At first glance when you study 1 John 3, you come across
some perplexing passages.
"No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him"
(1 John 3:6)
"No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot
sin, because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9)
Does this mean that a Christian who sins isn’t really a Christian? If you sin after your
conversion or baptism, does this mean that you really aren’t saved? How much can a Christian sin and still stay
Fortunately the John did not write this letter to condemn Christians who may have sinned, because in the prior
chapters of his same letter he writes:
"If we say that we have not sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all
unrighteousness." (1 John 1:8-9)
"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if
anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation
for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
(1 John 2:1-2)
So what was the John writing about? What did he mean? How can the John say that Christians don’t
Many brilliant theologians, Bible scholars, and Greek linguists have been grappling this problem for centuries.
There appears to be four major schools of thought, which are all possible and defended by each group.
1) Mortal Sin View
Some interpreters view 1 John 3:6, 9 within
the context of 1 John 5:16-17.
"If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God
will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say
that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness of sin, and there is a sin not leading to death"
(1 John 5:16-17).
Because the John is referring to two types of sin, "a sin that leads to death" and "a sin that
does not lead to death," these commentators believe that 1 John 3:6, 9
is saying that the true Christian does not commit the "sin that leads to death", but may commit other types of sin.
This viewpoint goes further to debate distinctions about sin: voluntary verses involuntary,
mortal (sins that cost a person’s soul) verses venial, etc., which are Roman Catholic distinctions.
However, there are two problems with this view:
1) 1 John 3:6, 9 and
1 John 5:16-17 are far apart making it difficult to understand
how these verses provide context for each other.
2) 1 John 3:6, 9 speaks of sin in a more
absolute sense than about different types of sin.
2) New Nature View
Other commentators see 1 John 3:6, 9 as a
statement of the old and new nature of Christians. Christians do not sin as an expression of their new nature,
which is sinless and incapable of sinning. John is exhorting Christians to abide in Christ and their new nature.
When Christians fail to abide in Christ, their old nature sins as the Apostle Paul speaks of in
"So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me."
This tension is seen in Ephesians 4:22-24.
"that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which
is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind,
and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth."
But there are two concerns with this view:
1) 1 John 3 does not explicitly refer to or elaborate on old and new natures, so this distinction
may not have been intended.
2) This view does not fit the force of the argument that John is taking here.
3) Habitual Sin View
Another interpretation is centered on the present tense of the term "sin" in
1 John 3:6, 9, which in Greek gives a verb a continuous
tense. These commentators see the verses translated as:
"No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin
has either seen Him or known Him" (NIV 1 John 3:6)
"No one who is 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 1 John 3:9)
From this perspective, John is making the statement that while while non-Christians sin
habitually, true Christians, who are characterized by holiness, do not. Christians may sin occasionally but not
in a repeated and habitual manner.
However, there are disagreements with this view:
1) When the Greek grammatical present tense is used to refer to a continuous sense, there
would be other terms to reinforce the context as seen in similar uses in the New Testament. For example,
1 John 3:6 would need to say something like: "Christians do not
sin repeatedly or daily." Without the assistence of additional terms, the grammatical present tense
of a verb is not strong enough to mean a continuous sense.
This point is still open to debate. Some scholars have shown that there are clear examples of
present tenses in the NT that did convey the habitual sense without clarifying words.
2) This exact present tense form of "sin" is found in
1 John 5:16; but, translators did not translate the verb in a
"If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should
pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. I am not saying that he should
pray about that." (NIV 1 John 5:16).
Scholars have noted that John may alternate between present and aorist tenses for purely stylist
purposes. For this reason, relying on the distinction of tenses alone is not considered a strong method of making
the argument of habitual sin.
4) Absolute Sin View
This view takes into account the purpose and context of the entire letter of 1 John. Instead
of making a theological statement, 1 John 3:6, 9 is part of an
argument against two types of false teachers within the church. This view will be elaborated in the discussion in
"The Context of 1 John".
The problem with this view is that John does not distinguish what type of group of false
teachers he is addressing.
The Context of 1 John
While the author does not identify himself, the author of 1 John is believed to be the Apostle John. Some have
argued that this was authored by John the Elder who was a disciple and friend of John the Apostle, and who relied
on the Apostle’s direct testimony. In any case, the letter’s vocabulary and writing style is similar to the book
of John and is believed to be of the Apostle John whether directly or indirectly from him. 1 John is believed to
be addressed to the churches of Asia.
During the first century, a new teaching was formulating in Asia Minor that blended Eastern Mysticism (the
knowledge of god was achieved through some form of enlightenment than ordinary perception) with Greek dualism (the
spirit was good and physical matter was evil). In the second century this would develop into a theological system
Gnosticism addressed the matter of sin in two ways:
1) The existence of sin was irrelavent.
This group understood that the human body was evil and nothing could be done to change it; so
they allowed the flesh to fulfill its lusts. But the human soul was separate and independent, and its spirit
communed with God. Because the soul was detached from the flesh, it never suffers the consequences of sin; thus,
this group of people believed that a person can participate in all kinds of sinful behavior.
2) The existence of sin was denied.
This group chose asceticism while in the pursuit of inner enlightenment. In separating
themselves from the contamination of the physical world, these people believed that sin did not exist in their
setting, they were beyond sin.
1 John 3:3-9 is addressed to both of these groups of
pre-Gnostic pseudo Christians, and by following his logic, John’s strong statement against moral indifference
can be seen.
Verse 3: And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He
The verb "purifies" occurs only once in the New Testament in
John 11:55, where the verb is used within the context of ritual
purification for the Passover. In the Greek Old Testament (LXX), this same Greek verb is used in
Exodus 19:10 and
Numbers 8:21 where the Israelites purified themselves before
coming in the presence of the Lord. Thus within the context of
1 John 3:2, John is reminding Christians that for those who
hope to come in the presence of the Lord, they need to live a purified lifestyle as Jesus did when he was on
earth. This was a stark contrast to what pre-Gnostics were promoting; John was saying how you live your present
Verse 4: Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
In the LXX, the Greek term "lawlessness" was in reference to the breaking of the Mosaic Law.
In the New Testament, John was likely referring to the violation of Jesus’ command to "love one another"
(John 13:34-35). The prominent theme in the whole letter of
1 John was love for the Christian brethren, and the one charge that John makes of the "antichrists"
(1 John 2:18) is their sin of withdrawing from the community and
refusing to love (1 John 3:17). In associating sin with a
violation of God’s commandments, Paul establishes the seriousness of sin. This too was in contrast to pre-Gnostics
who taught that the existence of sin was denied or irrelevant and perfectly fine to practice.
Verse 5: You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no
The Greek text and context makes a clear reference to Jesus, and John sees Jesus as the Lamb
of God whose purpose was to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). This reflects the seriousness of sin;
it could only be atoned for through divine intervention. The pre-Gnostic teachings on sin denied the necessity
and very purpose that brought Jesus Christ to earth.
Verse 6a: No one who abides in Him sins;
Verse 6b: no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
While this verse has prompted a variety of interpretive solutions because of its suggestion
of a sinless state of perfection for the Christian, when taken as absolute terms, verse 6 forms an argument that
is analogous to a disjunctive syllogism. From this perspective, it would be imperative to have the two premises
in stark contrast to each other, and these distinctions were intentionally made by John.
Premise 1: Everyone who abides in Christ don’t sin
Premise 2: Everyone who sins, doesn’t know Christ
The deductive logic is clear to the church that John is writing to: either they are abiding
in Christ or they are clearly not. The contrasts are intended to sharpen the distinctions between Christians
from pre-Gnostic pseudo Christians.
Verse 7: Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices
righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;
Verse 8: the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from
the beginning The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.
It seems that pre-Gnostic pseudo-Christian teachers, who promoted the freedom to sin, denied
their guilt and yet claimed righteousness. Verse 7 and 8 form another argument that is similar to a disjunctive
syllogism. Again stark contrasts are used to increase the force of John’s words and further distinguish
Christians from pre-Gnostic pseudo Christians.
Premise 1: Everyone who practices righteousness is righteous just as Christ is righteous.
Premise 2: Everyone who practices sin is of the devil.
The deductive logic: if you do not live a righteous life like Christ, you are of the devil
and deceitful. Pre-Gnostics were the very opposite of what they represented themselves to be, and Christ came
to destroy their work.
No one who is born of God
because His seed abides in him; and
he cannot sin
because he is born of God.
Verse 9 is a chiasm and like verse 6, it has been the subject of many interpretive debates.
The term "born," which is mentioned twice, is in the perfect, passive, indicative form. In using the perfect
grammatical form of "born," John indicates that this is a single act that has a continuous presence. Furthermore,
in using the passive voice, John informs the reader that "being born" was not by any effort of the Christian;
it was entirely of God’s sovereign efforts.
In his arguments against the pre-Gnostic pseudo Christians, John makes his point at the
inflection point of the chiasm: His seed abides in the Christian. While it is not clear what the "seed"
is, various commentators have thought it to be the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, Scripture or new nature. In any
case, John’s statement places an importance on the human body. This is in stark opposition to pre-Gnostics who
taught that the human body was evil and nothing could be done to change it.
John is saying: because His seed abides in the Christian (his body), he does not or cannot
Verse 10: By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious:
anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
Paul concludes his theme of contrast between the children of God and the children of the
devil and transitions into the next subject of his letter:
The children of the devil do not practice righteousness nor love the bretheren.
This statement sums up what Paul’s condemnation of the pre-Gnostic pseudo Christian who
advocate a life without license or by asceticism.
John never says that Christians cannot sin; Christians do sin. And various commentators have harmonized
this by way of the New Nature or Habitual Sin View. However, it is possible that John was not speaking in a
strict theological sense but rather in a rhetorical sense to sharpen the contrast of his opponents while both
rebuking them and reasserting basic theology about the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ.
1. Youngblood RF, Bruce FF, and Harrison RK eds., Nelson’s New
Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers (1995).
2. Kaiser WC, Davids PH, Bruce FF, Brauch MT, Hard Sayings of the
Bible, Chicago, IL: Inter-Varsity Press (1996).
3. Stott JR, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans Publishing (1996).
4. Walvoord JF and Zuck RB, eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary:
New Testament, Wheaton, Il: Victor Books (1985).
5. Bible.org, NETBible, Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press (1996-2007).