Saturday Series: 1 John 2:28-3:10 (continued)

1 John 2:28-3:10, continued

This is a continuation of last week’s study (on 1 John 2:28-3:10). If you have not already done so, I would urge you to read through the discussion last week before proceeding. As previously noted, the passage is comprised of two parallel sections; indeed, the parallelism of the instruction is precise, as each section has the same general outline:

    • Initial exhortation, with the opening address “(my dear) offspring” (2:28; 3:7a)
    • Statement characterizing (true) believers as those who are just, and act justly (2:29; 3:7bc)
    • Statement regarding the opposite—i.e. those who sin (3:4, 8a)
    • Statement regarding the purpose for Jesus coming to earth (as a human being) (3:5, 8b)
    • Statement to the effect that the (true) believer does/can not sin, and why (3:6a, 9)
    • Statement of the opposite—that the one sinning cannot be a true believer (3:6b, 10)

The core of this teaching is actually made up of a pair of dual-statements, with a Christological declaration in between:

    • Statement 1: True believers act justly, while those who sin do not (and are thus not true believers) [2:27-3:4 / 3:7-8a]
    • Christological declaration regarding Jesus’ appearance on earth [3:5 / 3:8b]
    • Statement 2: The true believer cannot sin and the one who sins cannot be a true believer [3:6 / 3:9-10]

We have already noted how Christology is at the center of the instruction, and, in many ways, is the key to a correct interpretation of the passage as a whole. The first three components were examined in the study last week; now, building on those results, we shall proceed to consider the final three.

1 John 3:5 / 3:8B

    • “And you have seen [i.e. known] that this (one) was made to shine forth (so) that he would take away sins, and sin is not in him.” (3:5)
    • “Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] the Son of God was made to shine forth, (so) that he would loose [i.e. dissolve] the works of the Diábolos” (3:8b)

Both statements use the verb form ephanerœ¡th¢, literally “he was made to shine forth”. This verb (phaneróœ) is rather frequent in the Johannine Writings—9 times in the Gospel and 9 in the First Letter—as part of the key (dualistic) imagery of light vs. darkness. It often has the generic meaning of “appear”, but the Johannine context makes preserving the etymological connection with light especially important. Jesus as the Light of God (Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9f; 12:35-36, 46; 1 Jn 1:5, 7; 2:8-10) shines for human beings on earth, and the Elect ones (believers) recognize and come to the light. Thus the motif of “shining” relates to the appearance of Jesus on earth—that is, as a human being (i.e. the incarnation), and, in particular, the work that he performed during his earthly life. The purpose of his work and life is made clear in these verses, with the concluding hína-clauses (“so that…”):

    • “he would take away [ár¢] sins” [some manuscripts read “…our sins”]
    • “he would loose [lýs¢] the works of the Diábolos

These are parallel statements which should be understood as generally synonymous—that is to say, “taking away” sins is essentially the same as “loosing” the works of the Devil. The verb lýœ (“loose[n]”), often has the meaning “dissolve”, i.e. “destroy”. The reference to the Diábolos (literally “one throwing over [accusations/insults]” or “one casting [evil] throughout”) continues the thought of the previous statement (v. 8a, discussed in last week’s study), where by the ones “doing the sin” are identified as belonging to (or born of) the Devil (ek tou diabólou), i.e. they are children of the Devil rather than children of God.

This echoes several passages in the Gospel where sin is closely connected with the Evil One. The most notable example comes from chapter 8 of the great Feast of Tabernacles discourse. The statement by Jesus in verse 19 connects acceptance of him with knowledge of God the Father. The dialogue that follows builds on this idea, using dualistic language to identify those who do not accept the Son (Jesus) as belonging to a different Father—children of the Devil, rather than being children of God (vv. 42-47). Their sin is that of unbelief, which reflects their identity as belonging to the Devil, and it is from this sin that others spring out (including hatred, violence, and murder).

In Jn 16:8-11 (also discussed last week), sin is also defined there as failing to trust in Jesus. The context of these verses has to do with the work of the Spirit/Paraclete who makes known the truth to the world—that is, the truth about who Jesus is and what he has done. Failing to trust in Jesus means that the person belongs not to God, but to the Devil; and, as verse 11 makes clear, the Devil (here called the Chief/Ruler of the world) has already been judged. It was the life and work of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection, which judged both the world (i.e. the current world-order of darkness) and the Devil. All who commit the ultimate sin of unbelief are judged along with their ‘Father’ the Devil.

Sin (and sins) are referred to here as “the works of the Devil”. In Pauline terms, this would be described as the power of sin that held humankind in bondage, with Sin (and Death) personified as a kind of world-ruler generally identified with the figure of the Satan/Devil. Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) freed humankind, making it possible to escape from this bondage through trust in him. However, the Johannine imagery relates more to the essential identity of human beings—believers belong to God and Christ, while all others (non-believers, i.e. those who sin) belong to the Devil. Believers do the works of God and Christ, non-believers do the works of the Devil.

An important point in the first Christological statement above (v. 5) is that there is no sin in Jesus (“sin is not in him”). Here the singular hamartía (without the definite article) refers to sin in the general sense, and is a declaration of the sinlessness of Jesus. This may be seen as relating to the declaration by Jesus in Jn 14:30 that the Chief of the world “holds nothing on me”. Any sense of the sinlessness of believers, as expressed in 1 John, must be understood in terms of the sinlessness of Jesus.

1 John 3:6a / 3:9

    • “Every one remaining in him does not sin;” (3:6a)
    • “Every one having come to be (born) out of God does not do the sin, (in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him; and he is not able to sin, (in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) out of God.” (3:9)

These statements are similar in meaning (and parallel) to those in 2:29 and 3:7bc (discussed last week). Clearly “doing justice” is related to “not doing sin”; these are flip sides of the same coin. Here we have a more precise formulation in terms of religious identity (“every one…”). Believers—true believers, that is—are described with a pair of participles, so that there is a sense of dynamic (verbal) action that characterizes their essential identity:

    • “the (one) remaining [ménœn] in him”
    • “the (one) coming to be (born) [gegenn¢ménos] out of God”

Both verbs—ménœ (“remain”) and gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”)—are key terms in the Johannine writings. More than half of the occurrences of ménœ in the New Testament are in the Gospel (40) and Letters (27) of John. It is a common verb, but virtually everywhere it is used in the Johannine writings it carries the special theological and spiritual meaning of the union believers share with the Son (Jesus) and the Father. It is reciprocal: Jesus remains in believers, and believers remain in Jesus. The verb gennᜠdefines this identity in a different way, according to the image of being born of God, i.e. as children of God, even as Jesus is the Son. It is our union with the Son (and the Father), through the presence and power of the Spirit, that makes this “birth” possible (see esp. John 3:3-8). The verb occurs 18 times in the Gospel, and 10 in the First Letter; the substantive verbal noun (participle with the definite article) is especially distinctive of 1 John (see also Jn 3:6, 8). Thus, insofar as believers “do not sin”, this is predicated upon two things: (1) being born out of God (as His offspring), and (2) remaining in Jesus.

However, the author explains this a bit further in verse 9b, when he adds the detail that, for the person born out of God, the seed (spérma) of God also remains in him/her. A careful study of the language and thought of Johannine writings leaves little doubt that this “seed” is to be identified with the Spirit. It is through the Spirit that we come to be born of God, and it is thus the life-producing seed. What needs to be pointed out, is that this same seed remains in us. The Spirit of God the Father is also the Spirit of the Son, and represents the abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers.

The statements regarding sin in these verses are essentially two:

    • “every one remaining in him does not sin [ouch hamartánei]”
      “every one coming to be born out of God does not do (the) sin [hamartían ou poieí]”
    • “…and he is not able to sin [ou dýnatai hamartánein], (in) that he has come to be born out of God”

Are the differing forms of the first statement saying the same thing? The expression “do the sin” was used in verse 4, with the definite article (literally “the sin” (h¢ hamartía). I argued that this use of the singular referred to the fundamental Johannine definition of sin (in Jn 16:9, etc) as unbelief—failing or refusing to trust in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. At the same time, the singular (without the definite article) in v. 5b seems to mean sin in a general sense. There would appear to be three levels of meaning to the noun hamartía and the concept of “sin”:

    1. “the sin” (singular with definite article)—the fundamental sin of unbelief
    2. “sin” (singular without the definite article)—sin in the general or collective sense, and
    3. “sins” (plural)—individual sins committed by human beings

The verb hamartánœ relates to all three of these meanings, but here especially to the first two.

1 John 3:6b / 3:10

    • “every one sinning has not seen him and has not known him” (3:6b)
    • “…every one not doing justice is not (born) out of God, and (this is) the (one) not loving his brother” (3:10)

Again we see the close connection between sin and justice (dikaiosýn¢, or “just-ness, right-ness”). Previously we had the equation doing justice = not sinning; similarly, here we have the reverse of this: sinning = not doing justice. Recall above that the use of the substantive verbal noun (participle with definite article) indicated the essential identity and character of a believer; now the same syntax is used to refer to the non-believer (or false believer). That this characterizes the non-believer is clear from the phrases “has…seen/known him” and “out of God [i.e. belonging to God, born of God]”. This typical Johannine language, used throughout the Gospel and First Letter. Thus the “one sinning” clearly is not (and cannot be) a true believer in Christ.

But is this “sinning” meant in the general sense, or does it have a particular meaning in its context here? The final phrase of verse 10 (and of the passage) confirms that the intended meaning is quite specific, by the identification of the “one sinning / not doing justice” as “the one not loving his brother”. There can be little doubt that the use of “brother” in context means one’s fellow believer. Love (agáp¢) between believers is a fundamental mark of the Christian identity, and central to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of John. It is part of the great command—the only command—under which believers are bound. Actually, the great command is a two-fold command, presented succinctly in 3:23:

“And this is His entol¢¡ [i.e. command]: that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and (that) we should love each other, even as he [i.e. Jesus] gave us the entol¢¡.”

Thus the essential definition of sin must be expanded to include a failure to love one another. That this is primarily in mind for the author is clear enough by the section which follows our passage (3:11-24). Beginning with a statement of the love-command (v. 11), and the key illustration in v. 12 from the story of Cain and Abel, the author’s instruction turns entirely to the demonstration of love as the mark of the true believer. Remember that the issue of those ‘false’ believers who separated from the Community is at the heart of the letter, and informs this section on love, even as it does the prior section on sin. We may thus summarize the teaching regarding sin as follows:

There are four levels of meaning to hamartía and the concept of sin (compare with the list of three above):

    1. “sins” (plural) = individual sins committed by human beings
    2. “sin” (singular, without the definite article) = sin in the general sense
    3. “sin” (singular, with the article) = the fundamental sin of unbelief
    4. “sinning” (verb hamartánœ) = principally, violations of the two-fold command

The main point at issue in 1 John, especially here in 2:28-3:10, is not the first two levels of meaning (as the casual reader might assume), but specifically the last two. For the true believer, it is impossible to sin in the sense of (3.) and (4.); indeed, sin, in either of these senses, marks the distinction between the true and false believer. To see this clearly, let us cite the concluding statement of verse 10 in full:

“In this it is shining [i.e. clear/apparent] (who are) the offspring of God and the offspring of the Diábolos: every one not doing justice [i.e. sinning] is not (born) out of God, and (this is) the one not loving his brother.”

What then of meanings (1.) and (2.) above? The work of Jesus, his sacrificial death and resurrection, frees believers from sin in the general sense (1:7; 2:2), as is indicated in the pair of Christological statements of vv. 5, 8b (see above). This leaves meaning #1, which, I would argue, is the only sense of sin that applies to the true believer in Christ. Believers will (or may) occasionally commit sins, as the author makes quite clear in 1:8-2:2 and 5:16ff. The same power that frees us from sin in the general sense, also cleanses us from individual sins we commit. In that way, believers do take part in the sinlessness of Jesus, and the power that he has over sin.

We will touch on this question of sin (as it relates to the believer) again in these studies on 1 John. Hold on to these past studies, meditating on the line of interpretation I have presented, as there will be occasion to develop it further. However, for next week, I wish to move ahead in the letter, looking at 4:1-6 in detail. In so doing, we will survey again the preceding instruction (on love) in 3:11-24, taking great care in considering how 4:1-6 fits into the overall structure and argument of the letter. I hope to see you here for this study…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:28-3:10

This week, in our studies on the Johannine Letters, we turn to a theological problem in 1 John which has challenged commentators for centuries—the apparent contradictory statements indicating that a Christian does and does not sin, or, indeed, can and cannot sin. The difficulty is obviously more pointed in the latter instance, which may be illustrated by comparing the following two statements:

“If we say we have not sinned, we make him [i.e. God] (to be) false…” (1:10)
“Everyone coming to be (born) out of God…is not able to sin.” (3:9)

The main passage making it clear that Christians do (and can) sin is 1:7-10; the statements that they do not (and cannot) are primarily found in the current passage under discussion. There are two (or three) such statements in our passage (vv. 6, 9), with another in 5:18:

    • “Every (one) remaining in him does not sin [ouch hamartánei]…” (3:6)
    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin [hamartían ou poieí]…” (3:9a)
      “…and is not able to sin [ou dýnatai hamartánein], (in) that he has come to be (born) out of God” (3:9b)
    • “…every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ouch hamartánei]…” (5:18)

The statement in 5:18 is actually a conflation of those in 3:6 and 3:9a. One popular way of explaining the apparent contradiction is the idea that the use of the present tense in these four statements refers to habitual sin, or a lifestyle characterized by sinful behavior, rather than occasional sins. Some English versions circumvent the problem for the average reader by building this interpretation into the translation. However, far too much is made of this supposed grammatical difference. For example, in 1:8 the present tense is used when it is essentially stated that believers do sin: “if we say that we do not hold/have sin, we lead ourselves astray”. Also the perfect tense, used in 1:10, would generally indicate a past action or condition that continues into the present: “if we say that we have not sinned [i.e., = do not sin], we make Him (to be) false”.

Beyond this, the author’s statements, especially in 3:6ff, are fundamental to his overall theology, and should not be made to hinge on a subtle grammatical distinction. There have, indeed, been many other attempts at explanation. A proper solution is to be derived from careful study of the Johannine thought-world, beginning with 1 John, then widening to consider the Gospel along with the other two letters. One should avoid importing solutions or doctrinal issues that are foreign to these writings. I offer here three possibilities for consideration:

    • The statements in 3:6 etc. represent the ideal, while those in 1:7-10 etc. reflect the practical reality for believers. To frame this more in accordance with Johannine thought, we might say that the fundamental identity of believers is sinless, based on our union with the sinless Christ. However, this sinlessness is maintained for believers through confession (of sin) and forgiveness (through the intercession of Jesus). According to Luther’s famous expression, the nature of believers is two-fold: simul iustus et peccator (“at once righteous and sinner”).
    • Christians are sinless only so far as we remain in Christ. This idea of “remaining”, using the verb ménœ, is central to Johannine theology, in both the Gospel and letters (the verb occurs 40 times in the Gospel and 27 in the letters—more than half of all NT occurrences [118]). This is expressed most famously by the Vine illustration in Jesus’ Last Discourse (15:1-11). To use this illustration, if one remains in the Vine, the believer is unable to sin; only when one fails to remain in, through neglect, etc, does the believer sin. Through confession/forgiveness, the believer is ‘grafted’ back into the Vine and once again remains/abides.
    • In 3:6, etc, the author is not referring to sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in the general ethical-religious sense; rather, here it specifically means violation of the two-fold command (3:23f), which no true believer can violate. In this regard, sin is identified as “lawlessness” (anomía) in a very specific sense.

Before any determination can be made on the viability of these (or any other) solution, it is necessary to examine the context and setting of the statements in 3:6 and 9. New Testament theology, which ultimately serves as the basis for Christian theology, must be derived from careful exegesis and critical analysis of the key passages in question. From the standpoint of Biblical Criticism, this falls generally under the heading of literary criticism—the vocabulary, style, structure, literary/rhetorical devices, etc, used by the author.

In last week’s study (on 2:18-27), we saw how the thrust of the letter, up to that point, related to a conflict and division within the Johannine congregations. Certain members, characterized as false believers, who, according to the author, held a view of Jesus considered to be contrary to the Johannine Gospel (and called antichrist, “against the Anointed”), had apparently separated from the Community. The author clearly felt a real danger that these “separatists” could lead astray others in the congregations, and so is writing to warn and persuade his readers against the views (and actions) of these ‘false’ believers. We must keep this in mind as we study the portion that follows (2:28-3:10).

In terms of its structure, our passage follows the basic pattern of 2:18ff, begun earlier in vv. 12ff, of paraenesis (i.e. instruction, exhortation), whereby the author addresses his fellow believers as “(my) children”, using either the diminutive teknía or paidía. The latter term (used at 2:18) literally means “little children”, while the former (teknía, here and in v. 12) is harder to translate, something like “(my dear) offspring“. 2:28-3:10 is comprised of two parallel instructions, each beginning with teknía. The parallelism is precise, a fact which may be obscured by the digression in 3:1-3; if we temporarily omit those verses, then there are six components, or statements, in each section:

    • Initial exhortation, with the opening address “(my dear) offspring” (2:28; 3:7a)
    • Statement characterizing (true) believers as those who are just, and act justly (2:29; 3:7bc)
    • Statement regarding the opposite—i.e. those who sin (3:4, 8a)
    • Statement regarding the purpose for Jesus coming to earth (as a human being) (3:5, 8b)
    • Statement to the effect that the (true) believer does/can not sin, and why (3:6a, 9)
    • Statement of the opposite—that the one sinning cannot be a true believer (3:6b, 10)

The core of this teaching is actually made up of a pair of dual-statements, with a Christological declaration in between:

    • Statement 1: True believers act justly, while those who sin do not (and are thus not true believers) [2:27-3:4 / 3:7-8a]
    • Christological declaration regarding Jesus’ appearance on earth [3:5 / 3:8b]
    • Statement 2: The true believer cannot sin and the one who sins cannot be a true believer [3:6 / 3:9-10]

Christology is thus at the heart of the instruction, and the parallel declarations in 3:5, 8b must kept clearly in mind as we study the statements in 2:27-3:4, 6, 7-8a, 9-10. Let us now examine carefully each of the six parallel components.

1 John 2:28 / 3:7a

    • “And now, (my dear) offspring, you must remain in him…” (2:28)
    • “(My dear) offspring, no one must lead you astray” (3:7a)

The idea of remaining (vb ménœ) in Christ (“in him” en autœ¡) is parallel to not being “led astray” (vb planáœ), the implication being that the one who is led astray no longer remains in Christ. In light of Jesus’ words of warning in John 15:4-7, this must be taken most seriously. The influence and views of those who have separated from the Community is certainly in mind here as that which could lead believers astray (see the discussion on 2:18-27). The exhortation in 2:28 is set within an eschatological context (as is that in 2:18ff): “…you must remain in him, (so) that, if [i.e. when] he should be made to shine forth (to us), you would hold an outspoken (confidence) and not feel shame from him in his coming to be alongside (us) [parousía]”. The return of Jesus to earth, believed by the author to be imminent (2:18), and marking the moment of the final Judgment, is a key part of the urgency of this exhortation. We must keep this eschatological dimension in mind throughout our study as well.

1 John 2:29 / 3:7bc

    • “If you have seen [i.e. known] that he is just, (then) you know that also every (one) doing justice has come to be (born) [gegénn¢tai] out of him.” (2:29)
    • “every (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just” (3:7bc)

This statement expresses a fundamental (two-fold) principle of Johannine theology: (1) as Jesus is just/righteous [díkaios], so his true followers (believers) will be as well; and (2) the just-ness [dikaiosýn¢] of believers comes from that of Jesus himself, through our union with him. Here we also have the basic problem of how to translate the dikaio- word group, whether by “just/justice” or “right[eous]/righteousness”. Either way, we must, I think, here avoid the tendency of understanding dikaios[yn¢] in terms of conventional ethical-religious behavior. The author certainly would have taken for granted that true believers would think and act in a moral and upright manner; I doubt that is really at issue here, since, presumably, those who separated from the Community were quite moral (in the conventional sense) as well. Many commentators assume that they were licentious, but I find not the slightest hint of that in the letters. Moreover, it is worth noting that, throughout Church history, separatist groups and supposed ‘heretics’ have tended toward an ideal of ascetic purity much more so than toward flagrant immorality.

How, then, should we understand díkaios and dikaoisýn¢ here? We must look to the evidence of how these words are used elsewhere in the Johannine writings. They occur infrequently in the Gospel, but there is one key passage, 16:8-11, in the great Last Discourse, where Jesus is speaking of the work that the Spirit/Paraclete will do after his departure back to the Father. As it happens, sin (hamartía) and justice/righteousness are juxtaposed in that passage, much as they are in 1 John 2:28-3:10:

“and, (at his) coming, that one [i.e. the Spirit/Paraclete] will expose (to) the world (the truth) about sin and about justice and about judgment:
(on the one hand) about sin, (in) that they do not trust in me;
(on the other) about justice, (in) that I go back to the Father and you (can) look at me no longer…”

Here sin is defined as failing (or refusing) to believe in Jesus; and, I would say, that justice is similarly to be understood as the truth of who Jesus is. The work of the Spirit is described with the verb eléngchœ, which has the basic judicial meaning of exposing the guilt, etc, of someone—more precisely here, that of exposing the truth of the matter. Indeed, the Spirit is closely identified with Truth in the Johannine writings, being called “the Spirit of truth” in verse 13 (also 14:17; 15:26; and see 1 John 4:6; 5:6). The truth of Jesus’ identity is defined here by two phrases:

    • “I go back to the Father” — i.e., the raised/exalted Jesus’ return to the Father, confirming his identity as the Son.
    • “you see me no longer” — this is a shorthand way of referring to the time after his departure, in which the disciples will “see” Jesus only through the (invisible) presence of the Spirit. The abiding presence of the Spirit confirms the reality of who Jesus is, and marks the true believer.

Thus “sin” and “justice” (dikaiosýn¢) here have a very specific and distinct meaning. The terms are not being used in the ordinary ethical-religious sense, but in a decidedly theological and Christological sense. What of the dikaio- word group elsewhere in the Johannine letters? The noun occurs only in our passage (2:29; 3:7, 10), but the adjective (díkaios) three other times in 1 John:

    • In 1:9 and 2:1, it is used as a title/attribute of Jesus, specifically in the context of his relation to the Father (as Son), with the power to cleanse/forgive sin. This is an importance point of emphasis which we will be exploring further.
    • In 3:12, immediately following our passage, it characterizes Abel in contrast to the evil of Cain. The two are brothers, and, as such, the illustration represents the contrast between true and false believers—another important point for our passage.

As in the earlier statement in 2:28, that in v. 29 is followed by an exposition with an eschatological emphasis, only much more extensive (3:1-3). It is beyond the scope of our study to examine these verses in detail, but the following brief points should be noted:

    • Believers are identified as “the offspring (i.e. children) of God”, using the same noun (teknía) as in the opening exhortations (2:28a; 3:7a). This expounds the important Johannine verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”), used repeatedly as a way of identifying (true) believers as those who are born from God. This essential identity is in complete contrast to that of “the world [kósmos]”.
    • The identity of believers will not be realized fully until the end-time appearance of Jesus; currently, they/we experience him through the Spirit, but ultimately the union will be even more complete.

1 John 3:4 / 3:8a

    • “Every (one) doing the sin also does the lawless (thing), and (indeed) the sin is the lawless (thing).” (3:4)
    • “Every (one) doing the sin is out of the Diábolos, (in) that from the beginning the Diábolos sins.” (3:8a)

Here, being “out of [ek] the Diábolos” is a precise contrast to coming to be born “out of [ek] God” (or “out of Christ”). The word diábolos literally signifies one who “throws over” accusations, insults, etc, but it came to be used in a technical sense for the Evil One opposed to God (= “the Satan” of Old Testament tradition). We might, perhaps, translate the term literally as “the one casting (evil) throughout”. In any case, here the Diábolos (“Devil”) is part of a dualistic contrast with God and Christ, in much the same way the term kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used in the Johannine writings. In John 16:11 (see above), we find the title “the chief of this world” (ho árchœn tou kósmou toútou, also in 14:30), a title more or less synonymous with diábolos.

In the first statement (3:4), sin (hamartía) is identified with anomía, a term literally meaning something “without law” (ánomos), i.e. “lawless (thing)”, “lawlessness”. This noun does not occur elsewhere in the Johannine writings, and, indeed, is relatively rare in the New Testament (13 other occurrences). How are we to understand its use here, which would seem to be quite important for a correct understanding of “sin” in our passage? In a Jewish (or Jewish Christian) context, anomía and ánomos could refer to the Old Testament Law (Torah), and to non-Jews (Gentiles) and non-observant Jews as being “without the Law”. Paul occasionally uses the term this way, but more frequently it signifies “lawlessness” in the general sense of wickedness and opposition to God. However, there are two distinct connotations for anomía among Christians in the first century, either (or both) of which are likely significant in regard to its use here:

    • The term came to be used in an eschatological context, as a way to describe the wickedness and social/moral upheaval of the current Age, especially as it comes to a close at the end-time. It occurs in the Matthean version of the Eschatological Discourse (Matt 24:12; cf. also 13:41), and again, more prominently, in 2 Thess 2:3, 7 (see the upcoming article on 2 Thess 2:1-12 in the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”). The author of 1 John clearly believed he and his readers were living in the “last hour” right before the end (2:18), so his use of anomía here likely has an eschatological emphasis.
    • The word anomía (also anóm¢ma) was occasionally used to translate the Hebrew b®liyya±al, a term of uncertain derivation but tending to be associated with death, or more generally to the idea of hostility, chaos, and confusion (i.e. disorder). The frequent expression “son/man of Beliyya’al” essentially refers to a person who violates and disrupts the order of things—either in a specific social or religious setting, or within society at large. This may well serve as the basis for Paul’s expression “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3. In 2 Cor 6:14, anomía is parallel to Belíar, a transliteration in Greek (with variant spelling) of b®liyya±al. Belial/Beliar came to be used as a title of the Evil One (equivalent to “the Satan”, “Devil”) in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., and frequently occurs in an apocalyptic/eschatological context. For more on 2 Cor 6:14ff, see the recent Saturday series studies on that passage.

We should consider here also the specific wording in these statements, especially the phrase ho poiœ¡n t¢n hamartían. The verb poiéœ (“do, make”) occurs 13 times in 1 John, always in the present tense—either an indicative or an articular participle. In both instances, the verb serves to summarize the fundamental character and identity of a person, but particularly so with the participle (“the [one] doing”); the active behavior of a person indicates his/her identity. But what does it mean to “do sin”? Is this simply a matter of committing sins, i.e. moral/religious failings or transgressions, or is something more involved? Much depends on whether or not there is specific force intended in the definite article preceding hamartían: is it “the one doing sin” or “the one doing the sin”? In all other instances with the definite article (1:9; 2:2, 12; 3:5; 4:10); the noun is plural, indicating the sins a person commits—i.e., committing sin in the conventional sense. In my view, the articular use of the singular here means something different and quite specific: the sin. And what is the sin? I would maintain that is best understood in light of John 16:8ff (see above), where sin—ultimately, the sin that is judged—is failing/refusing to trust in Jesus, i.e. to accept the truth of who he is. This sin is a fundamental transgression of the two-fold command (3:23), the only “law” which is binding for believers. As such, this sin of unbelief is “lawlessness” (anomía), quite apart from the general wickedness that may be associated with unbelief.

For those accustomed to reading 2:28-3:10 with the assumption that religious-ethical behavior is in view, the line of interpretation developed thus far in our study may seem somewhat surprising, even disconcerting. However, that it is generally on the right track, can, I believe, be shown by a careful examination of the rhetorical thrust of 1:1-2:27 (see the prior two studies). Throughout the letter, the emphasis has been on need for Christians to preserve the message about Jesus—the truth of who he is and what he has done—that is contained, specifically, in the Johannine Gospel. Certain people, whom the author characterizes as false believers, have left the Community, and hold/express a view of Jesus that is considered to be contrary to this Gospel (antichrist, “against the Anointed”). We will see this emphasis come more clearly into view in our passage as we proceed, beginning with the Christological declarations in 3:5 and 8b. I hope you will join me next Saturday for the continuation of this important study.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18 (concluded)

1 John 5:16-18 (concluded)

In the last two notes, we have pursued a detailed study of 1 Jn 5:16-18 and the various difficulties surrounding this passage. Before offering a conclusion, it will be good to examine certain other details in these verses, to gain a bit more clarity as to what the author is actually saying.

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. | There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death. | We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

We may divide this passage into three sections, or statements, marked by vertical bars above:

Statement 1. “If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death.”

This was discussed in detail in the previous note; however, it is worth considering the structure of this sentence:

    • A brother (i.e. believer) sinning sin not toward death
      —ask (of God) and (God) will give him life
    • those not sinning toward death

The chiasm gives double emphasis to the idea that only those not sinning “toward death” will be given life; indeed, it is only for these (i.e. true believers) that the request/prayer should be made to God on their behalf. As I discussed yesterday, the best way of understanding the “sin toward death” is as violation of the two-fold commandment (3:23-24) which defines the believer’s identity in Christ. True believers are not able to violate this command; only “false” believers who effectively speak and act “against Christ” (i.e. anti-christ) sin in this way. Since they are false believers, and not among the elect/chosen ones, they do not possess Life—indeed, they cannot.

Statement 2. “There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death.”

This is actually comprised of separate statements, which are related to each other, and which have the same conceptual structure as Statement #1 above:

    • There is sin “toward death”
      that sin
      ——one should not make any request regarding it, but only for
      —all (other) sin
    • There is sin “not toward death”

Here the author more precisely makes the distinction between the sin “toward death” (i.e., violation of the two-fold command) and that which is not (i.e., all other sin a believer might commit). All sin is wrong (lit. “without justice, without right-ness”), but only the sin which violates the central (two-fold) commandment is “toward death”. Bear in mind that the author is addressing those whom he considers true believers and urges them to live and act according to that identity. This is perhaps the reason why the author does not address traditional ethical and religious concerns, except only very loosely and in passing (2:15-17). He would have taken for granted that true believers in Christ would live upright lives, conducting themselves honorably, in spite of occasional lapses of sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2). The main issue in the letter relates to those who separated from the mainstream congregations and now belong to “the world” (2:19; 4:1ff; 5:19; 2 Jn 7). According to the viewpoint of the author, these “false” believers violate both aspects of the two-fold command that defines the Christian:

    • By separating from (and opposing) the Johannine congregations they do not show proper love for their “brothers”; on the contrary, they actually demonstrate the opposite, hate (2:9, 19; 3:11-15)
    • They do not have proper trust in Jesus, in that they hold (and proclaim) a false view of Jesus (2:22-23; 4:1-6; 5:6-12; 2 Jn 7ff)

Especially difficult for many Christians to appreciate today is the directive that one should not make any prayer/request to God on behalf of those “sinning” in this way. This seems rather harsh, especially in light of the Christian ideal of showing love for sinners. However, early Christians held rather a different view when it came to supposed (i.e. “false”) believers who were thought to be opposing the truth. This applied both to theological and Christological opinions, but also to behavior which violated or disrupted Christian unity. The approach advocated regarding such persons, and the way they are described in the Writings, is consistently strident and harsh—Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:4-5, 11; 2 Cor 11:12-15; Gal 5:7-12; 6:12-13; 1 Tim 6:3-5; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 2 Peter 2; Jude vv. 3-4ff, etc. There is, indeed, a clear parallel in the Second Letter (vv. 10-11), where the author urges those whom he is addressing not to take the “false” believers into their houses, nor even to offer them a polite greeting.

Regarding the above points, many sad (and tragic) episodes in Church History have demonstrated vividly that such instruction in the New Testament must be interpreted and applied most carefully. I will be discussing this further in an upcoming note dealing with the background and setting of the Johannine letters.

There is, however, perhaps a deeper significance to the advice given here in v. 16. It has to do with the nature of the Christian Community—that is, of believers united together in Christ through faith and love. The sort of concern shown over the person sinning, and indicated by the request made to God, relates to the preservation of the bond of unity between believers. Sin disrupts and defiles this covenant bond and must be cleansed. In other words, verse 16 reflects the love that believers have for each other; it does not apply to non-believers (much less to false believers). Whatever concern or love one might show to the world, it is not the same as the bond of love that unites believers in Christ. With regard to prayer, there may be an echo of this idea in John 17:6-9:

“I have made your name shine forth to the ones [lit. men] whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept watch (over) your word. … I make (my) request about them; I do not make (any) request about the world, but about (those) whom you have given to me, (in) that [i.e. because] they are yours…”

Jesus’ prayer is not for “the world” (and those who belong to it), but those (believers) given to him by the Father (i.e., the elect/chosen ones). This does not mean that Jesus has no concern or “love” over others in the world (cf. Jn 3:16, etc); rather, it reflects a distinctive understanding (and expression) of love.

Statement 3. “We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

Most of this statement has been discussed in detail in the previous notes; I wish to draw attention to the closing words: “…and the evil does not attach (itself) [a%ptetai] to him”. Many commentators read the substantive adjective with the article (o( ponhro/$) as “the Evil (One)”, and this probably reflects the author’s understanding. This protection from evil is important in several respects:

    • It is central to the idea of both: (a) the believer being born out of God, and (b) that God keeps watch over the believer (primarily through the Spirit).
    • It relates to the idea that the believer does not (and cannot) sin. While the believer may commit occasional sins (moral lapses, etc), sin and evil does not “attach (itself)” to him/her. The verb a%ptw / a%ptomai is often translated as “touch”, but that is not quite strong enough. Sin remains foreign to the believer and does not become part of his/her identity or destiny. A somewhat similar idea is expressed beautifully in Wisdom 3:1.
    • The reference to “the evil (one)” here must be understood in light of the statement which follows in verse 19:
      “We have seen that we are out of [i.e. from/of] God, and (that) the whole world is stretched (out) in th(is) Evil.”
      The contrast between believers (born of God) and the world (lying in evil) could not be made more clear.
Conclusion

I wish to conclude this discussion on 1 Jn 5:16-18 with a series of summarizing points, which, I hope, will help to elucidate this difficult passage:

Sin and the Believer

    • Statements indicating that the believer does not (or cannot) sin are to be understood in terms of the believer’s fundamental identity in Christ. At this essential level, we participate in the sinlessness of Jesus.
    • This union with Jesus (and God the Father), by which we participate in the divine purity (sinlessness), is presently realized for believers through the Spirit. However, it will not be fully realized and experienced until the end-time.
    • For this reason, believers do (and are able to) commit sin (moral lapses, etc) during this earthly life. Through admission/confession of sin, we are cleansed and forgiven.
    • It is the power and work of Jesus—both his sacrificial death and (priestly) work of intercession before God the Father—which cleanses us from sin. This is part of God’s saving work and life-giving power.
    • We as believers are exhorted to live and act—developing patterns of thought and behavior—in a manner which reflects our true identity (pure/sinless) in Christ.
    • While we may sin, as believers we possess (“hold”) Life, and have been transferred out of “the world”—i.e., out of the domain of sin and darkness. We are thus no longer on the path leading “toward death”.
    • The life-giving presence of Jesus (the Spirit) protects us from evil. Though we may sin, evil and sin cannot touch us or “attach itself” to us. It is incidental, like the dust which gathers while we walk (cf. John 13:5-11); it is not part of our nature or identity as believers.

The Sin “toward Death”

    • Sin is understood primarily as the lack of “right-ness” or “just-ness” (i.e., righteousness, justice). In traditional religious terms, this is expressed as transgressions or violations of (religious and moral) Law.
    • However, for believers in Christ, there are now only two “commandments”—a two-fold command, or duty—which we must follow: (1) trust in Jesus and (2) love for one another (i.e. for our fellow believers), according to Jesus’ own example. All other aspects of religious and ethical behavior stem from this.
    • Since these two commands reflect our fundamental identity as believers in Christ, true believers will not (and cannot) violate them. The presence of the Spirit works in us, teaching and guiding us to observe this command, protecting us from sin.
    • It follows that only those who are not true believers (“false” believers) sin in this way by failing to observe the two-fold command.
    • Such false believers are actually “in the world” (i.e., belonging to the world); they do not hold Life, but remain on the path leading toward death.
    • They are thus sinning the “sin toward death”.
    • This sin is observable and demonstrable in that such “false” believers:
      (1) do not show genuine love toward other believers (according to Jesus’ example), and/or
      (2) do not have a proper (or correct) trust/faith in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God sent by the Father.
    • Since they do not possess the true Spirit of God (and Christ), but speak and act from a different spirit, it is possible (and necessary) to “test” such “spirits”. The author of 1 John makes this test specific: (a) lack of love (i.e. “hatred”) which leads to disruption of unity, separation and hostility, and (b) an aberrant view of the person of Christ, specifically one which denies the reality of his human life and sacrificial death.
    • Such persons are not to be regarded or treated as fellow believers; in particular, we ought not to pray for them in the same way we would for a fellow believer who sins.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

In the previous note, I discussed the opening declaration in verse 18, along with the various (and seemingly contradictory) statements in the letter to the effect that Christians both do commit sin and do not (indeed, cannot) commit sin. There is no simple answer or solution to this difficulty, but I have sought to analyze it carefully, based on the overall language and ideas expressed throughout the letter. However, before proceeding to a more precise interpretation, it is necessary to examine the distinction in vv. 16-18 regarding sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) and sin which is not so. Here again are verses 16-17 in translation:

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death.”

Sin which is “toward death”

The simplest explanation of the expression “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) is something which leads toward death or results in it (cf. John 11:4). The underlying idea is presumably legal, particularly as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah). Certain violations of law—i.e. serious crimes against society or religious transgressions—specifically result in death for the offender (Exod 21:12ff; Num 18:22, et al). Some commentators understand the idea of the transgressor being “cut off”, at least in certain passages, as referring to a punishment by God of death. Naturally, in such legal and religious-cultural settings, certain sins result in death (or a sentence of death) while others do not. How might this apply to the situation in 1 John? A number of interpretations have been offered by commentators over the years; these include:

    • The distinction involves especially serious or egregious sins—religious and/or ethical violations—in the basic sense indicated above.
    • It reflects something akin to the thought in James 1:14-15, of sinful behavior which is cultivated and allowed to grow, leading to “death”; this would perhaps relate to the interpretation that the present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6, 9; 5:18, etc, refers to continual, habitual sinning, rather than occasional failings by the believer.
    • The distinction involves ‘ordinary’ sinning (i.e. moral lapses, etc) vs. more serious sins (i.e. “blasphemy”) against God’s own person, perhaps in a specific theological/Christological sense.
    • It relates to the “unforgivable sin” (i.e. against the Holy Spirit) of which Jesus speaks in Mark 8:38 par.

The first option certainly fits the fundamental religious/ethical background which presumably underlies the expression. Indeed, early Christians preserved the basic idea of especially serious (and blatant) sins which no true believer ever should, or would, commit. There are a number of examples of such “vice lists” in the New Testament, which are generally in accord with both Jewish and Greco-Roman standards of decency and morality—e.g., Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:22-23. In Rom 1:32, Paul specifically declares that those who commit such gross transgressions are “deserving of death“. This draws upon traditional Israelite and Jewish religious thought, as expressed in the Torah (cf. above). He similarly states (again using traditional language) that those engaged in such behavior will certainly not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10; Gal 5:21).

The problem with this view is that such traditional ethical instruction is really not to be found in the letter. Only in 2:15-17 do we see anything of the sort, and, even there, the emphasis is more generally on the character of “the world” rather than on specific types of sin. The closing statement of the letter (5:21) appears, at first glance, to be a traditional warning against (pagan, Greco-Roman) idolatry; yet, based on the overall orientation of the letter, it is likely that the warning should be understood as a coded statement, referring to the false views of those described in 2:18-25 and 4:1-6, etc, symbolically as idol-worship. So, this leaves us with two options: (1) in 5:16-18 the author is referring to something (types of serious immorality, etc) not otherwise emphasized in the letter, or (2) the sin that is “toward death” relates to something other than violation of traditional religious and moral behavior. In my view, the latter is more likely and fitting with the rhetorical thrust of the letter. If so, then it would also eliminate the second interpretation cited above. As I argued in the previous note, the use of the present tense of a(marta/nw does not necessarily indicate continual/habitual sinning, but more properly the simple distinction between past and present sins.

I would suggest that the third and fourth views listed above are rather closer to the mark, though the dynamic must be understood in terms of Johannine thought (i.e. that of the Letters and Gospel). Jesus’ specific saying regarding the “unforgivable sin” (against the Holy Spirit) is foreign to 1 John, though it may provide a loose parallel in the way that early Christians may have understood certain “sins” as directed specifically against the person of Christ and/or the Spirit.

It is useful at this point to consider the statement made by the author in verse 17:

“All sin is injustice [a)diki/a], and (yet) there is sin which is not toward death.”

The noun a)diki/a literally refers to something which is “without justice, without right(eous)ness”; we might say that it is “lacking right-ness”. This blanket statement refers to “all sin” (pa=sa a(marti/a). At the same time, it would seem that the author agrees with the general assessment in James 1:14-15 that all sin eventually leads to death (on this point, cf. below). What, then, is the sin which is, or leads, “toward death”? Let us look at the key references to “death” (qa/nato$) in the Johannine Gospel and First Letter, specifically with those which relate to the believer (rather than the sacrificial death of Jesus):

    • Jn 5:24—the person hearing Jesus’ word, and trusting in him (and the One who sent him), holds the “Life of the Age” (eternal life) and “has stepped across out of death (and) into Life”. Humankind in the world is dominated by sin and darkness, and is on a path which leads to (ultimate) death in the end-time Judgment. Only those who trust in Jesus have Life, and are transferred out of this realm (and path) leading to death.
    • Jn 8:51-52—here we find a slightly different formulation of the same idea: that the person (believer) who keeps/guards Jesus’ word will never “see/taste death”. The motifs of “hearing” and “keeping” Jesus’ word are two aspects of the principal idea of trusting in Jesus (and in God the Father).
    • 1 Jn 3:14 reflects both of these declarations by Jesus, defining them specifically in terms of love for one’s fellow believer:
      “We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across out of death (and) into Life, (in) that [i.e. because] we love the brothers; the (one) not loving remains in death.”

We have discussed previously how, in Johannine thought, the entirety of the Christian life is summarized by just two “commandments” (e)ntolai/); actually, it is better understood as a single, two-fold duty: (1) trust in Jesus and (2) love for fellow believers (following Jesus’ own example). This may be deduced from evidence all throughout the Gospel and Letters, and is stated precisely in 3:23-24. Every true believer observes (keeps) this two-fold command; by contrast, the one who violates it is not a true believer. This background provides what I consider the best avenue for interpreting 5:16-18, which I would summarize as follows:

    • Believers may sin at various times, but they do not (and cannot) sin in the sense of violating the two-fold command which is fundamental to one’s Christian identity.
    • “False” believers, such as the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations, may claim to be true Christians, but they are not, since they violate the two-fold command—i.e., they do not have proper trust in Jesus, and/or do not demonstrate true love. As non-believers (belonging to “the world”), who thus act in a manner “against the Anointed” (i.e. ‘anti-christ’), they do not possess Life, and remain on the path leading toward death.
    • It is thus these false/non-believers who sin “toward death”; true believers cannot sin in this way.

From what we read in the letter (and also in 2 John 7-11), it is clear that those who separated from the Johannine congregations, holding (and proclaiming) a false view of Jesus, were exerting some measure of influence in the various churches. This setting informs the warnings in 1 Jn 4:1ff and 2 Jn 8ff—i.e., the need for believers to be on guard and to “test” the “spirits” of those speaking about Jesus.

Life and Death in 1 Jn 5:16

Another difficulty in the interpretation of vv. 16-18 is the way “life” (zwh/) and “death” (qa/nato$) relate in this passage. The syntax of verse 16 is actually rather ambiguous; I translate it here without any explanatory gloss:

“If any one should see his brother sinning sin not toward death, he will ask and he will give him life…”

We must first determine the point of reference for the subject/object of the phrase in italics—who gives and who receives life? There are three options:

    • The person (believer) making the request is the one who gives life to the believer who is sinning
    • God gives life to the sinning believer
    • God gives life to the one making the request

I would say, with most commentators, that the second option is to be preferred, though it is possible that the phrase expresses the idea that the believer’s request effectively results in (God) giving life to the one sinning. How should we understand “life” here? Throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, the word zwh/ virtually always refers to the (eternal) Life possessed by God, and which God, through Jesus (and the Spirit), gives to believers. Yet, if believers already possess this Life, and are not sinning “toward death” (cf. above), in what sense is the believer given “life” here? I note several possibilities:

    • Here, in fact, the reference is to the danger of physical death as a result of sin
    • The language simply reflects the basic distinction of sin and evil as the opposite of life (i.e. death), in a general sense
    • Sin puts the believer (temporarily) out of union with God and Christ (i.e. “death”); only after confession/admission of sin and forgiveness/cleansing is this union (“life”) restored
    • The forgiveness provided to the sinning believer is part of the same life-giving power of God which Christ possesses; this is inherent both in the saving work of his sacrificial death (“blood”), and through the (priestly) intercession he performs on our behalf (1:7-9; 2:1-2). Since Jesus himself is Life (Jn 1:4; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2, and cf. the upcoming note on 5:20), he gives life in all that he says and does.

The last option is the one best in keeping with Johannine thought, and, I should say, is to be preferred. In the next note, I will be reviewing aspects of this overall study (on 5:16-18, etc), and will attempt to bring the strands together into a more concise and definite interpretation.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-18

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request.”

Verses 16-18 are among the most notoriously difficult in all the New Testament to interpret. They have challenged commentators and theologians for centuries. We must presume that the language and point of reference would have been more readily understandable to the original audience than for us today. At this distance removed, it is virtually impossible to establish the context and background of the passage with any certainty. There are two points which have been especially difficult to understand:

    1. The statement in verse 18, to the effect that believers (those “born of God”) do not sin, when elsewhere it is recognized that believers do sin (v. 16, etc)
    2. The distinction between sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and sin that is not so.

The latter is especially significant since the reference to “death” (qa/nato$) would seem to relate to the giving of “life” (zwh/) mentioned in verse 16. However, since both points above are important for an understanding of the statement(s) in verse 16, it is necessary to discuss each of them in some detail. It will be helpful, I think, to begin with first point—the statement in verse 18.

1 John 5:18

“We have seen [i.e. known] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ou)x a(marta/nei]…”

I have intentionally stopped after the first clause, since it is this particular statement which has proven difficult to interpret, from a theological standpoint. First, the perfect participle (with the article)—o( gegennhme/no$, “the one having come to be born” (i.e. born “…out of God“)—is used by the author as a descriptive title for believers (also in 3:9). The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is used repeatedly this way (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4; cf. also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8). This statement essentially repeats the earlier declarations in 3:9

“Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do/make sin [i.e. act sinfully]…”

and also in the prior v. 6:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin…”

At the same time, it is quite clear that believers in Christ do sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2, etc). How is this evidence to be reconciled? There are several possibilities:

    • The statements in 3:9 & 5:18 reflect prescriptive, rather than descriptive, language—i.e., expressing how things ought to be, the ideal, rather than how things actually are.
    • The present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6-9 and 5:18 specifically indicates a practice of sinning—i.e. continual or habitual. According to this interpretation, true believers do sin, but do not continually sin.
    • The “sinlessness” of believers expressed in 3:6, 9 and 5:18 reflects the essential reality of our union with Christ, but not necessarily the daily life and practice of practice of believers, which entails the regular dynamic of both sin and forgiveness.

There are, perhaps, elements of truth in all three of these interpretive approaches. The first option is the simplest, but, in my view, is something of an artificial (modern) distinction. Probably the majority of commentators (and translators) adopt the second option, but, again, there is little clear indication of such a distinction in the text itself. The use of the present tense of a(marta/nw scarcely need be limited to the idea of repeated or continual sin; much more likely is a simple distinction between past sins (cleansed upon coming to faith in Jesus) and present sins committed during the time now that one is a believer.

In my view, the third option above best fits the thought (and theology) of the letter, and is likely to be closest to the mark. Note, in particular, the way that the “sinlessness” is worded and qualified:

    • “the one having come to be born of God…”
    • “the one remaining/abiding in him…”

To understand this better, let us examine the context of each of the statements in 3:6, 9, and 5:18.

1 Jn 3:6. The statement is: “Every one remaining in him does not sin”. This is contrasted with the parallel statement in v. 6b: “every one sinning has not looked upon [i.e. seen] him and has not known him”. The combination of these statements would suggest that, if a believer commits sin, then he/she has not seen/known Christ, and (thus) is not a true believer. However, that is not quite the logic of the verse; consider the structure of it, outlined as follows:

    • The one remaining in Christ [i.e. the believer]
      —does not sin [i.e. characteristic of the believer]
      —the one who does sin (“sinning”) [i.e. characteristic of the unbeliever]
    • The one who has not seen/known Christ [i.e. the non-believer]

The thrust of the statement is the kind of dualistic contrast so common in Johannine thought and expression—seeing/not-seeing, knowing/not-knowing, believer/non-believer. How, then, should we regard the similar contrast between not-sinning and sinning? This is made more clear when we look at the prior statements in vv. 3-5, working backward:

    • “in him [i.e. Jesus Christ] there is not (any) sin” (v. 5b)
      —this is a fundamental statement of Jesus’ sinlessness; the “sinlessness” of believers must be understood first, and primarily, through this.
    • “and you have seen/known that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. revealed], (so) that he might take up [i.e. take away] sin” (v. 5a)
      —a central aspect of Jesus’ mission and work on earth, esp. his sacrificial death, was to “take away” sin (cf. Jn 1:29, etc); it is through this work of Jesus that we (believers) are cleansed from sin (1 Jn 1:7).
    • “The one doing sin does/acts without law [a)nomi/a], and sin is (being/acting) without law [a)nomi/a]” (v. 4)
      —on the surface, this seems simply to reflect the traditional principle that “sin” entails the violation of religious and ethical standards (“law”, “commandments”); however, the Gospel and Letters of John understand and interpret the “commandments” (e)ntolai/) for believers in a distinctive way (cf. especially the two-fold ‘commandment’ in 1 Jn 3:23-24). If “sin” is defined as being “without the commandments” then, here in the letter, this essentially means being without (real) trust in Jesus and without (true) love.
    • “Every one holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is pure.” (v. 3)
      —this statement focuses more on the attitude and behavior of believers, with the expression “makes himself pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto\n); it functions as an exhortation for believers to live and act according to their true identity (in Christ). Paul does much the same thing when he exhorts his readers, e.g., “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also ‘walk in line’ in/by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
    • “Loved (one)s, (even) now we are offspring [i.e. children] of God, but it is not yet made to shine forth [i.e. revealed] what we will be…” (v. 2)
      —this declaration is vital to an understanding of the author’s perspective here in the letter; it reflects the two aspects of a “realized” and “future” eschatology, applying it to our identity as believers (“children of God”). Already now, in the present, we are “born of God”, yet this will not be experienced fully for us until the end time. Thus, while we partake of the sinlessness of Christ, we do not act sinlessly at every point of our lives on earth.

1 Jn 3:9. At first glance, throughout verses 2-6ff, the author seems to be speaking generally about “sin”, and it is easy to insert a conventional religious and ethical sense of the word, as though he were simply summarizing traditional immorality such as we see in the Pauline “vice lists” (Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Yet, a careful reading of the letter itself indicates that this really is not what he is describing. Indeed, apart from 2:15-17 and (possibly) 5:21, there is very little evidence of traditional ethical teaching in the letter. Which is not to say that the Johannine congregations were careless about such things; however, the emphasis in the letter is specifically on the two-fold “commandment” for believers stated in 3:23-24, etc—of (proper) trust in Jesus and (true) love for fellow believers. We must keep in mind the rhetorical background of the letter, which is directed against the would-be believers (“antichrists”) who have separated from the Johannine congregations. The author views them as breaking both of these “commandments”, and are thus sinning in a fundamental way that the remainder of the faithful are not.

In verse 10, the author begins transitioning his discussion toward the two-fold commandment, beginning with the duty to love one another, according to Jesus’ own example (Jn 13:34-35, etc). This is prefaced by the dualistic contrast of righteousness/sin and God vs. Devil, sharpening and intensifying the line of rhetoric. These characterize true believers, against those who are not (e.g. the Johannine separatists):

    • “the one doing justice/righteousness” vs. “the one doing sin” (vv. 7-8a)
    • “(the works of God)” vs. “the works of the Devil” (v. 8b)
    • “the one born out of God” vs. “the one (born) out of the Devil” (vv. 8a, 9a)

It is thus not merely a question of committing (or not committing) particular sins, but of attributes and qualities characterizing two different “groups” of human beings (and supposed Christians). Again, it is the purity and sinlessness of Jesus himself, the Son of God, by which we come to be made pure and ‘without sin’—i.e. “born of God”, “offspring of God”. The essence and character of this fundamental identity is clearly expressed in verse 7:

“the (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just”

Doing justice does not make a person just; quite the reverse—the believer’s “just-ness” in Christ results in his/her acting justly. Note how this is expressed in verse 9; it will be useful to look at each component in the verse:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin”
      • “(in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him”
      • “and he is not able to sin”
        • “(in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) out of God”

This is one of the most elliptical statements in the letter:

    • “the one having come to be born out of God”
      —”he does not sin”
      ——”His seed remains in him”
      —”he is not able to sin”
    • “he has come to be born out of God”

Central to the “sinlessness” of believers is the essential reality that God’s seed (spe/rma) remains/abides [me/nei] in us. We may fairly interpret this “seed” as the living/abiding Spirit of His Son (which is also His own Spirit). Just as there is no sin in the Son, even so there is no sin abiding/remaining in us.

This brings us again to the statement in 1 Jn 5:18; let us now examine the verse in its entirety:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

The difficulty of the wording (and meaning) is reflected by several key variant readings, which I discussed briefly in an earlier Saturday Series study. The main question is whether the second occurrence of the verb genna/w (aorist pass. participle, gennhqei/$) refers to Jesus, as the Son of God, or the believer as child/offspring of God. Commentators and textual critics are divided on this question, which involves three different major variants, two involving the object pronoun, and one involving the form of the verb:

    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”
    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= e(auto/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) himself”
    • o( ge/nnhsi$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It would seem that the first reading best explains the rise of the other two, and, in my view, is more likely to be original. Though the verb genna/w, used in a symbolic or spiritual sense, otherwise always applies to the believer rather than Jesus (Jn 18:37 refers more properly to his physical/human birth), the emphasis in the letter on Jesus on the Son of God, and on that as the basis for our being “born of God”/”offspring of God”, makes it highly likely that the author is playing on such a dual-meaning here. This would also seem to be confirmed by 3:9 (cf. above), which speaks of God’s “seed” (i.e. son/offspring) abiding in the believer. It is this seed, this “offspring” born of God, which guards believers, keeping and protecting us from evil.

This detailed study should, I think, shed some light on the author’s thought and mode of expression. Still, it does not entirely explain the statement at the beginning of verse 18. A clearer understanding requires that we now turn to the second interpretive difficulty highlighted above—namely, the meaning of the expression “sin(ning) toward death” in vv. 16-18. This will be discussed in the next note.

“Gnosis” in the NT: John 8:32

John 8:32

“you will know the truth, and the truth will make/set you free”

This is one of the most famous and well-known statements in the New Testament, yet it is often cited out of context, without realizing that it is only half of a saying by Jesus in vv. 31-32:

“If you remain in my word [lo/go$], you are truly [a)lhqw=$] my learners [i.e. disciples], and you will know the truth [a)lh/qeia] and the truth will make/set you free.”

Even less familiar to the average Christian or student of the New Testament is the is the overall context of this saying—the discourse of Jesus in 8:31-59, part of larger sequence of discourses spanning chapter 7 and 8 (not including 7:53-8:11), and set during the festival of Sukkoth (Booths/Tabernacles) in Jerusalem. All of the discourses of Jesus in John follow a basic pattern, involving:

    • A statement/saying by Jesus
    • A response or question by those hearing him, indicating that they have misunderstood his true meaning
    • An explanation/exposition by Jesus

The longer discourses sometimes repeat the question-explanation format. There is a definite homiletic style at work, which suggests that actual (historical) teaching by Jesus has been carefully edited and given a layer of interpretation by the author of the Gospel (and/or his sources). It is not a mere stenographic record. The discourse in 8:31-59 begins according to the pattern cited above:

    • Statement by Jesus (vv. 31b-32)
    • Response/question with misunderstanding (v. 33)
    • Explanation by Jesus (vv. 34ff)

Here the question/explanation pattern is repeated several times, creating a heightened level of dramatic tension not found in the other discourses:

  • Response #1 (v. 33)
    Jesus’ answer #1 (vv. 34-38)
    • Response #2 (v. 39a)
      Jesus’ answer #2 (vv. 39b-41a)
      • Response #3 (v. 41b)
        Jesus’ answer #3 (vv. 42-47)
        • Response #4 (v. 48)
          Jesus’ answer #4 (vv. 49-51)
          • Response #5 (vv. 52-53)
            Jesus’ answer #5 (vv. 54-56)
            • Response #6 (v. 57)
              Jesus’ answer #6 (v. 58)

This chain involves a kind of step-parallelism—where the start of the next element builds upon the end of the previous one—which is fairly common in the Gospel of John. The initial misunderstanding by the people (“the Jews”) involves the sort of freedom referred to by Jesus:

“We are (the) seed of Abraham and have been enslaved to no one (at) any time; (so) how do you say that ‘you will come to be free’?” (v. 33)

They understand freedom and slavery in terms of personal and national liberty—that is, of material, physical freedom—much as people tend to use the terms today. A similar nationalistic sentiment is expressed by Eleazar at Masada in Josephus’ Wars VII.323. However, Jesus is actually referring to freedom from sin, as is clear in his explanation in vv. 34ff:

“…everyone doing sin is a slave [of sin].”

It is (only) the Son (o( ui(o/$) who can set people free from the power and control of sin:

“The slave does not remain [me/nei] in the house into the Age [i.e. forever], (but) the son remains into the Age; therefore, if the Son sets/makes you free, you (really) will be free!”

In the remainder of the discourse, Jesus draws upon the Jewish people’s claim to be sons (“the seed”) of Abraham, and sets it in the context of the relationship between the Father (God) and the Son. These two interlocking themes continue, with the tension and conflict building, until the climactic end, in which Jesus identifies himself (the Son) with the Father: “before Abraham came to be, I am!” (v. 58, cf. the similar climax in 10:30-39). In so doing, he has circumvented entirely the span of Israelite/Jewish history and tradition—the one who was with the Father before Abraham, is now here among the people. Instead of being sons/children of Abraham in the ethnic and religious sense, they (i..e the elect) now are called to be sons/children of God (1:12-13).

Returning to the initial saying of vv. 31-32, there are several key points which should be examined. I will do so in the next study.

August 1: Romans 8:3-4

This is the second of two notes on 2 Cor 5:21 and Rom 8:3-4; the passage in 2 Corinthians was discussed in the previous day’s note.

Romans 8:3-4

“For the powerless (thing) of the Law [i.e. what the Law lacked power to do], in which [i.e. in that] it was weak through the flesh, God (has done), sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us—the (one)s not walking about according to (the) flesh, but according to (the) Spirit.”

The relevant portion parallel to 2 Cor 5:21 is indicated by italics above; here it is extracted out, along with the Greek text:

“…sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us”
pe/mya$ e)n o(moiw/mati sarko\$ a(marti/a$ kai\ peri\ a(marti/a$ kate/krinen th\n a(marti/an e)n th=| sarki/, i%na to\ dikai/wma tou= no/mou plhrwqh=| e)n h(mi=n

Here are 2 Cor 5:21 and Rom 8:3b-4a in translation side-by-side:

2 Cor 5:21

“the (one) not knowing sin, He [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. for our sake], (so) that we might come to be (the) justice/righteousness of God in him”

Rom 8:3b-4a

“…sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, … (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us”

I feel it is best to proceed here by comparing the key words and phrases between the two passages:

“the one not knowing sin”
(to\ mh\ gno/nta a(marti/an)
“his own Son”
(to\n e(autou= ui(o/n)

It is interesting to consider these expressions as complementary: in Corinthians, the emphasis is on Jesus’ lack of familiarity with sin; in Romans, it is on Christ as the (beloved) son and heir (cf. Rom 4:13ff; 5:10; 8:12-17), highlighting the importance and preciousness of the sacrifice God makes. Based on Rom 4:13ff (cf. also throughout Gal 3-4), there is probably here an allusion to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, which may already have been present in Christian thought prior to Paul.

“He made (to be) sin”
(a(marti/an e)poi/hsen)
“sending in the likeness of flesh of sin”
(pe/mya$ e)n o(moiw/mati sarko\$ a(marti/a$)

Does Romans here explain the phrase in Corinthians? This is certainly possible, though it raises some interesting questions regarding the traditional view of Christ’s sinlessness. Was sin dwelling in his flesh just as it is for other human beings (cf. Rom 7:13-20)? In order for the expression to have its full significance, this would seem to be the case. It certainly could be affirmed without admitting that Christ committed any sin. On the other hand, the expression “in the likeness of flesh of sin” could be taken to mean that it was not actually “flesh of sin”; but, then, in what way was it like sinful human flesh? If all that Paul meant to say was that Jesus had a “human nature”, without sin, this is a curious way to state it. Needless to say, the entire matter is extremely sensitive from an orthodox Christological standpoint.

“over us” (u(pe\r h(mw=n) “about sin” (peri\ a(marti/a$)

The preposition u(pe/r fundamentally means “over”, while peri/ means “around, about”; however, both can be understood as “on behalf of, for the sake of, because of”, depending on the context. In Corinthians, Paul uses traditional early Christian language for the atoning, sacrificial work of Christ, which takes place “over us”, that is, for our sake. In Romans, the focus is more what is done about (and to) sin—i.e. the power of Sin, especially that which dwells (“houses”) in the flesh (Rom 7:17-18, 20). This is clear from the clause which follows: “he (God, through Christ) judged against sin in the flesh”. Does this mean Christ himself took on sinful flesh—that sin dwelt in his flesh, in common with humankind? There would seem to be three main possibilities:

    • There was no sin in his flesh; he was human, but it was not “flesh of sin”. To say that God “judged against sin in the flesh” means that it was judged through the suffering (and death) of the sinless flesh of Christ.
    • The “curse” or effect of sin was in his flesh, but not the power of sin itself. God judged against what sin had done to human beings in the flesh.
    • Sin did “dwell” in his flesh, and it was this that God judged against. Christ himself knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21) in the sense that: (a) he did not commit sin, and (b) was not enslaved by the power of sin; however God made him to be sin, in order to deal with sin.

The first of these accords with orthodox Christology, especially the blunt declaration in 1 John 3:5; however, the last of these, in my view, seems closer to Paul’s thought in Romans, though perhaps not without further qualification. Ultimately, the most important point is that the power of sin was destroyed and made inactive through the death (and resurrection) of Christ, allowing believers to be set free from bondage to sin and death (Rom 6:6-11).

“so that we…” (i%na h(mei=$) “so that… in us” (i%nae)n h(mi=n)

Both passages conclude with a i%na purpose-/result-clause (“so that…”), indicating primarily the purpose, but also the result, of God’s work in Christ. The difference of focus or location in terms of the believer (“we/us”) is relatively slight, and complementary—in Corinthians, the emphasis is on what happens to us, in Romans, on what takes place in us.

“we might come to be”
(genw/meqa)
“might be (ful)filled (in us)”
(plhrwqh=|)

Both verbs are aorist subjunctive forms, indicating the possibility or potential of what God can (and) will accomplish in the person of the believer, based on what he has already done (past action). The aorist subjunctive often carries an imperitival force, i.e., “we should/shall become…” In Corinthians, indeed, it is a matter of what the believer will become; in Romans, on the other hand, something is completed or fulfilled (“filled [up]”) in (and among) believers.

“(the) justice/righteousness of God”
(dikaiosu/nh qeou=)
“the just/right (thing) of the Law”
(to\ dikai/wma tou= no/mou)

These expressions reflect what it is that we as believers will become, or what will be fulfilled in us, respectively. In 2 Corinthians, it is the “justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God”, an expression which Paul uses in Romans (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21-22; 10:3, cf. also 3:25-26; 6:13). It is best, I think, to consider this as an attribute of God Himself (subjective genitive), which he demonstrates primarily and fundamentally in the person and work of Jesus Christ. An important emphasis in Romans is that this justice/righteousness has been manifested in Christ altogether separate and apart from the Old Testament Law (cf.  Rom 3:21ff, etc), so it is interesting that the parallel passage in 2 Cor 5:21 specifically mentions the Law (no/mo$). The fact is, that Romans very much builds upon the idea, already discussed in Galatians, that Christ, by his sacrificial death, fulfills the Law for human beings. In Gal 3:10-13, this takes place by Jesus becoming the curse of the Law himself (par. to the idea of being “made sin”). The curse came into effect (pronounced as judgment) when the Law, representing the terms of the covenant between God and his people, was violated. According to Paul’s view, human beings, held in bondage under the power of sin, are incapable of fulfilling the Law (i.e. the Law of God, as expressed in the Torah). In Rom 8:3-4, God judges against sin itself in the flesh, removing its enslaving power over those who trust in Christ.

What about the specific expression in 2 Cor 5:21? how exactly do believers “become” or “come to be” the justice/righteousness of God. According to what Paul teaching and relates in his letters (especially in Galatians and Romans), I would suggest three aspects of this process:

    1. Justification—this is essentially what is described in Rom 8:3-4: (a) Christ is made sin and, through his death, becomes the curse, (b) this sacrificial acts fulfills and completes the requirement of the Law, (c) through Christ God judges sin itself, removing its enslaving power, (d) believers in Christ are thus made right before God, and (e) now have the freedom and ability to fulfill the Law, through the Spirit, no longer by observing the Torah itself.
    2. Union with Christ (“in Christ”)—believers are united with Christ, and thus participate in the very justice/righteousness of God which he himself manifests and embodies. It is communicated in the believer through the power of the Spirit, which is also the Spirit of Christ.
    3. Resurrection/Glorification—Experience of God’s justice/righteousness is also eschatological, with the completion of salvation in the end-time judgment. Ultimately it is the body (“flesh” in the strict sense) which remains to be redeemed and loosed from bondage. Paul never loses sight of this future aspect of salvation.

The Law and Sin in Romans 7:7-25

The famous passage in Romans 7:7-25 has been discussed countless times by commentators and theologians over the years, and it is not remotely possible even to begin surveying this scholarship—nor all the relevant aspects of interpretation—within one relatively short article. My purpose here is threefold:

    1. To offer my view on the essential context of the passage—namely, the force and significance of Paul’s use of the first person (“I”)
    2. To present an exegetical outline, in the hopes of illustrating, clearly and simply, how Paul understands the relationship between the Law and Sin in the context of the passage.
    3. To give a summary distillation on “Paul’s View of the Law”, in terms of this particular passage.

The “I” of Romans 7:7-25

Paul casts this section in the first person, using “I, my”, etc throughout. This has given rise to considerable debate among interpreters over the centuries, and especially in more recent times. Is the use of the first person autobiographical (describing Paul’s own experience), or is a rhetorical and literary device? Most critical commentators today assume the latter, and, in this, they are almost certainly correct; even so, the question would still remain—who precisely is Paul representing in this section? There are several possibilities:

    • Human beings generally, prior to the coming of Christ
    • Israelites/Jews specifically, prior to the coming of Christ (or prior to faith in Christ)
    • Human beings (believers) prior to coming to faith in Christ
    • Believers generally in their struggle with the flesh and sin

A comparison with Romans 5:12-21 suggests that Paul in 7:7-12 is drawing upon the condition of human beings up until the time the Law (Torah) was introduced. Both passages provide colorful interpretations of the situation described in the Genesis 3 narrative, with Sin as the main actor; note, for example, the way sin “deceives”—e)capata/w in v. 11, compared with a)pata/w in Gen 3:13 [LXX]. Paul personalizes the narrative, giving a dimension of psychological realism and drama to it. The introduction of the Law (Torah) in vv. 9ff might suggest that Israelites and Jews specifically are in focus; however, by verse 22 it becomes clear that a somewhat wider view of the Law is meant—one which embraces all human beings (Jews and Gentiles alike). I take Rom 7:7-25 as parallel with 5:12-21—in the earlier passage, Paul is describing the presence and work of Sin in the world (e)n ko/smw|, v. 13); while in 7:7ff, it is the presence and work of Sin in the flesh (e)n th=| sarki/, v. 18). This focus within the human being makes Paul’s personalizing approach (“in me” e)n e)moi/, “in my flesh” e)n th=| sarki/ mou) both appropriate and effective.

Rom 7:7-12 is cast in the past tense, 7:13-25 primarily in the present. This would seem to indicate that in vv. 13ff Paul is describing the current situation of human beings (“under the Law” and “under Sin”): (a) prior to the coming of Christ, and/or (b) prior to faith in Christ. However, there are several details in the text—especially in vv. 13-25—which could be taken as applying specifically to believers in Christ, i.e., of the struggle believers face with regard to the flesh and sin even after coming to faith. Here are the most notable:

  • Verse 9e)gw\ de\ e&zwn xwri\$ no/mou pote/ (“I was living apart from the Law then”). Elsewhere, Paul uses the expression “separate/apart from the Law” (xwri\$ no/mou) referring to faith and the work of God in Christ (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6, etc), so one might think that the Christian condition is meant here as well. However, almost certainly, Paul is simply indicating the human situation prior to the introduction of the Law, with no/mo$ used in the strict sense of the Old Testament/Jewish Torah. The verb za/w (“live, have life, be alive”) is meant in the ordinary, conventional sense of human life and existence, and not of “life in Christ” or “eternal life”.
  • Verse 9h( a(marti/a a)ne/zhsen (“sin came up to life”). The verb a)naza/w could be understood as “be alive, come to life again“; this might mean, in a Christian context, that sin died once (through Christ) and then came to life again (for believers). Probably, however, the force of the particle a)na here is simply “up”—i.e., that sin sprang up to life through the command of the Law.
  • Verse 17nuni\ de\ ou)ke/ti e)gw\ katerga/zomai au)to\ (“now [it is] no longer I working/accomplishing it…”). Within the context of vv. 13-25, this could certainly be taken in the sense that a person (i.e., a believer) does not truly will to commit sin, and that it is the sin dwelling/remaining in the flesh which can act against a person’s will.
  • Verse 22kata\ to\n e&sw a&nqrwpo/n (“…according to the inner man”). Elsewhere, Paul uses this language in relation to the inward (spiritual) renewal of believers (2 Cor 4:16), and the same expression “the inner man” is used in Eph 3:16. It is sometimes assumed that the expression refers to something only possessed by Christians, but this is far from certain. Paul also refers to a renewing of the mind (nou=$) in Rom 12:2 (cf. also Eph 4:23), an aspect of human nature presumably possessed by believers and nonbelievers alike. His idea of the “inner man” in the context of Rom 7:7-25 probably relates more to the human mind and conscience generally.
  • Verse 25—Curiously, after Paul’s declaration of thanksgiving in v. 25a, introducing God’s work through Christ which rescues human beings from the “body of death” (v. 24), he restates the situation of the human condition, from the prior verses, in v. 25b. This could be taken to mean that the conflict so described applies specifically to believers, even after coming to faith in Christ.

Perhaps the strongest association of the conflict in Rom 7:7-25 with believers comes from the parallel in Gal 5:17, where Paul briefly describes a dynamic similar to that in Rom 7:13-25. Clearly, in Gal 5:16-25, Paul is addressing believers who are in the Spirit, and yet he speaks of a conflict with the flesh in terms very much like those in Rom 7. But it is just here that we find the greatest difference between the two passages—in Rom 7:7-25 the person struggles against the flesh, but also against the Law and Sin, whereas in Gal 5 only the flesh is involved. According to Paul’s teaching, believers in Christ are freed from bondage to the Law and sin; but he never claims a similar freedom from the flesh—Christians must continue to struggle against the flesh, dying to its influence every day, through identification with Christ’s own death, and through the guiding work and power of the Spirit.

An exegetical outline of Romans 7:7-25

In this section, Paul especially addresses the relationship between the Law and Sin. He does this first by way of an important rhetorical question in v. 7a: “What then shall we declare? (Is) the Law sin?“—to this, he gives a decisive answer, mh\ ge/noito, “may it not come to be (so) [i.e. by no means, God forbid]!” But, if the Law is not identical with sin, how are we to understand the close relationship between the Law and sin, such as he describes throughout Galatians and here in Romans, to the point of using “under the Law” and “under sin” as nearly synonymous expressions? This is what he attempts to explain and expound in vv. 7ff. I divide the passage into three sections, or scenes, each of which describes a distinctive situation involving human beings (represented by Paul in the first person) in relation to the Law:

  • Rom 7:7-12Scene 1: Introduction of the Law (Torah) over humankind
    • V. 7a—Rhetorical Question: “Is the Law sin?” (may it not be!)
    • Vv. 7b-8—Answer/Explanation (main proposition): the Law brings about knowledge/awareness of sin (cf. Rom 3:20)
      • The command (v. 7b)—example from the Decalogue (Ex 20:17): “Do not set (your) heart upon…”
      • Sin “uses” the command (v. 8) to work/produce instances of “setting the heart upon” illicit/prohibited things
    • Vv. 8b-9—Expository transition:
      • apart from the Law (xwri\$ no/mou) sin is dead (nekra/), v. 8b
      • apart from the Law (xwri\$ no/mou) I was living (e&zwn), v. 9
    • Vv. 9-11—Rhetorical Illustration/Identification (e)gw de\, “but I…”):
      • Sin (already present) comes up to life (in the human being) with the command (v. 9)
      • The command leads to death, not life (v. 10)
      • Sin acts (deceptively) through the command, to kill (v. 11)
    • V. 12—Expository transition (statement regarding the Law):
      • The command is holy, just and good…(how then, does it lead to sin and death?)
  • Rom 7:13-20Scene 2: Humankind under the Law (of God)
    • V. 13a—Rhetorical Question: “Did the thing that is good come to be death for me?” (may it not be!)
    • Vv. 13b—Answer/Explanation (secondary proposition): the Law makes sin to “shine forth”, i.e., become apparent/manifest
      • Action: The Law works/produces death through the command
      • Purpose: So that Sin would come to be (seen for what it is)—i.e. completely sinful
        —Manifestation of the power of Sin: flesh is in bondage to it (v. 14)
    • Vv. 14-20—Rhetorical Illustration/Identification (e)gw de\, “but I…”):
      Contrast/conflict: The Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly—Spirit vs. Flesh (cf. Gal 5:16-25)
      • I work (“under sin”):
        —lacking true knowledge: “I do not know” (v. 15)
        —the will is trapped between: the Law (good, v. 16) and sin in the flesh (evil, b. 17)
        —the will is weakened by sinful flesh (v. 18)
        —the person does the opposite of the will (v. 19)
      • It is the power of sin working in me (v. 20)
  • Rom 7:21-25Scene 3 (Illustration): Humanity subject to the Law (of God) and the Law (of Sin)
    • V. 21—Statement of two contradictory laws (Rhetorical Illustration/Identification: “I find… in me”)
    • V. 22—The Law of God: in the “inner man”
    • V. 23—The Law of Sin: in the (outer) members (i.e., bodily parts, the “flesh”)
    • V. 24—Rhetorical Question: “who will rescue me from this body of death?”
      —and the Answer (implied), v. 25a: “…God through Jesus Christ our Lord”
    • V. 25b—Concluding summary statement (of the two contradictory laws):
      • me\n (on the one hand): “with the mind I am a slave to the Law of God”
      • de\ (on the other hand): “with the flesh (I am a slave) to the Law of Sin”

Paul’s View of the Law in Romans 7:7-25

As the above outline should make clear, Romans 7:7-25 is a dense network of arguments and illustrations, images and symbols, drawing upon nearly everything that Paul has said thus far in Romans about the Law (and Sin). It is the power of his personalized (first person) presentation that makes his exposition so memorable. As the history of exegesis and interpretation amply shows, believers (i.e. those hearing and reading Romans) were likewise able to identify themselves with the “I” in the passage—which was doubtless Paul’s aim and intent in using such a literary device. But what do these verses say specifically regarding Paul’s view of the Law? To begin with, there are two fundamental beliefs or propositions which he expresses throughout the passage:

    1. The Law (Torah) itself is not sinful, nor to be identified with sin (v. 7)—rather, it is holy, just and good (v. 12), and is spiritual (v. 14), reflecting the will of God (the Law of God, in the wider sense).
    2. Though he does not state it specifically here until verse 14, by comparison with the rest of Romans (and Galatians), it is clear that, in his view, human beings were in slavery and bondage to Sin (“under sin”) even before the introduction of the Torah.

With these two ideas in mind, it is possible to summarize some key points related to the overall exposition in vv. 7-25:

  • The main purpose of the Law is twofold: (1) to bring about knowledge and awareness of sin (v. 7, cf. also 3:20), and (2) to make sin itself appear in its true (sinful) nature (v. 13). These are two sides of the same coin—one emphasizes human perception and experience, the other emphasizes the power and presence of sin itself. How does this happen?
  • Revelation of sin comes through the command (e)ntolh/) of God as expressed in the Torah—particularly, as Paul illustrates here (vv. 7-8), through the fundamental ethical-moral commands, which would tend to be shared by most non-Israelite/Jewish peoples as well. Until there is a specific injunction or prohibition which is to be obeyed or followed, sin is “dead”—that is, it possesses no conceptual or experiential reality for human beings. With the introduction of the command, sin literally “comes up to life” (v. 9).
  • Sin holds power over human beings (their flesh), but it does not lead to death until the command is violated (cf. Gen 3:3, 11, 22). As in the Genesis narrative, death is to be understood in the normal sense of physical death, and not as some kind of “spiritual death”—it is the body that dies or is dead as a result of sin (Rom 8:10f).
  • There are several aspects to Paul’s view of death that come as the result of sin: (1) as a future fate and judgment, (2) as a condition or judgment realized already in the present, and (3) as an active power (along with Sin) at work in the world (and the flesh).
  • Sin enslaves human beings externally in the surrounding world (Rom 5:12ff), but also, more notably, internally in the “flesh”. The power of sin dwells and works in the flesh, specifically the body and its parts.
  • The human will is conflicted and torn between the power of sin in the flesh and the mind or “conscience” which recognizes the command (the Law of God).
  • The “Law of God” is a wider concept than the Torah, as it relates to the “inner man”, the human mind and/or conscience. As such, it applies even to Gentiles who do not have the Torah (cf. Rom 2:12-16, 26-28). In this regard, Paul refers principally to the fundamental ethical/moral aspects of the Law; he never attempts to make a similar connection with the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law.

It is fair to assume that the people represented by Paul’s “I” in Rom 7:7-25 primarily represent believers prior to coming to faith in Christ. At any rate, they should be distinguished from the situation in Rom 1:21ff—there, human beings have fallen into idolatry and immorality, and God gives them over to even greater wickedness; here, by contrast, human beings are struggling with their conscience, wishing to live in an upright manner according to the Law of God, but unable to accomplish this because of the power of sin and the weakness of the flesh. One should consider the situation in Rom 7:7-25 as that of the “righteous” (Jew and Gentile alike), in the conventional/traditional religious and ethical sense, who wish to be faithful to the Law and to do good—but even they are enslaved by the power of sin. The Law reveals and makes manifest the reality of this bondage; the only hope of rescue from it comes through the work of God in Christ (v. 25).

Paul’s View of the Law: Romans (6:1-7:25)

Romans 6:1-7:25

This is the third major section of the probatio of Romans (Rom 1:18-8:39). The first two sections were:

    • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment (v. 18), according to the Law (of God) (article)
    • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah) (article)

The section, comprised of chapters 6 and 7, I define and outline as:

  • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin
    6:1-14: Argument 1: Believers are dead to sin by participation in the death of Christ, along with an exhortation not to sin (vv. 12-14)
    6:15-23: Argument 2: Believers are free from slavery to sin (and are now slaves of righteousness)
    7:1-6: Argument 3: Believers are released from the bond of the Law (and sin): Illustration from the marriage bond
    7:7-25: Theological excursus: The relationship between the Law and Sin

Romans 6:1-14: Death—Believers are dead to sin

Each of the three arguments in 6:1-7:6 begin with a rhetorical question that is provocative and sets the stage for the discussion which follows. The first (6:1) of these is also transitional, building upon language and imagery from the previous section (Rom 5:12-21): “What then [ti/ ou@n] shall we declare? should we remain upon sin (so) that the favor [xa/ri$] (of God) might be (still) more [i.e. increase/abound] (to us)? May it not come to be (so) [mh\ ge/noito]!” As the question (and Paul’s response) indicates, there is a strong exhortational aspect to the arguments in this section. The principal theme in 6:1-14 is death; in answer to the introductory question, believers should not (and, indeed, can not) remain in sin, since they are already dead to sin (v. 2).

Verses 2-4—Image of Baptism: Dying (and rising) with Christ

In verse 3, Paul defines the symbolic character and significance of the ritual of Baptism as participation in the death of Christ (cf. also Gal 2:19-20; 3:27):

“do you lack (the) knowledge that, as (many of) us as were dunked [e)bapti/sqhmen] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death?”

He extends this participation in verse 4 to Jesus’ burial (“buried together with him”) and resurrection, with the promise of future glory; this is realized for believers already in the present, as the concluding line indicates: “so also we should walk about in newness of Life”.

Verses 5-11

The reality of this participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (v. 5) serves as the basis for two propositions:

    • Believers in Christ are dead to the power of sin (vv. 6-7), described under two motifs:
      —the “old man” (o( palaio\$ a&nqrwpo$) has been crucified together with Christ (cf. Gal 2:19-20), thus making inactive (dead) the old body (of sin) (v. 6a)
      —a slave who dies is free from slavery, i.e. sin has no power over a dead person (v. 6b-7)
    • Believers are no longer under the power of death (vv. 8-9)—this is described specifically in terms of Christ’s own death and resurrection; as a result, death no longer has any power (no longer “rules as lord”) over believers

These two ideas are combined in vv. 10-11:

    • Verse 10 refers to the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection (life), which is “to God” (tw=| qew=|)
    • Verse 11 applies this by way of an exhortation for believers similar to that in v. 4b: “so also count yourselves as dead to sin [th=| a(marti/a|] but living to God [tw=| qew=|]” in Christ
Verses 12-14

These verses follow upon vv. 10-11 with an even more forceful exhortation, which is two-fold:

    • V. 12: “do not let sin rule (as king) in your dying [i.e. mortal] body unto the hearing under [i.e. so as to obey] its impulses”—this touches back upon the idea of sin (personified) as reigning power (king) in 5:12-14ff
    • V. 13: a supplemental exhortation specifically related to a person’s (bodily) parts (ta\ me/lh), not to present them (lit. make them stand alongside) as tools (or weapons) of injustice/unrighteousness (a)diki/a) and sin, but rather of justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh)

Verse 14 gives the reason for this, which likewise is two-fold:

    • “for sin shall not rule (as lord) over you…”
    • “for you are not under (the) Law [u(po\ no/mon] but under (the) favor [u(po\ xa/rin] (of God)”

Again, we see a connection between sin and the Law, though the precise connection is not entirely clear from the context here. Because of its importance, the second half of this verse will be discussed in more detail in a separate note.

Romans 6:15-23: Believers are freed from slavery to sin

This section, like the prior one, begins with a rhetorical question (v. 15) that picks up where the last verses left off:

“What then [ti/ ou@n]? Should we sin (in) that [i.e. because] we are not under (the) Law but under (the) favor (of God)? May it not come to be (so) [mh\ ge/noito]!”

The two expressions “under the Law” (u(po\ no/mon) and “under the favor [i.e. of God]” (u(po\ xa/rin) were used in verse 14 (above). Paul’s question reflects a natural (and practical) religious-ethical issue resulting from the teaching that believers are no longer “under the Law”, that is, no longer required to observe the commands and regulations of the Torah. Some people might mistakenly think (or claim) that freedom from the Law meant that Christians need not behave in a moral or disciplined manner. Paul already dealt with the issue forcefully in Galatians 5:13-25. In that passage, the emphasis was on believers being guided by the Spirit; here in Romans, the role of the Spirit is left until chapter 8, while Paul develops further his discussion on the relation between the Law and sin.

Verses 16-18

In these verses the theme introduced is specifically that of slavery, referred to by way of two verbs: (1) doulo/w (“be/become a slave”) and (2) u(pakou/w (“hear under”, i.e. respond/submit to authority, obey). Paul is drawing upon 5:12-21, where he describes Sin (a(marti/a) and the Favor/Grace (xa/ri$) of God as contrasting kings or lords ruling over human beings—one rules in death, the other rules in (eternal) life. Here, in vv. 16-18 the contrast is between death (qa/nato$) and justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) (v. 16), followed by the parallel of sin vs. justice/righteousness in v. 18. Just as one may be a slave to Sin, obeying him, so one also becomes a kind of slave in obedience to God (under his Favor/Grace). This important motif of freedom (e)leuqerwqe/nte$, “being freed”) from slavery is introduced specifically in verse 18—believers are freed from slavery to sin, and become slaves to the justice/righteousness of God (in Christ).

A key phrase is found in v. 17, where Paul contrasts believers’ former role as slaves of Sin (dou=loi th=$ a(marti/a$), with their obedience and attentiveness (“you heard/listened under”, u(phkou/sate), i.e. to the Favor/Grace and justice/righteousness of God in Christ. This new obedience is said to be: (a) “out of [i.e. from] the heart” (e)k kardi/a$) and (b) “unto/into the stamp/pattern of teaching which was given along (to you)” (ei)$ o^n paredo/qhte tu/pon didaxh=$). The precise meaning of this latter phrase is not entirely clear; probably it should be taken in the sense of the Gospel message that Paul and his fellow-missionaries have proclaimed, together with related teaching given by apostles and other early Christian leaders, which would have included transmitted sayings and teachings of Jesus. It may be similar to the “measuring stick” (kanw/n) which Paul mentions in Gal 6:16. In several places, he also refers collectively to the things “given along (down), passed down”, i.e. tradition (cf. Gal 1:14; 1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6). A specific association with instruction given to believers prior to baptism has been suggested, and this is certainly possible. In a subsequent article, I will deal with the question of whether (or to what extent) such authoritative teaching in the early Church takes the place of the Law/Torah for believers.

Verses 19-22

Here Paul illustrates more clearly the contrast in the situation of believers before and after coming to faith in Christ. In verse 19 the image of slaves/servants in submission to their master, from vv. 16-18, is extended—to the idea of presenting (pari/sthmi, lit. “stand alongside”) one’s physical body, i.e. the bodily parts (ta\ me/lh), for the master to use. Before coming to faith, the body was made available to Sin (here described as “uncleanness and unlawfulness”); after faith, to justice/righteousness. Note how the illustration proceeds through these verses:

    • Situation: Slaves presenting their bodies to sin unto uncleanness and unlawfulness (v. 19)
      • Status: Slaves to sin and free from justice/righteousness (v. 20)
        • Result (“fruit”): Things to be ashamed of, the completion/end/goal (te/lo$) of which is death (v. 21)
    • Situation: Slaves presenting their bodies to God (His justice/righteousness), separated unto holiness (v. 22a)
      • Status: Slaves to justice/righteousness and free from sin
        • Result (“fruit”): Holiness (a(giasmo/$), the completion/end/goal (te/lo$) of which is (eternal) life (v. 22b)

Romans 7:1-6: Believers are released from the bond of the Law (and sin)

Paul again begins this section with a question: “do you lack (the) knowledge [i.e. do you not know]… that the Law rules as lord over a man upon so (long) a time as he lives?” In verses 2-3, he then gives a practical illustration relating to marriage under the Law—a woman is legally bound to a husband only as long as he lives; once he dies, she is free from her obligation and may join in marriage to another. The verb katarge/w, “make to stop working, render inactive, ineffective, etc”, is used here (v. 2), as previously in Rom 3:3, 31; 4:14; 6:6, also Gal 3:17; 5:4, 11; it functions as a technical legal term, with the preposition a)po/ (“from”), to indicate that the woman is released from the law (the marriage bond)—it no longer has any active, binding force upon her. This illustration is applied to believers in verse 4:

“…you also have been made to die to the Law through the body of (the) Anointed, unto your coming to be [i.e. that you might be] (married) to another, (to) the (one) raised out of the dead, (so) that you might bear fruit to God.”

For the idea of believers dying to the Law, by way of participation in the death of Christ, see especially Gal 2:19-20. This illustration is similar to those Paul gives in Gal 3:23-4:11—there the image is of a son (and heir) who, while he is underage, is subject to the authority and control of slave-guides, guardians, and household-managers. Both types of illustrations refer to a definite time limit to the period when a person is bound to the Law—i.e., the coming of Christ, especially his sacrificial death (and resurrection). These are among the the clearest examples Paul gives to the effect that, for believers in Christ, the Law (Torah) no longer has any binding force.

With verses 5 and 6 Paul offers an exhortation, much as he does in 6:12-14. In 6:1-14 the theme was on dying to sin, and thus being freed from bondage to it; here, however, in 7:1-6, it is on dying to the Law, and so being freed from it. These verses are vital to an understanding of Paul’s view of the Law, and should be studied closely:

“For when we were in the flesh, the sufferings of sins worked (themselves) in our (bodily) parts through the Law, unto the bearing (of) fruit to death; but now we are made to cease working [i.e. released] from the Law, dying away (from the thing) in which we were held down, so as (for) our being slaves (to God/Christ) in newness of (the) Spirit, and not in oldness of (the) written (word)”

In many ways, these two verses function as a summary of all that Paul has stated in Romans to this point, and serves as a transition into the discussion to follow in Rom 7:7-8:39. Note the words and phrases which characterize the contrast of before vs. after:

Before (o%te h@men, “when we were”):

    • e)n th=| sarki/ (“in the flesh”)—the “flesh” (sa/rc) is an important term for Paul, referring to the human person in both physical/material and psychological aspects, especially in so far as human beings are under the bondage and influence of sin, and unable to fulfill the Will/Law of God.
    • ta\ paqh/mata tw=n a(martiw=n (“the sufferings of sins”)—here Sin is described practically, in terms of individual misdeeds and the impact of the sinful impulse; this is specifically sin dwelling and working “in the flesh”. The word pa/qhma is sometimes rendered “passion”, but more properly it means pain or suffering; in this context, it is closely connected with the sinful impulse (e)piqumi/a) and desire/longing (cf. Rom 6:12; Gal 5:24).
    • dia\ tou= no/mou (“through the Law”)—Paul will explain in Rom 7:7ff how it is that sin works through the Law (cf. also Rom 5:20). As indicated in Gal 3:19 and Rom 3:20; 5:20; 7:7ff; 11:32, the primary function of the Law was to increase (awareness of) sin, and to place human beings in bondage to it.
    • e)nergei=to (“worked [itself] in”)—the verb is singular, but the subject is plural (“the sufferings of sins”), understood collectively as “sin”; this indicates the active power of sin, which works in human “flesh”.
    • e)n toi=$ me/lesin u(mw=n (“in our [bodily] parts”)—here the “flesh” is defined specifically as the physical body, its “parts” or members; while sexual immorality may be foremost in mind, the expression is by no means limited to this.
    • to\ karpoforh=sai tw=| qana/tw| (“the bearing [of] fruit to death”)—cf. verse 4-5 above, and note the comparison in Gal 5:17ff. For death as the completion, goal, and end result of sin, see Rom 5:12ff; 6:16, 21, 23; note also Gal 6:7-8, and the famous passage in James 1:14-15.

After (nuni\, now”):

    • kathrgh/qhmen (“we were made to cease working”)—in the sense of being released; for this verb, cf. Rom 3:3, 31; 4:14; 6:6; 7:2, also Gal 3:17; 5:4, 11.
    • a)po\ tou= no/mou (“from the Law”)—i.e., believers are released from the Law, it no longer has any active/binding force; note the parallel expression dia\ tou= no/mou (“through the Law”) above—sin works through the Law, believers are freed from the Law. The preposition a)po/ can carry the specific sense of “away from”.
    • a)poqano/nte$ (“dying [away] from”)—specifically, dying off from the Law; in English, we would be more inclined to say “dying to the Law”. On this idea, see especially Gal 2:19.
    • e)n w!| kateixo/meqa (“in which we were held down”)—the Law held human beings in bondage (to sin), cf. Gal 3:22ff; Rom 7:7ff; 11:32. For the verb kate/xw (lit. “hold down”), see Rom 1:18.
    • douleu/ein (“to be a slave”)—slavery is the main motif in Rom 6:15-23 (above). The expression with the infinitive here is nearly impossible to translate literally in English, requiring a combination of “so as to be a slave” and “our being a slave”. Believers, of course, become “slaves” in service to God (and Christ), serving his justice/righteousness and holiness.
    • e)n kaino/thti pneu/mato$ (“in newness of [the] Spirit”)—the expression could be rendered “in newness of spirit”, but almost certainly Paul is referring here to the Holy Spirit. This is contrasted with e)n palaio/thti gra/mmato$ (“in oldness of [the] written [word]”). In other words, the Spirit is contrasted with the Torah, specifically in its aspect as a written law code (in Scripture). This juxtaposition will be dealt with more extensively when discussing 2 Cor 3:6 (cf. also Rom 2:27-29).

Romans 7:7-25: Theological excursus—the relationship between the Law and Sin

Because of special difficulties of interpretation involving this famous and controversial passage, it is necessary to examine it in a separate article.

Paul’s View of Sin and Romans 5:12-21

As part of the series of articles on Paul’s View of the Law in Romans (see the current article), I felt it worthwhile to explore specifically his view of sin, and the language (and images) he uses to express it. This is done especially with an eye toward understanding his description of sin in the famous passage in Romans 5:12-21, as well as gaining a better sense of how he defines the relationship between sin and the Law.

Paul’s use of  (amartia (hamartía)

The a(mart- (hamart-) word-group (vb a(marta/nw, hamartánœ) in Greek has the basic meaning “miss, fail to hit (the target)”, or, in a metaphorical sense, to “miss the way, fail to find”, generally, “go astray, err”. As such, its semantic range is similar to the corresponding words derived from the root afj (µ‰°) in Hebrew. The substantive a(ma/rthma (hamárt¢ma), rare in the New Testament, has the general meaning “error, mistake”, along with the more developed legal/moral sense of “offense, fault, guilt”. The related noun a(marti/a (hamartía), far more common, has a similar range of meaning, but often refers specifically to individual actions. All of this fits fairly well under the English word “sin”, in spite of its strong religious/moral connotation.

Paul uses the verb a(marta/nw in the basic sense of “committing an error, offense”, either against the Law (Torah) or generally against accepted moral standards—sexual immorality, drunkenness, etc. (1 Cor 6:18; 7:28, 36; 15:34)—as well as the more distinctly Christian idea of neglect/mistreatment of one’s fellow neighbor/believer (1 Cor 8:12; Eph 4:26). In Romans (Rom 2:12; 3:23; 5:12, 14, 16; 6:15), the verb is used, it would seem, in a more general/generic sense, though clearly violation of the Torah (in its ethical commands, 2:17-27) and the kind of idolatry/immorality associated with paganism (1:18-32) are in mind. The noun a(ma/rthma (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 6:18) refers to specific erroneous/offensive acts (“sins”), as does Paul’s use of the noun a(marti/a in the plural (Gal 1:4; 1 Cor 15:3, 17; Rom 7:5; Col 1:14; Eph 2:1).

However, the singular a(marti/a often carries a somewhat different meaning or significance for Paul in his letters—”sin” as a power, and one that is occasionally personified. Note the following:

    • the expression u(po\ [th\n] a(marti/an (“under sin”), where the preposition u(po/ (“under”) refers to human beings under the power and authority of sin (Gal 3:22; Rom 3:9; 7:14); the context of Gal 3-4 and Rom 6-7 indicates the idea of bondage or slavery to an overlord
    • human beings are said to act or function as slaves (or servants) to sin (as lord/master), cf. Rom 6:6-7, 13-14, 16-17, 20, 22; 7:25 (indeed, the entire context of 6:1-23; 7:14-25); note also Gal 2:17
    • sin is said actively to rule/reign (as king or lord)—cf. Rom 5:13-14, 21; 6:12, 14
    • sin otherwise is described as acting, with devious/hostile purpose, in Rom 5:12; 7:8ff
    • sin specifically is said to dwell (lit. “house, take up house”) in human beings, as a personal entity might (Rom 7:17, 20, cf. below)
    • sin is connected to the Law and death, both of which can also be described as (personified) powers (1 Cor 15:56; Rom 5:12-14ff; 6:21-23; 7:13ff; 8:2, and see also on the expression “the Law of sin” below)

In order to understand this particular aspect of Paul’s view of “sin” (a(marti/a), it is necessary, I believe, to consider something of the ancient worldview that informs this language and imagery.

The ancient religious/mythological background

Generally speaking, according to the ancient and traditional (polytheistic) worldview, the universe was filled with living and intelligent “powers” (i.e., “gods”), which governed and were manifest within the various forces and phenomena of nature. This extended even to human society and daily life, whether within the community, family or at the level of the individual. Clearly, the cycles of fertility, birth and death, the seasons and the harvest, etc, were seen as governed by “deities”, but equally so the things a person experiences day to day throughout his/her lifetime. To have, or to experience, good fortune (health, prosperity, success) meant that a person had (or possessed) a “god”; in Greek, the word eu)dai/mwn (rel. eu)daimoni/a, eu)daimone/w, etc), often translated blandly as “fortunate, happy, blessed”, literally means “(having) a good daimon [that is, a divine-power/deity]”; an especially gifted person was similarly thought to possess a daimon (“genius” in the literal sense of the word). By contrast, misfortune and disease, etc., were caused by the presence of evil powers, such as we see famously in the book of Job, as well as in the exorcism narratives in the Gospels and the book of Acts (note also 2 Cor 12:7).

Within the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, of course, these “divine powers” took on a different character and role, either understood as heavenly/celestial beings (“angels”) serving God’s rule over the universe, or as ‘fallen’ evil spirits acting within the confines of the world. It is the latter sense which dominated the thinking in early Christianity, especially where the world of nature and humankind was seen as existing in a state of corruption and evil. According to such a “dualistic” viewpoint, the quasi-divine “powers” (whether or not precisely synonymous with “demons”) were thought of in terms of beings or forces which were actively hostile and opposed to God. Paul appeared to have believed in the existence of such “powers” (Gal 4:8-9; 1 Cor 10:20; 15:24; Rom 8:38; Col 2:8, 15; Eph 1:21; 2:2; 6:12; cf. also 2 Thes 2:3-12), though he says relatively little about them specifically in his letters. He describes more clearly, especially in Romans and Galatians, the role played by three (personified) powers—Sin, Death, and the Law. Sin, in particular, is described in almost mythological terms—that is, by telling a story or tale (mythos) with Sin as a leading character who acts with purpose and intent. This is what Paul appears to be doing in Romans 5:12-21.

The context of Romans 5:12-21

Much of the difficulty with interpreting this famous passage, I believe, lies in a fundamental difference in worldview. Modern readers and commentators tend to view “sin” almost entirely in terms of individual misdeeds; Paul and other early Christians shared this basic understanding, but, along with it, retained the concept of sin as a quasi-divine force or power which was opposed to God. Such an idea is quite foreign to Western thinking, especially today; it is much easier for us to conceive of the Devil/Satan as an invisible (but real) being than it is to think of “sin” as a personification, moving and acting, holding people in servitude, and so forth.

On the surface, Romans 5:12-21 is framed as a (typological and synchronistic) contrast between Adam and Christ, yet it is interesting how little Adam actually appears in these verses—the principal actor (especially in vv. 12-14) is sin, along with his associate death. Note:

    • Sin enters (“comes into”, ei)se/rxomai ei)$) the world, and death enters along with (lit. “through”, dia/) him (v. 12)
    • Sin is in (h@n e)n) the world—dwelling, working and multiplying—though without his presence really being recognized by human beings (v. 13); people would not see Sin for who he/it was until the coming of the Law (Torah)
    • Sin reigns/rules as king (basileu/w), through his powerful associate and representative death, until the coming of the Law (i.e. of Moses), and then even more thereafter, until the coming of Christ (v. 14)

It is hard to say to what extent Paul is simply using figurative language here; he certainly understood sin as a real and genuine force or power, but at least two aspects of his illustrative argument here suggest that the language is primarily figurative:

    1. In verses 12-14, Paul is generally summarizing the narrative in Genesis 3 (focused on Adam), and extending it broadly to cover the entire period of human history up to the time of the Sinai Covenant (the Law/Torah), and beyond; he does something quite similar in Rom 7:7-12. In this respect, he effectively attributes to Sin actions and functions involving other characters—Adam, Eve, the Serpent, etc—in Genesis.
    2. In verses 15-17, in a story parallel to, and a reversal of, that in vv. 12-14, the “favor/grace of God” is effectively personified as the protagonist much like Sin in vv. 12-14. Grace works in the world, and through Christ, just as Sin worked in the world, affecting all human beings, ultimately ruling/reigning in life (as Sin ruled/reigned in death).

Paul does not explain exactly how Sin’s entry into the world (manifest in the first sin by Adam) spreads into/unto all human beings (v. 12). Historically, there are three primary ways this has been explained by commentators and theologians:

    • Biological/Generational—human beings transmit a “sinful nature” from parents to child, from one generation to the next; this is sometimes connected with the “traducian” theory that the human soul is transmitted biologically.
    • Imitative—the sinful parent effectively teaches the child to sin, from generation to generation.
    • Collective—all human beings sinned collectively in the first human being Adam (or pair, Adam/Eve)

All of these are rather far removed from Paul’s actual line of argument and illustration in Rom 5:12-21; a major problem, as indicated above, is that such theories almost completely ignore the primary context of the passage (esp. verses 12-14), which depicts sin as a (personified) power. I would interpret Paul’s expository logic as follows:

    • Adam’s disobedience provides the opportunity and opening for Sin (as a power) to enter into the world, that is, into the world/domain of human beings
    • Based also on the parallel discussion in Romans 7:7-25, Paul appears to have viewed Sin’s entry in two ways:
      (1) as an external force present and active in the world influencing and affecting human beings (i.e. “the world“), and
      (2) as an internal power dwelling within human beings, operating and influencing people specifically at the level of the “flesh” (sa/rc).
    • A major result and effect of human sin is death (that is, the fate of real physical death), pronounced as a judgment by God (according to the Genesis narrative). Death, too, is sometimes seen as an active force.
    • The “flesh” of human beings—covering both physical/biological and psychological aspects—already weak, and fatally weakened further by the presence and influence of both sin and death (often viewed as working together), is unable to resist the power of sin.
    • Sin effectively rules as king or lord, enslaving all human beings under its power and authority. Viewed figuratively, this means that human beings are unable to resist the impulse to sin (within) and sinful/wicked influences in the world (i.e. human society) around them.

A uniquely Pauline addition to this narrative is the role of the Law (no/mo$)—that is, the Law of God, but specifically as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah). This, of course, is the subject of the current series “Paul’s View of the Law” (cf. the article covering 5:12-21); his unusual and remarkable view of the Law may, thus far, be summarized here as:

    • Prior to the introduction of the Law (Torah), sin was present in the world, working and ruling over human beings, enslaving them; however, people were not able to recognize the true nature and presence of sin.
    • The primary purpose of the Law was to produce recognition and awareness (i.e. proper knowledge) of sin (Rom 3:20; 7:7, cf. also Gal 3:19). Paul seems to envision a connected/parallel dynamic at work for Gentiles who do not have the Torah, but who recognize comparable ethical and religious standards.
    • Paradoxically, however, the effect of this is to increase the presence and influence of sin, even to the point of bringing about death. Through the commands of the Law, sin is defined, esp. in relationship to God, but the presence (and increased awareness) of sin—especially as manifest in the “flesh”—means that human beings are not strong enough (i.e. not able) to fulfill the Law of God (as expressed in the Torah, and also in the human ‘conscience’ or “inner man”).
    • The result is that human beings are further in bondage, to the Law (“under the Law”), just as they are in bondage to sin (and death); Gentiles, in their own way, are similarly in bondage under the Law (cf. Gal 4:1-11). Paul, however, makes the point strongly that the Law is not the same as sin.
    • Through the person and work of Christ, the Law is fulfilled/completed for believers (who are thus “justified” before God), and is, in fact, brought to an end for those who are in Christ—freed from the Law, as we are freed from sin (and death).

The “Law of Sin”

These two key concepts—the Law and Sin—are combined in the expression “the Law of Sin” (o( no/mo$ th=$ a(marti/a$), which Paul uses in Rom 7:23, 25; 8:2. Throughout Galatians, the word no/mo$ (“law”) refers almost exclusively to the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah); similarly in Romans, however Paul does begin to use the term with a somewhat wider scope of meaning, beginning in chapter 3, but most notably here in chapter 7. In Romans 7:7, he starts with the Torah (the Decalogue), but by verse 22, he has shifted the meaning by introducing the expression “the Law of God” (o( no/mo$ tou= qeou=). This phrase seems to include the Law as expressed in the human soul (or “conscience”), i.e., the “inner man”; Paul had used it previously in 1 Cor 9:21, probably in the sense of the true Law, synonymous (for believers) with the “Law of Christ” (cf. also Gal 6:2).

In Rom 7:22-25, Paul juxtaposes “the Law of God” against “the Law of Sin (and Death)”, as two opposing forces at war within a human being—the mind/soul/conscience influenced by the former, and the “flesh” controlled by the latter. This clearly reflects the condition of human beings prior to coming to faith in Christ, though Paul describes a similar dynamic—the flesh warring against the Spirit (and vice versa)—for believers, in Gal 5:16-17ff.

A final example: 2 Corinthians 5:21

An interesting use of the word a(marti/a (in the singular) is found in 2 Cor 5:21, where Paul uses it twice, in connected phrases:

“the one [i.e. Christ] not knowing sin, he [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. for our sake], (so) that we might come to be the justice/righteousness of God in him”

It is a most striking juxtaposition: Christ comes to be (made) sin, and we come to be justice/righteousness in Christ. Paul appears to be playing on the various meanings and connotations of the word “sin” (a(marti/a), from a Jewish and Christian point of view. There are several possibilities for interpreting these two phrases:

1. to\n mh\ gno/nta a(marti/an, “the (one) not knowing sin”, in the sense that Jesus—

    • had no experience of sin, i.e. had not committed any such misdeed
    • was unfamiliar with sin’s reign, i.e. was not under its/his power and authority (for a similar idea, cf. John 14:30)
    • had no intimate contact with sin, i.e. its power was not dwelling in him

2. a(marti/an e)poi/hsen, “he made (to be) sin”, in the sense that Jesus—

    • was made into the form of (sinful) human “flesh” (Rom 8:3); the idea of incarnation, cf. Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7
    • was made like unto the (enslaving) power of sin, in order to conquer and destroy it (cf. Rom 8:2-3; Gal 3:13-14)
    • was made into a sin-offering; note the similar double meaning of afj in Hebrew, which can be used both for sin and the offering made on behalf of sin

Probably the first meaning in each case is to be preferred, but it is intriguing to consider the other possible associations, as one can find basis for them elsewhere in Paul’s thought.