Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“"He That Committeth Sin"”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

(1 John 3.4-10)

This passage is characteristic of John’s writing.  He often makes an assertion, and then repeats it several times, with slight tweaks or additions, and especially shifts of perspective.  It’s as if he’s trying to make sure this point won't be misinterpreted, by covering it from every angle.  In this case, he’s even covered the upshot—sin is bad and you shouldn’t do it—several times earlier in this same letter.  This time, his particular focus is on equipping his audience to see through the lies of those who claim to be their brothers, but are really “of the devil.”  Yet there’s sometimes controversy over what John says here, for a different reason.

Occasionally someone misconstrues this passage to say that God’s children never, ever sin.  This is, of course, rather silly—we see examples in the New Testament of even apostles sinning and repenting (e.g. Ga 2.11ff), and no one with any sense would say that they therefore were not “children of God.”  Rather, as the ESV rendered it, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (v9).  So, the next step is attack that whole translation.

The faultfinder usually then upholds another translation, often the King James Version, as containing the true meaning of John’s words.

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 3.8-9, KJV)

It’s not that one of these got it wrong and the other got it right.  Both got it right!  The problem is that most modern English speakers don’t really understand 400-year-old English as well as they think they do, and mentally translate phrases like “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” into something like “whoever is a child of God never sins.”  But that’s not what it said!

It may seem like a tiny difference, but it’s certainly one that matters!  The details in Greek have to do with definite articles, participles, and verb tense vs. verb aspect, but most people aren’t going to get much out of that discussion.  In the English translations, the KJV’s rendering of these phrases means precisely the same thing as the ESV’s—that “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (v9), and so on.  John’s point is obviously not that it’s good for a Christian to sin once in a while—he wrote, earlier in the same letter, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1Jn 2.1a).  But it’s also important to recognize that he’s not saying a Christian who commits a single transgression is actually a child of the devil, and you can justly condemn him to hell for eternity.  Instead he writes, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (v1b).

We’re not the judges, anyway!  But, as in all things, we must exercise limited judgment, which just means recognizing the judgments God has already issued.  The point here is that, if someone claims to be a child of God, and yet unrepentantly engages in behavior God has prohibited, then you don’t need to treat that person as a brother.  Instead, you should be wary of him and any teaching he promotes.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

(1 John 4.1)

The “quarrel about words,” as Paul wrote, “does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2Ti 2.14).  It’s always a mistake to make snap judgments about what God’s word must mean, then treat one’s own interpretation as infallible (cf. 2Pe 1.20-21).  In the first place, it’s the equivalent of attacking windmills like the insane novel character Don Quixote, since the animating concern is that modern translators are trying to go soft on sin, even though the translation of the rest of the letter makes it clear this is not the case.  In the second place, this silly dispute serves mostly to distract from the point John was making—that we must be on guard against wolves in sheep’s clothing (Mt 7.15), and you can be sure that someone who professes to be a Christian, yet continually refuses to obey God’s plain instructions, is actually a child of the devil.  Stay away from him!

“You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.”

(Matthew 7.16-17)

If we cut down, dissected, and examined each tree meticulously and with the proper knowledge, we’d be able to tell definitively whether or not it was diseased.  But then we’d have destroyed all the trees, and what good would that be?  Instead, look at the fruit—and start with yourself.  What sort of fruit do you bear?

Jeremy Nettles