Jesus' Parables for Disciples
4. Sin Is Lawlessness (1 John 2:28-3:10)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Jacob Pontormo, "Tondo of St. John the Evangelist" (c. 1524), oil on wood, 70 cm circumference. Santa Felicita, Florence.
Immediately, the older man stiffened. "Who is to say what is sin?" he barked. I hadn't remotely suggested that he might have been involved in some kind of sin, but he exhibited this visceral response! Frankly, I was shocked.
He was reacting, it turned out, against a caricature of legalistic, rule-based Christianity. But he had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. His over-reaction rejected biblical Christianity and any acknowledgement of sin whatsoever. I knew him to be a moral man, but he no longer regarded wrongdoing in terms of sin. How dangerous!
As we saw in 1:7-10, John's opponents in Ephesus had deserted the concept of sin. And having the mooring to truth cut off, their ship was piloted by the devil on a course to destruction. Let's look carefully at John's teaching on righteous living.
In verse 28 we see John's affectionate, "dear children" and an exhortation to "abide in him."
"And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming." (2:28)
The early church -- even as late as First John -- had a keen anticipation of Christ's return, which would usher in the end of the age and the final judgment. In light of this judgment, says John, we need to live righteous lives so that we'll be ready to meet him. John employs a pair of antonyms -- confident1 vs. ashamed2 -- to introduce the topic of the need for righteous living. If we don't abide in him we will be afraid and ashamed when we appear before him.
John uses two words in his letters to speak about Christ's Second Coming:
"Appears" is phaneroō, which is found four times in this lesson -- here and in 3:2, 5 and 8. It means, "to cause to become visible, reveal, expose publicly."3 Christ will suddenly become visible, "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet" (1 Corinthians 15:52). As suddenly as a flash of lightning (Matthew 24:27) he will come.
"Coming" is parousia, "coming, advent." This was "the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, especially of kings and emperors visiting a province."4 When the King returns he will sit in judgment upon any unrighteousness that has taken place in his Kingdom.
If we are skating along the thin edge of sin, we'll want to hide at his coming. In Revelation, those who oppose Christ will cry out to the mountains and the rocks:
"Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" (Revelation 6:16-17)
Our generation has reacted against an era of fire and brimstone preaching by hardly mentioning God's judgment any longer. But righteous judgment is coming nevertheless. Peter exhorts his readers in a similar tone:
"Since everything will be destroyed ... you ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming." (2 Peter 3:11b-12a)
John has more to say about Christ's return later in this lesson.
John points to Jesus'own righteousness as our example to emulate as we prepare for his coming:
"If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him." (2:29)
This lesson is about right living vs. lawlessness. In verse 29 John uses a pair of related words -- "righteous" and "righteousness." "Righteous" is dikaios, "pertaining to being in accordance with high standards of rectitude, upright, just, fair."5 The phrase, "what is right" (NIV, cf. NRSV) or "righteousness" (KJV) is dikaiosynē. The word can refer to just, fair dealing, as well as judicial rightness. Here it refers to "the quality or characteristic of upright behavior, uprightness, righteousness."6
Now John pauses to bask for a moment in the glorious thought of our status before God as his own children:
"2:29 If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. 3:1 How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known." (2:29-3:2a)
John uses three words in our passage (here and in verse 9 and 10) that relate to our relationship to God as his children: "born," "children," and "seed" (which we'll examine later).
"Born" is gennaō, "become the parent of, beget,"7 It appears in our lesson three times, once here and twice in verse 9. It's the same word that's used in Jesus'discourse with Nicodemus about the new birth:
"'I tell you the truth, no one can see the
kingdom of God unless he is born again.'
'How can a man be born when he is old?'Nicodemus asked. 'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!'
Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, You must be born again.'" (John 3:3-7)
Only once does the Bible vaguely speak of being God's offspring by means of creation (Acts 17:28). The emphasis of scripture -- and of Jesus and John in particular -- is on spiritual rather than natural birth, of spiritual children, not just those who are offspring by physical creation.
"Children" (NIV, NRSV), "sons" (KJV) is teknon, "an offspring of human parents, child," usually without reference to gender. Here, it carries the idea of "one who has the characteristics of another being."8
John rejoices in this truth!
"How great is the love the Father has lavished9 on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" (3:1a)
You are not a child of God in some kind of general sense. But very specifically, you are a child of God because God sent his Spirit into your heart to bring you new life. Paul has the same kind of "amazed" reaction to the gracious presence of God's Spirit in us when he says:
"You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children." (Romans 8:15b-16)
To be considered a child of God by God himself is truly amazing and wonderful!
Q1. (1 John 2:29-3:2) In what sense are we "children of God"?
What does the Holy Spirit have to do with this "new birth"? How does
the new birth change us?
"Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known...." (3:2a)
That we are children of God may not be obvious to the world -- yet. We are still in our physical bodies and "what we will be" in the future has not yet been "made known" (NIV), "revealed" (NRSV), "appear" (KJV) -- phaneroō again. John is looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ that he alluded to in 2:28.
We shall be "like him" (homoios), that is, "of the same nature, like, similar."12 Our resurrection bodies will be like his resurrection body!
This expectation of the soon coming of Christ is intended to keep us on our toes, to motivate us to purify ourselves from the sin that seeks to contaminate us:
"Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." (3:3)
The "hope" mentioned here isn't just a "maybe-it-will-happen," but a firm expectation which we expect to be fulfilled.13 Paul refers to it as:
"The blessed hope -- the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ." (Titus 2:13)
How does this hope of Christ's coming cause us to purify ourselves, that is, "to cause to be morally pure, purify"?14 Jesus told several parables concerning his return to stress this very point.
- Parable of the Wise and Faithful Servant (Matthew 24:45-51). Don't get sloppy about your duties. Your master will return when you don't expect and deal with you harshly.
- Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Be prepared, for the bridegroom is likely to return when you're not ready.
- Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Be busy using what the master has given you to work with, because he will return and hold you accountable.
- Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus will judge righteousness and unrighteousness when he returns.
Jesus'message is persistent. Be ready, because you don't know the day or the hour. If we expect Jesus'return, we will take seriously the cleaning up of our lifestyle. One reason that sin remains in Christians'lives is that in many churches Christ's Second Coming is no longer preached.
"Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure."15 (3:3)
Can we really purify ourselves? Isn't all of God's work accomplished by grace? Yes, it is grace, but that's a cop-out, a way of avoiding responsibility to clean up your act. You must cooperate! The Bible makes it clear that we ourselves can and must repent and turn from our sins (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20). James calls on us to purify ourselves:
A mother tells her little boy to wash his hands. He comes back with hands still dirty, but at least they aren't as dirty as before. Then his mother takes him to the sink and really washes his hands. No, we can't purify ourselves fully. But God expects us to repent, to make an attempt. That is our part of the process of sanctification (which we'll discuss in a moment). God's purpose, you see, is to make us pure as Jesus is pure, to conform us to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29).
Q2. (1 John 2:28; 3:2-3) In what way does our expectation of
Christ's Second Coming motivate us to purify ourselves from sin? How
does purifying ourselves from sin relate to God's grace?
Remember, one of the chief errors being spread among the churches to which John is writing is a denial of sin and of its importance. So John continues to hammer away at this heresy:
"Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness." (3:4)
Sin is not trivial. It is not a mere act. It is the result of an attitude. Sin is lawlessness, anomia, "a state or condition of being disposed to what is lawless, lawlessness," then, "a lawless deed."18 The explanation of sin that Bill Bright gives in his "Four Spiritual Laws" is helpful here:
"This self-will, characterized by an attitude of active rebellion or passive indifference, is an evidence of what the Bible calls sin."19
Self-will and rebellion display an attitude that "No one can tell me what to do! I am a law unto myself! I don't accept God's authority to define right and wrong for me!"
So John is saying to the heretics: No, sin is not trivial. It is lawlessness, pure and simple. It demonstrates that you refuse to obey Jesus'commands, and therefore, reject his lordship over your life.20
Q3. (1 John 3:4) How does lawlessness show up in a person's
attitude and actions? In what sense is an attitude of lawlessness
the cause of sin in our lives?
Sin is neither trivial nor unimportant. John goes on:
"But you know that he appeared21 so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin." (3:5)
"Take away" is airō, "to take away, remove, or seize control."22 How does Jesus take away sins? Through his atonement as the Lamb of God. Thus, John argues that we must seek righteousness because:
- Jesus died to take away our sin.
- Jesus opposes sin.
- Jesus'character exemplifies the absence of sin.
"No one who lives ("abides" NRSV) in him keeps on sinning.23 No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him." (3:6)
If we claim to know Jesus, John asserts, we must resist sin and seek righteousness. Since Jesus stands opposed to sin and is without sin, those who continue in unrighteousness just "don't get it," as we might say. They haven't seen him clearly or known the real Jesus. Rather, they are following the Jesus of their own invention. On the theological questions raised by this verse see the discussion below on 3:9.
But sin isn't just incompatible with the person of Jesus. Sin is an earmark of the devil.
"7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." (3:7-8)
That righteous living doesn't matter is the source of the heresy, the big lie designed by their spiritual enemy to lead them astray.24 John confronts them head on and makes it simple:
"He who does what is right25 is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil." (3:7b-8a)
Action reveals inner character. A life of persistent righteousness is the earmark of an upright person. A life of persistent amoral behavior is the earmark of one who is under the influence of the devil -- the original sinner, who tempted Eve to sin in the beginning (Genesis 3).
Sin is the devil's work,26 his stock in trade, which Jesus appeared to do away with:
"The reason the Son of God appeared27 was to destroy the devil's work." (3:8b)
John points out that to destroy sin was Jesus'primary purpose.28 The word "destroy" is lyō, "loose, untie," then "to do away with, destroy, bring to an end, abolish."29 When you hold a cavalier, casual attitude with regard to sin, you set yourself in opposition to Jesus'whole mission.
Now let's examine a verse that, along with verse 6, has troubled Christians for a long time. What does John mean? Here is the NRSV translation of the verse:
"Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God." (NRSV, similar to the KJV)
As we seek John's meaning, first we'll survey the meaning of the key words. In previous verses we've seen the word translated "born" (gennaō, "become the parent of," from which we get our word "generation"). When the word is used of a female it means "bear," or in the passive, "be born." When used of a male it means "beget" or in the passive, "begotten." In this verse the male idea is in the forefront because the phrase "God's seed" is used figuratively.
"Seed" is sperma (from which we get our word "sperm"), used of the "seed of plants," and "male seed or semen." Here it refers to, "genetic character, nature, disposition, character" of the divine sperma.30 We know, of course, that God does not have a human body, but is Spirit (John 4:24); both male and female humans are created in God's image (Genesis 1:27). So ideas of gender don't apply directly to God. They are used figuratively, not literally. God is our Father figuratively, not physically.
What is "God's seed" then? Sometimes "seed" is used as a collective noun to refer to "offspring" (for example, Luke 1:55; John 8:33; Galatians 3:29). Probably following Jesus'use of seed as "the message of the kingdom" in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:11), Peter uses the "seed" to refer to the Word of God that brings about our new birth:
"For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God." (1 Peter 1:23)
But symbols aren't always consistent in the Bible. In verse 9, I don't think that John has in mind "the word," the message, but the Holy Spirit as the seed. As we mentioned previously, Jesus teaches that the new birth takes place by the Holy Spirit:
"I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:5-8)
We receive the Holy Spirit at our conversion. The Holy Spirit is the one who imparts to us God's life. The Spirit lives within us (John 14:17; Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:9). Later in this letter, John says:
"This is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us." (1 John 3:24)
For these reasons I believe that in verse 9, "God's seed" in us is the Holy Spirit and the new nature of God within us, the "anointing" (2:20, 27), what Paul refers to as the "seal of the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30).
The Spirit within us wars against sin in our human nature. That is what Paul is referring to in his letter to the Galatians:
"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (sarx, "flesh"). For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want." (Galatians 5:16-17)
And that Spirit within us is powerful. As John Stott puts it:
"The new nature received at the new birth remains. It exerts a strong internal pressure towards holiness."31
We've established that God's Spirit within us is working to cleanse our character from sin. But we still have the question from verse 9: In what sense does God's seed in us prevent us from sinning? 32
"Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God." (NRSV, similar to the KJV)
Stott surveys seven different ways this verse has been interpreted:
- Divide the natures: The old nature can sin, but the new cannot.
- What is sin in an unbeliever isn't regarded by God as sin in a believer.
- Redefine "sin" to refer only to notorious crimes.
- Redefine "sin" to mean only "willful and deliberate sin."
- John isn't describing the reality, but the ideal.33
- This is, however, a relatively realistic ideal.
- The sin referred to is habitual and persistent sin.34
The last three explanations, taken together, make the most sense to me. Let me explain why.
First, John can't mean that true Christians can't and don't sin at all, since he is clear earlier in the letter that we do sin (1:7-10; 2:1-2). He certainly isn't going to contradict himself. So we need to look more carefully for his intended meaning.
Second, the tense of the verbs in verse 9 gives us our clues.
- The phrase, "do not sin" (NRSV) is in the present tense.
- The phrase "cannot sin" (NRSV) is also in the present tense.
The Greek present tense is different from our English present tense. Our tenses are in terms of time -- past, present, and future. In Greek tenses, however, the primary concept is the type of action. Greek has three main types of action, which I'll mention briefly:
- Punctiliar or momentary, that is, the action takes place at a particular moment in time and doesn't continue. This is mainly expressed by the Aorist tense.
- Durative, linear, or progressive, that is, the action is on-going. This is mainly expressed by the present and imperfect tenses. This can include the iterative sense, that is, did something repeatedly.
- Perfective, that is, a current action, condition, or state begun as the result of a past action. This is expressed primarily by the perfect tense.35
The verbs in this sentence are in the present tense, which expresses on-going action. One special usage found in the present tense in New Testament Greek is called the "customary present" -- that which occurs habitually -- sometimes called the "iterative present."36 The NIV translation of our verse captures the thrust of the customary present tense:
"No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." (3:9, NIV)
Normally, you don't have 37 to resort to the fine points of Greek tenses to understand a verse, but in the case of this verse, you do. No other explanation makes much sense.
The idea is that since God's seed, the Holy Spirit, dwells within you, you are prevented from continuing habitually in sin. The Holy Spirit strives against your sinful nature (Galatians 5:16-17), so that your sinful nature doesn't have full sway any longer.
Q4. (1 John 3:6, 9) How does the presence of God's seed in us
keep us from habitual lawlessness and sin? How does the Holy Spirit
sanctify us and make us like Jesus?
This is the ongoing process of sanctification. While the process may seem slow, it goes on incessantly. Praise God that we are saved by grace, not by the degree of sanctification that is presently accomplished in our lives!
Will we ever reach a place of sinless perfection? John Wesley thought so, but I don't. What happens is that in the early years of our Christian lives, God purifies us from the grossest sins. Later on, we become much more sensitive to sin in our lives, so that it seems like the battle rages unabated. However, the sins we are battling at this point are much more subtle -- the flaws of our character rather than sins of gross disobedience. We still battle sin, but our lives have changed a great deal from the early days.
We've spent a lot of time on this verse because it is difficult for us to understand. Now let's put it in context. John isn't trying to put a guilt-trip on the growing Christians in his flock. Rather, he is trying to point out the clear difference between true Christian doctrine that acknowledges sin and strives against it, and the false doctrine of his opponents that minimizes sin and its importance.
Now John summarizes his contention that righteous living is indeed vital in the Christian life:
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"This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." (3:10)
The final phrase about loving one's brother is a transition into John's next section on love that we'll study in Lesson 5.
My dear Christian friend, don't let this lesson disturb you. Because you still battle sin doesn't mean that you aren't a real Christian. The fact that you battle it rather than just give in is in itself an indication that the Spirit is working actively to form Christ in you.
We are not lawless, like John's opponents. Rather we who are born of the Spirit have a strong inner Compass that points us unerringly to godliness and works in us the life of Christ.
Q5. (1 John 3:3-10) How does John's teaching on sin and
righteousness in this passage relate to combating the false
teachers? What did they seem to be teaching about sin and righteous
Father, you know how I struggle with sin. Yes, I can see many changes in my life over the years, but I still am tempted and sometimes fall. Forgive me. Let your Holy Spirit continue to work powerfully in me to form Christ in me more fully. In Jesus'name, I pray. Amen.
"Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." (1 John 3:2-3)
"Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness." (1 John 3:4)
"No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." (1 John 3:9)
1. "Confident" is parrēsia, "a state of boldness and confidence, courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness, especially in the presence of persons of high rank" (BDAG 781, 3b).
2. "Ashamed" is aischynō, "to experience shame, be put to shame, be disgraced" before someone (BDAG 30, 2).
3. Phaneroō, BDAG 1048, 1aβ.
4. Parousia, BDAG 2bα.
5. Dikaios , BDAG 246, 1bα.
6. Dikaiosynē, BDAG 247, 3a.
7. Gennaō, BDAG 194, 1b.
8. Teknon, BDAG 995, 4b. The term for "male child, son" is a different word (huios, "son, direct male issue"), which is not used here.
9. "Lavished" (NIV), "given" (NRSV), "bestowed" (KJV) is the common verb didōmi, "give."
10. "See" is horaō, "see, perceive by the eye," here probably used by extension to mean, "to be mentally or spiritually perceptive, perceive" (BDAG 719, A4b).
11. "Is" is the common verb eimi, "to be, exist."
12. Homoios, BDAG 706, a.
13. "Hope" is elpis, "the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment, hope, expectation" (BDAG 319, 1bβ).
14. "Purifies" is hagnizō," to purify or cleanse and so make acceptable for cultic use, purify," then figuratively, as here, "to cause to be morally pure, purify" (BDAG12, 2).
15. "Pure" is hagnos, "Pure from contamination." "Pure, holy," a cultic word, originally an attribute of the divinity and everything belonging to it. Then transferred to the moral sense (BDAG 13, a).
16. Katharizō, "cleanse."
17. Hagnizō, "purify."
18. Anomia, BDAG 85, 1 and 2.
19. Bill Bright, "Four Spiritual Laws" booklet (Campus Crusade for Christ, 1965, 1968).
20. "Lawlessness" is not the only definition of sin in 1 John. In 5:17, John expands the definition: "All wrongdoing (adikia, "unrighteousness") is sin."
21. "Appeared" (NIV), "was revealed" (NRSV), "was manifested" (KJV) is phaneroō. Here the word is referring to Christ's first coming.
22. Here, there isn't a suggestion of lifting up, as airō sometimes indicates (Airō, BDAG 28, 3).
23. "Keeps on sinning" (NIV), "sins" (NRSV, KJV) is hamartanō, present tense, active mode.
24. "Lead astray" (NIV), "deceive" (NRSV, KJV) is planaō, "mislead, deceive," also in 2:26 (BDAG 821, 1b).
25. "Does what is right" (NIV, NRSV), "doeth righteousness" (KJV) is the adjective dikaiosynē, "uprightness" with the verb poieō, present active, "do, make." Here, to carry out an obligation of a moral or social nature, do, keep, carry out, practice, commit (BDAG 840, 3b). Poieō occurs here and at 1 John 2:29; 3:10.
26. "Works" is ergon, "deed, action, work," here, "that which is brought into being by work, product, undertaking, work." BDAG 390, 3.
27. "Appeared" (NIV), "was revealed" (NRSV), "was manifested" (KJV) is phaneroō.
28. Eis touto, "for this," using eis to denote purpose "in order to, to" (BDAG 290, 4f.)
29. Lyō, BDAG 607, 4.
30. Sperma, BDAG 937, 3.
31. Stott, Epistles of John, p. 127.
32. "Cannot" is literally "not able to," with the verb dynamai," to possess capability (whether because of personal or external factors) for experiencing or doing something, can, am able, be capable" (BDAG 262, aα).
33. Marshall (who comes from a Wesleyan background) supports the ideal view. "In view of the teaching in the New Testament generally, it would not be surprising if the early church concluded that the age of fulfillment had come, and that therefore God's people could not expect to be sinless.... The eschatological reality, the possibility that is open to all believers, which is both a fact ('he cannot sin') and conditional ('[if he] lives in him')" (Epistles of John, p. 182). Smalley (1, 2, 3, John, pp. 158-165) also argues for a "potential" view.
34. Stott, Epistles of John, pp. 130-136. While Smalley concludes that, "John has in view throughout the present passage the Christian's potential state of sinlessness," (1, 2, 3 John, p. 172 ) he often uses the progressive present understanding in his argument.
35. I've simplified this, of course, but you can study this further in: A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature by F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and Robert W. Funk, (University of Chicago Press, 1961), §318; H.E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Macmillan Co., 1927, 1955), §§166-173.
36. Dana and Mantey, Grammar, §173 (2 and 3); Blass, Debrunner, and Funk, Grammar, §318 (3).
37. Marshall critiques this approach: "It involves translators in stressing the present continuous form of the verb in a way which they do not do elsewhere in the New Testament" (Epistles of John, p. 180).
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