1 John 3.4-10
Everyone who produces sin also produces disregard for (God’s) instruction. Sin is the disregard of (God’s) instruction. You know that He was revealed for this purpose: to take away sin. Sin is not in him. Everyone who remains in him do not sin. Everyone who sins have not seen him or known him. Children, let no one deceive you. The one who produces righteousness is righteous, just as that One is righteous. The one who produces sin is from the devil because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose: to do away with the works of the devil. Everyone who is born from God does not produce sin because His Seed remains in him. He is not able to sin because He is born from God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this: everyone who does not produce righteousness is not from God, nor the one who does not love his brothers.
Let me get straight to the point. One of the most deceiving statements to have ever been uttered in the halls of the church is this: “I am just a sinner, saved by grace.” The statement seems true on the surface because everyone has committed sin, but it’s use of tense is incredibly misleading. Notice the present tense when describing themselves: “am.” Meanwhile, when describing God’s action, it is in the past time. Essentially, God has done something in the past on my behalf, but I am still presently a sinner. Had it been “I was a sinner saved by grace” or “I am a sinner being saved by grace,” the situation would be different, but to describe one’s present state of sinning while talking about a past act of salvation is a deceiving statement.
When we read 1 John 3.4-10, it is hard to really accord with much of the cheap grace that has been passed off as Christian faith. It is so hard, in fact, that there is often a temptation to try to translate this passage as referring to the “practice” of sin based upon the present tense of participles such as ποιῶν (producing) and ἁμαρτάνων (sinning), such as the NET and the ESV. As I mentioned in the previous post on Hebrews 10.26-27, the problem with such a translation is that while it is grammatically possible, grammatical tense is more like a clay that is molded by its context. The function of the present tense conforms to how it fits within the discourse it is presented in. When we look at 1 John 3.3, the language of purity works from the assumption of wholeness and the absence of sin. So, when we approach 3.4-10, the language about manufacturing and sinning need to be understood against this backdrop. The concern here is with those who deviate from purity by their sin, not with those who *practice* sin.
Some clarification is in order here, though. John is not talking about the single act of sinning either. The way he describes them as producing sin and producing disregard for God’s instruction is indicative of this. Ποιέω is a word that relates to manufacturing and creating. While it can be used to describe taking specific actions, it does not take on this meaning in this context. The presence of the article in τὴν ἁμαρτίαν and τὴν ἀνομίαν functions to highlight sin and disregard of instruction as abstract concepts and not specific actions that are taken. As such, John’s discourse functions to characterize a specific type of person rather than give a description of a specific state of action.
It is the equivalent of the phrase “People who lie.” While the literal meaning of the words could be taken to refer to anyone who tells any sort of lie, whether a white lie or a malicious lie, usually such characterizing language functions to designate people who can be identified by the activity of lying, such as people who compulsively lie. Characterizing language does not usually linguistically encode specific details that precisely limits who it applies to; this is where the pragmatic function of language comes in to bring clarity where the written word does not explicitly do so. The context usually determines to whom characterological discourse applies to.
So, it is the case here: the characterizing language of those who produce sin has the opponents of the Johannine group in view. “Antichrists” had left the community, showing that they really did not belong to them (1 Jn. 2.18-19). He goes on to characterize these people as liars that denied Jesus is the Messiah (1 Jn. 2.22). These people have already been identified as the deviant group who probably cause much trouble and pain among the believers such that John had to remind them of the importance of loving one another (1 Jn. 4.20). So, when we come to 1 John 3.4-10, we have these people in view. Having been familiar with their behavior, the people who produce sin are identified with these trouble-makers from their past. The community’s memory of these persons informs who John is referring to.
The point is that John is neither talking about people who commit a single act of sin, nor is he trying to describe a threshold for sin in talking about the practicing of sin. He is drawing a characterization of people whose lives are defined by sin. The emphasis of his argument from that point is to say this: such behavior is entirely incompatible with being children of God. The true children of God are defined by their righteousness, not their sin. While John previously reminds them that a true believer may commit a sin that becomes forgiven (1 Jn. 2.1-2), their lives will not be defined by their sin because in this confession of their sin they will be purified by the blood of Jesus (1 Jn. 1.9). Among the children of God, sin is being minimized.
In other words, if we try to read John’s language to provide some wiggle room in describing a threshold for sin that we call “practicing” or “continuously,” we risk undercutting his point. There is no threshold for sin for the children of God. Sin can be mercifully forgiven and cleansed, but the children of God are being cleansed and purified as they confess sin and put their hope in Jesus. It is not in our nature to sin. The children of God are not presently sinners, even as we may find the principle of sin lurking within us (1 John 1.8). If we do sin, we are acting from the principle that lingers while going against our nature; it isn’t our nature to sin, though.
So, to say “I am just a sinner, saved by grace” is a deception. It is precisely this type of deception that John warns against because of the pain and harm that such people did to the community. Yet, to the degree that this mentality has been tolerated, accepted, and even celebrated is the degree to which those who live as the children of the devil have been giving the space to inflict harm upon the children of God. The spirit of the antichrist might say “You can’t be merciful if you hold people to such a standard,” thereby resisting the ultimately denying the Christ who comes to remain in those who believe. Grace, mercy, and forgiveness can be abundantly offered to people in a response to sin that is not harsh, retributive, exaggerated, or needlessly punitive while at the same time not giving any room for the normalizing of sin in the life of believers. We can lovingly nurture newly adopted children of God as their new nature empowers them to unlearn the bad habits of their past without lowering the bar of what it means to be a child of God.
To call ourselves sinners in the sense that we are acknowledging we have a nature to sin is to deny our heritage. As I wrote in a previous post:
Never deny your heritage if you are a child of God: you are being made into a new creation. Deny your spiritual heritage and you risk making light of and forgetting the powerful transformation that God is bringing about in you, leading you to act from your spiritual poverty rather than from the riches that the Spirit has bestowed. Don’t let the presence of temptation and sin lead you to deny this reality in your life. You aren’t perfectly redeemed, as none of us will be until the redemption of our bodies, which means we still have to stand against those powers of sin and death that Paul describes. However, when you do what Jesus says by the Spirit who leads us to put to death the deeds of the flesh, you yourself are being changed, you yourself are different, you yourself are becoming an embodiment of God’s righteous vision for human well-being and thriving. Don’t let those who want to lower the bar so that they do not feel some sense of guilt take that from you. You were not perfect in your past, you are not as you will be in Christ in the resurrection, and you will find places where you won’t fully live out God’s righteousness that you will find a renewed need to either repent and/or be restrengthened by continuing in a Spirit-led prayer, worship, and meditation so that when a similar situation faces you will be able to stand like Peter who denied Jesus three times but then became a brave apostle of Jesus Christ. But make no mistake, follower of Christ and recipient of God’s Spirit: if Christ is in you, YOU are a new creation, right here, right now, even with your flaws and your struggles.