott, 128-29).

Special Study of 1 John 3:9 (5:18)

and the Doctrine of Perseverance

One thing John emphasizes is the reality and gravity of sin. In 1:8 he forcefully labels those who say they have no sin as self-deceived and void of the truth. In 1:10 the claim not to have committed sin is tantamount to calling God a liar, and in 2:1 John clearly implies that Christians will sin (although he writes to help them avoid it). How then do we understand the statement in 3:9 that the one who is begotten of God "does not do sin" (lit.) and in fact "is not able to sin"?

Following are the major interpretative options (excluding the suggestion of some that John simply contradicts himself):

(1)           To avoid the difficulty some have narrowed the definition of "sin" to notorious crimes or offences against love (this was the view of both Augustine and Luther).

(2)           It has been suggested that what John means is that a Christian cannot sin because what is sin in the life of an unbeliever is not regarded as such by God when committed by a believer. This is contrary to both John and the rest of the NT.

(3)           One interpretation draws a distinction between the "old" nature in the Christian and the "new" nature. The "old" nature may continue to sin but the "new" cannot. But how do we isolate a "nature" from the "individual" himself/herself? We may speak of "flesh" and "spirit" in a person, but it is always the person who sins or does not sin, not merely a "nature".

(4)           Others say John is speaking about the ideal and not reality. The argument is: Since all anticipate that sinlessness will be characteristic in the age to come, and since John believed that the age to come had come (2:8), he naturally asserted the sinlessness of Christians!

(5)           Some say that John, in the heat of controversial circumstances, breaks forth in holy passion and speaks with apparent exaggeration and over-emphasis.

(6)           One view stresses 3:6 where it is stated that the one who "abides" in him does not sin. They contend that this "abiding" in Christ is not descriptive of all Christians but is a condition which only some (those "in fellowship") believers fulfill. The degree of a believer's holiness, then, and his ability to sin or not sin are dependent on whether or not he "abides". When one is abiding in Christ he cannot sin. When one does not abide, one does sin. But 3:9 makes it clear why a Christian doesn't practice sin, indeed, is unable to sin, and it has nothing to do with abiding. It is because he/she "is born of God".

(7)           Others say that the sin of which John speaks in 3:9 is willful and deliberate sin. The Christian, so they say, cannot commit such deliberate sin in the face of the Lord. Oh, really? What of David?

(8)           A few take John quite literally. Hence they believe he is teaching perfectionism. 3:9 proves that sinlessness is attainable in this life. The statements in 1:8,10 and especially 2:1 are describing the immature believer who although not yet sinless may still become such through diligent activity and love.

[I personally find either of the next two options to be the most likely.]

(9)           Some argue that the "sin" which a believer does not and cannot commit is the "sin that leads to death" in 1 John 5:16, namely, hatred of believers and denial of Jesus. I will address this view in great detail when we come to 5:16.

(10)        The view adopted by most commentators is that the sin a Christian does not and cannot commit is habitual, persistent, unrepentant sin. John is not concerned so much with the momentary, individual acts of sin as he is with the overall characteristic tendencies and inclinations of a person's life. John is looking at the pervasive temper of one's overall experience in life, not at the singular incidents individually. John is not taking a snapshot, but a moving picture. His repeated use of the Greek present tense appears to bear this out. He focues on the habitual character of the activity in view.

In 3:6 John says that the believer who abides in Christ "sins not" (present tense). Also, the one who "does sin" (present tense) shows that he has neither seen nor known Him. John nowhere denies that a Christian commits acts of sin. He does deny, however, that the Christian sins persistently, habitually as a reflection of the characteristic inclination of his soul.

Note that in 3:9a he says the one begotten of God "does not do sin." "Again," notes Stott, "it is not the isolated act of sin which is envisaged, but the settled habit of it, indicated by the verb poiein, to do or to practice, which is used of 'doing' sin in 3:4a, 3:8 and 3:9, of 'doing' lawlessness in 3:4b, and of 'doing' righteousness in 2:29, 3:7 and 3:10a" (126).

John also says the one begotten of God "is not able to sin". But again notice that "to sin" is not an aorist infinitive but a present infinitive. If the infinitive had been aorist John would be contradicting what he said in 2:1. The present infinitive again indicates that he has in mind the inability of the born-again believer to habitually live in sin as if it were the prevailing temper of his soul.

If the Christian "does not" practice sin, indeed, "cannot" practice sin, wherein lies this "impossibility"? That is to say, how does a believer avoid the life of persistent sin so characteristic of the non-believer? Stott's answer is excellent:

"Wherein lies this 'impossibility'? John's answer is given in two phrases: for his seed remaineth in him and because he is born of God. . . . his seed is accurately rendered in the RSV text 'God's nature', or 'the divine seed' (NEB), and . . . in him refers to the child of God. In this way the two parts of verse 9 become exactly parallel, each part consisting of a statement that the Christian does not or cannot sin, to which is added the reason for such an assertion. The implication will then be this: the new birth involves the acquisition of a new nature through the implanting within us of the very seed or lifegiving power of God. Birth of God is a deep, radical, inward transformation. Moreover, the new nature received at the new birth remains. It exerts a strong internal pressure towards holiness. It is the abiding influence of his seed within everyone who is born of God, which enables John to affirm without fear of contradiction that he cannot go on living in sin. . . . Indeed, if he should thus continue in sin, it would indicate that he has never been born again" (127).

When those born of God do sin, conviction, grief, brokenness, misery, sorrow, discontent, all of which lead to repentance, will occur.