Reading through the Bible together
John isn’t finished with his erring “sinless” saints yet. But in verse 2 we find a verse that many church members misread. “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.” Some read into this text a false view of sinless end-time perfectionism. And, of course, such people utilize verse 4, which presents sin as “the transgression of the law” (KJV).
But the Greek word for law (nomos) is not found once in 1 John. The Greek word is lawlessness. Thus “sin is lawlessness.” It means living as if there were no law. And that, John tells us in verses 6 and 9, is an impossibility for Christians. “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God.”
Here we find what on the surface appears to be a problem. After all, 1 John 1:8, 10 plainly state that those who claim to be sinless are liars. Yet 1 John 3:9 claims that it is impossible for a Christian to sin. But John is not confused. In chapters 1 and 2 he is speaking of acts of sin (as highlighted by the Greek aorist in 2:1), while in chapter 3 he uses the present tense to tell us that it is impossible for a born again Christian to live in a state of ongoing lawlessness or rebellion against God.
Of course, if individuals commit an act of sin they can confess it (1 Jn. 1:9) and be forgiven. That is a sin not unto death (5:17 KJV). Whereas living in an ongoing state of lawlessness, living as if there were no law or divine authority behind it, is “a sin unto death” (5:16, KJV) because it does not lead to confession and forgiveness (cf. Matt. 12:30).
How does God want us to live so that “we shall be like him” “when he appears” (3:2)? The answer is found in the context. Those who “abide in him” (2:28) “have passed out of death into life,” and “they love the brethren” (3:14). The central commandment for John is always the command to “love one another” (3:23). And that makes sense since “God is love.”
George R. Knight