RPM, Volume 15, Number 16, April 14 to April 20, 2013

Christians Cannot Sin?

1 John 3:4-10
(Series on 1 John: No. 11)

By Robert Rayburn

We have now come to what has been, throughout the ages, the most controversial and the most confusing part of John's great letter. John says that because Christ is sinless and because he came to take away our sin, the person who is 'in Christ', that is, the genuine Christian will not continue to sin, indeed, cannot any longer sin.

It is not difficult for believers to understand what John has already said in verse 2 of chapter 3, that when we stand before the Lord and see him as he is, we shall be made like him. It is not hard for us to believe that we shall finally be made sinless in the world to come. But John is not speaking of the world to come in verses 6 and 9. He is speaking of this life and this world and of the Christian experience of every believer while he lives in this world.

How can he say that the believer does not and cannot sin and that anyone who continues to sin is, by that fact, shown to be no true Christian at all? How can he say that? We love Christ, we trust him for our salvation. But, there can be no doubt that we continue to sin: everyday and in every way we continue to sin; sin by what we do and still more by what we fail to do.

As you can imagine, there have been a variety of suggested solutions to this problem.

First there have been those--and they can be found in the church even today--who take John's words at face value, and claim that, as a matter of fact, real Christians do not sin. This view has various forms but, in one way or another, it is argued that Christians simply have no more sin and what they do, because they are Christians, cannot be and is not considered by God to be, sin.

But this is obviously not John's view. For this was precisely what the false teachers were claiming whose teaching John was condemning in this letter. As we already have seen--in chapter 1, verses 8-10--they were making a claim, to the effect, that Christians were without sin. And John does not mince his words. Anyone who claims to be without sin, or beyond sinning, he writes, is deceiving himself and a liar. John speaks in those verses very clearly to the continuing sinfulness of the Christian life and does so again in the 16th verse of chapter 5. Whatever John means by his language in 3:6 and 9, he clearly does not mean that Christians are, in fact, actually without sin in this life. Others have argued that John is speaking here not of any and every sin but only of notorious sins or offenses against God and man: blasphemy and murder and the like; or what Roman Catholics call 'mortal' sins. This was Augustine's interpretation and Luther's too. But, though there is, no doubt, some truth to this interpretation, it does not fully answer to the facts--David's horrible crimes come to mind--nor does it agree with what John actually says. In these same verses he defines sin as any violation of the law of God.

Still others have argued that John must rather mean that while Christians can sin, as it were, accidentally, they can no longer sin intentionally and deliberately. Christians may be overtaken in a fault, but they do not lay plans and go into evil with their eyes open. Again, does that really meet the demands of the case. Is that true. Was it true of David or of the man in Corinth who was excommunicated for incest? Is it true of you or of me?

I sin voluntarily, with my eyes wide open, and Christians have, throughout the ages, bemoaned the fact that they have, so far from being righteous, sought after sin to commit it. Besides, John says here, plainly, that the sin he is speaking of is any violation of the law of God. It matters not whether one falls into it or strides into it: sin is any violation of the law of God.

Others have held that John is speaking of the new nature when he says that the believer does not sin. His old nature may continue to sin, but his new nature from God cannot and does not sin. You remember Paul's famous remark in Romans 7:17 to the effect that when he, as a Christian, does what at bottom he does not want to do--when he lives in a way that violates his own deepest wishes--at least when he is thinking clearly--then, Paul says, 'it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.' My true self, Paul says, is sold out to Christ and to a life of holiness, but the remnants of my old nature are continually unmanning me and causing me to betray not only the Lord but my own truest and deepest desires for my life.

But, even there, Paul is not arguing that he can therefore, relieve himself of the responsibility for his sin. He is not arguing that because his continuing to sin is rooted in what remains of his original sinful nature that he, Paul, no longer sins. He says plainly: 'what I want to do, I do not do...the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.' And so here in 1 John 3. In verse 9 it is not 'God's seed' which does not sin, but the Christian himself or herself. It is not a nature that sins or does not sin, but a person.

There is obviously an important truth in this interpretation, but it does not really answer John's meaning; and, what is more, it comes very close to what the false teachers themselves were arguing. That while they might continue to do wrong things, those did not count against them, because that was their worldly, fleshly nature at work. Their true nature was spiritual and remained untouched by the deeds of the flesh. Sin, John says, is breaking God's law; and if you break it, you sin--not one of your natures, but YOU!

What are we then to think of John's statement that genuine Christians do not and cannot sin?

First of all, as he said, John has already spoken of the continuing sinfulness of a Christian's life and will again in chapter five. John knows very well that genuine believers continue to commit sins.

Further, the Greek present tense, which John uses in these verses, is different from the present tense in English in that it suggests not only that the action is in the present time, not the past or the future, but, also, that the action is continuous and habitual. The NIV translation brings this out. In verse six, John literally says that 'no one who lives in Christ sins', but the NIV is correct to translate John's present tense with 'keeps on sinning.' Again in v. 9, John says 'he cannot sin' but the NIV is correct to translate John's present tense with 'cannot go on sinning.' That continuous, habitual action is conveyed by the present tense in the Greek in John's original.

So, John is speaking, first of all, not of a sin here or there, one sin or another, but a life which is habitually, continuously sinful, a life which is dominated and characterized by sin.

But, still more important: John's language in these verses is typical of the way the Bible speaks of such things. We might well expect that Holy Scripture would say: Christians are partly holy and partly sinful; their lives have been profoundly changed and sanctified, but, still, much of the old sinfulness remains and is in constant conflict with the new principles of righteousness which God has placed within them. And sometimes the Bible does speak this way. The flesh was against the Spirit, Paul says, and the Spirit against the flesh.

But God knows us too well to think that we will get the point with such measured and tempered language. Scripture tends to speak in extremes and without qualifications, so that each part of the truth will be heard and receive its due. For example, in Romans 6 Paul in very stirring language teaches us that anyone who has been united with Christ in his death on the cross has been freed from sin; 'sin shall not be your master' he writes, 'for you are not under law but under grace.' 'We are no longer slaves to sin.'

But one chapter later, Paul agonizes over the fact that he is still so much at the nod and the beck of sin and goes so far as to confess that he is a prisoner, a bondslave, of sin.

People have been troubled by the fact that Paul could say that no Christian is a slave of sin in chapter 6 and admit that he was still a slave of sin in chapter 7; but that is the way he speaks and the way the Bible often speaks--in extremes, in absolutes. And truth is found and the true Christian life is achieved not when each of those absolutes or extremes is watered down and compromised with the other; but when each of the extremes, each of the absolutes is held in tension with the other. We are no longer slaves in one way and we remain slaves to sin in another. That is the way the Bible wants us to think--not that we were sort of delivered and sort of not.

And here John is speaking in the same way. His absolute language, his uncompromising assertions of the righteousness of a true Christian's life, as one commentator put it, 'the whole artillery of these startling statements' [Candlish], is meant to make us recognize and face up to the fact that in the most definite, profound, practical, and absolute way, the power and the grip and the authority of sin has been broken in any genuine Christian's life. (Had John spoken otherwise; had he said, 'well Christians still sin a great deal, every day in many ways, but they are righteous too in a certain way'; the point would not have hit home with us as it does and as it must.) John leaves us in no doubt that he knows we continue to sin--he speaks of that plainly elsewhere in this same letter--but he refuses to permit us to minimize the sea change that Christ and grace have made in every Christian life and how in actual fact Christians have stopped being 'sinners' and have become righteous.

Now if we ask John exactly how Christians are no longer sinners and in what way can it be actually said that they do not and actually cannot sin, no doubt John, following the Lord and the rest of Scripture, would say such things as these:

I. Christians cannot sin--that is cannot live a life whose characteristic is sin--because, being born of God and belonging to Christ, they can no longer sin without conviction.

The new birth alters irrevocably our view of sin and our capacity to accommodate it happily in our hearts. For this we should be profoundly grateful to the Lord. The chief reason why unbelievers do not forsake the sins which will eventually destroy them is because they do not see their sins as the evil we now know them to be and feel them to be.

Every time we leave our Father's house in order to taste the pleasures of the world, every time we set off to squander our inheritance, we soon come to ourselves, find ourselves not amidst the world's pleasures as we had stupidly and forgetfully thought we would be but groveling with the pigs, and as soon as all of that comes home to us again--as it must and will if we are born again--home we come to our Father's house, saying once again, 'Father, I have sinned' and having the Father say, for the umpteenth time: 'Bring forth the best robe and put it on him.'

We do continue to commit sins; but that sin is always followed by conviction, by the recognition of the evil of our sin, the danger of it, the ugliness of it, and by the repudiation of it and our hastening to the mercy seat to get rid of its corruption and stain. We who are Christians may very well lust and kill as David did, if only in our hearts, but, like David, that sin will always come home to our reborn hearts and pierce them to the quick and bring us again to this anguished cry:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.

II. Second, Christians cannot sin, that is, live a life characterized by sin, because being born of God and belonging to Christ, they cannot sin without misery.

It is not only that sin comes home, that we are made to recognize that we have, indeed, sinned against God, that what we have done is wrong and bad; still more, that conviction leads to a real sorrow, a misery, a disgust and revulsion which make sin as repellant to us as it was attractive shortly before. Christians, real Christians, cannot sin in peace. Sin ruins their days and nights; and turns their laughter into mourning. An unbeliever can be happy and sinning; but a Christian can only enjoy sin momentarily; it will always bring him or her to gloom and despondency and shame.

David tells us in the 32nd Psalm that during the time following his sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah her husband his life was ruined, he lost all the joy which usually had characterized his life.

'My bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.'
And when, in his great prayer of confession he cries to the Lord:
'Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.'
Is he not saying, once again, that his sin had made his life misery itself. And Paul speaks the same way: 'O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from being so much at the beck and the call of sin?'

I know a man, who was led to Christ by my father. This man later became a minister in our church and some years ago fell into some very serious sin for which he was deposed from the ministry. Talk about 'bones being broken.' This man's sorrow and shame was so great that after he came to himself and his sin was exposed, he literally could not make it through a night without vomiting. He drove most of the way across the United States just because in his shame he felt that he had to make a personal apology to the man who had brought him to Christ.

Unbelievers have no such experience of such exquisite sorrow and tears for sin, and the darkness which comes over a soul because of sin, and the shame and the feeling of corruption which so spoils life because of sin. Unbelievers may bitterly regret the consequences of sin, but Christians suffer torment because of sin itself--because, as John says, they belong to the Lord Jesus and have come to think about sin the same way he does, to know how revolting it is, how much of the Devil it is, how displeasing and dishonoring to the one they love above all others.

III. Third, and last, Christians cannot sin--that is, live a life characteristic of sin--because, being born of God and belonging to Christ, they cannot sin without God's protection.

That is, they cannot sin so as to place themselves outside of the family of God; they cannot commit that sin which renders them no longer Christians at all--the sin unto death, sin which amounts to an intentional rejection of Christ and his Lordship and salvation. John says this specifically in 5:16 and 18: 'If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin, the one who was born of God--that is, Jesus Christ--keeps him safe and the evil one cannot harm him.

We will speak more of this 'sin that leads to death' when we get to chapter 5. For now simply note that the Lord Jesus keeps the sinning of his own people within bounds; he does not permit them to sin themselves out of their salvation.

He does this by restraining the temptations of the evil one; he does it by correcting and disciplining us when we sin so that we are kept from still more serious sins; he does this by the ministry of his Word and Spirit in our hearts, deepening our love Him, for his law and for righteousness, increasing our distaste for and hatred of sin. In these and many other ways, he keeps our sinfulness under control and protects us from that habitual sinning which would finally harden our hearts against him and lead us at last to disown him. This he will not permit.

Yes, Christian do continue to sin--constantly and terribly--we must not deny what is so obviously and painfully true. But, it is also true that in all of that sinning our new life in Christ has made us also those who do not and cannot sin: our life is characterized in relation to sin in an absolutely and profoundly and irrevocably different way than the lives of unbelievers. We can no longer sin--as they always do--without conviction, without regret and sorrow and revulsion, and without the Lord's gracious protection, keeping even our sinning safely within the bounds of faith and eternal life.

The day is coming soon when we will no longer sin at all, in any way. And true Christians look forward to heaven and to the sight of their Savior for no reason so much as that they will then be forever done with sin--with the abominable thing which God hates and which they have come so much to hate as well.

But for the moment, we must not minimize, we must not take for granted the magnificent change which the Lord has wrought in us so that in a very real way, even now, we cannot sin. And we must take John's great lesson to heart, the main point he is here making:
sin without peace, sin always accompanied by deep regret and shame, sin always driving us back to Christ Jesus for forgiveness, sin which makes us long for the eternal country, sin which continues but which cannot pull us away from our Savior much as it would do so, sin continuing but always kept within bounds, this our sin, amazingly, this sin in our lives--is the identifying mark of those who have eternal life.

Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.