Are Christians Sinless?
Commentary on 1 John 3:6-9
We now come to a passage that includes what is perhaps the most baffling statement in the entire Epistle. This is the matter of the apparent sinlessness of believers, posed by the words in verse 6, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him”; and in verse 9: “Those who have been born of God do not sin.” The difficulties are obvious. First of all, this contradicts what Christians have experienced through the ages, and what each one of us has experienced in his or her life. Good, sincere, faithful Christians do sin. Secondly, it contradicts what John himself has said earlier, when he states that “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate … ” (2:1).
The apparent contradiction is so blatant that a number of scholars (particularly Rudolf Bultmann) have argued that what we have here is either written by a different author or at least taken from a different source. Such a solution, however, implies that whoever introduced this contradiction in the text was not sufficiently alert to notice it—which, given the cogency and consistency of the entire document, is highly unlikely.
John states that those who abide in Christ do not sin, and yet those who are in Christ and say they have no sin are liars. Both are true, however difficult this may be to state clearly. There is always room for growth in our abiding in Christ. That growth is what we term “sanctification,” growth in holiness. Luther tried to say the same thing when he declared that Christians are one and the same time justified and sinners. In Paul’s terms, in baptism we have died with Christ and we have been raised with him; we are living in the old creation and in the new creation at the same time. Hopefully, daily the old life has less power over us and the new life becomes stronger.
It is God’s love for us that lets us see where sin still has a hold on our lives, so that we can root it out, confess it and, through the power of the indwelling Christ, know that we are forgiven and strengthened for leading a more righteous, loving, and just life.
Quite clearly, what John is doing here is taking the incompatibility of sin and godliness to its final consequences. He is using the moral laxity of his opponents as an argument against them. We know that at a relatively early time there were those who claimed that, because they were of God, they were free from all law, and were free to do as they pleased. For this reason, John begins by linking sin with lawlessness. Those who claim that they are beyond the law are not free of sin. On the contrary, the very claim to be free of the law is the essence of sin. It is not just a matter of sin being lawlessness, but also of lawlessness being sin.
Thus, the “everyone” to whom John refers here are the same ones who in 1:8 say that they have no sin. John’s opponents claim that they have no sin, not because their life submits to the highest standards, but because they reject all standards—they practice anomia, lawlessness.