(1 Jn. 3:6-9) Can Christians gain sinless perfection?

CLAIM: John writes, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him… 8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 Jn. 3:6, 8-9). Does this mean that Christians cannot sin?

RESPONSE: The Bible teaches that none of us will reach a state of sinless perfection this side of eternity. John writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8). Later John even explains, “And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn. 2:1). Therefore, John cannot be directly contradicting himself in the same letter. James writes, “For we all stumble in many ways” (Jas. 3:2), referring to Christian believers. Paul speaks of the flesh and Spirit battling one another in the life of the Christian (Gal. 5:17), and he himself experienced this personal struggle with sin (Rom. 7:17). Moreover, if Christians are people who cannot sin, then we have never met a Christian before!—which would contradict common sense.

Instead, John is writing against libertine Gnostic false teachers, who were teaching that sin isn’t important (see “Introduction to 1 John”). By contrast, John argues that love is central to the Christians life, and anyone who denies this is not really a believer (1 Jn. 2:4, 10-11, 19; 4:20). This is why John describes their sin as demonic in nature (3:8). John is writing to identify false teachers and discern true spirituality. This is why verse 10 states: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious.” This refers to knowing and recognizing one versus the other. Jesus himself warned, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:15-16). As a result, this is not referring to Christians who fall into sin; it is referring to false teachers who are hostile to God.

Another way of understanding this passage is put forward by Zane Hodges. He sees this passage as referring to our position in Christ, rather than our condition (see exegesis below). That is to say, we cannot sin in our inner man or if we abide in Christ (position), even though we can sin in our outer man (condition).

Exegesis of 1 John 3:6-9

(3:6) “No one who abides in Him sins.” Some interpreters argue that John’s use of the present tense might mean that we could take this verse to read, “Does not continue to sin.”[1] This would soften the absolute language. The biggest problem with this is the fact that John earlier wrote, “In [Jesus] there is no sin” (v.5). Hodges notes, “If there can be ‘no sin’ in Christ at all, one cannot take even a little bit of sin into an experience which is specifically said to be in Him.”[2]

This first portion of the verse is not controversial. John is merely saying that when we abide in Christ, we are not sinning. The key to breaking free from sin is not self-effort or moralism, but rather to abide in our identity in Christ.

“No one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” John uses the perfect tense in Greek, when he writes “seen” or “known.” What does he mean by this? Hodges suggests this translation: “Whoever sins is in a not-seeing and not-knowing condition with reference to God.”[3] Hodges compares the use of this Greek tense to be something similar to saying, “I have not finished my homework.” This doesn’t mean that we have never finished homework in the past, but that we haven’t finished our homework for today.[4] From this, he argues that this passage doesn’t mean that these people have never “seen” or “known” God, but that they are not currently seeing him or knowing him.

(3:7) “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.”

The focus here is definitely a contingent of false teachers—not Christians with guilty consciences. These false teachers were claiming that they could “abide” in Christ, but still continue to sin freely: “He one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 Jn. 2:6). Here, John is refuting false teaching. He tells the church, “Let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 Jn. 2:24).

“Little children, make sure no one deceives you.” The false teachers were themselves deceived (1:8), and they were trying to deceive these Christians (2:26). The nature of their false teaching was a rejection of God’s moral nature and thus his moral imperatives.

“The one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” Some commentators argue that this passage could be understood to be rendered as “makes a habit of practicing righteousness,” because of the present tense in Greek. Again however, this stretches the meaning of the present tense.[5] Note that John compares our righteousness to Jesus’ righteousness in the same verse.

Instead, just as in 2:29, John is making the point that righteous living comes from righteous being. That is, we can identify a person as a believer if they practice righteousness. It’s impossible to practice righteousness if we are not abiding in Christ.

(3:8) “The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”

It’s interesting that John links the problem of these false teachers back to Satan, and the origin of sin in Genesis 3. Jesus compares false teachers with Satan as well (Jn. 8:44).

Note the antithetical parallelism between believers (v.7) and non-believers (v.8).

(3:9) “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”

Again, some commentators understand the expression “practices sin” to be rendered as “continues in sin.” For instance, the NIV renders this as “continue to sin” and “go on sinning.” However, this wouldn’t solve the difficulty whatsoever. Do not Christians sin at the very least daily—if not hourly—if not minute by minute? Wouldn’t this mean that we all do continue in sin?

If John meant to refer to continual sin, then he could’ve used the Greek term diapantos (Lk. 24:53; Heb. 13:15). That is, he had a term at his disposal, but he chose not to communicate this.

Furthermore, John uses the same Greek tense (the perfect tense) in 1 John 1:8. Under this reading, it would mean, “If we say that we do not continually have sin, we deceive ourselves.” Thus this view would contradict what John wrote earlier.

Hodges understands this to refer to our position in Christ, rather than our condition. He writes, “As a total person, we do sin and can never claim to be free of it, but our ‘inward self’ that is regenerated does not sin… If sin occurs, it is not the inward man who performs it.”[6] This could very well be similar to the idea that we do not sin in our position. As Paul writes, “I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom. 7:20). Later he writes, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body” (Rom. 7:22-23). If it’s true that “Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), then it must also be true that Christ is living a totally sinless life in me. While believers constantly continue to sin, our regenerated sinless nature does not.

[1] Johnson, T. F. (2011). 1, 2, and 3 John (p. 71). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] Hodges, Z. C. (1999). The Epistle of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love (p. 134). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[3] Emphasis mine. Hodges, Z. C. (1999). The Epistle of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love (p. 136). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[4] Hodges, Z. C. (1999). The Epistle of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love (p. 136). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[5] Hodges, Z. C. (1999). The Epistle of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love (p. 138). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

[6] Hodges, Z. C. (1999). The Epistle of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love (p. 141). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.