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 true Christians are incapable of sinning?
RESPONSE: To begin, we should state the obvious: If it is impossible for Christians to sin, then we have never met an authentic Christian before! Any interpretation that makes the text nonsensical should be rejected.
The Bible teaches that none of us will reach a state of sinless perfection this side of eternity. In chapter one, 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). John uses the same verb tense (i.e. the present tense) to describe “having no sin” (hamartia ou echomen). Claiming sinless perfection would be a direct contradiction to what John already wrote. Moreover, in chapter two, John writes, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn. 2:1). Our author is clearly stating that Christians can and do sin. Surely, John cannot be directly contradicting himself in the very same letter.
Furthermore, other NT authors affirm that Christians continue to sin. James writes, “For we all stumble in many ways” (Jas. 3:2). 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). What then is John’s meaning?
The historical background is essential to interpreting this letter. It isn’t enough to understand what John is writing, so much as what he is writing against. As we have already argued (see “How does Gnosticism relate to Interpreting this Letter?”), John is writing against libertine proto-Gnostic false teachers. Earlier, John recorded their view. They were claiming, “We have no sin” and “We have not sinned” (1 Jn. 1:8, 10). We might imagine these false teachers saying, “It doesn’t matter what I do with my physical body, because I’m pure in my soul.” They must’ve been categorically rejecting sin as unimportant or perhaps non-existent—even to the point where they could claim, “We have no sin.” John disagrees! These false teachers were denying that sin was immoral, and John is flatly contradicting this “antinomian” concept.
The term “lawlessness” (anomia) carries real severity. Regarding this term, Kruse comments, “In some places in the LXX anomia has satanic associations, and in two places it is used to translate Belial (2 Sam 22:5; Ps 17:6 [ET 18:5]).” Thus, John could be referring to a certain type of sin—namely, sinning like the devil. This fits with the context: John later writes, “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” (1 Jn. 3:8). Matthew is the only gospel author to use the term “lawlessness” (anomia), and he uses it to describe false teachers (Mt. 7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:12). Kruse concludes, “All this suggests that when the author of 1 John says ‘sin is lawlessness,’ he does not mean sin is the violation of the Mosaic law, but rather that sin constitutes opposition to and rebellion against God, like the opposition and rebellion of Satan.”
John is writing to identify false teachers and discern true spirituality. This is the focus of this passage—to discern false teachers and not to test a Christian’s salvation. This is why John writes, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious.” This language describes recognizing false teachers by their fruits (Mt. 7:15-16). As a result, this is not referring to Christians who fall into sin or to testing a Christian’s salvation. Rather, it is referring to false teachers who are hostile to God. John writes, “Make sure no one deceives you” (1 Jn. 3:7). The false teachers were themselves deceived (1 Jn. 1:8), and they were trying to deceive these Christians (1 Jn. 2:26). For a thorough exegesis of this passage, see “Introduction to 1 John.”
 Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, ed. D. A. Carson, Second Edition, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; London: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2020), 127.
 Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, ed. D. A. Carson, Second Edition, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; London: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2020), 138.