Is it Possible Not to Sin?

Question
Is it possible not to sin? (1 John 3:9, KJV)
Answer
1 John 3:6-9 (KJV) Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

1 John 5:16-18 (KJV) If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death. We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.

1 John 3:9 (cf. 5:18) is a debated passage. Some understand this passage in the absolute sense - that a Christian will never sin (sinless perfection). However, this cannot be the case as earlier John says Christians do sin: "My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father - Jesus Christ, the Righteous One" (1 John 2:1; cgf. 1:5-2:2). Others interpret the text saying that John is simply saying Christians will not continue in habitual sin (see the NIV, etc.). However, while Christians should not entertain any type of sin, including habitual sin, this interpretation does not effectively deal with the decisiveness of John's statements; "doeth not commit sin.... He cannot sin." So what is John saying?

In "Definitive Sanctification" (Calvin Theological Journal, 1967), John Murray views this verse in the fuller context of the rest of John's own letter. He sees a relationship between 1 John 3:6-9 and 1 John 5:16-18. He says:

We may now turn to the apostle John. The incisiveness and decisiveness of John's first epistle appear at no point more striking than where he, in terms peculiar to John himself, deals with the subject of our present interest. We think particularly of I John 3:6-9 in which the antithesis is most pronounced and might readily be interpreted as teaching sinless perfection. There are, however, several considerations which show that sinless perfection is not John's meaning.

1. If John's intent was to inculcate sinless perfection, then this passage would prove too much. In that event every regenerate person would be sinlessly perfect and only sinlessly perfect persons would be regenerate. The terms are that "every one who is begotten of God does not do sin . . . and he cannot sin because he is begotten of God" (I Jn. 3:9). On John's own teaching sinless perfection is not the indispensable accompaniment of regeneration. In I John 2:1, John makes allowance for the incidence of sin in those whom he addresses as "little children" and directs us to the provision for this eventuality: "If any one sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous." Again, it is difficult, to say the least, to interpret the words, "The blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin" (I Jn. 1:7), as not reflecting on the continuously cleansing efficacy of the blood of Christ. If there is provision for sin in the believer, then regeneration does not insure sinless perfection.

2. John says expressly: "If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (I Jn. 1:8). If John in this case were thinking of past sin only, we should wonder why he uses the present tense. For on the assumption of sinless perfection there would be no present sin, and the use of the present tense would be misleading and constitute for his readers something of a contradiction to what on the premises would be one of the leading theses of the epistle.

3. John insists that "it hath not yet been manifested what we shall be" (I Jn. 3:2). This is defined for us in the same verse as likeness to the Father, a conformity such as will be achieved when the children of God will see him as he is. Anything short of that conformity is not sinless perfection. But this is precisely the shortcoming John affirms - "It hath not yet been manifested." This confirmity is the hope entertained and, because it is that hoped for, the outcome for the believer is self-purification after the pattern of the Father's purity. "Every one who has this hope in him [i.e., the Father] purifieth himself even as he is pure" (I Jn. 3:3). Self-purification implies impurity that needs to be cleansed.

4. John implies that sin may be committed by a believing brother: "If any one see his brother sin a sin not unto death, he will ask, and he will give him life for those who sin not unto death" (I Jn. 5:16). This is incontestably a reference to sin committed by a believer.

Sinless perfection cannot, for these reasons, be the import of John 3:6-9; 5:18. What then does the decisive language of John mean? The usage of our Lord as reported by John in his Gospel provides us with an index to John's intent in the first epistle.

In answer to the disciple's question concerning the man born blind: "Who did sin, this man or his parents that he was born blind?" Jesus said: "Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (Jn. 9:2, 3). Jesus could not mean that the son and his parents were sinlessly perfect and had never sinned. The thought is simply that the blindness was not due to some specific sin for which the blindness had been inflicted as a punishment, the assumption underlying the disciples' question.

In the sequel to the foregoing incident Jesus said to certain of the Pharisees: "If ye were blind, ye should not have sin; but now ye say we see; your sin remaineth" (Jn. 9:41). Again, sinless perfection cannot be in view in Jesus' statement, "Ye should have no sin." Jesus is thinking of the particular sin characteristic of the Pharisees, that of self-complacency and self-infatuation. From that sin they would he free if they were humble enough to acknowledge their blindness.

Finally in John's Gospel, Jesus is reported to have said: "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin. But now they have no cloak for their sin" (Jn. 15:22). Obviously, Jesus is speaking of the great sin of rejecting him and his Father (cf. Jn. 3:19).

Thus, in each instance, though the terms are absolute, some specific sin is in view, and the same principle must apply to the language of John with which we are concerned. Furthermore, in this epistle John himself gives us examples of the differentiation in terms of which we are to interpret his teaching. Whatever may be the sin unto death as distinguished from the sin not unto death (I Jn. 5:16, 17), there is undoubtedly radical differentiation in respect of character and consequence. It is the latter a believer is contemplated as committing but not the former. Since, according to 3:6-9; 5:18, the regenerate do not commit sin, it is surely justifiable to conclude that the sin he does not commit is the sin unto death.

In I John 4:2, 3 the apostle propounds the test of Christian faith. It is the confession that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. John's antithetic incisiveness appears here again. "Every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God." The force of verse 3 is that every one that does not confess Jesus, in the identity defined in verse 2, does not confess Jesus at all. We must infer that the sin a regenerate person does not commit is the denial of Jesus as come in the flesh or indeed the failure to confess Jesus Christ as come in the flesh. Speaking positively, everyone begotten of God believes and confesses that Jesus as come in the flesh is the Christ (cf. I Jn. 5:1). This is the faith that overcomes the world, and this victory is the mark of every regenerate person (cf. I Jn. 5:4). The upshot of these propositions is simply that the believer confesses Jesus as come in the flesh, believes that this Jesus is the Christ and that he is the Son of God, and cannot apostatize from this faith. The believer is the one who has secured the victory over the world, is immune to the dominion of the evil one, and is no longer characterized by that which is of the world, "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (I Jn. 2:16). It is, therefore, in these terms that we are to interpret the sin that the person begotten of God does not commit and cannot commit.

John's language and patterns of thought differ from those of Paul, but the doctrine is to the same effect that for every believer in Jesus as the Christ and as the Son of God there is the decisive and irreversible breach with the world and with its defilement and power. And on the positive side, the characterization is no less significant of the radical differentiation from the realm of the wicked one. The person begotten of God does righteousness, loves and knows God, loves those who are begotten of God, and keeps the commandments of God (I Jn. 2:3-6, 29; 4:7, 20, 21; 5:2, 3).

When we read, 1 John 3 in context, we see it contrasts "one who is of the devil" (3:8) and "one who is born of God" (3:9). Though both sin, the Christian's sin (1 Kings 8:46; 2 Chron. 6:36; Rom. 7:14-25; Gal. 5:17; 1 John 1:8-9, et. al.), will not and cannot be the "sin unto death," (1 John 5:16-17; cf. 2:19) for "whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God" (1 John 3:9; 5:18; cf. Rom. 8:35-39). This helps us to understand the definitive nature of John's statements; "doeth not commit sin.... He cannot sin," in 1 John 3:9. As can be seen, this understanding is strengthened when we look again at 1 John 5:18. Why can one see his brother committing sin and still pray for him? Because it is sin that does not lead to death. Why? Because he is born again and cannot so utterly and fully fall into any sin which would disqualify him from eternal life (Rom. 8:35-39). Perseverance of the saints is a biblical doctrine. Eternal security is a reality. Elsewhere on this website Ra McLaughlin states:

Christians are predestined not just to initial salvation but to eternal salvation (Acts 13:47-48; Rom. 8:28-30; 9:18-24; Eph. 1:3-14; 1 Thess. 5:9-10).

Christ's death secured salvation for those for whom he died (Heb. 9:11-15).

Justification (being declared righteous and forgiven by God) cannot be lost or revoked (Rom. 5:8-10,15-19; 8:1-4,9-11,29-30; Heb. 9:11-12).

The saved/elect are given to Christ as a permanent possession (John 6:35-40; 10:25-29).

The saved/elect are kept secure in Christ by God (John 6:35-40; 10:25-29; Rom. 8:28-39; 1 Cor. 1:4-9; 2 Cor. 4:13-14; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; Phil. 1:6; 3:20-21; Col. 3:3-4; 1 Thess. 5:23-24; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; 1 John 2:19; 5:4; Jude 1,24-25).

Eternal life begins at conversion, and, by definition, may never end (John 3:14-16,36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:35-40,44-58; 10:25-29; 17:1-3; 20:31; Rom. 6:22-23; 1 Tim. 6:12; Heb. 9:15; 1 John 5:11-13,20).

God is sovereign in salvation, his will must be accomplished, and he wills the perseverance of the saints (Job 42:1-2; Isa. 14:24,27; 46:8-11; Matt. 18:12-14; John 6:35-40).

Moreover, because of one's salvation (God's seed remaineth .... because he is born of God), there will be evidence (1 John 5:13) of eternal life manifesting itself: (1) through the Holy Spirit (1 John 3:24; 4:13); (2) through a continuous confession of Christ (1John 4:2-3); (3) through loving one another (1John 4:7); (4) through living in loyalty (not perfectionism) to God's commands (1 John 5:1-5).

So, though a Christian is not sinless, he will sin less. But there remains a necessary space (sin_less) between "sin" and "less" until our glorification - and that is space for repentance (1 John 1:9).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).