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:
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 ). 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
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
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 gennáœ (“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
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.