Does 1 John 3:9 Actually Say a Christian Can’t Sin?

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The Question

There is no shortage of passages exhorting Christians not to sin.1 So it is no surprise that John also acknowledges in his first letter that Christians can sin.2 It might be surprising, then to discover that John says that “All those who are born of God sin they do not do.”3 John adds that they do not, “because His seed abides in him.”4

Some suggest that this means that those who are born of God don’t practice sin habitually. They might sin sometimes, but they don’t practice sin. While some translations use the word practice, the Greek word poiei doesn’t mean habitual practice, it just means to do or to make something come about. So interpreting this as talking about habitual practice of sin isn’t an exegetical conclusion, but a theological one (to avoid affirming that John says that a Christian can’t sin at all). John doubles down when he adds that, “and he cannot sin because he has been born of God.”5 The one who is born of God has the seed of God in him and because of that the one born of God cannot sin, John says.

In light of the many passages challenging believers not to sin, surely John must mean something other than what the passage literally says—that believers in Jesus cannot actually sin, right? To answer this question, we need a bit of context. That Biblical data will actually make this a fairly easy question to answer.

Context: Who/What Are We?

Before we can understand what we can and can’t do in practice, we need to understand something about our identity—about who (and what) we are. The essence of who we are is that we are made in the image of God,6 and so we must understand something of Him if we are to understand who we are. Jesus Himself explains that God is spirit.7 God has a mind, has emotion, has will, and many other characteristics, but He is spirit. Jesus is God incarnate—God in the flesh, and has revealed the Father to us.8 So the One in whose image we were created is spirit, according to the Son who has revealed Him.

In the same we, we discover that we are spirit. Paul helps us understand this when he explains that we were dead, but yet were walking around in sin.9 Our bodies were not dead—they were walking around and doing things. Certainly, our bodies are dying in the sense that they would one day return to the dust, but our bodies were living—Paul explains that we were living in the lusts of our flesh, etc. So what was dead? We were dead. Our bodies, flesh, and minds were functioning, but according to our dead nature. So what are we? In the same way that our Father is spirit, we are spirit. We have bodies, minds, flesh, souls, hearts, wills, and other characteristics, but the spirit is what we are. Paul speaks of our being in the body,10 for example, as a tent and a temporary house for us.11 It is evident that we are not our bodies, but we are in our bodies. While there is reasonable debate and discussion to be had regarding the distance and potential overlap of the soul and spirit (some take a dichotomist approach, while others perceive a trichotomist construction), it is evident that Jesus can recognize and be so precise as to pierce the division between the two.12

All that is simply to say that while we might not be able to parse that spiritual distinction ourselves, we can at least recognize there is a clear division between the body and spirit. Our spirits were dead in sin even as our bodies lived. In light of that, it is vital to recognize that God has made us alive when we believed in Jesus Christ.13 We are new creatures—the moment we believed in Christ we were regenerated, born again, or newly created beings.14 Our spirits were dead, now they are alive. One day our bodies will also be raised again and glorified.15 We are spirits. We have bodies, minds, and more.

Back to the Question

Having dealt with that important aspect of our identity—that we are spiritual beings who have physical and other aspects, Paul’s discussion of the relationship of these aspects and where sin fits in helps us answer the question of whether or not a Christian can actually sin.

Paul makes the stunning statement that “no longer am I the one doing it [the thing he hates … sin]”16—he was doing this before, but not anymore. What is doing it now? “…the living-in-me sin.”17 Notice that sin is (present tense) living in him, rather than being something that he was now doing. He then explains that nothing good dwells in his flesh.18 After some explanation, he states again plainly that “I am no longer the one doing it but sin which dwells in me.”19 He observes a nomos—law or axiom—that evil is present in him.20 He recognizes further axioms in his members and in his mind,21 and a war that is raging, as the members of his body are trying to captivate his mind. Even in his present regenerated state, his body is still of death.22 With his mind, he serves the law of God, but with his flesh, the law of sin.23 Paul understands that he—his spirit— isn’t doing the sinning, it is sin and evil in him, and more specifically in his body, through the members of his body as they pursue the desires of the flesh.

With that further explanation of how we sin, John’s statement doesn’t seem all that odd. The one born of God can’t sin—just as Paul was explaining that he wasn’t doing the sin, it was evil in him that was present in the members of the body as they pursued the desires of the flesh.

Both men are explaining that our identity is not impacted by sin any longer—Christ resolved that once and for all. Because we have been justified (declared righteous) we have peace with God and are no longer enemies24 or children of wrath, as we were before. Now we are children of God.25 Now, because of this new identity we are not to let sin reign in our bodies—we should not let it master us, because our identity is no longer living in sin.26

John is—as was Paul—encouraging believers to walk in newness of life, and to not allow the members of our bodies to take over27—because they have nothing to do with who we are anymore, even though they are still present and impact our practice. If a believer can’t sin because their spirit is new and righteous, then why would we again submit ourselves to members of bodies that are still stained by sin? This is the nonsense that both Paul and John challenge believers to avoid. Stop living like dead people. The walk of death has nothing to do with our new life. Yes there is a conflict and struggle between our spirits and flesh. Yes, of course we are accountable for and responsible for how we respond to that. Just because Paul says he is not the one doing the sin doesn’t mean he is saying we aren’t accountable. He still explains that we have accountability and responsibility for that sin (though of course that has nothing to do with our position in Christ, which is eternally secure).28

This metaphysical reality presented by both John and Paul—that sin in the lives of believers is rooted in our flesh, not in our regenerated spirits—is no license for continued sin in our lives. On the contrary, this awesome truth should motivate us to want to walk in the newness of life not in the oldness of death. As Paul puts it, we need to walk in a manner worthy of our calling.29 John expresses his desire for believers to have a rich fellowship and a complete joy in walking in the light as we were designed to do.30 Our walk doesn’t determine our identity, but it should be an authentic expression of our identity, by the grace of God.

Notes

1 For example, Romans 6:12, Ephesians 4:26, 1 Timothy 5:22, James 4:17.

2 1 John 5:16.

3 A literal translation of 1 John 3:9a.

4 1 John 3:9b.

5 1 John 3:9c.

6 Genesis 1:26-28.

7 John 4:24.

8 John 1:18.

9 Ephesians 2:1-3.

10 2 Corinthians 5:6.

11 2 Corinthians 5:1-4.

12 Hebrews 4:12.

13 Ephesians 2:5-6, 8-9.

14 2 Corinthians 5:17.

15 1 Corinthians 15:50-54.

16 Romans 7:17.

17 Literal translation of Romans 7:17b.

18 Romans 7:18.

19 Romans 7:20.

20 Romans 7:21.

21 Romans 7:23.

22 Romans 7:24.

23 Romans 7:25.

24 Romans 5:1.

25 1 John 3:1-2.

26 Romans 6:11-14.

27 1 John 2:16, for example.

28 Romans 6:2, 12:1-2.

29 Ephesians 4:1.

30 1 John 1:3-7.

Discussion

This touches on multiple interesting questions, and I appreciate the stimulus to study here.

I’ve recently been reading Nancy Pearcy’s Love Thy Body. Though she has a lot of good things to say there, one problem with the book is its overly positive view of the body. It’s almost like, in her view, sin is everywhere but the body.

(I think she wouldn’t put it that way, but one gets that impression.)

On the other hand, here, Dr. Cone seems to locate sin in the body only… or am I reading this wrong?

Some of the passages involved are difficult—Romans 7 for example. But I’m persuaded that the entire human person is afflicted with sin and that this does not change when regeneration occurs. Sin is located in the body and also in the spirit of the human being both before and after new birth.

We’re called to the renewing of our “minds” in Rom 12. The apostle isn’t talking about our physical brains needing renewing. And the “put off…” and “put on…” passages in Eph. and Col. are full of attitudes and appetites of the spirit as well as struggles more apparently physical.

I’m not convinced that the regenerated spirit is a distinct thing that wasn’t there before. I see it as more of a new capacity, a new relationship (to God) of the human spirit that was already there—and which continues to have sin problems, decreasing as sanctification progresses.

So what does Paul mean by σάρξ (sarx, “flesh”) and in some places, σῶμα (soma, “body”)?

I don’t have time right now to do a thorough study, but John Piper has an interesting short piece on the topic here and concludes,

Flesh is any human action or achievement without dependence upon the Holy Spirit and without glorying, exalting in, trusting, treasuring, and valuing Jesus Christ.

Perhaps so.

This much seems clear: Because there are positive references to both sarx and soma in Paul, his intent when he’s being negative about them has to be drawn from context. So I lean toward the negative versions being figures of speech—well chosen, because we see sin most clearly in the appetites of the body, not because sin is actually located there more than anywhere else in the human being.

So what about John?

Where I think my view is similar to Chris’ is that I do think John means to make a distinction about who/what is really doing the sinning. And maybe this is Paul’s angle also. There is really a “new person” when a person believes. But the newness is mostly positional—it’s forensic (Rom 5:1), a new standing (Rom 8:1). So maybe John and Pual both mean something like, “the new you is not sinning because that’s not something it can do. That comes from what remains of the old you.” But the new us is not all spirit and the old us all body. The new is both new spirit and new body (Php 3:21, 1 Cor 15).

And like the new body, the new spirit is ours now, but not our experience yet—at least not fully. It’s not a “legal fiction;” it’s a legal reality that is waiting for us.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

I would like some input from those way smarter than I am, but I was wondering if we could get further insight by focusing on what was meant by "born" rather than by "sin" in that passage. We understand that once we become Christians we still sin, so it is not an issue of expecting sinless perfection once we are "born again." But does John mean "born" in the same sense that we mean "born again" or could he have a bit different idea in mind. He talks about being born of God and about God's seed remaining in us. Could John simply have been saying that if we are living out God's dna within us, then we will not sin, but if we are not living out God's dna within us, then we still have the capacity to sin and we do end up sinning (sperma is the Greek term used so literal dna isn't the best analogy, but one many could connect with). Could that be why he found it so important to open the letter with 1John 1:9 etal. I do not believe John is talking about losing salvation when we sin, but rather ignoring God's dna within us.

Another way to say it would be, when we are yielded to the Spirit we do not sin. When we resist the Spirit of God we do sin.