Is a Real Christian Incapable of Sin?

Some cite the apostle John (1Jn 3:9) to argue that if someone does sin again then it proves they are not a real Christian. This teaching is known as ‘sinless perfectionism.’ But is it what Jesus – or even John – really taught?

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In his first epistle the apostle John, one of the three who formed Jesus’ innermost circle, makes the following dramatic statement about Jesus:

You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin. Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him, neither knows him. Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he can’t sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother. (1Jn 3:5-10)

Read in isolation, this quotation appears to be suggesting that a Christian, once ‘born of God,’ is incapable of committing any further sins; so that, if they do sin, it shows that they are not yet truly born again and still ‘children of the devil.’

This is scary stuff. It is reported that the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, purposely delayed his baptism until he was on his deathbed for fear that otherwise he might sin again before he died. And similar fears may well have lain behind the perceived importance in some circles of performing ‘last rites’ before a Christian’s death.

Most professing Christians confess to becoming more, rather than less, aware of their faults after committing their lives to Jesus. But there are also those who report coming to a point of deep surrender to Jesus; at which point their past sinful lifestyles no longer have any appeal or hold over them. Even so, most of these would not go so far as to claim that they had become incapable of sin. But some, taking these words at face value and wanting to simply accept them as God’s Word, interpret them to mean that a person is not truly a child of God (i.e. a ‘born again’ Christian) until they have reached a place where they are no longer capable of sin.

This viewpoint, known as ‘sinless perfection,’ is mostly condemned as heresy by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike. But then, why does John say what he does? Did he believe in sinless perfection? Did he simply fail to make his meaning clear? If we start to arbitrarily reject or dilute those bits of the bible that we find too demanding, we are treading on dangerous ground.

John’s Message

Are we missing something important when we read these words in isolation? If we examine John’s first letter in more detail we will see that his message is actually much more carefully balanced than some suppose…

This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. (1Jn 1:5-7)

First of all, note that John is writing to fellow-Christians, urging us to ‘walk in the light.’ If we do, he assures us that Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all sin. But he then says this:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1Jn 1:8)

John emphasises that if we say that we don’t have any sin, we are deceiving ourselves (literally, ‘going astray’). The tenses here are important. ‘Say’ uses a Greek tense called the ‘aorist’ in the ‘subjunctive’ (conditional) mood; which avoids specifying whether an action is past, present or future (it could potentially be any or all of these). On the other hand, ‘have’ and ‘deceive’ are in the present tense. So this verse is telling us that to say that we have no sin is an act of self-deception; whether it is something we have said in the past, or say now, or may claim in the future. But John’s next sentence reassures us that, in spite of this, we can live with a clear conscience before God.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jn 1:9)

Here, ‘confess’ is in the present tense: but ‘forgive’ and ‘cleanse’ are both aorist subjunctives. So, at whatever moment that we confess our sins to God, we receive forgiveness and cleansing that covers the guilt of those past sins; and does so both now and for the future. But this still doesn’t mean that we can ever claim that we have never sinned:

If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1Jn 1:10)

In this final sentence of the chapter, ‘say’ is again an aorist subjunctive and ‘make’ and ‘is’ are present tenses. John has already warned us that, if we ever say, ‘we have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves. But in this repeated warning there is one important difference. ‘Sinned’ is in the perfect tense, indicating an action that has been completed and is now in the past. This leaves open one important possibility. We have all sinned in the past; if we ever deny that we have a sin problem in our lives, then we are deceiving ourselves. But – is it possible for us to never sin again? Here, the focus of John’s argument is shifting towards the future. He then goes on to say…

My little children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin. If anyone sins, we have a Counsellor with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous. And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world. This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commandments. One who says, “I know him,” and doesn’t keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth isn’t in him. But whoever keeps his word, God’s love has most certainly been perfected in him. This is how we know that we are in him: he who says he remains in him ought himself also to walk just like he walked. (1Jn 2:1-6)

The phrase ‘that you may not sin,’ clearly shows that John wants his fellow-Christians to avoid sinning: whilst ‘if anyone sins’ equally clearly acknowledges that they might. Both these phrases use aorist subjunctives: whereas ‘we have a Counsellor,’ and ‘he is the atoning sacrifice’ are in the present tense. John is expressing the idea that, regardless of when we may be tempted, we should not sin: but if we do, Jesus is our immediate remedy. But notice that he says, ‘If:’ not ‘When.’ John does not want us to look upon sins as being inevitable. Rather, he is urging us to focus on our relationship with Jesus, so that righteousness and love become the inevitable consequence and sins a rare and unwanted exception.

That Problem Verse

It is in the context of this foregoing teaching that John finally makes the statement cited earlier.

You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin. Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him, neither knows him. Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he can’t sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother. (1Jn 3:5-10)

The particular difficulty here is verse 9 (shown in bold), because it appears to be insisting that sin is impossible to anyone who is a genuine, ‘born again’ Christian. Yet this is certainly not the experience of the majority of Christians today. Nor does it seem consistent with what we have just observed John saying in the earlier parts of his letter; where he is at pains to point out that Jesus offers a remedy if we sin.

Many modern translations render this verse using expressions such as “doesn’t habitually commit sin” and “can’t go on sinning.” Other expositors explain the verse by saying that the new, spiritual nature formed in us through the new birth is incapable of sin: but sin can still arise from our old, carnal nature, which we retain until death. These explanations seem to make better sense: but we are still left asking, “why didn’t John make his meaning clearer?”

The Importance of Perspective

John’s letters, probably aided by the same Greek-speaking disciples that helped him record his Gospel (see Jn 21:24), are normally very particular in their application of the rules of Greek grammar, often expressing profound truths in very few words. (Jn 1:1 is a classic example.) So, when looking at such a doctrinally important statement as 1Jn 3:9, we need to ask whether it is more probable that we are not fully understanding John’s meaning, rather than that John was contradicting himself.

Recent research has led to an increased recognition that there are crucial differences in the way New Testament Greek verbs are formed when compared with English and many other languages. In English, verbs are organised by tenses, which are primarily time-dependent. Although Greek verbs do have what we call tenses, they do not exactly correspond to our system of tenses and do not always define precisely when an action occurs. But Greek has additional verb-forms, not found in English, that express what scholars nowadays call ‘aspect.’ This improved understanding of the significance of aspect in New Testament Greek offers a potential resolution of the problem with this verse.

Aspect is nowadays understood to define the viewpoint from which an action, event or process is being described. Is it from an ‘external’ perspective, seeking to describe the event or process as a whole: or is it from an ‘internal’ perspective, where the observer is seeing only part of a larger process? The external aspect is called the ‘perfective,’ and the internal the ‘imperfective.’ (These aspects should not be confused with the ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect’ tenses – even though, from a temporal standpoint, they are often closely related.) But there is an additional verb-form, referred to by some as the ‘combinative’ and others as the ‘stative,’ which is increasingly thought to represent a third aspect, with a meaning that is a combination of the perfective and imperfective. In the stative aspect, ‘the verbal action is understood to have a measure of completeness (regardless of time) that yields a state of affairs that is still unfolding, with emphasis placed on the latter.’1

Bearing this in mind, let us look more closely at verse 9:

Anyone born of God (does) not produce (a) sin, because his seed remains in him; and (he/it is) not empowered to sin, because he is born of God. (1Jn 3:9)

In the above, I have initially adopted a more literal translation, substituting “produce (a) sin” for “commit sin” because the Greek verb is ‘ποιέω’ (meaning to ‘make’, ‘produce’ or ‘do’ as a single act), rather than ‘πράσσω’ (denoting habitual or repeated action); and ‘sin’ is in the singular. (Greek has no indefinite article; so its inclusion or exclusion in English depends on the context.) I have also expanded the expression, “he can’t sin;” firstly, because it actually contains two verbs (“empowered” and “to sin”) and, secondly, because the text doesn’t actually contain the personal pronoun, ‘he’; so that “empowered” may refer to the person or the seed.

This gives us six verbs (underlined): “born,” “produce,” “remains,” “empowered,” “to sin” and “is born.”2 Now, “produce,” “remains,” “empowered” and “sin” are all in the present tense, with an imperfective aspect. But when “born” is used – despite the fact that the first occurrence is a participle and the last a 3rd person singular – both are expressed in the perfect tense, but with a stative aspect. So what does this mean?

The stative aspect tells us that we need to keep the big picture in mind, even though we are currently focussing our attention on a specific aspect of that picture. The perfect tense meanwhile tells us that this particular aspect is something that has already happened; but with ongoing effect. So John is flagging up the point that being born of God is something that has already happened; and yet he wants us to keep in mind that certain aspects of that event are still unfolding.

Now when we consider that the meaning of the Greek verb translated as “born” doesn’t just describe the moment of birth, but the entire process of procreation (producing one who is the offspring of the parent), the implications of this choice of tenses and aspects begins to make sense. A baby does not immediately look and act like its parents. Indeed, when young, a child is likely to throw tantrums and do many things to upset them! But as the child matures, the parent will expect to see a developing sense of responsibility, with traits emerging that reflect the character of the parents. (If this doesn’t start to happen within a reasonable time frame there could be talk of getting a DNA test!)

On the other hand, the use of the imperfective aspect with “produce,” “remains,” “empowered” and “sin” cautions us that this verse is only considering part of the picture rather than the whole process; whilst the present tense tells us that we are dealing with something that is happening now. This suggests that John’s focus here is on how and why sin may or may not occur in a specific instance, rather than on the bigger picture of how sin propagates and its ultimate result. For that reason, it is probably more appropriate to think in terms of producing ‘a sin’ rather than producing ‘Sin.’

There is one other interesting feature of these verbs. Both occurrences of ‘is born’ are in what is called the ‘Passive voice’. That means that something (the birth process) is being done to the person. “Produce,” “remains” and “sin” are all in the ‘Active voice;’ meaning that they describe something that the subject (the person or the ‘seed’) is doing. But “able” is in the ‘Middle voice.’ This is used to indicate an intermediate situation where the subject is in some way also involved in bringing about the action. In this case, it suggests that it is not entirely correct to assert that the inability to sin is imposed upon the person by the mere presence of the ‘seed:’ but rather that the person also has some part to play. In effect, he is not simply unable to sin; but prefers not to do so.

Re-viewing the Situation

It is very difficult to express the implied meaning of all these aspects of the Greek in an English translation of 1Jn 3:9 without using different words or adding explanatory phrases. But a fuller rendering, with explanations to reflect ‘[aspect]’, ‘{voice}’ and ‘(implied words)’, might read something like this:

Anyone born [to become a full-grown child] of God (does) not produce (a) sin [in a given circumstance], because his (that is, God’s) seed remains in him; and he/it (is) not [in that circumstance] empowered {or personally motivated} to sin, because he is born [to be a child] of God.

Two main questions remain:

  1. What is the seed?
  2. What Does “produce (a) sin” Mean?

What is the Seed?

The Greek word for ‘seed’ is ‘sperma’ and literally means either ‘sperm’ (of animals) or ‘seed’ (of plants). It is that thing by which the characteristics of the parent are imparted to the new life that it initiates. (By implication, it can also mean ‘descendants,’ although not applicable here.) In this case, the predominant idea is that of the ‘seed of God,’ imparting the nature of God himself to the born-again child of God.

In the parable of the sower (Lk 8:5-15), Jesus identifies the seed as ‘the word of God;’ and explains how the growth of that seed is dependent upon the quality of the soil (the different kinds of people) into which it falls. Is the word of God corruptible or can it sin? Definitely not! And in the opening chapter of his gospel, John goes a step farther, identifying Jesus as ‘the word of God,’ and says that those who receive Him become sons of God (Jn 1:1,12 & 14). Then Jesus, at the last supper, explains that the Holy Spirit will come to dwell in them (Jn 14:17), with the specific task of receiving Jesus’ words and revealing them to us (Jn 16:12-14). Can Jesus or the Holy Spirit sin, or are they corruptible? Again, definitely not! So the ‘seed of God,’ however we interpret it, is incorruptible.

What Does “produce (a) sin” Mean?

How is sin produced? Let’s start by looking at how James explains this.

Let no man say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God can’t be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears (a) sin; and the sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death. (Jas 1:13-15)

So, according to James, the process begins with natural desires (‘his own lust’) which entice a person to deviate from God’s will. If it is permitted to ‘conceive’ then the lust produces a sin. (The word ‘conceive’ implies that lust ‘seizes’ and ‘joins with’ the person; i.e. the person yields to temptation.) Thus, it is the lust that initiates the process leading to sin; even though the person is also responsible for giving their consent.

It is important to recognize that Christians continue to experience these natural desires even after conversion (see for example, 1Cor 7:2-5). Nor are these lusts limited to bodily desires:

Don’t love3 the world, neither the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love isn’t in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, isn’t the Father’s, but is the world’s. The world is passing away with its lusts, but he who does God’s will remains forever. (1Jn 2:15-17)

All Christians are subject to temptation, just as Jesus was. We do not initiate this process: it is always there as long as we are living in the world. So sin is ‘produced’ by natural desires: but between the desire and the sin there is an essential step in which we must either yield to the sinful desire or to the will of God. The vital difference for the Christian lies in the presence of the indwelling seed of God, which is constantly motivating us to focus our heart and mind on God’s will and ways. We will undertake a more detailed consideration of how this works in another article.

So what is this verse telling us?

  1. If a person has been born of God, then a process has begun that must lead us towards an ultimately sinless lifestyle, because the seed of God that has been planted within us cannot allow any other outcome. So, over time, we should expect the desire for holiness to increase and the severity and frequency of sinful actions to diminish.
  2. When viewing our own, or others’, present struggles with temptation we need to remember that these are part of a process in which, as the ‘seed’ of God (His word, presence and nature) remains and develops within us, temptation loses its power. So if we do fall into sin we need to realise that God is not finished with us yet. Confess, turn back to Him and ultimate victory is assured.
  3. That our will matters. It is the ‘seed’ of God within us – not our will power – that keeps us from sin: but we can encourage or hinder its activity.
  4. If we are not conscious of God’s own nature growing within us, actively driving us away from sin and closer to God, then it’s time for a spiritual DNA test!

Back to summary / Read on…

Useful articles

‘When the Spirit says No’ by Ray C. Stedman. https://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/1-john/when-the-spirit-says-no

‘1 John 3:9 – A Point Often Overlooked’ by Johnny Stringer, in ‘Guardian of Truth’ XXXII: 6, p. 174; March 17, 1988. http://www.truthmagazine.com/archives/volume32/GOT032084.html

‘The Meaning of 1 John 3:9’ by Myron J. Houghton, Ph.D., Th.D. in ‘Faith Pulpit’ (Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, Ankeny, Iowa), November—December 2005. https://www.faith.edu/2005/11/the-meaning-of-1-john-39/

‘No One Born of God Makes a Practice of Sinning’ by John Piper in ‘Desiring God’; March 9, 2008. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/no-one-born-of-god-makes-a-practice-of-sinning

‘The Tenses Explained – Basic Meanings of each Greek Tense’ by Dr. John Bechtle, in ‘Word Study Workshop – Indianapolis – March 16’, The Ezra Project. (N.B. this article does not discuss recent research on verb aspects; for which see footnote 1 below.) https://www.ezraproject.com/greek-tenses-explained/

Footnotes

  1. Citation:
    Gregory R. Lanier, (Assistant Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando). Cited from his article, ‘Sharpening Your Greek: A Primer for Bible Teachers and Pastors on Recent Developments, with Reference to Two New Intermediate Grammars’ in ‘Reformed Faith & Practice’ vol. 1, Iss.3. https://journal.rts.edu/article/sharpening-your-greek-a-primer-for-bible-teachers-and-pastors-on-recent-developments-with-reference-to-two-new-intermediate-grammars-part-i/. This article contains a very useful summary of recent developments in the understanding of Koine (New Testament] Greek, with far more detail, explanation and references than I could possibly offer here, and I commend it to your attention.
  2. Details of these verbs are as follows:
      “born” – Nominative Singular Masculine, Perfect Passive Participle, Stative aspect.
      “produce” – 3rd person Singular, Present Active Indicative, Imperfective aspect.
      “remains” – 3rd person Singular, Present Active Indicative, Imperfective aspect.
      “empowered” – 3rd person Singular, Present Middle Indicative, Imperfective aspect.
      “to sin” – Present Active Infinitive, Imperfective aspect.
      “is born'” – 3rd person Singular, Perfect Passive Indicative, Stative aspect.
  3. Meaning of ‘love.’
    Don’t get worried simply because you are a nature-lover. The Greek language has many words for ‘love:’ but the one in this verse is ‘agape’ – the highest, most self-sacrificing form. Of course we are meant to deeply appreciate and treasure God’s wonderful creation! But we should never let that, or any other love, take the place of our love for the Creator himself.