‘No-one Born of God Sins’
Jul 3, 2010 1817
‘No-one Born of God Sins’
In his first epistle John seems to make conflicting statements about the believer’s relationship to sin. On the one hand he categorically states that those born of God cannot sin. In fact he says that whoever sins is of the devil (1 John 3:6, 8-9). On the other hand John candidly admits that believers do sin (1 John 1:7; 2:1). So which is it?
When we take the historical background of 1 John into account you will see that these apparently contradictory statements can be harmonised.
Most of the letters of the New Testament are written by the apostles in response to concerns, doctrinal error, or false teachings by certain groups of people. This being so, the writings of the New Testament are best interpreted when the spiritual condition of the original audience is understood. We know this is true of the first epistle of John since John himself declares, ‘I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray’ (1 John 2:26). This means that any attempt to understand what John says about sin in the believer must take into account an analysis of the false teaching John was countering. So what was the historical background of this letter and how is this relevant to what we are considering about sin?
It is generally agreed that John wrote this letter to the churches in the region of Ephesus about 100 AD. The churches there were then in their second or even third generation. The apostles’ teachings were threatened by false teachers who had infiltrated the believers. One of the major reasons John penned his letter was to expose and correct the heresy of these false teachers (1 John 2:26). John refers to their teachings as deceitful (2:26; 3:7) and to the teachers as false prophets, liars and Antichrists.1 Although these false teachers were once in the church they were never really part of the church and had now left to spread their dangerous teachings.2
Gnosticism was the basic false teaching that was infiltrating the churches John was writing to. The word ‘Gnostic’ comes from the Greek word gnosis, ‘to know’3 and these false teachers maintained that they had special ‘knowledge’ about God and as such belonged to the enlightened ones.4 G.E. Ladd, commenting on the heresy that John was facing in his first epistle says, ‘We know from patristic literature [early church fathers] that an early form of gnosticism was docetism. The gnostic docetics held to the typical Greek contrast between spirit and matter.’5
The word ‘Docetism’ comes from the Greek word dokeo which means ‘to seem’. These particular Gnostic-docetic teachers, who claimed to ‘know’ special spiritual truths, taught that Jesus only ‘seemed’ to have a body. It was maintained that since matter was evil it was absurd and inconceivable to believe that God, who is spirit, should take on a material evil body. The false teachers were teaching the believers to whom John wrote, that Jesus was more like a phantom—he did not have a real physical body. This teaching denied the Incarnation of Christ. As far as John was concerned this was the very teaching of Antichrist since it threatened the teaching of salvation.6 Jesus had to have a physical body in order to be a true substitute for man on the cross.7
G.E. Ladd says that these false teachers ‘claimed to have attained a state beyond ordinary Christian morality in which they had no more sin’ (1:8-10).8
John launches out in the very first chapter and declares that claiming to be in the light and in fellowship with God is okay provided one also walks in the light and not in darkness. He says, ‘If we say that we have fellowship with God [who is light] and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practise the truth’ (1 John 1:5-6).9 Darkness for John is not just a philosophical concept as the Gnostics taught; darkness is altogether ethical.10 They claimed to be in the light and yet practised darkness. ‘He who says he is in the light [as the Gnostics taught] and hates his brother, is in darkness until now … He who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness … He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him’ (1 John 2:9, 11; 3:14-15). In other words, if one holds to the Gnostic teaching and claims to be in the light and yet hates his brother—such a person does not have eternal life abiding in him; he is lost!
These are the verses that surround John’s dogmatic statements about people not sinning. They form the context from which we are to understand the passage under consideration. This means that what John says about sin in 1 John 3:6-9 is set in the specific context of the false teachers. Right in the middle of this passage we are given a strong interpretative clue, in 1 John 3:7 he says, ‘Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray.’ Compare this statement with 1 John 2:26 where he says similarly, ‘I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray’. This means that what John says in 1 John 2:6-9 should be understood specifically within the context of the heresy described within the book as a whole. John is dealing with a specific type of sinning connected to a very dangerous false teaching. This means then that he is not addressing general sin in believers. This he addresses in 1 John 2, which we will examine shortly.
As we compare what John says about sin in these two passages it becomes evident that he is distinguishing between two different types of sinning. In 1 John 2:9 of 1 John 3 he says those who are born of God ‘cannot sin’. Yet in 1 John 2:1 of 1 John 2 he says that believers can, and do, sin: ‘My little children … if anyone does sin he has One who speaks to the Father in our defence’. First he says that those born of God cannot sin and then says that those born of God can, and do, sin! These passages are easily reconciled when we realise that John is talking about sin in two different groups—sin in believers and sin in false teachers.
When speaking about the sin of the false teachers he can say that if they maintain that they cannot sin, that they have never sinned, that Jesus never came in the flesh, and yet at the same time are guilty of committing heinous sin by hating the brethren—then these folk have never been born of God—they are in fact of the devil. In other words, the sin John is decrying is connected to this particular false teaching. If these so-called believers and teachers were really born of God, they would not claim to be sinless whilst simultaneously hating their brothers without remorse or repentance!
Their false teaching had led them to a false understanding of sin. John says that people can sin whilst walking in the light, or they can sin whilst walking in the darkness of a false teaching and practice. The former have their sins continuously washed by the blood of Jesus; the latter need to confess and come to repentance and eternal life (1 John 1:7 cf. 1:8-9).
This means that 1 John 3:9 only applies to you if you fulfill all the criteria that John was addressing. In other words, you must deny that Jesus came in the flesh; you must also believe that the sin you commit in your body, such as hating your brother, does not count because what matters with God is your spirit. If this is you, then 1 John 3:9 applies to you and you need to obey what John says in 1:8-9.
However, if this is not you, then you are only faced with good news. Whilst you walk with Jesus, his blood continues to keep you clean from all sin (1 John 1:7). If, however, you do sin, you need never fret, because Jesus your advocate defends all repentant sinners. ‘My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin we have One who speaks to the Father in our defence—Jesus Christ the Righteous One.’ What joy of joys! When the one walking with Jesus sins he need not fear condemnation, because Jesus is not there to condemn him but to save him.
- 1 John 4:1; 2:22; 2:18, 22; 4:3
- 1 John 2:19; 4:1
- We use the word today in a similar but contrasting way. An agnostic is someone who claims that they ‘don’t know’ if God exists or not.
- G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) p. 609.
- Ibid, p. 609-10.
- 1 John 2:26 cf. 4:1-3.
- Against this background we gain a fuller appreciation of the opening verses of the epistle. John’s references to personally testifying to ‘hearing, seeing and hands having handled’ Jesus in 1 John 2:1-3 are a direct rebuttal against the false teachers who taught that Jesus did not have a real body.
- Ladd, Ibid p. 609.
- The false teachers who walk in darkness are in fact lost and that most of what is said in 1 John 1 is directed towards them and not believers—in fact John does not speak directly to believers till the beginning of 1 John 2!
- Ladd, Ibid p. 612