Saturday Series: 1 John 5:16-18 (continued)

1 John 5:16-18, continued

In the study last week, I noted the close parallel between 1 John 5:18 and 3:9. This strongly suggests that two verses are closely related, and that the later reference (in 5:18) may be used to explain further the meaning and force of the sin-reference in 3:9 (discussed at length in prior studies). The formal parallelism in wording, between the two statements, is readily apparent—the main clause being nearly identical in each:

    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God…
      pás ho gegenn¢ménos ek toú Theoú

      • …does not do sin” (3:9a)
        hamartían ou poieí
      • …does not sin” (5:18)
        ouk hamartánei

Based on this close similarity, as noted above, it is fair to assume that the explanatory clauses which follow, in each reference, are also related. The hóti-clause in 3:9b is, again:

“…(in) that [hóti] His seed remains [ménei] in him”

This is the stated reason why the one having been born of God (i.e., the true believer) “does not sin”. It is because [hóti] God’s seed “remains” in the believer. The significance of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) in this context, within the Johannine theology, has been discussed extensively throughout these studies. Indeed, it is this distinctive use of the verb which serves as the basis for one of my proposals toward addressing the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John (see last week’s study and the one prior).

Now let us turn to the explanation provided by the author in 5:18:

“…but [allá] the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God keeps watch (over) him”

There is an ambiguity here of subject and (pronoun) object, much as there also is in 3:9b. However, the ambiguity in that earlier reference is much easier to decipher. Literally, the clause in 3:9b reads “his seed remains in him”. But, based on the context, and Johannine language, it is clear that this means “His [i.e. God’s] seed remains in him [i.e. the believer]”. The situation is not so straightforward in the case of 5:18, as nearly all commentators recognize. There are two main ways to explain the Greek syntax:

    • “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God [i.e. the Son, Jesus] keeps watch (over) him [i.e. the believer]
    • “the (one hav)ing come to be (born) of God [i.e. the believer] keeps watch (over) himself

Some manuscripts read the reflexive pronoun heautón (“himself”), rather than the ordinary pronoun autón (“him”). Such a reading would provide confirmation for the second interpretation (above). However, even if the reading autón is regarded as original, the second interpretation is still possible, since the ordinary pronoun (i.e., autós, etc) can be used reflexively.

The parallel with 3:9 strongly favors the first option—namely, that Jesus, the Son (i.e., the one born of God), protects the believer. God’s “seed”, in the Johannine theological context, is best understood as the living Word (Logos) of God, who is the Son, abiding in the believer. God’s eternal Word is manifest, primarily, through the person of His Son. Alternatively, the “seed” may be understood as the Spirit of God; but this would differ little, in terms of the Johannine theology, since the believer’s abiding union with the Son (and the Father) is realized through the Spirit (3:24; 4:13). Moreover, since God Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24), then also His Word is Spirit, and is experienced through the Spirit (cf. Jesus’ statement in Jn 6:63).

The problem with this interpretation of 5:18 is that the idiom “the one coming to be born of God”, using the substantive verbal noun (participle), of the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”), followed by the preposition ek (“[out] of”, in the expression “of God” or “of the Spirit”), always refers to believers, not to Christ. The verb gennᜠis applied to Jesus in John 18:37, but in the context of his human birth, not to a Divine/spiritual birth as God’s Son. Moreover, the idea of believers guarding themselves from sin/evil, keeping themselves pure, etc, is not at all out of place in the context of 3:4-9, as the exhortation in 2:28-29 and 3:3 makes clear.

As it turns out, both lines of interpretation are quite valid—both in terms of the Johannine theology and the literary context of 1 John. Overall, the theological focus, along with the immediate parallel in 3:9, favors the first interpretation (i.e., the Son protects the believer), while Johannine usage (vocabulary and syntax) tends to favor the second interpretation (i.e., the believer guards him/herself). A third option is available, by way of a minority reading for the clause in 5:18

“…but the coming to be (born) [i.e., birth, génn¢sis] keeps watch (over) him”

that is to say, it is the very spiritual birth, the coming to be born (as God’s offspring), which protects the believer from sin. In some ways, this provides the closest parallel with 3:9b, since the idea of God’s “seed” being present, in the believer, generally corresponds to the idea of the believer’s birth (as His offspring). However, the textual (manuscript) evidence argues firmly against this reading, and it is adopted by few, if any, commentators today.

Possibly in favor of the first interpretation (that it is the Son who protects the believer) is the use of the aorist tense (for the participle), genn¢theís, rather than the perfect tense (i.e., gegenn¢ménos), which is typically used when referring to the birth of believers as God’s offspring. It has been suggested that the difference in tense here is meant to convey a certain distinction—viz., between the Son and believers. However, though this would make an attractive solution, it is precarious to based one’s interpretation on such slight evidence as the supposed distinction between tenses.

Even so, I am inclined to favor (slightly) the interpretation that understands the second participial expression as a reference to Jesus the Son (“the one born of God”), whose abiding presence protects the believer (“the one born of God” [first participle]) from sin and evil.

Continuing the comparison between 3:9 and 5:18, there is a comparable parallel between 3:9c and the final clause of 5:18. In each instance, the implications of the Divine protection, provided to the believer, are stated boldly. In 3:9c, we have (again) the difficult declaration (discussed previously):

“…and he is not able to sin, (in) that he has come to be (born) of God”

Essentially, this restates the declaration of v. 9a, giving a chiastic structure to the verse (cf. the outline in the earlier study). However, what is to be most noted is the absolute character of the declaration—that the true believer, the one “born of God”, is not able to sin. This compares with the corresponding clause in 5:18:

“…and the evil does not touch him”

Indeed, the statement that evil does not (or cannot) touch the believer is comparable to the statement that he/she is not able to sin. One should perhaps understand the substantive adjective (with the definite article) ho pon¢rós (“the evil”) as a personification or personal reference— “the evil one” (compare 2:13-14; 3:12; Jn 17:15), i.e., the Satan/Devil (see 3:8, 10), elsewhere called, in the Johannine writings, “the chief (ruler) [árchœn] of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Whether understood more abstractly, or as a person, this evil fundamentally characterizes “the world” (ho kósmos)—that is, the present world-order (especially at the end of the current Age), which is opposed to God, and is dominated by sin and darkness. The “antichrist” false believers (2:18-27; 4:1-6), the opponents whose views the author combats throughout 1 John, are part of this evil world. The thoroughness of this negative portrait of “the world” is made clear in verse 19, by way of a typical dualistic Johannine contrast:

“We have seen that we are of God [ek tou Theou], and (that) the whole world lies outstretched in the evil.”

Again “the evil”, as in v. 18, can be understood as “the evil one”. The expression “of God” is a shorthand for “having been born of God”, but it also implies, more generally, the idea that believers belong to God. In any case, “the world” is so thoroughly dominated by sin and darkness, that only through the abiding presence of God—His Spirit, Son, and Word—can we, as believers, be protected, so that the evil of the world “does not touch” us. It was as a result of the Son’s fulfillment of his mission, for which the Father sent him to earth, that the power of the world (with its sin and evil) has been overcome (Jn 12:31; 16:33; cf. 1 Jn 3:5, 8). Now believers are, and can be, victorious over the world, through the life and truth that the Son, through the Spirit, provides. This is an important emphasis in 1 John and a key part of the author’s exhortation (2:13-14, 15-17; 3:1; 4:4ff; 5:4-5). The contrast between believers and the world is a fundamental theme that runs through the Johannine writings.

Next week, we will bring this series of studies, on the Johannine view of sin, to a close. As part of this conclusion, some final comments on the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John will be offered, along with a review of the pair of approaches to the problem which I have proposed.



Saturday Series: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-17

Last week, I presented two alternative approaches to solving the ‘sin problem’ in 1 John. The term ‘sin problem’, as has been discussed, refers to the apparent contradiction between the author’s statements (regarding sin) in 1:5-2:2 and 3:4-9. In the former passage, it is clear that believer can, and do (at times), commit sin; whereas, in the latter passages, the author boldly states that the true believer does not—and, indeed, can not (“is not able to”)—sin.

I have proposed a pair of solutions—one of which is based on the author’s use of the Johannine key verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), and the other which is based on a dual-layered Johannine understanding of sin (hamartía). As a way of evaluating these proposals, and to give further consideration to the ‘sin problem’, we must turn to the final sin-reference in 1 John.

The final section of the letter is 5:13-20, in which the author sums up his arguments and presents the summary in the context of his causa—that is, his purpose and reason for writing. Verse 13 states this purpose rather clearly:

“I have written these (thing)s to you (so) that you might have seen [i.e. know] that you hold (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], to (you) the (one)s trusting in the name of the Son of God.”

This differs from the stated purpose of the Gospel (20:31), which was that the readers/hearers would come to trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and thus would have (eternal) life. In 1 John, the author is writing to believers, and so the purpose is that his readers might see/know that they hold this life. The principal theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The author addresses his audience as true believers, in contrast with the “antichrist” opponents whose views he combats throughout (esp. in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6). And yet, there is the very real possibility that these believers might be “led astray” by the false teaching of the “antichrists”. If the Johannine Christians remain firm in their trust, in accordance with what the author has outlined in his letter, then they can know that they are, indeed, true believers who possess eternal life.

We saw from the context of 3:4-9 that a person’s relationship with sin is a key factor in defining what it means to be a true believer. The author, in this passage, does not use the idiom “true believer”; rather, the true believer (as opposed to the false) is defined by certain substantive verbal nouns (participles):

    • “every (one) remaining in him” (vb ménœ), v. 6
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God” (vb gennᜠ+ ek), v. 9
      these then relate to:
    • “the (one) doing the right (thing)”, in contrast to “the (one) doing the sin” (vv. 4, 7)

The true believer, thus, is the person who has come to be born of God (as His offspring), and then remains in Him. One remains in God the Father by remaining in the Son; and one remains in the Son by remaining in his word, and in his love.

My two approaches to the ‘sin problem’ can be summarized as follows:

    • Approach 1:
      If the believer remains in the Son (his word and love), then he/she will not (and cannot) sin; only by falling out of the abiding relationship can one commit sin (in the general sense).
    • Approach 2:
      Sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) is understood here in the fundamental (theological) sense of unbelief—particularly, by violating the great two-fold command (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of all believers (3:23). One may occasionally sin, in the general sense (of ethical-religious failings or wrongdoing), but a true believer cannot sin in this fundamental sense.

As we turn to the final sin-reference in 5:16-18, we see the author does, in fact, distinguish between two kinds of sin: one that is “toward death” (prós thánaton)—that is, which leads to death—and one which does not. The implication is that the believer can, on occasion, commit the kind of sin which does not lead “to death”:

“If any(one) should see his brother sinning a sin not toward death, he shall make request (about it to God), and He will give him life—(that is,) to the (one)s sinning (the sin) not toward death.”

The author continues:

“There is a sin toward death; (but it is) not about that (sin) which I say (that) you should make a request (of God).”

If a fellow believer (“brother”) commits sin, and one becomes aware of it, then one should pray to God on the sinning believer’s behalf; and God will hear this prayer, and will restore the sinning believer to life (“will give him life”). This applies to any sin except the sin that leads “to death”. The point is clarified in verse 17:

“All th(at is) not right [adikía] is sin; and (yet) there is sin (that is) not toward death.”

Sin is here defined as that which is “without right(ness)” (adikía), i.e., “not right”, wrongdoing, etc. Back in 3:4, sin was similarly defined as that which is “without law” (anomía, adj. ánomos), i.e., “lawless, against (God’s) law”. In other words, all wrongdoing and improper conduct is sin, yet there is a kind of sin which leads “to death” that is fundamentally distinct. This sin “to death” is different enough that the author suggests one should not even pray to God about it. This would seem to be best explained on the premise that the person committing the “sin toward death” is not a true believer at all.

Such an explanation would be fully in keeping with the central theme of 1 John—namely, the contrast between the true and false believer. The true believer will not violate the great entol¢¡—of trust and love (3:23)—while the false believer violates both aspects; indeed, the false believer has neither genuine trust in Christ nor possesses the love of Christ.

The false believers which the author has in mind, primarily, throughout his work, are the “antichrist” opponents. These persons, whom the author regards as false prophets of the end-time, espouse a false view of Jesus, and thus do not possess true belief in him as the Son of God. Further, they also violate the second half of the dual-command: the duty to show love to one’s fellow believers. Apparently they demonstrate their lack of love simply by the way that they have separated from the Community (of true believers), 2:19. Possibly, the author’s words regarding the demonstration of love in 3:16-17 are also an indication of ways that (according to him) the opponents violate the command.

In my view, the author’s framing of the matter in 5:16-17, in light of the overarching theme of his letter, means that the “sin toward death” is the sin of the “antichrists”, by which they violate both components of the great command—true faith in Christ and genuine love for others (following Christ’s example). The true believer, on the other hand, will not violate this great command.

If the author’s handling of the ‘sin problem’ here in 5:16-17 provides support for my second proposal, what of the first proposal? Does the author’s teaching here relate to the key idea of the believer remaining in the Son? Verses 16-17 may not be directly on point for this question, but verse 18 that follows does seem to relate:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one hav)ing come to be born of God keeps watch (over) him, and (so) the Evil (one) does not touch him.”

This verse is clearly parallel with 3:9, and helps to explain it. I will be discussing this further next week, as we begin to bring this series of studies to a close.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (concluded)

1 John 3:4-9, concluded

In these studies on the concept of sin in the Johannine writings, our examination of 1 John 3:4-9 demonstrates how the tenets of Biblical Criticism can help to elucidate difficult interpretive problems. One begins with the Greek (or Hebrew) text, giving careful consideration to the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax utilized by the author. Then the cultural and historical background of the text is examined, along with the thought-world of the author and the original audience (as far as this can be determined). Also essential to this critical study is a thorough analysis of the literary context of a passage—the structure of the work as a whole, the rhetorical approach, the author’s goal and purpose in writing, and all the various literary devices employed in pursuing the intended goal.

All (or most) of these aspects of critical study have been touched upon in our examination of 1 John 3:4-9, and in relation to longstanding interpretive problem inherent in these verses. This ‘sin problem’ involves the apparent contradiction between the author’s statements (regarding sin) in 1:5-2:2 and those in 3:4-9; the same basic contradiction is repeated, for good measure, in 5:16-17 and 18. Our studies on 1 John 3:4-9 have proceeded with the ‘sin problem’ clearly in view.

There have been numerous attempts by scholars to resolve the apparent contradiction. They vary in approach, but none has proven particularly successful; certainly, no proposed solution to date has garnered much of a consensus among New Testament scholars. Many commentators today seem more or less resigned to the fact that the ‘sin problem’ of 1 John cannot really be solved.

In bringing the study on 1 John 3:4-9 to a close, I wish to present four interpretative approaches which have been reasonably popular among commentators in recent decades. I will discuss these briefly, before offering two distinct, but somewhat divergent, approaches of my own.

Four Approaches to the ‘Sin Problem’ of 1 John

1. One explanation, especially popular among conservative (and evangelical) commentators, is that the author of 1 John is making a distinction between occasional sins (which a believer may commit) and a pattern of regular or habitual sinning. The author maintains that believers can (and do) commit occasional sins (1:8-2:2; 5:16-17), but then declares that they will not engage in regular or repeatedly sinful behavior (3:4-9; 5:18).

There is a certain attractiveness to this solution, since it generally reflects Christian experience and makes for practical ethical instruction. However, I find the approach to be quite unconvincing, and do not think that it is at all what the author is emphasizing in 3:4-9. Much of the solution hinges on the use of the present tense throughout 3:4-9, compared, for example, with the use of the perfect tense in 1:10 or the aorist in 2:1. The present tense here, it is argued, implies a regular (progressive, continuous) action. However, this need not be the emphasis; indeed, it does not seem to be the emphasis in 3:9c. Moreover, the present tense is also used in 1:8, which weakens the argument based on a supposed distinction in tenses.

Those who take this approach would do better to focus on the use of the substantive participle (with definite article) throughout 3:4-9. This syntax, typical of Johannine style, is used to define believers (or non-believers) according to the action or condition indicated by the verbal expression—e.g., “the one(s) doing {such}…”. This certainly implies a regular and characteristic behavior. However, this very usage ultimately works against the proposed solution. Note, for example, the way that the false believer is characterized as “the (one) sinning” in verse 6; however, the opposite is not stated the same way. Rather, the true believer is characterized as “the (one) remaining in him”, as a result of which, he/she does not sin. Admittedly, the participial expression “the (one) doing the right (thing)” in v. 7 is formally parallel to “the (one) doing the sin” in v. 4, but this does not solve the problem of the language the author uses in vv. 6 and 9.

2. Another common approach is to interpret the author’s teaching in 3:4-9 from a paraenetic and exhortational standpoint. That is to say, the sinlessness language in vv. 6 and 9 represents the ideal for which believers must strive. It is as though when, in verse 6, the author says “every (one) remaining in him does not sin”, he really means “…should not sin”. Again, this would represent sound and practical instruction, and such exhortational emphasis is, indeed, present in verse 3: “Every (one) holding this hope upon him [i.e. upon Christ] purifies himself, even as that (one) [i.e. Christ] is pure”.

However, the author’s emphasis in vv. 4-9 does not seem to be exhortational, but, rather, is theological. He is describing the nature of the true believer, in contrast to that of the false believer, a nature that is defined in relation to their/our union with the Son (Jesus). Since the Son removed sin, and is himself free from sin (vv. 5, 8), the one who abides/remains in him is similarly free from sin (vv. 6, 9). The absoluteness of the statement in v. 9c, in particular, defies the proposed solution. The claim that “the (one) having come to be (born) of God…is not able to sin” goes beyond an exhortation to the believer—it defines what it means to be a true believer.

3. A third interpretative approach understands the sinlessness of the believer (vv. 6, 9) in terms of the power or ability to avoid sin. Believers are not completely free from sin, except insofar as they allow this power to work within them, submitting to its internal guidance. This approach has more to recommend it than the previous two. In particular, the central emphasis, in verse 9, on the “seed” of God that “remains” within the believer, would seem to provide strong support for this line of interpretation. It would be much stronger, however, if verse 9c was worded differently: “…is able not to sin”, rather than “…is not able to sin”. The author’s actual wording (with the negative particle ou preceding dýnatai [“is able”]) suggests that it is not even possible for the true believer to sin.

4. The fourth approach is, in some ways, a variation on #2 (see above), but with an eschatological orientation. Sinlessness is the ideal and goal for the believer, but it is to be realized with the coming of the end. Even the seemingly absolute language in verse 9 could be explained on these terms. It is the eschatological destiny of every true believer to be completely free of sin. While one may currently struggle to avoid sin, and (indeed) may occasionally sin, our sinless perfection will soon be realized, with the return of Christ, when our identity as “those born of God” will be made complete.

The immediate context of vv. 4-9 argues strongly in favor of this interpretive approach. After all, the section opens with an eschatological instruction (2:28-3:3) which includes the idea that, upon the return of Christ, believers will come to be something more than what we currently are (3:2). A sinless perfection, reflecting the Son’s own sinlessness (cf. verse 2 in light of v. 5), certainly could be seen as part of this fully realized identity.

Even so, this eschatological approach to the sin-problem, for all its merit, still falls short and remains unsatisfactory. Its greatest weakness is that it does not do full justice to the author’s language in vv. 4-9, particularly the declarations in verse 9.

Two Alternative Approaches

I would offer two rather different approaches to the ‘sin problem’ in 1 John. These approaches are based, correspondingly, upon the results of our critical study on the idea of sin in the Johannine writings. Each approach is rooted in a distinctive element of the Johannine theological idiom—an idiomatic language of which the author of 1 John makes extensive use. Indeed, this mode of theological expression defines and governs his rhetorical approach. There are, in particular, two components which I would emphasize as being key to understanding the author’s thought regarding sin and the believer:

    • The use of the verb ménœ, and
    • The Johannine dual-layer understanding of sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ)
1. The use of the verb ménœ

In our studies on 1 Jn 3:4-9, the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”) has been discussed extensively. This verb, which is used in a unique theological sense throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, occurs quite frequently in 1 John (24 times). The greatest concentration of occurrences is in the central division of the letter (2:28-3:24), where ménœ occurs 8 times, but this usage is enhanced when we consider it in the context of the five occurrences of the verb in vv. 24 and 27 (twice in v. 27).

The thrust of the exhortation in this section (see approaches #2 and #4 above) involves the verb ménœ, established by the imperative at the beginning of 2:28: “You must remain [ménete] in him…”. This exhortation is paired with the key occurrences of the verb in 3:6 and 9, the very sin-references which are at issue. Each reference expresses a different aspect of the believer’s union with the Son (and with the Father). In verse 6, the bond of union is described from the believer’s standpoint:

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

The implication seems clear: if the believer remains in the Son, then he/she will not sin. In verse 9, the same point is made (9a), but includes a consideration of the bond from God’s standpoint:

“His [i.e. God’s] seed remains in him,
and (so) he [i.e. the believer] is not able to sin”

Essentially, these central lines from verse 9 (bc) are added to the declaration in verse 6, as may be outlined as follows:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (9a)
      • “(in) that His seed remains in him” (9b)
      • “and (so) he is not able to sin” (9c)
    • “(in) that he has come to be (born) of God” (9d)

The subordinate clause of 9d restates the participial expression of 9a (parallel with that of v. 6a). The central lines (bc) are expository; they explain further the situation in line a/d. We may summarize this point as follows: the believer, who has come to be born of God, does not sin, because the seed of God remaining in the believer means that he/she is not able to sin.

How, then, can a believer possibly sin? Only if the believer does not remain in the Son. If the believer remains in the Son, then he/she will not sin. If, however, the believer—in whatever way, or for whatever reason—fails to remain, even temporarily, then it is possible to sin. This approach is not without certain difficulties, which I will be discussing in some detail at a later point. Yet I believe that it offers a solid basis for understanding and explaining the author’s view of sin (in relation to the believer).

2. The two aspects of “sin” in the Johannine writings

In these studies, we have seen how there are two distinctive ways of understanding sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in the Johannine writings:

    1. in the conventional sense of ethical-religious failings and wrongdoings
    2. in the theological (Christological) sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus as the Son of God

The Gospel of John, in particular, plays on both of these layers, or aspects, of meaning, giving decided emphasis to the second. From the Johannine standpoint, refusing to trust in Jesus represents the great sin, and, indeed, the true nature of sin (cf. Jn 16:8-9). Yet the two aspects are related. The great sin of unbelief is, in a real sense, the basis for all other sins. This may be understood several ways. Perhaps the clearest example of the relation involves the idea that Jesus’ mission on earth resulted in the removal of sin (Jn 1:29; 1 Jn 3:5, 8). But this is only realized for the believer; if one does not trust in Jesus, then the sin is not removed—indeed, in that case, a person’s sins all remain (Jn 9:41).

I am convinced that the author of 1 John (if he is not the same person as the Gospel writer) has the same dual-layered understanding of sin, and that he also moves between these two aspects of meaning (for the noun hamartía and verb hamartánœ). This dual-meaning may provide the key to solving the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John. It could be stated, simply, as follows: the true believer can sin according to the first aspect of meaning, but not the second. That is to say, the true believer may (occasionally) commit sin in the conventional sense of ethical-religious failure or wrongdoing; however, he/she is not able to sin in the fundamental sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus.

The latter understanding of sin should actually be defined more properly in terms of violating the great ‘command’ (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of all believers. In both the Gospel and First Letter, there is only one such entol¢¡, but it is two-fold, with two components, and so can also be regarded as two entolaí. In the Gospel, this dual ‘command’ is presented primarily in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), and especially in the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17), where the verb ménœ occurs eleven times. This two-fold entol¢¡ effectively defines what it means to remain in the Son (Jesus)—one remains in his word (lógos), and also in his love (agáp¢). I have illustrated this with the following simple diagram:

The only way a believer can fail to remain in the Son is by either failing to remain in his word or in his love.

The author of 1 John evinces a comparable dual-command, a two-fold duty (entol¢¡) that is required of all believers. However, he formulates and frames it somewhat differently. It is presented clearly in 3:23, at the end of the central section (2:28-3:24) of the letter. He defines it as: (1) true/proper trust in Jesus as the Son of God, and (2) love for one’s fellow believer, according to Jesus’ own example. The true believer will not, and cannot, violate this dual-command; however, the false believer can (and does) violate it.

The principal theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The “antichrist” opponents, whom the author combats (esp. in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6), are false believers, who demonstrate that they possess neither true faith in Christ nor true love. By contrast, the author treats his readers as being among the true believers. This positioning of his audience is actually part of the author’s rhetorical strategy—a position from which he can warn them not to be led astray by the teachings and example of the “antichrists”. It is no coincidence that the central section of 2:28-3:24 is framed by the two “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6). The author exhorts his readers to “remain” in Christ, by remaining rooted in both his “word” (i.e., the truth of the Gospel message regarding Jesus’ identity as the Son) and his “love” (maintaining the bond of unity with other believers).

The very exhortation implies that it is possible for a (true) believer to lapse from this state of “remaining”, at least temporarily, and to be led astray. The focus in 1 John is on being led astray by false believers (who function as false prophets of the end-time). Yet, the true believer will never violate the fundamental entol¢¡ of trust and love. Even if, like Peter, in the Gospel narrative (13:36-37; 18:15-18ff), the believer may lapse into the darkness of sin and doubt, it is possible to be restored into the abiding union (cf. Jn 20:1-6ff; 21), and once again to remain in the Son.

Before bringing this series of studies to a close, and, as a way to test and evaluate the two proposed solutions to the ‘sin problem’ which I have offered above, we shall examine the final sin-passage in 1 John (5:16-18). This we shall do next week.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (continued)

1 John 3:4-9, continued

In our study on 1 John 3:4-9, we have examined the climactic sin-references in verses 6 and 9. Each of these verses marks the climax of a parallel unit—vv. 4-6 and 7-9, respectively. There is, indeed, a parallelism to the three statements in each unit:

    • Statement 1, contrasting the true and false believer:
      “the (one) doing the sin” (v. 4)
      “the (one) doing the right (thing)” (v. 7)
    • Statement 2, describing the mission of the Son (Jesus) with regard to the removal of sin; he appeared (lit. was made to shine forth):
      “…(so) that he might take away sin” (v. 5)
      “…(so) that he might dissolve the works of the Diábolos” (v. 8b)
    • Statement 3, regarding the sinlessness of the (true) believer in Christ:
      “every (one) remaining in him does not sin” (v. 6)
      “every (one) having come to be (born) of God does not do sin” (v. 9)

The implications of statements 2 and 3, when taken together, are clear: the Son, through his mission, removed sin, and thus the true believer, who remains in him, does not sin.

As I discussed in the previous study, verse 9 formulates this characteristic of the true believer according to two distinctly Johannine theological idioms: (1) the motif of birth, using the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”) + the preposition ek (“[out] of”); and (2) the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”). Both of these aspects are emphasized in verse 9. As I noted, the birth imagery dominates, and includes the aspect of remaining: the believer comes to be born out of God, and then, as His offspring, God’s seed (spérma) remains in the believer. Both aspects are integral to the idea of the sinlessness of the believer, as the chiastic arrangement of the verse indicates:

    • every (one) having come to be (born) of God
      • he does not sin
        • His seed remains in him
      • he is not able to sin
    • he has come to be (born) of God

If we are to understand how the believer can be sinless (and “unable to sin”) —in apparent contradiction to what the author wrote earlier (in 1:5-2:2; see also 5:16-17)—the key is in this central motif of God’s seed remaining in the believer. In this regard, it is necessary to address two interpretive questions:

    1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained? and
    2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

Let us consider each of these, in turn.

1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained?

First, the context makes clear that the word spérma (“seed”) here refers to the believer’s birth from God (lit. “out of God,” ek tou Theou). Because the male image of “seed” (spérma, i.e. ‘sperm’) is utilized, some commentators believe that the principal idea that is being emphasized is the begetting of the believer, rather than the birth per se. The seed-motif certainly implies a begetting by God as Father; this “seed” literally comes “out of” God, to be implanted within the believer. It is a Divine seed, and enables the birth of the believer as God’s own “offspring” (téknon). Though the idea of ‘begetting’ is certainly present, it is, in fact, the birth of the believer that is principally in view.

The noun spérma occurs only rarely in the Johannine writings. Even though the theological birth-motif occurs with some frequency, especially in 1 John (2:29; 3:1-2, 10; 4:7; 5:1-2, 4, 18; see also Jn 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 8:39ff; 11:52), the noun spérma is not used elsewhere in this context, except indirectly in Jn 8:33, 37 (compare the following vv. 39-47). The only other occurrence in the Gospel and Letters (Jn 7:25) simply uses the word in the figurative sense of a person’s offspring (or descendant).

There are, however, instances elsewhere in the New Testament where spérma is used in a theological sense. Most notably, there is Jesus’ parable of the Sower, in which the “seed” that is sown is explained as symbolizing the “Word (of God)”, Mark 4:14ff par. In that Synoptic passage, the noun spérma is implied, but then is used explicitly in a subsequent parable (v. 31), and in the Matthean parable of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43), where it has a comparable meaning. In these Kingdom-parables, the “word” or “account” (lógos) of God refers specifically to the preaching/teaching of Jesus (regarding the Kingdom of God). The Son’s “word” (lógos) also has a central place in Johannine tradition, even if this is expressed rather differently than it is in the Synoptics, with a stronger theological (and Christological) orientation.

The closest parallel to 1 Jn 3:9 is found in 1 Peter 1:23; indeed, the wording and thought is quite similar, referring to believers as:

“having come to be (born) again, not out of a decaying seed [sporá], but undecaying, through the Word of God living and remaining”

The parallels with Johannine thought, and to v. 9 in particular, are noteworthy:

    • the use of the verb gennᜠ(here the compound anagennáœ) + the preposition ek, to express the idea of the birth of believers
    • the use of a (substantive) perfect passive participle to express this as a fundamental characteristic of believers
    • the idea that this is a new birth, with the believer being “born again/anew” (compare Jn 3:3ff)
    • this new birth is facilitated by the presence of God’s own “seed” (the related noun sporá instead of spérma)
    • the true, spiritual nature of the imagery is indicated by the language used, and by the specific designation of the seed/word as “living” (zœ¡ntos)—see Jn 4:10-11; 6:51, 57; 7:39.
    • the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”)
    • the idea that the Word of God “remains” in the believer

A different kind of parallel can be found in Paul’s use of the noun spérma in Galatians 3 (vv. 16, 19, 29) and Romans 4 (vv. 13, 16, 18; also 9:7-8). There the expression is “seed of Abraham”, identifying believers as the true offspring/descendants of Abraham, and thus able to inherit the covenant promises made by God. It is actually Jesus who is the “seed”, but believers take on the same identity through trust in him. Ultimately, this is another way of referring to believers as the sons/children of God (see Gal 3:26-29; 4:4-6; Rom 8:14-17ff; 9:8). A similar “seed of Abraham” theme appears in the Gospel of John (8:31-47).

There are two ways of understanding the “seed” motif in 1 John 3:9: (a) as the implanted Word of God, and (b) as the living Spirit of God which enables our “birth” (Jn 3:5-8) as His offspring. In Johannine thought, these two aspects are tied together, and it would be a mistake to create a false dichotomy by suggesting that the interpreter here must choose a single aspect. In responding with faith/trust, the believer receives the Word—the Word of God the Father, manifest in and through the Son. It comes to remain (i.e., abide) within the believer. However, since God Himself is Spirit (Jn 4:24), His Word also is Spirit (see 6:63). The believer is united with both Father and Son through the presence of the Spirit; it is the Spirit that remains in the believer (1 Jn 3:23; 4:13), and His Word through the Spirit. Primarily, then, the “seed” that remains in the believer is the Spirit of God, but it is also His Word.

2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

The Johannine writings use the verb ménœ to express both sides of the abiding union of the believer with God. There are two sides because this union is reciprocal: the believer remains in God, and God remains in the believer. The union with God the Father is realized through the Son: this means, the believer remains in the Son, and the Son remains in the believer.

With regard to these two sides of the union, we may draw a comparison with the covenant-bond—indeed, this spiritual union, between God and believers, represents a new covenant, patterned to some extent after the old bond between God and His people. In the old covenant-bond, YHWH remained ever-faithful to His people (see Deut 7:9, etc); the question was, whether the people would remain faithful to Him. Much the same situation applies to the new covenant. The Son (and Father) remains in believers, but will believers be faithful and remain in Him?

The exhortations to “remain”, found in both the Gospel and First Letter, show the importance of this question, as it is framed. The principal passage in the Gospel is the Vine-illustration section (15:1-17) of the Last Discourse, which I have discussed at length in a recent series of notes. In verses 4-10, the verb ménœ occurs ten times, and once more in v. 16. These instances begin (v. 4) with an imperative: “you must remain [meínate] in me”. Actually, both sides of the bond of union are mentioned, though only the believer’s side is there specifically an imperative: “you must remain in me, and I in you”. In the remainder of vv. 4-10, Jesus explains to his disciples what will happen if they should not remain (vv. 4, 6), and, conversely, what it means if they are faithful and do remain (vv. 5, 7). The emphasis in vv. 9-11ff is on remaining in the Son’s love; but the Vine passage also expresses the importance of remaining in his word (v. 7, see 8:31). Remaining in the Son means remaining in his word and his love, as I have illustrated:

This is the great two-fold command, as it is formulated by Jesus in the Gospel. First John continues this tradition of a two-fold command (or duty, entol¢¡) that is required of every believer, but formulates it somewhat differently (see 3:23-24).

The implication of 1 John 3:9 is that, if the believer will take care to remain in the Son—which means remaining in his word and his love—then the Divine “seed” which remains in the believer will enable the believer to be free from sin. As noted above, this “seed” refers essentially to God’s Spirit (which is the Spirit shared by His Son), but the Spirit, in turn, embodies and manifests the living presence of both the Word and Love of God. Even as the Son manifested the Father’s Word and Love during his earthly mission, so it is now realized for believers through the Spirit.

As in John 15:4, so also 1 John employs the verb ménœ in the imperative (2:24, 27-28). Actually the form of the verb in 2:27-28 is ambiguous; it could be read as either an indicative or an imperative. It is best read as an imperative in v. 28, but many commentators feel that the indicative is more appropriate in v. 27. In any case, the exhortation is clear enough: “you must remain in him” (ménete en autœ¡). There would be no point in making such an exhortation, with its implicit warning, if there were not the possibility that the believer, through carelessness or neglect, could cease (or fail) to remain in the Son. In the context of 3:9, we could formulate the author’s argument as follows: if the believer remains in the Son, then the abiding presence of the Son (and Father), through the Spirit, will keep the believer from sin; however, if the believer ceases, even temporarily, to remain in the Son, then it is possible to sin.

In next week’s study, the last in this set on 1 John 3:4-9, I will discuss the feasibility of this line of interpretation, in light of the wider context of First John, and of the Johannine writings as a whole. I will also touch upon other approaches and proposed solutions which commentators have variously adopted as a way of resolving the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (continued)

1 John 3:4-9, continued

Last week, we looked in depth at verses 4-6, including the climactic sin-reference of v. 6. This week we will examine the second unit of the passage (verses 7-9), with its corresponding sin-reference in v. 9.

Verses 7-9

As in the case of vv. 4-6, we may divide this unit into three statements, corresponding to the three numbered verses.

Statement #1 (verse 7):

“(Dear) offspring, let no one lead you astray: the (one) doing th(at which is) right [dikaiosýn¢] is right [díkaios], even as that (one) is right [díkaios].”

This first statement corresponds with the first statement of vv. 4-6 (in verse 4). In each statement a person is characterized by the Johannine grammatical convention of using a substantive participle (with definite article). Two different kinds of person are differentiated by the contrasting verbal expressions that are used:

    • “the (one) doing [poiœ¡n] the sin [hamartía]” (v. 4)
    • “the (one) doing [poiœ¡n] the right-ness [dikaiosýn¢]” (v. 7)

Sin (hamartía) is contrasted with “right-ness” (dikaiosýn¢). The noun dikaiosýn¢ denotes that which is right (díkaios), in a general or inclusive sense. Both the noun and adjective are used here in verse 7. In a religious context, these terms are usually rendered as “righteous(ness)”, while, in a social or legal setting, they are more properly rendered as “just(ice)”. Both of these contexts are suggested by the explanation of sin as anomía, a condition of being or acting “without law” (ánomos), i.e., “lawlessness” (see the discussion on verse 4 last week). More fundamentally, the contrast is between “that which is right” and “that which is wrong” (i.e., sin).

The noun dikaiosýn¢ is relatively rare in the Johannine writings, compared with its extensive use by Paul; the same is true of the dikaio– word-group as a whole. In the Johannine letters, the noun occurs only in this section (three times, 2:29; 3:7, 10), while similarly it occurs in only one passage (16:8, 10) in the Gospel. The adjective díkaios is somewhat more frequent. In 1 John it is most notable that the use of the adjective follows early Christian tradition, utilizing it as a descriptive characteristic (and title) of Jesus as “(the) righteous (one)” (2:1; cf. Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14). In being righteous, the Son (Jesus) reflects the righteousness of God the Father (1:9; 2:29); as one who is right(eous), the Son does what is right. This is the point made here in v. 7.

The true believer, as one who has been “born of God”, reflects the righteous character of God even as the Son (Jesus) does. The true believer, thus, will similarly “do what is right”, even as the Son “does what is right”. This equation is established in 2:29, and is echoed again here in v. 7. If the true believer does what is right, then the non-believer (and false believer) does what is wrong. Moreover, if sin is defined as being contrary to law (lit. “without law”), as stated in v. 4, then, “right(eous)ness” must similarly be understood as that which follows and fulfills the law.

The Johannine theological interpretation of this ethical-religious language is indicated by the use of both hamartía and dikaiosýn¢ in Jn 16:8-11, one of the ‘Paraclete’ sayings by Jesus in the Last Discourse. When the Spirit comes (as one “called alongside”, parákl¢tos), he will show the world to be wrong about three things, in particular (v. 8): sin (hamartía), right(eous)ness (dikaiosýn¢), and judgment (krísis). The true nature of sin is given in verse 9, where it is defined as unbelief—the failure and/or unwillingness to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. The true nature of right(eous)ness, in verse 10, is stated more indirectly, requiring a certain amount of interpretation. While there remains a lack of agreement among commentators, the basic idea seems to be that righteousness is rooted in Jesus’ identity as the Son, and that, following the completion of his earthly mission, with his exaltation, this identity has been confirmed by his return to the Father. True righteousness is the Divine righteousness of God (the Father), which is also reflected and manifested in the Son.

Statement #2 (verse 8):

“The (one) doing the sin is of the Diabólos, (in) that, from the beginning, the Diabólos sins; unto this [i.e. for this purpose] the Son of God was made to shine forth—that he might loose [i.e. dissolve] the works of the Diabólos.”

The second statement in vv. 7-9 also corresponds with the second statement of the first unit (vv. 4-6), in v. 5. Both statements refer to the purpose of the Son’s appearance on earth, the mission for which he was sent (by God the Father). In verse 5, the stated purpose is “that he might take away the sin”; here it is “that he might dissolve the works of the Devil”. Sin is thus characterized as the “work of the Devil” —that is, what the Satan (or the Devil) does. This relates to the definition of the true nature of judgment (krísis) in Jn 16:11 (see above). Through the Son’s mission on earth, which he faithfully completed, the world and its ruler (i.e., the Devil), has been judged. Even though the world continues, in the present, to be dominated by darkness and evil, fundamentally opposed to God, it has, in truth, already been judged.

An essential aspect of this judgment is that the power of the world (and of the Devil) has been dissolved, at least for believers in Christ. Sin and evil no longer have any power or control over believers. Being in the Son, united with him, believers now share in his victory over the world (Jn 16:33; 1 Jn 2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5).

The Son, who is present in us through the Spirit (“the [One] in you”, 4:4), frees us from the power of sin and evil. If this dynamic were explained in Pauline terms, we would say that we, as believers, were no longer in bondage to the power of sin. This means that we are no longer compelled to sin, and are able to avoid sin, living in a holy and righteous manner, in conformity to God’s will. However, we are still subject to impulses from the flesh which can prompt us toward sin; these can be resisted and avoided, but they are more or less continually present. It hard to know to what extent the Johannine author(s) may have held a comparable view, regarding sin and the believer. Certain features do seem to have been held in common, though the Johannine writings do not utilize the Pauline concept of the “flesh” as a way of explaining sin.

Statement #3 (verse 9):

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

The third, climactic, statement, as in verse 6, represents the key statement regarding the relation of the believer to sin. The parallel descriptive expression, again using the Johannine idiom of the substantive participle (with definite article, preceded by the adjective pás [“every”]), characterizes the true believer:

    • “every (one) remaining in Him” (v. 6)
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) of God” (v. 9)

This is very much Johannine terminology, particularly the distinctive use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), as well as the verbal expression gennᜠek (“come to be [born] out of”). The true believer comes to be born from God, and then remains in Him. There are thus two stages to the Divine life of the believer: (1) the birth occurs as the result of trust in Jesus (as God’s Son), followed (2) by an abiding relationship that is realized through the Son. Ultimately, both the birth and the remaining are realized through the presence and activity of the Spirit (Jn 3:5-8; 14:17ff; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13).

Interestingly, both aspects—birth and remaining—are emphasized here in verse 9. The birth imagery dominates, and includes the aspect of remaining: the believer comes to be born out of God, and then, as His offspring, God’s seed (spérma) remains in the believer. Both aspects are integral to the idea of the sinlessness of the believer; note the chiastic arrangement of the verse:

    • every (one) having come to be (born) of God
      • he does not sin
        • His seed remains in him
      • he is not able to sin
    • he has come to be (born) of God

Both aspects relate to sinlessness, but it is the central aspect—God’s seed remaining in the believer—which is most relevant, since it refers to the life-time of the believer after he/she has been “born”.

In order to understand these sin-references (and the ‘sin problem’) fully, and correctly, it is necessary to address two key interpretive questions:

    1. How is the “seed” of God, that remains in the believer, to be explained? and
    2. How does the remaining of this Divine “seed” in the believer relate to the remaining of the believer in God?

These questions will be discussed in the next study, as we bring this study of the sin-references in 1 John 3:4-9 to a close.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9 (continued)

1 John 3:4-9, continued

Last week, in our study on 1 Jn 3:4-9, the ‘sin-problem’ in 1 John was discussed. This label refers to the apparently contradictory statements made by the author, to the effect that believers in Christ both do, and do not, commit sin—that they both can, and can not, sin. In the opening section 1:5-2:2, the author clearly refutes (and indirectly condemns) claims of sinlessness, claims which may represent the views held by a certain group of opponents (called “antichrist” in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6). In particular, the claims in 1:8a and 10a are refuted:

    • “we do not hold (any) sin” (hamartían ouk échomen)
    • “we have not sinned” (oux h¢mart¢¡kamen)

It is clear from the context that the author is referring to sin committed by believers, a point that is confirmed by the general parallel in 5:16-17. This means that believers can, and occasionally do, sin. And yet, here in 3:4-9 (also in 5:18), the author seems to be claiming just the opposite:

    • (the believer) “does not sin” (ouk hamartánei), v. 6a
    • (the believer) “does not do sin” (hamartían ou poieí), v. 9a
    • (the believer) “is not able to sin” (ou dýnatai hamartánein), v. 9c

I have filled in the subject “the believer”, even though the author uses different terminology:

    • “every (one) remaining in him [i.e. in Christ]” (v. 6a)
    • “every (one) having come to be (born) out of God” (v. 9a, c)

This syntactical terminology, utilizing a substantive verbal noun (participle) with a definite article, along with the adjective pás (“every”), is particular to the Johannine style and theological idiom. It is used in both the Gospel and the Letters, as a way of referring to believers—true believers—in Christ. The verbal noun serves as a designation, describing the nature, characteristics, and behavior of believers: “the one(s) doing/being {such…}”.

Here, two distinctive verbs are used, both of which are Johannine keywords: (1) the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), and (2) the verb of becoming (gennáœ), in the specific context of birth (i.e., coming to be born). The believer comes to be born of God (ek theoú), and then remains/abides in Him (en autœ¡). The ‘birth’ is spiritual, taking place through the Spirit (Jn 3:5-8). The remaining/abiding also is realized through the Spirit (1 Jn 3:24; 4:13; Jn 14:17ff); however, the focus of the verb ménœ in the Johannine writings is the believers relationship to the Son (Jesus). The believer abides in the Son, and the Son abides in the believer; and it is through the Son that one is similarly united with the Father. All of this—our abiding union with both Father and Son—is realized through the presence of the Spirit.

The two aspects of the living identity of the believer are expressed by the substantive participles in vv. 6 and 9: birth (coming to be [born]), and the duration of life (abiding/remaining).

Let us consider the sin-references carefully within the context of vv. 4-9. One may view the statements in vv. 6 and 9 as the climax of two parallel discourse-units—vv. 4-6 and 7-9. We shall examine the structure and rhetorical progress of each unit.

Verses 4-6

This unit is comprised of three statements, corresponding to each of the designated verses:

Statement 1 (verse 4):

“Every (one) doing the sin also does the lawless (thing); indeed, the sin is the lawless (thing).”

The author utilizes the same syntactical expression noted above—substantive participle with definite article, preceded by the adjective pás (“every”): “every (one) doing the sin”. This describes the nature and character of a certain type of individual, or group. It will become clear that it designates the opposite of the true believer, though this has not yet been established explicitly within the author’s line of argument.

The thrust of the statement is the identification of “sin” (lit. “the sin”, h¢ hamartía) with “lawlessness” (lit. “the lawless [thing]”, h¢ anomía), that which is “without law” (ánomos). This identification was discussed last week, along with the use of anomía (and ánomos) elsewhere in the New Testament. This is the only occurrence of anomía in the Johannine writings. The author would seem to be drawing upon two fundamental aspects of the term, as it is understood and used by early Christians. The first aspect highlights the idea of opposition to the law (nómos) of God. This can refer to immorality and “lawlessness” generally; however, I believer that the author is making use of the noun here in order to prepare his audience for the theme that will dominate verses 11-24: that of fulfilling the duty (or ‘command’, entol¢¡) that is required of all (true) believers. The legacy of the Old Covenant, emphasizing obedience to the regulations and commands of the Torah (the Law), informs the author’s wording. The person who is “without law” disregards the entol¢¡ of God, and even comes to oppose it—like the opponents who are called “antichrist” (against the Anointed).

The second aspect is eschatological. In early Christian eschatological tradition, the noun anomía designates the wickedness of the end-time, with its opposition to God and distortion of the truth. The eschatological context of our passage was established in 2:29-3:3 (see the discussion in the previous study). Almost certainly, the author has in mind, primarily, the false views of the opponents, whom he refers to as “antichrists” of the end-time; note how the “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6), describing the opponents and their view of Christ, frames the central section of 2:28-3:24. It is unlikely that the author would use the loaded term anomía here without having the sin of the opponents fully in view. The opponents are the principal example of the would-be believer who sins: “the (one) doing the sin”.

Statement 2 (verse 5):

“And (yet) you have seen [i.e. know] that that (one) was made to shine forth (so) that he might take (away) sin—and there is not (any) sin in him.”

In this second statement, sin is related to the person of the Son (Jesus Christ), referred to simply by the demonstrative pronoun ekeínos (“that [one]”). There are two components to this double-statement: (1) the earthly mission of the Son was to “take away” (vb aírœ) sin, and (2) there is not any sin in him. The connection of the first component to the ‘Lamb of God’ declaration in Jn 1:29 was discussed last week (see also the earlier study on that verse). The Son both removes sin (for believers), and is himself free of sin.

The interpretative key for this verse—the center of vv. 4-6—is the closing prepositional expression “in him” (en autœ¡), that is “in the Son”, “in Christ”. There is a dual-meaning to the use of this expression, in context. On the one hand, it means that Jesus Christ himself has no sin. At the same time, it also alludes to the condition of the believer who is “in him”. If there is no sin “in him”, then anyone who is “in him” will also be free of sin. This is an essential principle to keep in mind when considering the idea of the believer’s sinlessness.

Statement 3 (verse 6):

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin; (while) every (one) sinning has not seen him, and has not known him.”

The initial phrase is parallel with that of verse 4 (see above); note the contrastive (antithetical) juxtaposition:

    • “Every (one) doing the sin…”
    • “Every (one) remaining in him…”

The participial expression “doing the sin” is more or less synonymous (if not equal) to the participle “sinning” here in v. 6b. We can fill out the comparative thought in vv. 4 and 6a as follows:

    • “Every (one) sinning (does what is lawless)”
    • “Every (one) remaining in him does not sin”

Thematically, it is possible to combine the phrases of these statements, treating them as a chiasm:

    • sinning
      • acting “without law”
        (the false believers, i.e. the opponents)
      • remaining in Christ
        (the true believers)
    • does not sin

The second half (b) of verse 6 is easy to understand: the person characterized by sin (“the [one] sinning”) is not, and cannot, be a true believer. The interpretive difficulty is found in the first half (a). Much depends on the force of the phrase “does not sin” (ouk hamartánei): does this mean “does not ever sin” or “does not regularly sin”? Some commentators simply assume the latter; indeed, certain English translations (such as the ESV) actually build this line of interpretation into their translation: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning”; similarly, for example, in verse 4, “Every one who makes a practice of sinning”. I find such an overly-interpretive translation to be quite irresponsible; most likely, it was employed to circumvent the author’s apparent contradictions, thus avoiding the ‘sin problem’ of 1 John altogether.

Yet the interpretive approach itself is not without merit. As discussed above, the use of the substantive participle characterizes a person or group—indicating one’s essential nature and, we may assume, regular behavior as well. It goes without saying that a true believer would not be characterized by sinful behavior, persistent immoral conduct, and the like. But is that what the author is emphasizing here in verse 6? It seems unlikely, given the parallel statements in verse 9:

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

Next week, we will examine verses 7-9, comparing the author’s line of argument in that discourse-unit with the earlier unit of vv. 4-6. In so doing, we will begin to formulate an interpretive approach to the ‘sin problem’ of 1 John.

Saturday Series: 1 John 3:4-9

1 John 3:4-9

After a hiatus for the Christmas season, the Saturday Series returns, with a continuation of the studies on sin in the Gospel and Letters of John. In the most recent studies, we examined the sin references in 1 John 1:5-2:2. In that passage, the author of 1 John combats the idea that believers are completely without sin. In three different units, the author presents three different false claims or ideas about sin (in relation to the believer)—1:6a, 8a, 10a—and, in each instance, refutes the claim (v. 6b, 8b, 10b), and then presents the true view regarding sin and the believer (vv. 7, 9; 2:1-2). It has been thought that the false claims regarding sin represent positions held by the opponents which the author otherwise combats in 1 and 2 John. These opponents, who are discussed most directly in 2:18-27 and 4:1-6 (also 2 Jn 7ff), are described principally in terms of their Christology (that is, their view of Jesus Christ); however, it is certainly possible that they also held views regarding the nature of sin—and of the relationship of sin to the believer in Christ—which the author found objectionable.

An interesting aspect of 1 John, in this regard, is that the author, while combating the idea (in 1:5-2:2) that believers are without sin, makes several statements, elsewhere in the letter, to the effect that believers do not (and, indeed, can not) sin. These seemingly incongruous—even contradictory—statements have long proved a challenge for commentators on the Johannine writings. We may refer to this as the “sin problem” in 1 John. Does the author contradict himself in these sin references? There have been numerous attempts to harmonize the references, or to explain them in various ways. These explanations, on the whole, are far from convincing. But they raise another, in some ways more interesting question: why does the author use language and wording which, on the surface, seems so similar to the very ideas that he condemns (in 1:5-2:2)? If the ‘false’ claims regarding sin in that earlier passage do, indeed, represent the views of the opponents—people whom he takes great pains to oppose (and warn his readers against)—why does the author risk confusing the matter by putting forward his own (apparent) claims of sinlessness in 3:4-9 (repeated in 5:18)?

There is no simple solution to the “sin problem” in 1 John. In the course of this study, mention will be made of several proposed solutions, none of which I find particularly satisfying or convincing. I have made certain proposals of my own—of interpretive approaches, rather than a definitive solution—and will present these again here, after the references in 3:4-9 (and 5:18) have been examined.

Let us begin with the structural context of our passage. The unit 3:4-9 is part of a larger section (2:28-3:10) which also comprises the central division of 1 John—2:28-3:24. There are two sections to this division: (1) 2:28-3:10, and (2) 3:11-24. The central division is flanked by the two “antichrist” passages, 2:18-27 and 4:1-6, in which the author deals most directly with the opponents, referring to them as antíchristoi—that is, those who are “against the Anointed”, “against (Jesus) Christ”. This refers primarily to their Christology, which the author regards as false. Their view of Christ is false, and thus they are false believers; even worse, by promoting their false view, they act as ‘false prophets’, inspired by a false and deceiving spirit (and not the holy Spirit of God), which threatens to lead astray even many genuine believers. The central theme of 1 John is the contrast between the true believer and the false believer. In the “antichrist” sections of 2:18-27 and 4:1-6, the focus is on defining the false believer, while in the central section of 2:28-3:24 the emphasis is on the true believer.

Significantly, the section begins with an urgent exhortation (and warning) to the author’s readers (whom he treats as true believers), in light of this threat posed by the opponents, and the danger of being led astray by their false teachings. The exhortation features the Johannine key verb ménœ (“remain”):

“And now, (my dear) offspring [i.e., children], you must remain [ménete] in him…” (2:28a)

In the Johannine writings, this common verb (“remain, stay, abide”) has special theological meaning, referring to the abiding union which the believer has, with God the Father, through Jesus Christ (the Son). This union comes through trust in Jesus, and is realized through the presence of the Spirit. The previous section closed with an emphatic usage of the verb (vv. 24 [3x], 27 [2x]), and its usage frames the central section, occurring here and at the close (3:24 [2x]), while also being used throughout the line of argument (vv. 6, 9, 14-15, 17). The idea of remaining in Christ, expressed by the verb ménœ, is thus central to this section, and defines what it means to be a true believer.

The exhortation to remain is is framed in eschatological terms, by which the author (like nearly all first-century Christians) has in mind an imminent eschatologythat is, he and his readers are living in the ‘last days’, with the end being very near. The presence of the “antichrist” false believers is a sign that the end is near (2:18), and the true believer must remain firmly rooted in the truth, and must be guided by the true Spirit of God. Here is how the author states the eschatological urgency in v. 28b:

“… (so) that, when he should be made to shine forth [i.e. appears], we might hold an outspokenness, and not move (away) from him with shame, in his (com)ing to be alongside [parousía] (of us).”

That is to say, if we remain in Christ, as true believers, then we can face the end, when he appears, boldly and with confidence. The eschatological emphasis continues in 2:29-3:3, as the author develops this aspect of his exhortation. The closing of the exhortation is significant for its ethical orientation, providing an important transitional link to the sin-references that follow:

“And every (one) holding this hope, upon him, makes himself holy, even as that (one) is holy.” (3:3)

The verb hagnízœ (“make holy”), used reflexively with the pronoun h(e)autos (“himself, oneself”), is best rendered in English as “purify oneself, make oneself pure”. This idea of purity is obviously significant in relation to the the question of sin and the believer (and the possibility of sinlessness). Indeed, in verses 4-9, this matter of sin becomes the author’s main concern. He begins with something of a definition regarding sin (hamartía):

“Every (one) doing the sin also does the lawless (thing); indeed, the sin is the lawless (thing).” (v. 4)

The author explains that sin (hamartía), by definition, means that which is “without law” (anomía, adj. ánomos), i.e., lawlessness. The noun anomía occurs only here in the Johannine writings. It is not a Johannine term, which suggests that the author has a particular purpose in introducing it here. The a– prefix of the noun is privative, indicating a lack, or being without something; specifically, it refers to being without any law (nómos). The early Christian use of the noun anomía generally follows the Jewish usage. There are two main contextual aspects to its use in the New Testament: (1) religious-ethical, and (2) eschatological. As regards the first aspect, the meaning can be general—i.e., violating or ignoring what is moral and right—or can specifically refer to violating/ignoring the commands, etc, of the Torah. According to either sense, the one “without law” acts in a manner that disregards the Law of God. The noun, as such, occurs in the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:12), and also occurs in the Pauline Letters, where it is specifically juxtaposed with the idea of purity (Rom 4:7; 2 Cor 6:14; Titus 2:14), much as we see here in 1 John (v. 3, see above).

The other context where anomía is used is eschatological; “lawlessness”, or being “without (any) law”, involving a disregard of the Law of God, is a basic characteristic of the end time. Indeed, just before the end, it was expected that things on earth would increasingly grow worse and worse, with evil and wickedness becoming ever more prevalent among human beings. First-century believers understood themselves to be living during this period of time right before the end. The noun is used with this significance in the Matthean version of Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse (24:12), and is also implied in 13:41. Paul’s use of the term in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and 7 is closer to the eschatological context of 1 John, with its emphasis on the opponents as demonically-inspired “antichrists” of the end-time. The “man of lawlessness” or “lawless (one)” (vv. 3, 8) may well draw upon the same early form of the Antichrist tradition to which our author seems to allude in 2:18.

It is quite likely that the author of 1 John intends both of these aspects of meaning: sin is both a violation/disregard of God’s Law and also represents the wickedness (characteristic of “antichrist”) prevalent at the end-time.

In our previous studies, I have discussed how, in the Johannine writings (and certainly in the Gospel of John) there is a dual-aspect to the idea of sin (utilizing the noun hamartía and verb hamartánœ). On the one hand, there is the conventional religious-ethical meaning (i.e., sin as wrong-doing or a failure to do what is right); on the other hand, there is the special theological (and Christological) aspect of sin as a failure (and/or refusal) to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. This second aspect is primary in the Gospel of John: the sin of unbelief is the great sin.

But how is this terminology intended here in 1 John? In 1:5-2:2, sin was understood in the general (ethical-religious) sense of wrongs and misdeeds, etc, done by human beings. Is that how the terms are being used here? The author’s statement that follows in verse 5 would suggest so:

“And we have seen [i.e. we know] that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. appeared] (so) that he might take (away) the sin, and there is not (any) sin in him.”

This wording seems to echo the Lamb of God declaration in the Gospel (1:29), using the verb aírœ (“take up”) in a similar sense: the effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death was to take away (i.e. remove) sin for those who trust in him; for more on this, see the earlier studies on Jn 1:29. Here, the noun hamartía, with or without the definite article, refers to sin in a general (and comprehensive) sense, in two ways: (i) all the sin that a human being does, and (ii) sin (and sinfulness) as a personal attribute or characteristic. Jesus’ death removes sin from the believer, and he (Jesus) himself was without sin (“there is not sin in him”). These two aspects of the sin-reference in v. 5 are important for the author’s understanding of the believer’s relationship to sin. The implications are clear: sin is removed from the believer; and, at the same time, since Jesus is without sin, the one who remains in Jesus partakes in that same sinlessness. This would suggest that the true believer, the one who remains in Jesus, is free of all sin (i.e., is sinless). The author states as much in verse 6:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin” (6a)

The converse is stated, with similar bluntness, in 6b:

“every (one) sinning has not seen him and has not known him.”

The implication of the author’s statements seems clear: the believer who remains in Jesus does not sin, while the one who does sin (“the [one] sinning”) cannot be a true believer.

How does this square with the teaching in 1:5-2:2, where the author seems to argue rather the opposite point?—viz., that believers do, in fact, sin (see above). Is he contradicting himself? This is a key interpretive question, and will be discussed next week, in our continuation of this study on 1 Jn 3:4-9.

Saturday Series: 1 John 1:5-2:2 (continued)

1 John 1:5-2:2, continued

We are here continuing from last week’s study with the sin-references in 1 John 1:5-2:2. As previously noted, this first section of the treatise (following the prologue, 1:1-4) is comprised of an initial statement (v. 5), followed by three rhetorical (and expository) units, each of which begins with an orienting clause according to the formula “If we should say…” (eán eípœmen…). Each such clause establishes a declarative statement, making a claim, which the author then proceeds to refute:

    • 1:6-7“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we hold common-bond with Him, and (yet) would walk about in the darkness”
      • Refutation: “we are false, and do not do the truth”
    • 1:8-9“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we do not hold (any) sin”
      • Refutation: “we lead ourselves astray, and the truth is not in us”
    • 1:10-2:2“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we have not sinned”
      • Refutation: “we make Him (out to be) false, and His word is not in us”

Three false claims regarding sin are stated, and then refuted. In some ways, this echoes the thrust of the Paraclete-saying in John 16:7b-11, in which it is promised that the Spirit (Paraclete) will show the world to be wrong (vb eléngchœ) about three things (v. 8), the first of which is sin (hamartía, v. 9). The world’s understanding of sin is wrong, and the Spirit will give witness of this, and of the true nature of sin.

The three claims can properly be divided into two groups. In the first (1:6a), the situation involves Christians who claim to be united with God (who is light, v. 5), and yet who walk in the darkness of the world. In the second (1:8a, 10a), the Christian is claiming to be without sin, presumably implying a state of sinless perfection. In both instances, according to the author, the claim is false, and demonstrates that the one making in the claim is a false believer. This emphasis relates to the central theme of 1 John, as I discern it: the contrast between the true and false believer. The opponents being dealt with in 1 John (especially in the “antichrist” sections of 2:18-27 and 4:1-6), due primarily to their view of Jesus Christ, are regarded by the author as false believers. Many commentators feels that the false claims regarding sin (1:6a, 8a, 10a) represent, in some measure, the actual views of the opponents.

After presenting and refuting each claim, the author proceeds, in each instance, to offer a true assessment regarding sin and the believer. In this week’s study, we will examine these statements.

Statement #1 (1:7)

The false claim:
“we hold common-bond with Him”, and yet, at the same time “we walk about in the darkness”

According to the author, if “we” (that is, any Christian) should make such a claim, then:

“we are false, and do not do the truth”

The true believer does not “walk about in the darkness”. The verb used is peripatéœ (“walk about”), referring to a person’s regular and habitual behavior, which takes place on a daily basis. It is often used in a religious-ethical context, corresponding to the Old Testament use of the Hebrew verb h¹la½ (“walk”) especially in the reflexive (Hithpael) stem. See, for example, Paul’s use of the verb in Rom 6:4; 8:4; 2 Cor 5:7; Gal 5:16.

In the Johannine writings, “darkness” (here, skótos, but skotía in v. 5) fundamentally refers to that which is opposite (and opposed) to God. A dualistic light-darkness contrast is established in the Gospel Prologue (1:5) and runs all through the Johannine writings. The term kósmos (“world-order, world”), in its typical negative Johannine usage, represents the realm of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. Like the figure of Judas in the Gospel narrative (13:30), the opponents have left the Community of true believers, and have gone out into the darkness of the world (4:1ff; 2 Jn 7). Here, “darkness” is a comprehensive term, and should not be limited to sin (in the sense of moral wrongdoing), though certainly its meaning includes all manner of sin.

What then is the true situation regarding the believer? The author declares this in verse 7:

“But, if we should walk about in the light, as He is in the light, (then) we hold common-bond with one another, and the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

The false believer may claim to hold “common bond” (koinœnía) with God, but it is only the one who “walks about” (same verb, peripatéœ) in the light (and not the darkness) who truly holds this koinœnía. And the bond of unity is not only with God, but believers have a common-bond with each other as well. In so far as we walk about “in the light” —the same light (of truth and holiness, etc) in which God Himself abides—then we are cleansed (vb katharízœ) of all sin.

This cleansing comes through the blood of Yeshua the Son of God, referring to his sacrificial death. This alludes to the same idea of the removal of sin that we saw, for example, in the Lamb of God declaration in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion in the earlier study). Three points may be gleaned from the author’s statement here in v. 7, regarding the relationship of sin to the believer:

    • Cleansing from sin is possible, through participation in the life-giving power of Jesus’ death
    • We are cleansed of all sin (“from all sin,” apó pás¢s hamartías), and
    • The implication is that believers do, in fact, occasionally commit sin.
Statement #2 (1:9)

The false claim:
“we do not hold (any) sin”

According to the author, if “we” (that is, any Christian) should make such a claim, then:

“we lead ourselves astray, and the truth is not in us”

The verb planᜠ(“go/lead astray”), along with the related nouns plán¢ and plános, is a key term in the Johannine writings. The opponents, as false believers, have gone astray, but they also lead people astray with their false views and teachings; they thus function as false prophets, and can be characterized as being “against the Anointed” (antichrist). Their false claims about sin, apparently, may be included among their false teachings.

The claim “we do not have/hold (any) sin” would seem to imply a state of sinless perfection, in which the Christian does not (ever) possess any sin, since it has been removed, cleansed through the work of Christ (v. 7). The author views such a claim as false, even though he himself, elsewhere in 1 John, seems to make comparable statements that are equally bold (a point we will examine in the next study).

In verse 7, the author indicated that believers do, in fact, commit sin, at least on occasion; but such sin will be removed/cleansed through the blood of Jesus. Here, in verse 9, he explains this further:

“If we acknowledge/confess our sins, He is trustworthy and right(eous), (so) that He should release (for) us our sins, and should cleanse us from all (that is) not right.”

The exposition of v. 7 here takes two forms: (a) the removal of sin is tied to public confession/ acknowledgment of it, and (b) it entails two aspects or components—(i) release from sin’s power/force, and (ii) cleansing from its presence.

The verb homologéœ means “give account as one” —that is, to make a statement that is in agreement with what others say or wish; it may be translated “(give) consent, admit, agree”. In the New Testament, it tends to be used in the sense of openly acknowledging something, before others or in their presence. Specifically, it can refer to a confession of faith/belief (see 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; 2 Jn 7; Jn 9:22; 12:42; also Rom 10:9-10, etc) or of sin. Obviously, the latter is intended here (the only such use of the verb in the New Testament). Almost certainly, public confession in a congregational setting (of some sort) is intended.

The removal of sin, following confession, involves its release. The verb aphí¢mi means “send away”, which clearly indicates a removal; however, it sometimes carries the specific nuance of “release”, which is a fitting translation here given the use of the idiom of holding sin (vb échœ) in v. 8a. As discussed in a prior study, the commission-statement by Jesus, to the disciples, regarding sin in 20:23 could conceivably relate to a process of confession/release of sin in a congregational setting. At the very least, it is likely that other believers would have given some public assent to the process, recognizing that forgiveness had taken place.

The second aspect of this removal of sin involves the believer being cleansed (vb katharízœ) from the effect of sin’s presence. This is referred to in a comprehensive sense, corresponding to “all sin” in v. 7 (see above), with the phrase “from all (that is) not right”. The noun adikía literally means “lack of rightness”, but “(what is) not right” is a smoother rendering in English, and gets us closer to the general meaning. Sin carries with it much that is “not right”, but all of this is washed away, being cleansed by Jesus’ blood, when the sin is removed.

In verse 7, the singular of hamartía (“sin”), without the definite article, was used. This refers to sin in a general or collective sense. Here in verse 9, the plural of the noun (“sins”) is used, referring to individual/specific failings, wrongs, misdeeds, etc.

Statement #3 (2:1-2)

The false claim:
“we have not sinned”

According to the author, if “we” (that is, any Christian) should make such a claim, then:

“we make Him (out to be) false, and His word is not in us”

The three refutations by the author build in force, to the point that, here, the one making the false claim regarding sin not only proves him/herself to be a false believer, but also makes God out to be false as well! This seems to foreshadow the idea, to be developed significantly in the remainder of the work, that the opponents are false prophets—they do not speak from the Spirit of God, but from another spirit, one that is false and which leads people astray.

The false claim of v. 10a itself is essentially a restatement of that in v. 8a, emphasizing the specific act (vb hamartánœ) of committing an individual sin. This corresponds with the use of the plural of the noun hamartía in verse 9 (see above).

In 2:1-2, the author gives his fullest exposition (thus far) regarding the relationship between sin and the believer, effectively summarizing and integrating the prior statements from 1:7, 9. He begins with a bit of paraenesis, giving general ethical-religious instruction to his readers and exhorting them:

“My (dear) offspring [i.e. children], I write these (thing)s to you (so) that you should not sin.”

The purpose of the instruction is that they should not sin; the subjunctive voice implies that there is the possibility that they may sin, but that they should not—and, indeed, must not. He continues:

“But if any(one) should sin, we hold (one) called alongside [parákl¢tos], toward the Father, Yeshua (the) Anointed (the) righteous (one)…”

That it is possible for the believer to sin seems to be clearly expressed here. And, if this should happen, then it is still possible for the sin to be removed/cleansed, and for a state of sinless purity to be restored. As stated in 1:7, this is achieved through Jesus Christ the Son of God. The same is expressed here by referring to Jesus as “(one who is) called alongside” —that is, to give help and assistance. The term is parákl¢tos, the same term used of the Spirit in the Paraclete-sayings in the Gospel (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15). In the first of these (14:16), the Spirit is referred to as another parákl¢tos, implying that there was one prior, and that Jesus was the first parákl¢tos. There is thus precedent for referring to Jesus by this descriptive title.

He gives help on behalf of believers—specifically, believers who sin—interceding for them before God the Father. The expression here is “toward” (prós) the Father, which literally could mean facing toward Him or coming/moving toward Him. In any case, Jesus is near to the Father, in His presence, functioning as a mediator (between human beings and God), in the manner of a priest. Verse 2 brings out this aspect:

“…and he (himself) is (the) hilasmós over our sins—and not over ours only, but also over (the sin of) the whole world.”

The noun hilasmós is extremely difficult to translate in English. It is ultimately derived from the adjective híleœs, meaning “merciful”. The verb hiláskomai has the basic meaning “be merciful, show mercy”, and is frequently used in religious (and ritual) contexts, whereby the goal (for the worshiper) is for God to be merciful, responding in a gracious, propitious, and beneficial manner. The noun hilasmós essentially refers to the means by which this is achieved. Thus, here, to say that Jesus is the hilasmós “over our sins”, signifies that he is the means by which God shows mercy to us, with regard to our sins—that is, by removing them and cleansing us from their effect. The only other occurrence of the word in the New Testament is in 1 Jn 4:10, where the context is essentially the same, but with a reference to Jesus as God’s Son in salvific language that seems to echo Jn 3:16f.

Through Jesus’ blood—his sacrificial death—the power of sin is removed, even as is declared in Jn 1:29. His death provides the means for removal for all sin, not merely those committed (occasionally) by believers. The closing words of v. 2 share with the Lamb of God declaration in Jn 1:29 the universal focus of the entire world— “the sin of the world”.

In our study next week, we will turn our attention to the important (and difficult) sin-references in 3:4-9, also examining briefly the reference to the forgiveness of sin in 2:12.

Saturday Series: 1 John 1:5-2:2

1 John 1:5-2:2

In these studies on the Johannine view of sin, focusing on the use of the noun hamartía and the related verb hamartánœ, we now turn to the Letters of John. Actually, these words do not occur in 2 or 3 John, so we will be dealing almost exclusively with the evidence from 1 John, referring to the other letters only on occasion. Sin is a prominent subject in 1 John, and the words under consideration occur relatively frequently—the noun 17 times, and the verb 10 times.

The precise relationship between the Gospel and First Letter remains a matter of some debate among scholars. It is clear that both writings come from the same Christian environment, sharing much in the way of vocabulary, style, points of emphasis, and theological outlook. The elements and features which the writings have in common are encompassed by the descriptive label “Johannine”. If the Gospel and First Letter were not written by the same person, they were composed by individuals who shared a similar mode of thinking (denkform) and expression.

Though some commentators would debate the point, I consider it all but certain that at least some form of the Gospel of John was known by the author of 1 John (and his original audience) at the time the latter work was written. The similarities of thought, as well as the likelihood that the Gospel was known among the Johannine churches, justifies our referring to the Gospel when discussing the understanding of sin for the author of 1 John.

On this point, I would summarize some key results from the studies on sin in the Johannine Gospel. Most notably, the two-layer (or dual-aspect) view of sin must be emphasized. Sin can be understood two ways: (1) in the general or conventional sense of ethical-religious failures and misdeeds; and (2) in the special theological sense of failing/refusing to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. The first and last sin-references in the Gospel (1:29; 20:23) deal with sin in the general sense—and particularly the idea of the removal of sin comes about as a result of trust in Jesus. In between, in the remainder of the Gospel, the author (and/or Jesus as the speaker) tends to play on the two aspects of meaning, giving priority to the theological/Christological sense of sin as unbelief. Failing or refusing to trust in Jesus represents the great sin.

With this in mind, but without letting the Gospel evidence pre-determine our analysis of 1 John, we shall examine the first sin-references in the letter—these occur in the opening section (following the prologue [1:1-4]), 1:5-2:2. R. E. Brown, in his now-classic commentary (Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 [1982]), provides a convenient visual outline of the structure of this section (p. 191). It is comprised of an initial statement (v. 5), followed by three rhetorical (and expository) units, each of which begins with an orienting clause according to the formula “If we should say…” (eán eípœmen…). Each such clause establishes a declarative statement, making a claim, which the author then proceeds to refute:

    • 1:6-7“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we hold common-bond with Him, and (yet) would walk about in the darkness”
      • Refutation: “we are false, and do not do the truth”
    • 1:8-9“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we do not hold (any) sin”
      • Refutation: “we lead ourselves astray, and the truth is not in us”
    • 1:10-2:2“If we should say that…”
      • Statement: “we have not sinned”
      • Refutation: “we make Him (out to be) false, and His word is not in us”

The three claims could be made by any religious-minded person, but it is fair to assume that the author has Christians in mind. Many commentators take for granted that the author is addressing specific claims made by the group of opponents that he has firmly in view elsewhere (most notably in the “antichrist” sections, 2:18-27 and 4:1-6). The claims certainly relate to the central theme of the author’s work (as I see it): the contrast between the true and the false believer. If “we” (that is, anyone who claims to be part of the Christian Community) make such claims, then “we” prove ourselves to be false.

Let us briefly consider each claim, and the author’s refutation of it.

Claim #1: “we hold common-bond with Him”, and yet, at the same time “we walk about in the darkness”

These two things are incompatible, as the initial statement in verse 5 makes clear: “God is light, and in Him there is not any darkness”. The first phrase is an essential predicative statement, of the sort which occur frequently throughout the Johannine writings. Such predication gives us essential information about the subject—who or what the subject is. The syntax is extremely simple, being comprised of: (a) the (Divine) subject, (b) the verb of being, and (c) a predicate nominative: “God | is | light”. Since God is light, the one who is united in a common-bond (koinœnía) with Him cannot be in darkness. The dualistic light-darkness contrast is an essential component of the Johannine theology and worldview, being established in the Gospel Prologue (1:4-5).

If a person “walks about” (indicating regular behavior reflecting a way of life) in darkness, then this behavior demonstrates that the words of the claim are false. What such Christians say does not match what they do (and vice versa). The term darkness (skotía) represents the opposite of light, and thus alludes to that which is generally opposed to God (and the things of God). Elsewhere in the Johannine writings, the idea of this domain of darkness, that is opposed to God, is expressed by the term kósmos (“world-order, world”). The author is here introducing and establishing the central contrast between true and false believers, with the implication that the false believer belongs to the darkness of the world. The refutation specifically establishes the contrast between true and false: “…we are false, and do not do the truth”.

Claim #2: “we do not hold (any) sin”

In this instance, the claim itself is false. The implication, however, is that only the sort of false believer described in v. 6-7 would ever (seriously) make such a claim. The refutation of the claim makes this quite clear: “…we lead ourselves astray, and the truth is not in us”. In Johannine terminology, to say that “the truth is not in” someone, means that such a person is not a true believer.

What of this particular claim, “we do not hold (any) sin”? It probably should be understood in terms of the sinlessness of the believer. In other words, when a person comes to trust in Jesus, and receives the Spirit, all sin is removed, and the believer never again possesses (lit. “holds”) any sin. As we shall see, the Johannine theology tends toward such a conclusion, based on the sinlessness of the Son (Jesus) himself (3:5), with whom the believer is united through the Spirit. It is therefore understandable how some Johannine Christians might make such a claim.

Claim #3: “we have not sinned”

This claim is clearly parallel with #2, representing a variation on the same basic idea:

    • “we do not hold (any) sin” —as believers, we do not (ever) possess any sin
    • “we have not sinned” —as believers, we have not (ever) committed any specific sin

The author refutes this claim just bluntly as the second, and even more forcefully: “…we make Him [i.e. God] (out to be) false, and His word is not in us”. Here, “His word [lógos]” is parallel to (and generally synonymous with) “the truth” —both are not “in” the false believer who makes such claims of sinlessness. Again, the false believer is positioned as being part of the world of darkness that is opposed to God. Not only is the claimant false, but the false claims (presented as the truth of God) make God Himself out to be false!

The author’s refutation of these claims of sinless perfection for the believer in Christ are clear enough. The major problem for the interpreter of 1 John, however, is that the author himself seems to make the very same sorts of claims, elsewhere in his work (3:6ff; 5:18). This may be referred to as the “Sin-Problem” in 1 John, and will be discussed further in the upcoming studies.

Next week, we will continue our study on 1:5-2:2, looking at the author’s positive counter-statements regarding sin. Having refuted each of the three false claims, he offers a true claim in each instance. This rhetorical structure may be outlined as follows:

    • The false claim (“If we should say…”)—1:6a, 8a, 10a
    • The refutation of the false claim—1:6b, 8b, 10b
    • The true counter-statement—1:7, 9; 2:1-2

As we shall see, in each instance, the true statement tacitly admits the possibility that believers may sin, but that such sin can (and will) be removed through our union with Jesus Christ, which involves our participation in the life-giving power of his death.

Saturday Series: John 20:23

John 20:23

The final sin-reference in the Gospel of John comes near the end of the Gospel, in the commission-scene of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to his disciples, 20:19-23. As is typical, the Gospel writer has taken an established historical tradition and has developed it in the light of the distinctive Johannine theology. In this instance, however, the brevity and terseness of the material creates particular challenges for interpretation, especially with regard to the sin-reference in verse 23.

The core Gospel tradition is centered in verses 19-21. Here, the Johannine tradition is comparable to that in Luke 24:36-40; this is one of several points in the Resurrection-narrative material where the Lukan Gospel (at least in the ‘non-Western’ witnesses) and Johannine Gospel closely resemble each other, indicating that they share a common source of tradition. Both Luke 24:36-49 and John 20:19-23 blend the resurrection-appearance of Jesus with a commissioning of his disciples (implying the impending departure of Jesus, to the Father in heaven). At the historical level, this may involve the compression and telescoping of several events into a single narrative episode. The same sort of thing occurs in the Matthean Gospel (28:16-20) and in the ‘long ending’ of Mark’s Gospel (16:14-18).

John’s account is the briefest of the four, particularly in comparison with the Lukan episode, with which it otherwise has certain features in common (see above). This means that Johannine stylistic and theological development of the material is, here, relatively slight. Given the dramatic preparation for the moment in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), the brevity of the narrative is rather surprising.

Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples is presented in just three verses; there are three components to the commission, one in each verse:

    • The saying in verse 21, announcing the disciples’ role in continuing the mission of Jesus
    • The giving of the Spirit in verse 22, which enables the disciples to continue Jesus’ mission
    • The saying regarding sin in verse 23, which must, by its context, refer to the nature and content of the disciples’ mission.

Each of these components, in its own way, reflects the Johannine theology and mode of expression; they also, in their narrative context, relate back to Jesus’ teaching in the Last Discourse. In particular, the giving of the Spirit represents the fulfillment of the promises in the Paraclete-sayings (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15); it is thus here the central component of the three:

    • The announcement of the disciples’ mission (v. 21)
      • The giving of the Spirit (v. 22)
    • The nature/content of the disciples’ mission (v. 23)

In terms of linguistic style and syntax, the declaration in verse 21 is the most Johannine:

“Just as the Father has sent me forth, (so) also do I send you.”

Similar language and sentiment can be found throughout the Last Discourse, and in the chap. 17 Discourse-Prayer—see especially verse 18, where the symmetry is more precise:

“Just as the Father (has) sent me forth into the world, (so) also I (have) sent them forth into the world.”

The disciples of Jesus thus are obligated to fulfill the duty and mission given to them by the Son (Jesus), just as the Son fulfilled the duty/mission given to him by the Father. The missions are similar and related; indeed, one should view them as stages in a single continual (and ongoing) mission. The Spirit will enable the believers to perform this continuing mission, while Jesus himself will continue to be present, teaching and guiding the disciples (believers) through the Spirit.

Given the importance of this missional emphasis throughout chapters 13-17, it is surprising that the description of the mission itself, at the moment of the commissioning, is so brief, and is limited (in the narrative) to the sin-reference of verse 23 (compare Lk 24:47-49; Matt 28:19; [Mk 16:15-18]). Here is the verse in question:

“For whomever you would release the(ir) sins, they have been released, (and) for whomever you would hold (them) firm, they are held firm.”

In considering this seemingly ambiguous statement, a number of questions arise, which must be addressed if we are to understand and interpret the verse correctly.

First, we have the use of the noun hamartía (“sin”). Here it occurs in the plural (tas hamartías, accusative), literally “the sins”. The only other instance of the plural in the Gospel is at 8:24 (twice). In our studies on the subject of the Johannine view of sin, I have discussed repeatedly how the Gospel writer evinces two very distinct, but related, understandings of sin: (1) sin in the conventional sense of ethical-religious misdeeds or wrongdoings, and (2) sin in the specific theological/Christological sense of refusing (or failing) to trust in Jesus as the Son of God. The latter has priority, representing the great sin; as long as a person commits the great sin of unbelief, it is impossible for all other sins to be removed.

We have seen how, in using the singular of hamartía (“[the] sin”) the author can play on both levels or aspects of meaning—sin in the general sense, as well as the great sin of unbelief. However, the noun in the plural seems to limit the focus to sin in the general sense—that is, of ethical-religious wrongs committed by a person (of various sorts). As I discussed in earlier study on 1:29, this was also the focus of the singular of the noun in the Lamb of God declaration. Thus, the first and last sin-references in the Gospel deal with sin in the general/conventional sense of the term.

In the declaration of 1:29, it is stated that the Lamb of God “takes (away)” sin. In the context of the Johannine theology (and the Gospel narrative), this can only refer to trust in Jesus, and in the life-giving (and cleansing) power that comes through participation in his sacrificial death. Here, now, at the end of the Gospel, the idea of the removal of sin reappears, but in connection with the mission and ministry of believers. Before addressing the particular interpretive difficulties relating to this connection, let us examine the verbs used (and their tenses) here in verse 23.

Syntactically, the sentence in v. 23 can be divided into two parallel statements, employing a contrast between the verbs aphí¢mi (a)fi/hmi) and kratéœ (krate/w). The verb aphí¢mi literally means “send away”, sometimes with the specific nuance of “release”. It is often used in the context of forgiving sin, and thus of removing sin and its effects (guilt, punishment, etc). The verb occurs frequently in this context elsewhere in the New Testament (and in the Synoptic Gospels), but nowhere else in the Gospel of John. Though the verb is used 13 other times in the Gospel, this is the only instance where it is directly connected with the idea of sin. The only other such Johannine usage is in 1 Jn 1:9 and 2:12.

The verb kratéœ means “take/grab firm hold”. Its use here in the context of sin is a bit puzzling, since, though the verb occurs 47 times in the New Testament, this is the only instance where it is used in reference to sin. It is also the only occurrence of the verb in the Gospel and Letters of John; thus it is by no means a Johannine term, and was likely included here as part of an inherited Gospel tradition (saying of Jesus). Given the meaning “hold firm”, the contrastive parallel with aphí¢mi strongly suggests that the nuance “release” for that particular verb is being emphasized, and so it should be translated.

Here, then, are the two statements, in parallel:

    • “for whomever you would release the(ir) sins,
      they have been released”
    • “for whomever you would hold (their sins) firm,
      they are held firm”

The disciples are given the ability to perform these two actions (“releasing” and “holding firm”) regarding sin. Before considering how this treatment of sin relates to the disciples’ mission, some comments on the tense (and mood) of these verbs is required.

In each statement, the first occurrence of each verb is in a subjunctive form, but with a difference in tense: aphí¢mi in the aorist (aph¢¡te), and kratéœ in the present (krat¢¡te). It is hard to know to what extent the author (or Jesus as the speaker [translated into Greek]) intends a distinction between the tenses. If a distinction is intended, it is relatively subtle (and difficult to translate in English). The aorist could be taken to mean that the effect of the action (i.e., “releasing” the sin/guilt from a person) occurred at single point or moment in the past, while the present tense of the action (i.e., “holding firm” the person’s sin/guilt) is something that continues in the present (elsewhere in the Gospel, in Johannine terminology, this is often expressed by the verb ménœ [“remain”, see 9:41]).

The use of the subjunctive indicates the occasional nature of the action (i.e., “whenever you would do {such}…”). The preceding conditional particle (án), along with the indefinite pronoun, confirms this emphasis: “for whomever you would do {such} regarding their sins…”.

The use of the perfect tense in the second phrase indicates that, for an action which takes place at a moment (in the past), the effects of it continue into the present (and future). Each of the forms is a passive perfect, which is best explained as an example of the so-called Divine passive (passivum divinum)—that is, where God is the implied or assumed actor. The action has the same force in each instance: “has been released” (aphéœntai), “has been held firm” (kekrát¢ntai). For the first verb, there is some textual confusion, with a good number of manuscripts reading either a present or future tense form (aphíentai, apheth¢¡setai); however, the perfect tense is almost certainly correct, and is in better keeping with the Johannine theological orientation and emphasis.

How do these actions relate to the disciples’ mission? Here, the evidence seems to cut different ways. On the one hand, the missional focus, in the context of the Gospel narrative (and specifically the Last Discourse), suggests that the actions would be centered on the proclamation of the Gospel. Based on a person’s response to the message regarding who Jesus is, one is either “released” from sin or “held firm” in it. When one trusts in Jesus, this results in the removal of sin (1:29); whereas, if one refuses to trust, the person’s sin remains (9:41). In this setting, the verse 23 declaration would mean that the disciple, in continuing the mission of Jesus, has been given the authority to ‘pronounce’ whether a person’s sin has been released/removed or whether it remains firmly in place.

The pronouncing action by the disciple/believer is tied to the effecting action performed by God (indicated by the passive perfect verb forms). This has been compared with the declarations in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18; many commentators see some relation between these Matthean formulations and Jn 20:23, perhaps even that both ultimately derive from a common historical tradition.

While the missional setting in the Gospel narrative (especially the context of the Last Discourse) suggests that verse 23 relates primarily to the proclamation of the Gospel (and of a person’s response to it), other factors have led commentators to the view that verse 23 has discipline within the Christian Community in view. It must be admitted that the Gospel context of v. 23 argues against this particular approach; however, given the apparent parallels with Matt 16:19 and 18:18 (especially the latter saying), it needs to be considered a bit further.

The strongest support for verse 23 referring to action within a Community setting comes, not from the Gospel, but from 1 John—particularly the section 1:5-2:6 dealing the believer’s relationship to sin. As noted above, this passage (and the verses following) contains the only other Johannine use of the verb aphí¢mi in reference to sin—that is, to the forgiveness and removal of sin and its effects. These occur in 1:9 and 2:12, respectively. The first reference is at the heart of the 1:5-2:6 passage, and is worth quoting:

“If we confess/acknowledge our sins, He is trust(worthy) and right(eous), (so) that He would release [aph¢¡] our sins and cleanse us from all lack of right(eous)ness.”

The idea that this cleansing comes through the blood of God’s Son Yeshua (v. 7) ties this Johannine reference to the Gospel declaration in 1:29 (see the discussion above). The use of the verb homologéœ (lit. “give account as one”) indicates a communal (public) setting for the believer’s confession. In such a setting, it is probable that designated ministers and/or the congregation as a whole would respond in some way to the member’s confession, perhaps affirming the release/removal and cleansing of sin, as stated in verse 9.

Certainly, being free of sin is an important characteristic of the true believer, according to the author of 1 John. Indeed, one who belongs to the Community of true believers is one whose sin has been “released” (again the use of aphí¢mi, in 2:12). Given this importance of the matter, it would be surprising indeed if other believers were not to play some key role in the handling and treatment of sin within the Community. An indication of this is seen in 5:16-17, where the author briefly touches upon the practice of believers praying to God on behalf of a fellow believer who has sinned (or is sinning). The context of 1 John clearly indicates that such prayer is part of the love that true believers show to one another, following the example of Jesus himself. In this way, believers are likewise continuing Jesus’ mission.

This evidence from 1 John at least raises the possibility that Jn 20:23 could refer to activity of disciples/believers within a Community setting, as well as in the primary missional setting indicated by the Gospel narrative.

Next week, in these series of studies, we will turn to the sin-references in the Letters of John, of which we have already had a glimpse above.