What Does 1 John Mean When It Says That Christians Do Not and Cannot Sin?

by Max Aplin

The letter of 1 John says some striking things about the relationship of Christians to sin.

1 John 3:6 states:

‘No one who abides in Him [Jesus] sins.  No one who sins has seen Him or known Him.’

Then a few verses later, in 3:9, we are told:

‘No one who has been born of God commits sin, because His sperm abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.’

Incidentally, the Greek word sperma in this verse is much better translated by ‘sperm’ than by the ‘seed’ found in most English translations.  God is being metaphorically portrayed as a human father here, and ‘seed’, a euphemism, doesn’t do proper justice to the powerful imagery that is used.

Finally 5:18 says:

‘We know that no one who has been born of God sins, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.’

At first sight, these verses seem to be telling us that genuine, born-of-God Christians do not commit sins.  And 3:9 even seems to be saying that they cannot commit sins!

As Christians who take the authority of the Bible seriously, what are we to make of this?  We certainly mustn’t explain away what these verses are saying.  God is speaking to us in them and we should therefore accept whatever He is teaching.

Some have tried to take these verses literally

Over the centuries, there have been some Christians who have insisted on trying to interpret these verses literally.  They have taught that Christians literally do not sin and cannot sin.

However, in order to hold this view, they have had to take a very weakened view of what sin is.  They have typically only included intentional sins, not sins that someone might commit accidentally.

They have also had to say that it is extremely easy for a Christian to fall away from the faith and lose salvation.  If a Christian commits any intentional sin, this line of thinking goes, they lose salvation and can no longer be considered a genuine Christian until they repent and regain salvation.

This whole approach to interpreting the verses seems contrived.  And crucially, it fails to reckon with two key things:

Taking account of the big picture

First, when we are forming our views on something in the Christian faith, it is essential that we always look at the big picture of what the Bible has to say on that topic.  In other words, we need to take account of all the biblical passages that are relevant for the subject we are thinking about.  It simply won’t do to fire out 2 or 3 proof texts and claim to settle a matter that way.  That has the potential to be very misleading.

As far as the issue of Christians sinning is concerned, when we look at the big picture, we see that there are many passages in the Bible which most naturally suggest that genuine Christians do commit sins.  In the New Testament letters, for example, there are constant instructions to Christians to keep growing in moral purity, which has to imply that they do commit some sins.  But these Christians are regarded as people who are in a state of salvation.  The big biblical picture doesn’t suggest that genuine Christians literally do not and cannot sin.

In James 3:2, for example, James says:

‘We all stumble in many ways.’

When James talks about stumbling here, he is referring to committing unpremeditated sins of short duration.  He is saying that every Christian often commits sins of this kind.  And the big picture of the Bible fits with this.

In fact, even 1 John itself suggests that Christians can and do sin sometimes.  In 1 John 2:1 we read:

‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you might not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the upright One.’

It seems a very forced interpretation of this verse to understand ‘if anyone does sin’ to be referring only to sins that occur after a Christian has fallen away from the faith and lost salvation.

Taking 1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18 to mean that Christians literally do not and cannot sin, then, is enormously difficult.  It involves going against the big picture of what the Bible teaches.  And it even fits poorly with the rest of 1 John itself.

Taking account of biblical hyperbole 

But those who try to interpret these verses literally have not just failed to take account of the big picture.  They have also not reckoned with how the Bible tends to use language.  In some respects Jesus and the authors of Scripture talked about things in ways that differ from what we are used to in modern Western culture.  And if we fail to appreciate these differences, we can sometimes end up with faulty interpretations of passages.

One such difference concerns the Bible’s use of hyperbole.  This is a term that refers to deliberately exaggerated language that is used for effect and involves no attempt to deceive.

Modern Western culture actually uses hyperbole a lot.  For example, if I pick up a heavy bag, I might say to someone, ‘That weighs a ton!’  In saying this, I am exaggerating the weight.  But my reason for doing so is not to deceive anyone.  Rather, I am simply trying to express my experience of finding the bag heavy.

Although we often use hyperbole, Jesus and the authors of the Bible used it more often than we do and in ways that we are not accustomed to.  This is my main focus in this article, so here are a number of examples from the New Testament:

Matthew 5:42

In this verse Jesus teaches:

‘Give to the person who asks you, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow from you.’

Jesus’ words here are very hyperbolic.  In reality, there are obviously countless times when we should not give to someone who asks us for something or wants to borrow from us.  For example, if someone asks us for money to buy illegal drugs, we should certainly not oblige.

Some try to explain away the hyperbole in this verse by pointing out that Jesus is not explicit about what we should give the person who asks us for something.  They say that if a person asks us for one thing, we could give them something else and still be obeying Jesus’ command.  For example, if someone asks us for money and we give them kind words instead, we would be doing what Jesus tells us to.

Interpretations like these should not be taken seriously.  Jesus is clearly implying that we should give the thing that is asked for.

What He is teaching in this verse is that we should be very generous in giving and lending material things to people.  But instead of putting this straightforwardly, He uses hyperbole.  And this kind of hyperbole goes well beyond what modern Westerners are used to.

Matthew 23:8-10

In Matthew 23:5-12 we find Jesus criticising the scribes’ and Pharisees’ pride, and urging humility among His followers, especially among those who, in time, would be in leadership positions.  In verses 8-10 He instructs:

‘Do not be called ‘Rabbi’, for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone among yourselves on earth ‘Father’, for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  Nor be called instructors, because you have one Instructor, Christ.’

Jesus is teaching here that He or God the Father is the pre-eminent Teacher, Father and Instructor of Christians.  Yet He doesn’t state this in a matter-of-fact way.  Instead, He uses hyperbole by saying that Christians have one Teacher, Father and Instructor.  In this case the hyperbole is one that exaggerates downward the number of something.

His reference to us having one Teacher is especially remarkable, since on several occasions the Bible explicitly refers to Christian teachers.  See, e.g., Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; Ephesians 4:11.

The hyperbole used here goes far beyond what we are accustomed to in the modern West.

Mark 10:29-30

In this passage Jesus promises:

‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or land for my sake and for the gospel’s sake, who will not receive a hundred times as much in the present time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and land . . .’

Jesus is saying that those who give up relationships or material possessions for His sake will be rewarded here on earth.  But His words can hardly be taken literally, even though He begins the promise with ‘Truly I tell you’.

In comparison with the way Westerners use language today, the hyperbole in this passage is really amazing.

Luke 16:13

In this verse Jesus warns:

‘No servant can serve two masters.  For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and wealth.’

Obviously someone with two masters would not necessarily have to hate one and love the other.  What Jesus is teaching is that if someone loves money it will stop them serving God fully.  But He uses very hyperbolic language to express this.  And this hyperbole goes well beyond what we are used to in our culture today.

Luke 16:15

Here Jesus says:

‘That which is highly esteemed among people is hateful in the sight of God.’

We can, in fact, think of many things that are highly esteemed among people but not hateful to God.  For instance, helping someone who has been hurt in an accident is just one of a multitude of examples that could be given.

What this saying must mean is that much that is highly esteemed among people is hateful to God.  But it is expressed by using hyperbole of a far greater degree than we are used to in Western culture today.

John 14:12

In this verse Jesus states:

‘Truly, truly, I tell you, the person who believes in Me, the deeds that I do, he will do also . . .’

The deeds of Jesus that He is referring to here surely include the miracles that He is found performing throughout John’s Gospel, as scholars widely agree.

I believe strongly that miracle work is something that Christians today should be involved in.  Nevertheless, by saying that the person who believes in Jesus will do the deeds, i.e., miracles, that He does, Jesus is surely speaking hyperbolically.  Elsewhere Scripture implies that miracle work is something that only some Christians do (see especially 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28-30).  And John is surely not intending us to think that every Christian should expect to work the sorts of miracles that Jesus Himself worked.

The hyperbole here goes well beyond what we are used to.

Colossians 1:19-20

In this passage Paul tells us:

‘For it was the Father’s good pleasure . . . through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross . . .’

On the face of it, these verses seem to be saying that all people will be reconciled to God and end up in heaven.  From the Bible as a whole, however, we know that only a minority of people will actually experience this.  Again, we can see that a very hyperbolic expression has been used.  And this sort of hyperbole goes far beyond what is found in modern Western culture.

Titus 1:12

Here Paul quotes a saying:

‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’

And in the next verse he states that this is a true saying.

It is reasonable to think that these vices were common in Crete at the time.  But the language is clearly very hyperbolic.  A modern Westerner – at least one who wanted to speak truthfully – would phrase the same concept differently.

Hebrews 4:15

In this verse the author says:

‘For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in everything as we are . . .’

In fact, there are many ways in which Jesus would not actually have been tempted.  For example, He would never have experienced temptations that are particular to a husband or a father.  More importantly, because He had no sinful nature, He could never have been tempted in a way that aroused inherently sinful desires, as we often are.

Someone might want to argue that this verse should actually be taken much more literally than I have done.  They might claim that Jesus was supernaturally enabled to experience all sorts of temptations that He would not have encountered in the normal course of His life.

This, however, would surely be a mistake.  The whole point of the author’s argument in this part of Hebrews is that Jesus shares in our humanity.  He knows what it’s like.  He’s been there and done that.  Any suggestion of experiencing temptations other than those He experienced in the normal course of life would therefore not fit the context.

What the verse is telling us is that Jesus, as a real human being, experienced temptation in a wide variety of ways.  Nevertheless, this is expressed using very hyperbolic language.  And this kind of hyperbole goes beyond what we find in our culture today.

1 John 2:27

This verse states:

‘As for you, the anointing that you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you.  But as His anointing teaches you about all things, . . . you abide in Him.’

On the face of it, this verse seems to be saying that because Christians have an anointing from God, they have no need of teachers.  But we know from the rest of the Bible that this is not literally true.  Instead, this is hyperbolic language.  And the hyperbole goes well beyond what we are used to today.

Summing up

The list of examples I have provided could be extended much further.  But I think I have said enough to make my point.  It is clear that the Bible often uses hyperbole in ways that go far beyond what we find in modern Western culture.

Hyperbole in 1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18

In the examples of hyperbole that I have given, something is stated that on the surface seems to be an absolute, but in fact it is literally only partly true.  1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18 should be interpreted in the same way.  At first sight these verses seem to be saying that Christians do not and cannot sin.  But when the hyperbole is taken into account, what they really mean is that relatively speaking and in comparison to people who are not born of God, Christians do not and cannot sin.  The power of God within us draws us away from sinning, even though we will not reach anything close to perfection before death.

This interpretation fits well with the other examples of hyperbole that I gave.  It is not forced.  What is more, interpreting in this way allows these verses to fit with the big picture of what the Bible teaches about the relationship of Christians to sin.

Allowing the hyperbole to speak to us

Although we shouldn’t take these verses in 1 John literally, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the forcefulness of what they are saying.  When reading something in the Bible that is hyperbolic, it is easy, if we are not careful, to over-compensate for the hyperbole when interpreting.  And this can mean that the force of the words is not properly recognised.

Even though these verses are not teaching us that genuine Christians literally do not and cannot sin, they are teaching us that we have an awesome and mighty power within us that inclines us away from committing sins.  We need to understand this well.

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