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John said that if we truly have this hope of becoming children of God, we will purify ourselves—not to be justified, but because we are justified. Purification, or sanctification, involves learning obedience, which is the next step after justification. John says that those who continue to practice sin as a way of life are lawless, because “sin is lawlessness.”
Then 1 John 3:5 says,
5 And you know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.
Jesus did not die to give us the right to sin. He did not put away the law. The law still defines sin, because it defines the character of God and His will. His purpose was not to leave us in our sin, but “to take away sins.” His purpose was to bring us back into the image of Christ, and therefore, “in Him there is no sin,” no lawlessness. Jesus did not break the law, even though His opponents, the antichrists, tried to find fault with Him and ultimately accused Him of the sin of blasphemy.
Those who put away the law, or who claim that Christ put away the law when He died on the cross, do not understand the purpose of the cross. He honored the law by paying its penalty. If He had put away the law, He would not have had to die at all. In fact, if He had put away the law, He would have de-criminalized all sin, for “where there is no law, neither is there violation” (Romans 4:15). A murderer could not be tried as a criminal, because he could say, “there is no law against murder.”
1 John 3:6 continues,
6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
One cannot be lawless and still abide in Christ, for such would be a contradiction. Even those who prophesied in the name of Jesus and performed miracles in His name are included in this. If they are lawless, Jesus says, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23). They may claim to abide in Christ and to know Him, but in the end, the divine verdict will go against all who are lawless.
Does this mean that only sinless people can say that they abide in Christ? No, not at all. John foresees this question and answers it in the next passage.
Who is Sinless?
1 John 3:7, 8 begins, saying,
7 Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil.
John’s statements are easier to understand if we know his definition of sin, given in verse 4. Every time John speaks of “sin,” we may substitute its definition, “lawlessness,” or even “transgression of the law.” Hence, “the one who practices lawlessness is of the devil,” or “the one who transgresses the law is of the devil.” These are strong words, of course, but they are John’s words, not mine, and they were written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
As usual, John takes us back to “the beginning,” because his letter digs deep to uncover the origin of all things. Thus, he goes back to Adam, the first sinner, and also to his first sons, Cain and Abel (vs. 12), who serve as examples of John’s teaching.
1 John 3:9 then says,
9 No one who is born [gennao] of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
This verse has been misunderstood by many over the centuries. The misunderstanding comes primarily because translators have rendered gennao as ”born,” rather than as “begotten.” The NASB (above) perpetuates this error, even though the verse is about “His seed” abiding in the one who is begotten of God. Seed speaks of Fatherhood. John was talking about a spiritual embryo, which does not sin, “because His seed abides in him.”
Benjamin Wilson’s The Emphatic Diaglott renders the verse correctly, saying,
9 No one who has been begotten by God practices sin; because his seed abides in him; and he [that embryo which has been begotten] cannot sin, because he has been begotten by God.
Likewise, Young’s Literal Translation, using more archaic English, reads,
9 every one who hath been begotten of God, sin he doth not, because his seed in him doth remain, and he is not able to sin, because of God he hath been begotten.
It is clear, then, that John was not speaking of grown men and women as such. He was not telling us that if we sin, we are of the devil. Nor was John telling us that true believers are those who are sinless, as some teach. No, John was telling us that true believers are those who have been begotten of God, and that holy seed within them is sinless, because God is its Father.
If we ourselves sin, it is our flesh that is sinning—not the entity which has been begotten by God.
Paul Affirms John’s Teaching
Paul teaches us the same thing. In Romans 7 he speaks of the old man and the new man, both of which are inner “men.” The old man sins; the new man does not. The old man was begotten by the seed of the first sinner, Adam, and it is therefore soulish (psukikos). The new man was begotten by God through Christ, the last Adam, and it is therefore spiritual (pneumatikos).
Paul identified his true “self” with the new man, rather than the old. But the old man was still present, as long as his physical body was alive. Hence, Paul was aware of a “war” going on between these two “men” within him, saying, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my (spiritual) mind” (Romans 7:22, 23).
The old man, begotten from Adam, desired to sin, while the new man, begotten by God, served the law of God. Paul’s solution was to change his identity from being a son of Adam to a son of God. Thus, he could say in Romans 7:17, “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin (the man of sin) which dwells in me.”
Paul says that if he sinned, it was not the new man sinning, but the old. That which is begotten of God cannot sin. Only that which is begotten of Adam can sin—and, indeed, cannot help but sin, because it is subject to the law of the flesh which commands it to sin. We see, then, that Paul is in agreement with John.
That which is begotten of God, Paul says elsewhere, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Just as Jesus Christ was begotten of God, so also is your new man begotten of God and can therefore be called John Christ, Paul Christ, or Susan Christ. The term “Christ” means anointed, and John assures us that we have the same quality of anointing that Jesus did (1 John 2:20).
This does not mean that we share the same rank with Jesus. He will always be the Head of the body, and because He was the first-born, He will always have the pre-eminence (Colossians 1:18 KJV). No one will ever replace Him as the Head.
A Personal Example
When I was a child, I was given the impression that true believers were sinless. This terrified me, because I was well aware of my imperfection. Thus, I struggled for years, not having assurance of salvation, for how could I be saved if I yet sinned? I did not yet understand 1 John 3:9 as I do today.
My first major revelation came when I was 13, when God spoke to me and told me that I did not have to be perfect to be saved. Though I had not yet seen this truth in Scripture, this revelation changed my life, and I was baptized later that same day.
Years later, when I was in high school, I had opportunity to observe a girl in my class who was the daughter of a Nazarene pastor. She had a younger brother as well. Her father taught the denominational idea that true believers were sinless. I watched his children struggle with this, and I could see discouragement rising in her and rebellion in her younger brother. Both had been put under an impossible teaching, yet they tried hard to maintain the appearance of sinlessness, so that they would be known to their church as true believers. Yet I could feel their doubt, because I myself had experienced it earlier.
It took many years to search the Scriptures and to learn the truth from John and Paul. But when I learned the meaning of gennao, and saw from Romans 7 that there was an ongoing struggle between two “men” within, each having a different father, then I found peace and rest. I then understood 1 John 3:9, which is paraphrased this way in the Jones Opinionated Version:
9 No embryo that is begotten by God sins, because God’s seed abides in him, and that embryo cannot sin, because he is begotten by God.
Our identity is determined by our own confession. If we claim to be children of Adam, the divine court will recognize our claim and treat us accordingly. But let us pray (petition the court) to change our identity from the old man to the new. It is a legal matter, much like a name change, where we declare that insofar as our relationship with God is concerned, we are His children, no longer depending upon our biological identity (Adam or Israel or any other) to give us right standing before God.