Teaching series from 1 John

Christians & Sin

1 John 3:4-10

Teaching t12643


Not long after I received Christ, I was distressed that I was still struggling with a nagging sin. When I asked an older Christian about this, he told me this meant that I was probably not a true Christian. When I asked him where the Bible said this, he showed me 1 John 3:6 (read). This devastated me!

This is what is known as a problem passage. Problem passages are problematic because they contradict either other biblical passages or our own experience. I didn’t know whether 3:6 contradicted other biblical passages, but definitely contradicted my own experience. (I still have nagging sin habits that plague me every single day! In fact, it seems that the more I grow in Christ, the more I realize how much more sinful I am than I thought!) So my dilemma was: “Either I am not a Christian, or the Bible is wrong on this subject.” What was I to do? What should you do?

One option is to simply ignore the problem passage (“I won’t read 3:6 anymore”). That may seem spiritual, but it is not. Unresolved biblical contradictions pile up over time and gradually undermine your faith in God’s Word.

Another option is to deny our experience of the problem (“I am not continuing to sin”). That may seem spiritual, but it leads to self-righteous insanity.

The third (and correct) option is to assume that we are misinterpreting the problem passage, and seek the correct interpretation. Let’s do this with 3:6 by asking some common sense questions to understand what John means in this passage...

Resolution through proper interpretation

The first thing we should ask is: What does the rest of the Bible teach about this subject? Because God is the ultimate Author of the Bible, and God doesn’t contradict Himself, we can often better understand one passage by seeing what other biblical passages teach about the same subject. The answer on this subject is both clear and repeated – true Christians can and do sin!

Consider a couple other clear New Testament statements on this issue:

Read Jas. 3:2. Even if James had said “You all stumble in many ways,” he would be saying that true Christians continue to sin! But he says “We all stumble in many ways”—including himself, a seasoned Christian leader.

Read excerpts from Rom.7:14-24. Paul is agonizing over the presence of ongoing coveting in his present life as a seasoned Christian leader.

So two of the authors of the New Testament and leaders of the early Christian movement affirm that they continued to sin. We’re in good company here!

John (in this same letter) also affirms that true Christians (including himself) continue to sin. Read 1:8,10. Anyone who claims not to have sin is self-deceived and a liar.

These passages should be enough to make it clear that true Christians can and do sin. This means we are misunderstanding what John means in 3:6. What then does he mean?

One way to discover this is to look more closely at the context and language of the passage (read 3:4-10). When we take a close look, it is clear that John is talking about something other than Christians simply committing sins.

Notice that three times John uses the phrase “practices sin” (3:4, 8, 9a). If I lose my temper with my wife, this is bad. But if I “practice sinful anger” toward my wife, this is morally perverse. John is describing people who intentionally embrace some kind of sinful behavior as a lifestyle.

Notice also that he uses a synonym for “practices sin” – namely, “practices lawlessness” (3:4). “Lawlessness” is a stronger term than “sin;” it means a rejection of biblical ethics. If I lose my temper at my wife and yet acknowledge that that is wrong, that’s one thing. But if I insist that doing this is righteous, that is lawlessness. So John is describing people who not only intentionally embrace some kind of sinful lifestyle, but also insist that it is not wrong.

Notice finally that John likens these people to the devil (3:8) and calls them “children of the devil” (3:10). Ever since Satan rebelled against God, he has embraced lawlessness (rebellion against God) and justified it as ”enlightened” (cf.Gen.3:4,5). John is describing people who are imitating Satan in this way.

So John is describing certain people who claim to know God – but who intentionally practice lawlessness like Satan does. Who were these people? This is where the historical background of the letter is illuminating. They are trying to deceive John’s readers (read 3:7). You may remember that one of John’s purposes for writing this letter was to expose and refute certain teachers who claimed to know Christ, but who denied that He is Messiah/God (2:18-26; 4:1-6). What did these false teachers teach about sin? We know both from John’s own writings and from early Christian leaders who knew this situation that these false teachers practiced and sexual immorality—and taught that “spiritually enlightened people” were above biblical sexual ethics.

In Rev.2:6,14,15, Jesus identifies these false teachers in Ephesus and vicinity as the “Nicolaitans,” and condemns them for teaching His people “to commit acts of (sexual) immorality.”

Early Christian leaders’ writings speak of a false teacher in Ephesus named Cerinthus. He not only openly practiced sexual immorality; he also taught that “spiritually enlightened” people were exempt from such biblical sexual ethics.

So John’s main point in this passage is not that true Christians do not commit sins. It is that self-proclaimed “Christian” teachers who practice and advocate sin are actually counterfeits who are serving the devil (whether they realize it or not). A few weeks ago, I mentioned a false teacher named Moses David who led the cult “The Children of God” in the 1970’s and 1980’s (SLIDE). He practiced sexual immorality with many of the young women in his cult, and he instructed his followers to use sexual immorality to seduce (sic) others into his group. This passage exposes Moses David for what he is. It also exposes people like Creflo Dollar, who openly practices materialistic greed (SLIDE), and preaches this as part of Christian spirituality. We could go on, but let’s consider two additional lessons John teaches about Christians and sin

No Christian is sin-free, but every Christian is completely forgiven

Read 2:1, 2. John urges his Christian audience not to sin, but he reminds them that if they do sin (and he has already said that all Christians sin), they have an “Advocate” with God – Jesus Christ the righteous, who is the “propitiation” of our sins. Here we learn that no Christian is sin-free, but every Christian is completely forgiven.

“Advocate” here means a defense attorney. “Propitiation” means “satisfaction of righteous wrath.” When Christians sin, this makes us guilty before God and liable to His condemnation. But Jesus is our defense attorney who insists that our sin cannot be held against us. Why? Not because God is too nice to judge, but because Jesus’ death has already fully borne God’s judgment for our sins. “Double jeopardy” – being punished for the same crime twice – is illegal with God just as it is illegal in human courts. This is wonderful news – no matter what I do as a Christian, I can never be condemned by God! God’s own justice requires this! I am permanently exempt from His condemnation because Jesus already took it for me. No other religion teaches anything even remotely like this.

This same gift is available to you. Jesus is the propitiation not only for “our sins” (Christians’ sins), but also for “those of the whole world” (those who do not yet belong to Christ). Jesus’ death for human sin was so potent that it paid in principle for every sin that has ever been committed and will ever be committed. The only thing that keeps His death from applying to all of your sins is your refusal to ask Him for this. This is why theologians say that Jesus’ death was sufficient to pay for all our sins, but it becomes efficient for us only when we choose to receive it.

Suppose you are in debt to the IRS for $10 million; you can’t even pay the interest. Then suppose a wealthy benefactor hands you a check that covers the entire debt. You check with the bank – his account has sufficient funds to cover this check. But what is necessary for it to be efficient – to actually retire your IRS debt? You must endorse this check and sign it over to the IRS.

So what is your response? Will you acknowledge that you have a sin-debt with God that you can never pay off? Will you ask Jesus to pay for your sin-debt through His death? Or will you refuse to ask – and pay it off by spending eternity separated from God? This choice is yours – no one can make it for you. Choose today!

Christians cannot be comfortable in sin because the Holy Spirit is in them

Re-read 3:9. John is not saying that true Christians are unable to sin. He is saying that true Christians cannot be comfortable in sin because the Holy Spirit is in them. “His seed” refers to the Holy Spirit, who permanently indwells (“abides in”) each person the moment he receives Christ (Eph.1:13,14). One of the purposes of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling is to make us more Christ-like in character (which is what “holy” means). The Holy Spirit is not only holy in Himself; He makes us holy.

One of the ways the Holy Spirit does this is by imparting an internal discomfort with sin. He sensitizes our consciences so that they begin to operate properly – as our soul’s warning system against sin like our body’s physical pain warning system against physical injury. We can and do still sin – but we can’t be comfortable with sin the way we used to be. This is one of the ways we know we’re born of God.

Before I received Christ, I lied chronically. When you live with your parents and do lots of drugs, you learn to lie a lot. I had long before seared my conscience, to the point that I could lie and not feel anything except the exhilaration of having the power to deceive. Within a week after receiving Christ, my parents asked me where I was going as I left the house. I lied, as I almost always did. But by the time I got into my car, I was in agony! There was almost a physical pain inside me, and I knew it was connected to the lie that I just told. What was this? It was God’s “seed” in me, crying out through my re-wired conscience that I had done wrong. I could still lie – I just could be comfortable in lying. I soon found out that I could also still get high – but I could no longer be comfortable in getting high. There was a new internal reaction that prevented me from enjoying those things that were destructive to my soul – even though I didn’t yet even know what the Bible taught about them. This was the work of the Holy Spirit, which showed me I was saved.

Can you relate to what I am saying? Rejoice that you experience this discomfort – this is proof that you belong to God! And listen to the Holy Spirit when He makes you uncomfortable about sin! Listen to His warnings before you sin, and follow Him away from it. Listen to His corrections after you sin, and thank Him for His forgiveness, and resume following His guidance. There is more to walking by the Spirit than this – but this is a key aspect, and it is crucially important if you want to grow spiritually! Christians who chronically disregard the Holy Spirit’s work in this area are more miserable than non-Christians because they don’t experiencing the joy of growing in Christ, yet they cannot be comfortable in their sin. I know because I’ve been there! Have you? Are you? Do you want to escape this miserable state? Start listening the Holy Spirit! And share what He is showing in this area with a Christian friend.


NEXT WEEK: 1 John 3:11-24 – “Perks of a Loving Lifestyle”


J. R. W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentary: The Letters of John, p.130.

“According to Irenaeus the error of Cerinthus had been ‘disseminated among men … a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans,’ and these Nicolaitans are mentioned in Revelation 2:6,14–15 as having been guilty of (sexual) immorality. Both Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria said that they were unrestrained in their dissolute ways. This is further confirmed by two passages in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, which... criticizes Cerinthus for the thoroughly sensual millennium he seems to have been anticipating.” J. R. W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentary: The Letters of John, pp.50-52.