He Cannot Sin I
"Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him." (vs. 6)
"Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." (vs. 9)
These verses certainly represent "things hard to be understood," (II Peter 3: 16), at least to those outside of the age in which they were first written. Christians (those "born of God") "cannot sin"? Why then did the same Apostle tell Christians that they should not say "I have no sin"? That they should "confess" their "sins"? (1: 8-10) If Christians cannot sin, however, then they have every right to say, in some sense, "I have no sin," don't they? Thus, to confess their sins is to acknowledge that they "can," and do, sin. Further, John says to Christians that his purpose in writing to them was "that you sin not." And, he assures them that if they do sin, that they have an "Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous," and that he is "the propitiation for our sins." (2: 1)
John affirms that Christians can sin and that they cannot sin. A clear seeming contradiction and one not easily explained. Certainly it has been variously explained by interpreters. Each interpretation offers a way of harmonizing the seeming contradiction of the Apostle in his propositions. It is my belief that the popular interpretations of the seeming contradiction "miss the mark" and "fail" to "hit the mark" as it relates precisely to what the Apostle had in mind and intended. I will offer what I think is the correct interpretation.
1. It is agreed by all that there is a contradiction. John affirms, at the same time, that Christians can and cannot sin. Thus, all Christians must agree that there is a sense in which those who are born of God cannot sin, and a sense in which they can. John believed, of course, that truth is harmonious, and that "no lie is of the truth" (I John 2: 21), affirming the "law of non-contradiction." Thus, the "sense" is different in each immediate context. John is not affirming that the Christian can and cannot sin in the same sense.
2. Discerning the correct "sense" in which a Christian both can and cannot sin is important in John's epistle.
3. Discerning what precisely the Apostle means by "sin" and "sinning" (hamartia) is of utmost importance in identifying the sense in which the Christian can and cannot sin.
Let us first look at the most popular views and dispose of them.
The Divine Nature Cannot Sin
Some interpreters say that John is affirming, similar to Paul in Romans chapter seven, that all Christian sinning originates solely in his "flesh," or "sinful nature," while all his righteousness originates solely in his renewed nature, or in the "divine nature." Thus they would translate as - "the divine nature (or "seed") which is born of God cannot sin." The problem with this view is that it does not correctly interpret and translate the words of the Apostle. John speaks of sin as being what the person himself does, and not what some entity within the person does. "He cannot sin because he is born of God." If John had the above interpretation in mind then he would have said "it cannot sin because it is born of God."
The Practice of Sin
The NASV translates I John 3: 9 as follows:
"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."
By translating the words "doth" and "commit" (KJV), from the singular Greek "poieo," by the word "practice," the above translators/interpreters attempted to offer a way of interpreting the meaning of the Apostle. The problem with this view is that it is read into the passage.
Assuming for the sake of argument the fact that "poieo" means "practice," then the solution is clear - John is not saying that Christians do not sin at all, but only that they do not sin "habitually," or as a "lifestyle," or as much as they would if they had not been born of God.
It is true that those who are born of God do not practice sin as do those who are still under the power and guilt of sin. This is taught in several new testament passages. But, it cannot reasonably be thought to be what John is meaning to affirm in I John 3: 6-9.
First, the word "poieo" does not mean "practice" but means to "make" or "do." Had the Apostle intended to convey the idea of "practice" he would have used the Greek word "prasso" which actually does mean to "practice."
Second, the present tense linear does not necessitate the idea of "practice" or "lifestyle." Why did the above translators not add the idea of practice to the present tense linear in I John 1: 8-10?
If we say that we have no sin (vs. 8)
If we say that we have not sinned (vs. 10)
These verses also contain present tense Greek verbs as I John 3: 6, 9 and if we interpret the present tense linear the same way, then we would have the verse to say - "If we say that we have no habitual sin" and "if we say that we have not habitually sinned." It would still have the Apostle contradicting himself, for it would have him affirming, in chapter one, that Christians are to acknowledge that they are habitually sinning, and affirming in chapter three that they are to acknowledge that they do not habitually sin.
Third, even granting that John is affirming that those who are born of God cannot habitually sin, that would only offer a possible solution to the first part of the verse only, the part where Christians "do not commit sin," but would offer no solution to the words that follow, where John says further that they "cannot sin," without the helping verbs of "do," "commit," or "practice."
The Cannot of Prohibition
This was the interpretation offered by Bruce Reeves in my recent debate with him regarding the passage. Thus, when John says that born again people "cannot" sin, he means that they are forbidden to sin. It is thus a legal "cannot" as in the law saying "you cannot go over 55 miles per hour." Parents say to children "you can't do that" when referring to what is forbidden.
I argue that this view is also forced upon the passage and is not in accordance with the context nor accurately conveys what John intended. John is not simply wanting to give Christians a law or an ideal to aim at. He is rather describing the state and character of one who has been "born of God."
Further, John limits this "cannot sin" to those who are born of God, but, if the "cannot" is simply a prohibition, then it would not be limited to Christians. Everyman "cannot sin" in this sense.
Not Under Law
Another interpretation given is that the believer, or one born of God, cannot sin because he is not under the law. You cannot be guilty of violating a law in which you are no longer under. It is an argument that says basically that the believer has "immunity" from prosecution and therefore cannot be judged by the law to have sinned. That there is truth in this is not denied for Paul teaches this in the books of Romans and Galatians. But, this does not seem to be the intention of the Apostle John in his epistle.
First, had John the above meaning in mind, then he would have said - "he cannot sinned because he is not under the law" rather than "he cannot sin because he is born of God." The reason ascribed for the "cannot" is due to having been born of God, to the divine "seed" remaining in the begotten, thus showing that the sense in which sin cannot be existent is owing to inability to "do," "make," or "commit" sin.
Thus, the most popular interpretations of these passages, and of the seeming Johanine contradiction, are untenable and inadequate.
The normal prima facie meaning of "cannot" denotes an impossibility and what is absolute. John is not simply affirming that those who are born of God cannot practice sin as a habit, but that they cannot sin at all.
Thus, rather than trying to solve the contradiction by forcing an unusual interpretation upon the use of the present tense linear for the verbs and participles, or weakening the force of the word "cannot," one should focus on exactly what it is that the Apostle affirms that born again people cannot do. He says that they cannot "sin." What does he mean by "sin" in this passage? Failure to properly understand John's usage of this word in the above text, and in his epistles, is a reason why many interpreters fail to properly interpret the passage and have offered the above untenable interpretations.
There are several words used in the new testament under the English umbrella term "sin," and each comes from a separate and distinct Greek word. These words in English are disobedience, offense, trespass, transgression, error, fault. All these words focus on some aspect of man's condition and behavior while under divine wrath and condemnation.
John did not say:
1. Whoever is born of God cannot transgress.
2. Whoever is born of God cannot trespass.
3. Whoever is born of God cannot disobey.
Richard C. Trench, in his Synonyms of the New Testament. wrote:
"...when sin is contemplated as hamartia, it is regarded as a failing (or missing) of the true end and scope of our lives, namely God." (see here)
Aristotle defined hamartia as, “a missing of virtue, the desired goal, whether out of weakness, accident or defective knowledge.”
The Britannica Online Encyclopedia says: "hamartia, also called tragic flaw, (hamartia from Greek hamartanein, "to err"), inherent defect or shortcoming in the hero of a tragedy, who is in other respects a superior being favoured by fortune."
It is defined in many sources as "the flaw in character which leads to the downfall of the protagonist in a tragedy."
The Britannica also says:
"Aristotle introduced the term casually in the Poetics in describing the tragic hero as a man of noble rank and nature whose misfortune is not brought about by villainy but by some "error of judgment" (hamartia). This imperfection later came to be interpreted as a moral flaw."
Liddel and Scott defines hamartia (Greek-English Lexicon, New Edition, page 77) in its original classical definition as meaning:
a. A failure, fault
b. Error of judgment
c. Guilt, sin
Thus, if John had this original classical idea in mind by his use of "hamartia," then he could be safely and reasonably interpreted as saying:
1. Whoever is born of God does not make tragic mistake leading to downfall.
2. Whoever is born again does not have fatal flaw which results in downfall and ruin.
3. Whoever is born again does not miss the mark of finally winning Christ and the prize of salvation.
4. Whoever is born of God does not sin so as to lose his salvation.
5. Whoever is born of God does not tragically fail.
Surely every transgression, disobedience, and trespass is a hamartia, a missing of the mark, or a failing to hit the target and win the prize. But, these only focus on lessor goals and targets, while John seems to be focusing on the chief target, that of final salvation through perseverance.
If John has the original Greek understanding of "hamartia" in mind, then it is only reasonable that he would deny that those who are born of God are represented by the fallen hero of Greek tragedy who experienced hamartia. He is rather affirming that those born of God are the real heroes, who do not end their lives in tragedy as the fallen heroes of Greek tragedy. Rather than being overcome by their natural character flaws they overcome them by their having been given a new character that has no flaws.
But, more on this in part two.