Now, let’s plunge into one of the most difficult passages in the writings of the apostle John. Read with me 1 John 3, from verse 3 to verse 10:
3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 The one 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. 9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 10 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 God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.
Introduction: This passage presents a real interpretive challenge. What in the world is John telling us here? Let’s review for just a moment.
In chapter 1, John told us in verses 8 – 10 that even though we are born-again followers of Jesus Christ, we still have to grapple with the frustration of sin in our lives. We’ve been saved from the penalty of sin but not from its presence. He wrote: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word is not in us.
John was writing this to Christians, and to mature Christians at that.
He brought up this theme again in chapter 2, verse 1: My dear children, I write this so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
But now in chapter 3, it almost seems as though John is telling us that, in fact, if we belong to Christ we cannot and will not sin. He said: No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
And in verse 9, he wrote: No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.
So this sounds like a contradiction. In chapters 1 and 2, John said that we may sin but we can confess it, and when we do sin we have an Advocate with the Father. But in chapter 3 he says that if we belong to Christ, we cannot go on sinning.
How do we solve this riddle? The first thing is to realize that this is Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that the apostle John was an intelligent, logical man. So we can operate on the assumption that this is merely an apparent contradiction, not a real one. When we realize what John is really telling us, the difficulty will be resolved and we’ll be left with a deeper understanding of the ways of God and the depth of the Christian experience.
With that in mind, let’s just go through this passage—1 John 3:3-10—and ask the Lord to help us to grasp its meaning and its application to our lives.
All Who Have This Hope in Him Purify Themselves
Verse 3 says, All who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as He is pure. He’s talking about the certain and sure expectation of the return of Christ, the resurrection and glorification of the body, and the life we’ll enjoy forever in Heaven. John is saying, “If you’re really focused on the excitement of our Lord’s return, you will continue fighting sin in your life and become more and more like He is—blameless and holy. That obviously means we have areas we need to purify. We have some thoughts and habits that we need to correct. Even though we are Christians, we are not perfect. But we are working on growing better and stronger every day.
Sometimes when I travel, I let various grandchildren stay at my house. A time or two I’ve come home and the house was a wreck. I do not want to walk into my house after an exhausting trip and find it a wreck. I want everything to be in its place so I can walk into a clean house. I’ve helped them learn that when they are anticipating my return, they need to straighten things up and wash the dishes and vacuum the floors. If we’re truly anticipating our Lord’s return at any time, we’ll be conscious of holiness and mindful of purifying ourselves for His return.
Everyone Who Sins Breaks the Law; Sin is Lawlessness.
In verse 4, John defines sin. He says, “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.” This is an incredible definition of sin. Let me explain it this way. Left to ourselves, we are unable to define right from wrong. For example, some people say that it’s wrong to engage in sexual activity apart from a covenant marriage between one man and one woman. Others vehemently disagree with that. They think it’s wrong to maintain that position, that all kinds of marital equations are right so long as the people involved love each other, as they say.
How do we know what is right and what is wrong?
Our only infallible standard is the Word of God. Since God is the holy and righteous creator, anything that violates His holy nature is evil; and He has given us a book with laws and rules and commands and standards that reflect in our human experience what is right and wrong. When we violate what God has said in His Word, that is wrong and that is evil. So sin is whatever violates the character of God as codified in His Word.
Of course, we have all fallen short of God’s perfections and His character and His glory, which means we’re separated from Him. This is literally the greatest dilemma in the universe. What do we do about it? Well, we can’t do anything about it, but God can. Look at verse 5:
But You Know He Appeared To Take Away Our Sins
The verse says: But you know that He appeared so that He might take away our sins. This is the entire message of the Gospel in one sentence. There are two parts to it.
First, He appeared. God Himself appeared on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. John began His epistle on this note: The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. This is what we call the incarnation—God coming into humanity through the conception and birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Second, why did He appear? To take away our sins.
Every week the garbage truck comes to my house. I roll the garbage out to the curb and the truck comes, dumps it into the back of the vehicle, and takes it away. It’s gone and it’s not coming back. It is out of my house and out of my life. That is what Jesus Christ does with our sin and shame and guilt. That’s why we should never look back and flog ourselves for the stupid or hurtful things we’ve done—not if we’ve been cleansed and forgiven by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. He appeared to take away our sins.
No One Who Lives in Him Keeps on Sinning
Now with verse 6 we come to the perplexing verse: No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen Him or known Him.
We know, based on what I quoted earlier from chapters 1 and 2 (as well as what we read in the rest of the Bible) that John was not telling us that Christians cannot and must not sin. He cannot be teaching Christian perfectionism—that we come to a point in this life in which we are perfect and sinless. Nothing in the New Testament teaches that. We’ll be perfect and sinless in Heaven, but now in this life we do not have the option of sinless perfectionism. So what, then, does John really mean?
The word live here is the traditional word abide. No one who abides in Christ keeps on sinning. The word sin is the word that means to miss the mark, to engage in wrongdoing. So the verse can say: No one who abides in Christ keeps on missing the mark and engaging in wrongdoing.
In other words, sin can never come out of the experience of abiding in Christ. When we abide in Christ, He is our everything. We are connected to Him in unbroken fellowship. If we are fully abiding in Him, we are not grieving the Holy Spirit. We are not quenching the Holy Spirit. We are one with Him. When we sin, it is an erosion of that relationship. It doesn’t mean we have lost our salvation, but we have lost a bit of our fellowship with Him. In that sinful area of life we are not at that moment fully abiding in Him.
In other words when we commit a sin, it is a splinter in our experience of abiding in Christ. If you have a sinful habit in your life, it does not come from your experience of abiding in Christ. It must have another source. It comes from somewhere else.
Where then do the sinful lapses come from?
The One Who Does What Is Sinful is of the Devil
Look at verses 7 and 8: Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.
The devil is not only trying to keep sinful people from coming to Christ; he is also trying to create little hairline fractures in your abiding relationship with Christ.
It’s very interesting to study what John has to say about the devil. Let’s make a little list from this passage and then we’ll add some more items from elsewhere in 1 John and from John’s Gospel.
- The devil has been sinning from the beginning. That is, he has been breaking the law and operating diametrically opposite to the righteous character of God. That is here in verse 8.
- The devil is also known as the evil one. Look at verse 12: Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother.
- The devil is also called “the one who is in the world,” but he is no match for Jesus Christ, who lives within us. Look at 1 John 4:4: You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because greater is the one who is in you than the one who is in the world.
- The devil cannot do any ultimate harm to God’s children, according to 1 John 5:18: We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.
- The devil, however, is in control of this entire world system. The very next verse says: We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one (verse 19).
- Backing up to chapter 2, we’re told in both verses 13 and 14 that through Jesus Christ, we have overcome the evil one.
Now let’s glance at one cross reference in John’s Gospel.
- In John 8:44, Jesus told His enemies: You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
There is a very interesting phrase there that helps us, I think, understand our passage in 1 John 3. Look at it again: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.”
In other words, those who belong to the devil have a nature within them that wants to carry out his desires. That doesn’t mean they might not occasionally do a good deed. But overall, their nature is one of wanting to carry out all the desires of the devil.
In the same way, those who are abiding in Christ have a nature within that wants to carry out the desires of Christ. That doesn’t mean we might not occasionally do something wrong. But overall, our nature is one of wanting to carry out the desires of Christ.
I want to suggest that is the essence of what John is saying in 1 John 3. John cannot be talking about sinless perfection in this life because he has already told us what to do as Christian when we sin. But he is saying:
The one who abides in Christ has a nature that wants to please Jesus all the time. If you don’t have that nature within you, you cannot be a Christian. When we abide in Christ, we simply want to please Him with all we do, with all we say, with all we are. The one who abides in the devil has a nature that wants to please the devil all the time.
I believe that is what John is telling us here. He is not telling us that in Christ we cannot sin. He is telling us that when we abide in Christ, it is no longer in our nature to sin. We are becoming more and more like Jesus. When we do sin, as he said in chapter 1 and 2, we confess it and we have an Advocate with the Father. But the more we learn to abide in Christ, the more we will live in a way that pleases Him.
Now, let’s go on to the last part of the passage.
Jesus Appeared to Destroy the Devil’s Work
Verse 8 continues: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. This really goes back to the first announcement of the Gospel in Genesis 3:15, when the Lord said to Satan that one day the seed of woman—a Messiah—would appear who would crush his head.
Hebrews 2:14 says the same thing, telling us that by His death, Jesus Christ broke the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.
Revelation 20:10 is one of the most wonderful verses in the Bible. It says: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur…forever and ever.”
No One Who is Born of God Will Continue to Sin
Now we can wrap up our study with verses 9 and 10. Verse 9 says: No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.
We interpret this in the light of what we have already said. John is not telling us that when we receive Christ as Savior we’ll never fall into another sin. He is telling us that when we are born again and abiding in Christ, we have a new nature and that new nature wants to please the Lord. If we don’t have that nature, we’ve not been born again.
But I can’t pass over one particular word here that is shocking to theologians and to careful Bible students. There is nothing else in the Bible like it. One commentator called it a very daring metaphor. Look at verse 9 again: No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them.
The word seed is the Greek word for semen. Most commentators believe John is using this remarkable metaphor to describe the Holy Spirit, who applies the blood of Jesus Christ to our hearts, causes us to be born again, and then remains within us, living within us, which is how we abide in Christ. Anyone who has undergone this remarkable experience will have a desire to please the Lord. We will be grieved at the sinful tendencies in our lives and seek to overcome them for His glory.
So, to summarize, John was not a man to contradict himself. Having admitted that Christians sin and have to confess their sins, he is not about to teach that we are sinlessly perfect. He is telling us that when we are born of God’s seed, when the Holy Spirit has wrought this incredible transformation, when we are abiding in Christ we have a new nature that wants to please the Lord and that grows in holiness. If we don’t have that, we should question our salvation. On the other hand, the people of this world have a nature that wants to sin. They are living out the desires of their father, the devil.
One of the ways we know we are saved is that within us there’s a desire to live as we should, to live biblically, to live with growing personal holiness, until we see Christ face to face, and then we will be as He is. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.