Teaching series from 1 John

Is John Saying Christians Don't Sin?

1 John 3:5-9

Teaching t10386


Some time after I received Christ, I was distressed over why I was still struggling with a nagging sin.  When I asked an older Christian about this, he told me that this meant that I was not a true Christian.  When I asked him where the Bible said this, he showed me 1 John 3:6 (read).  This devastated me!  Thank God he sent another Christian to set me straight on this—and to help me understand what John means in this passage.  Let’s read the whole passage...

This is what is known as a problem passage.  It is problematic because it seems to contradict other biblical passages or (in this case) our own experience.  (The last time I checked, I sin 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 am I a Christian—or is the Bible wrong on this?  Some people respond to problem passages by simply ignoring them—but then they pile up and gradually undermine your faith.  There is another explanation—that I have wrongly understood the passage.  Let’s ask some common sense questions to understand what the passage is really saying...

What does John mean in this passage?

The first thing we should ask is: What does the rest of the Bible teach about this issue?  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 passages teach about the same subject.  And the answer is both clear and repeated—true Christians can and do sin!

John himself (in this same letter) affirms this:

Read 2:1,2.  Jesus’ atoning death forgives Christians if they sin.  If John believed that true Christians never sin, he wouldn’t have bothered to say this!

Read 1:8,10.  Anyone who claims not to have sin is self-deceived and a liar—in fact, they are not saved(?).  This is the exact opposite of what 3:6 seems to say!

This should be enough to tip us off that John means something else.  Consider a couple other clear New Testament statements on this issue:

Read excerpts from Rom.7:14-24.  This is Paul agonizing over the presence of ongoing, indwelling sin in his present Christian life.

Read Jas. 3:2.  Even if James had said “You all stumble in many ways,” he is addressing true Christians!  But he says “We all stumble in many ways”—including himself.

So if John doesn’t mean that true Christians don’t/can’t sin, what does he mean?  One way to discover this is to look more closely at the actual language of the passage (e.g., semantic range and tenses of original Greek).  When we take a close look, it is clear that John is talking about something other than Christians simply committing sins.

He uses present tenses for “sin” in 3:6,9b.  In the Greek, present tenses describe ongoing action.  John is saying not that Christians cannot commit sins—but that they cannot live in sin as a settled character or lifestyle.1  More on this in a moment...

By adding the verb “practice” in 3:4,8,9a, John is making an even stronger statement.  In fact, he is describing people who practice sin like the devil practices sin—that is, they intentionally make it a settled habit.2  He is saying, “No one who practices sin as a lifestyle (like the devil does) is born of God.”

So John is describing certain people who claim to know God—but who live in sin as a settled lifestyle and intentionally practice in the same way Satan practices sin.  And they are trying to deceive John’s readers (read 3:7 - “Let no one deceive you”).  Who might these people be?  This is where the historical background of the letter is illuminating.  You may remember that one of John’s purposes for writing this letter was to expose and refute certain false teachers who claimed to know God, but who were in fact counterfeits. 

What did these false teachers teach about sin?  We know both from John’s own writings (1-3 John; Rev. 2:6,14,15,20 “Nicolaitans”) and from early Christian leaders who knew this situation (Irenaeus) that these false teachers practiced and sexual immorality—and taught that “spiritually enlightened people” were above such ethical restrictions.3

So John’s main point in this passage is not that true Christians can’t commit sins.  It is that self-proclaimed “Christian” teachers who practice and advocate sin are actually counterfeits who have been sent by the devil whom they follow.  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.  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.  Passages like this one expose Moses David for what he is.  But John is saying something more than just this—something that does apply to true Christiansand is meant to encourage us...

How we can know that we belong to God

John’s main purpose for writing this letter was to assure his audience that they did in fact belong to God (read 5:11-13).  The false teachers had undercut that assurance, and John wanted to restore it.  And of course, we also need to have this same assurance—you can’t make any progress in growing spiritually unless you have this.

The key to knowing that you belong to God is to “have his Son Jesus Christ”—that is, to have him in you.  And the way to have Jesus in you is to believe/entrust yourself to him as your Savior.  When you receive him in this way, God promises that you now have eternal life.  He can make this promise because he has completely and permanently forgiven you through Jesus’ death.  This is what we call God’s objective assurance—it’s objective in the sense real even when you can’t feel it (e.g., GRAVITY).  If you have received Christ, you need to trust his promise that he is in you even when you can feel him.  And because Jesus comes to live within you when you receive him, he will make his presence known to you in ways that you experience.  We call this subjective assurance.

Healthy spiritual development occurs when we are rooted in objective assurance and also enjoy subjective assurance.  But what does this subjective assurance look like?  In this letter, John describes five ways in which you will experience Jesus’ presence if you have received him—five ways by which you can know that you belong to God.  I want to briefly explain each of them to you, and share how I experienced each of them as a young Christian (not that it ends there).  See if you can relate to what I share.  Then I want some of you to share your own experience in these areas.  Let’s start with the one in this passage...

Re-read 3:9.  Because God’s “seed” (Spirit) lives in you when you receive Christ, you still sin—but you can’t practice it and enjoy it the way you used to.  I call this a sensitized conscience.  God’s Spirit is righteous, so he imparts a new desire for righteousness and a new sensitivity to sin.  I experienced this initially with lying and drug abuse (EXPLAIN). 

By the way, this means that when you are distressed over nagging sin habits (like these two, PRIDE, etc.), this is (ironically) a sign that you do belong to God, not a sign that you don’t belong to him!  It shows that God’s Spirit has sensitized your conscience so that you long to be free from your sin and more like him.

Read 2:20,27.  The “anointing” refers again to God’s Spirit.  John isn’t saying that God’s Spirit imparts all spiritual knowledge to us so that we don’t need to be taught.  He is saying that God’s Spirit enables us to recognize God’s Word (the Bible) as the truth.  I call this the Bible coming alive.  This doesn’t mean that you suddenly understand everything in the Bible.  Far from it, you may have more questions than ever because you are really reading it for the first time in your life.  It means that God speaks to you through the Bible—whether through your own reading, or someone else sharing it with you one-on-one or in a teaching—so that you feel it illuminating your understanding of God, of yourself, etc. 

I experienced this initially when Dennis shared a verse I didn’t even know was from the Bible (Prov. 28:1).  People sometimes come up to me after a teaching and ask who told them I was coming! 

Read 3:14; 1:3.  When God’s Spirit is in you, you sense God’s Spirit in others who know Jesus and you feel God’s love for them.  I call this affinity for others who know Jesus.  This doesn’t mean that you have spiritual radar that detects people’s auras.  It means that there is another level of sharing and communication that you can have with those who know the Lord.  Neither does it mean that you automatically like all other Christians.  It means that the Jesus who is in you recognizes and moves toward the Jesus in other true Christians.

Sometimes an existing relationship with someone who already knew Christ deepens because you now know Christ (EXAMPLE).  Sometimes you feel the desire to get closer to people with whom you have no other affinity, because you now have this spiritual affinity (EXAMPLES).

Read 4:15.  To confess Jesus as the Son of God means not only that you personally agree from the heart that he is your Savior—it also means that God’s Spirit urges you to tell others that you believe this.  I call this a desire to share Jesus with others.  Before I met Jesus, people could say all kinds of negative things about him and it didn’t bother me.  But after I met him, it did bother me and I felt the need (even though I didn’t always do this) to defend him.  And I also felt a desire welling up within me to tell my friends and family members that I believed in/knew him now—both people that I knew were Christians and people that I knew were not Christians.  I didn’t necessarily live consistently with what I now believed—but I felt compelled to “come out” about this.

Read 3:24.  This is a very general statement—but I think John is saying the same thing Paul says in Rom.8:16; 5:5 (read).  When you receive Jesus, his Spirit comes into your heart and in a deeply personal way lets you know that you now have now become God’s beloved child.  I call this personal experience of God’s love.  For some people, this is quite dramatic (e.g., weeping with joy and relief because of forgiveness).  For me, I sensed in a quiet and undramatic yet deep-down way that I had done the right thing, that I had “come home” in some real way.  I also sensed that God was no longer a distant deity that I could only address in formal terms—but that I could now talk to him personally and tell him what was really on my heart.

REMEMBER: You won’t necessarily experience all of these at once when you receive Christ.  Neither will you experience these all the time—many factors (e.g., our own sin, “dark nights” of the soul) sometimes obscure this—which is why trusting Jesus’ objective promise must always remain foundational.  You will not experience these in the same exact ways/to the same degree that others do or that you do—we should embrace diversity on this.  But it is wonderful to be able to experience Jesus’ presence in our lives, and (over time) this track-record is super-fortifying in your walk with him. 

What if you can’t relate to this at all?  Maybe you have never personally received Christ.  Why not pray to receive him with me when we close?

DISCUSSION: Who wants to share a way in which you experienced this assurance since you met Christ?

1 J. R. W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentary: The Letters of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), p.130.

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

3 J. R. W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentary: The Letters of John, pp.50-52.  Irenaeus linked Cerinthus with the Nicolaitans.