Some Bible-believers are convinced that real Christians do not sin, while others confidently affirm that they do. It is interesting that those involved in a discussion of this question often use the same book of the Bible in an effort to support their conclusion – that would be the book of 1 John. Before considering a verse from the third chapter of 1 John, let us observe some teachings that we find in that same inspired letter before we come to chapter three. First of all, John wrote this epistle to people who had been saved: “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His names sake” (1 John 2:12). The conclusion: these folks were Christians.
Now, let us look at an earlier statement in 1 John 1:8, where it is written, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” If a child of God declares that he has no sin, he is a deceiver of self and does not have the truth in him. The Bible says so. When we sin, does God have a provision for our sins to be cleansed? Thankfully, yes, He does! “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). What is required on the part of a Christian who has sinned? “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). While God does not want us to sin (2:1), and we ourselves try to stay away from sin, the reality is, regardless of who we are or how strong our faith might be, there are times when we violate God’s will – that is sin (1 John 3:4).
Peter sinned when he acted like a hypocrite and influenced others to do the same (Galatians 2:11- 14). A brother in the church in Corinth was a fornicator (1 Corinthians 5:1-5,11). These two examples clearly show that, yes, it is possible for a Christian to sin.
If that is the case, then what in the world do the following words from 1 John 3:9 mean? “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (3:9). A number of years ago, in the midst of a private Bible study a man told me that he had not sinned for the previous six months, and he was persuaded that if a person sins, then he is not a genuine Christian. He quoted 1 John 3:9 to support his claim.
Before going further, let me mention a couple of principles of Bible study/interpretation. God’s word is truth (John 17:17), and no portion of truth can contradict another part of it. Thus, in the question at hand, whatever I might believe or teach about 1 John 3:9, it cannot contradict any other segment of the scriptures. A second thought is that we ought to take and use clear, easy-to-understand verses to help us comprehend and explain more difficult ones. Whatever the proper application of 1 John 3:9 is, it cannot override or eliminate the plain truth that is revealed in chapter one – God says that Christians deceive themselves if they claim that they have no sin (1:8), and He has a prayer-confession plan in place to remove the sins of His children after they occur (1:9).
John’s declaration is that one who has been born of God (a Christian) “does not sin” (3:9). Is that true? Of course, it is. The idea is that one does not practice continually unrestrained sin. Back in verse six, it is written that one who abides in Him does not sin. One who continually abides in Him, settles down into Him, does not continually sin, or as Paul indicated, he does not surrender himself as a slave to sin (Romans 6:12,13,16). He sins, yes, but sin does not dominate his life.
What is John’s explanation for why one who has been born of God does not sin? “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him. . .” One does not continually sin because God’s seed remains in him. What is God’s seed? “The seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). God’s word reveals His will for our conduct, so we seek to hide His instructions in our heart in order to avoid sinning against Him (Psalm 119:11). When the word of the Christ dwells in our hearts richly (Colossians 3:16), then we are prepared to think and act according to what God wants. As long as that seed fills our mind and guides our decisions, then we “cannot sin” – we cannot be a slave of sin as long as the seed/word of God continues to dwell in and lead us.
Yes, it is true that Christians sin. It does not thrill us, but we readily admit that such is the case.
We thank God for the avenue of forgiveness which He has provided and praise Him for His compassion.
— Roger D. Campbell