Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Christians Do Not Sin

What does John mean when he says that no one who abides in Christ "sins" (1 John 3:6) or that no one "who is born of God . . . cannot sin" (1 John 3:9)? These verses have given Bible interpreters a great challenge, since such absolute statements seem to be contradicted by what John has said earlier in this book (1 John 1:8-2:2) and by Christian experience.

It is quite popular to suggest that the kind of sinning John is talking about is "habitual" or "continuous" sin. Accordingly the NIV uses phrases like "keeps on sinning" and "he cannot go on sinning" to translate these two verses. But such an understanding of 1 John 3:6, 9 both requires further explanation (how infrequent must sin be to not be "habitual" or "continuous"?) and misses John's point in his argument.

It is far better to view John’s absolute statements another way. We can begin by asking ourselves this question: If the reason Jesus came to earth was to “take away sins” (1 John 3:4) or, stated another way, “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), then did he succeed in his mission? The answer is clearly “yes” (John 17:4).

So if Jesus came to take away sins and to destroy the works of the devil, and if he succeeded in his goal and yet believers continue to have frequent battles with sin, then John must not have meant that Jesus came to earth for the purpose of completely removing sin from our lives now. The best way to understand 1 John 3:6, 9 is to identify exactly in what sense Jesus “took away sins” and “destroyed the works of the devil.”

Romans 6:6-7 is key to our understanding. It reads, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” These verses make it clear that what Jesus came to do was to deliver us from the dominating power of sin and the devil. Jesus himself made this clear in John 8:34-36:

I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

So sin no longer has us under its dominion. We are now able not to sin because sin’s power has been broken. We are free to live righteously in Jesus Christ even though sin continues to be a threat to us. But why does John say that those born of God "cannot sin"?

When I say, “I cannot eat fish,” I do not mean that I am unable to put fish into my mouth, chew it up, and swallow it. I mean simply that I do not enjoy the taste of fish and so will choose not to eat it. (Or I may mean that though I can get it down my throat I am not able to keep it down there very long so I choose not to eat it!)

So verse six tells us that the Christian will not sin to the extent that he abides in Christ. Verse nine teaches us that we cannot have victory over sin apart from the new birth. It is the new birth that gives us the ability to reject sin. The new birth gives us a new appetite. For those who are born of God, we can no longer “stomach” sin.

This is not just a cute way of skirting around John’s direct statements in verses six and nine. The grammar that John uses, especially when generic subjects are in view (note John’s use of “no one” and “whoever” in this passage), can describe something that is true any time rather than a universal statement that is true all the time. Such statements are somewhat proverbial in character. They describe a general, timeless fact, such as “laptop computers run on batteries.” That is, of course, true, even though most of the time when I am using mine it is plugged into an outlet.

The point John is wishing to make at this point in his letter is twofold. First of all, given the fact that those who left the church and were trying to deceive those still in the church were apparently passive about the seriousness of sin, it fits with the situation of John’s letter for him to argue that how one reacts to sin is a good indication of whether or not one has been born of God (see 1 John 3:10). While we should all expect to see progress in our holiness by attaining victory over sin, this progress can also be identified with sincere hatred of sin, even if one continues to struggle with some besetting sin.

Second, John’s statements in verses six and nine, though they are grammatically descriptive, are logically imperatives and statements of obligation. They describe what is ideal Christian behavior and implicitly command us to pursue the ideal. John is saying, “Christians do not sin, so, if you really are a Christian, don’t sin!” He wants to urge his readers to reject the lies of the apostates who argued that sinful behavior was just not that big of a deal. John argues for exactly the opposite. Sin is a big deal. It is the reason for which Christ came to this earth. Those who are true lovers of Jesus will respond to its seriousness by waging war against it.

No comments: