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 (1 John 3:9) (KJV).
This has always been a gut-wrenching read for me, taking the Bible as seriously as I do. What does John mean? Is this a call for sinless perfection? Or is it hyperbole? "Oh, no, everyone sins and sins a lot! He's just saying that, well, we shouldn't." Is that all it is? Let's take a closer look.
First, the King James (and other older translations) all say it like that -- "doth not commit sin". Taken at face value, that is indeed a call for sinless perfection. It cannot mean anything else, unless you're going to go with the "hyperbole defense". And if that was what the text called for, your defense "Well, we know that everyone sins" would be irrelevant because your experience doesn't define God's reality. However, if this is a call for sinless perfection, we have a problem. In this very book John writes, "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Hmm, problem. He goes on to say, "I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world" (1 John 2:1-2). Okay, so he is encouraging us to stop sinning but knows that we will and comforts us with the confidence that we have an Advocate. Good. So either John was incoherent and self-contradictory, or we're missing the meaning of 1 John 3:9.
So what about other translations? Do they concur? As it turns out, there is a significant difference between the older ones and the newer ones.
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 (1 John 3:9) (NASB).
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God (1 John 3:9) (ESV).
Okay, so there is a difference. It is not "doth not commit", but "cannot make a practice of". But is it significant? Is it saying in just another way that the one born of God cannot go on sinning? Is it saying that true believers cease from sin? Or are we, again, at the mercy of the "hyperbole defense" that, in its final analysis, strips all meaning from the text?
One source that provides ample agreement is the commentators. From those prior to today's modern translations through today, they all seem to agree.
does not make it his trade and business; it is not the constant course of his life; he does not live and walk in sin, or give up himself to it; he is not without the being of it in him, or free from acts of sin in his life and conversation, but he does not so commit it as to be the servant of it, a slave unto it, or to continue in it. (John Gill).
they who are born of God, that is, who are true Christians, do not sin habitually and characteristically (Barnes).
does not work iniquity nor practise disobedience, which is contrary to his new nature and the regenerate complexion of his spirit (Matthew Henry).
does not have the habit of sin (Robertson).
Sam Storms puts it this way:
The view adopted by most commentators is that the sin a Christian does not and cannot commit is habitual, persistent, unrepentant sin. John is not concerned so much with the momentary, individual acts of sin as he is with the overall characteristic tendencies and inclinations of a person's life. John is looking at the pervasive temper of one's overall experience in life, not at the singular incidents individually. John is not taking a snapshot, but a moving picture. His repeated use of the Greek present tense appears to bear this out. He focuses on the habitual character of the activity in view.
Is it possible for a Christian to sin? John says it is not merely possible, but certain (1 John 1:8,10). Is he, then, simply exaggerating to make a point with this passage? I don't think so. He speaks of the lack of ability, a concept inconsistent with mere hyperbole. John is not saying, "Everyone sins, but the ideal is that you don't." He is saying that if you are fully capable of habitually walking in sin, you have reason to be concerned about your salvation. If you can sin without remorse, if you have persistent, unrepentant, perhaps even well-defended sin, you need to question whether or not you are actually born of God. The one born of God lacks the ability to do that. And simple ignorance is no excuse. Not if we serve a living God who is at work in you both to will and to do His good pleasure.
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"Point of Reference" from