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One of the first questions we ask when we hear of the birth of a baby is, "Who does she look like?" Features such as physical appearance, including the color of hair and eyes, facial char acteristics, the shape of the mouth or nose, height and build, are given at birth. Later on, as the child grows and begins to reflect its parents' habits of action, speech or attitude, we may speak of a child as "a chip off the old block." Although not all children are simply smaller versions of their parents, it is unusual if there is not something in the physical, emotional or moral makeup of the child that reflects its birth or upbring ing.
In this section of the epistle the author develops at greater length the responsibility that falls on the children of God. Quite clearly he expects that the children of God will bear an undeniable resemblance to one whom they claim as their spiritual parent. That resemblance comes to the fore primarily in the sphere of conduct, in the way the child lives out the responsibility summarized in the descriptive phrase does what is right (3:7).
In the present passage the Elder makes this point in some of the most emphatic statements in the epistle when he writes that no one who lives in him keeps on sinning (3:6) and, more strongly, [they] cannot go on sinning (3:9). Because of their absolute and emphatic nature, these statements pose a great challenge to interpretation. (Surveys and discus sions of the options are in Brown 1982:412-15; Marshall 1978:178-83; Smalley 1984:159-64; and Stott 1988:134-40.) They seem both overstated and inconsistent with human experience. And to make matters more complicated, 3:4-10 also seems to contradict earlier statements (1:8, 10) that the denial of sin is a sin in itself. In order to unravel this interpretative tangle, I shall first comment on the context and structure of the passage. Then after a verse-by-verse analysis, I shall try to tie together the threads of the discussion to clarify John's intention in the context of the epistle.
Careful attention to the literary context of this passage will reap benefits in interpreting it. We would do well to recall that throughout the epistle the author has tried to encourage his readers and to assure them of their standing before God. If this passage is not to destroy all that he has worked to build, it must instill confidence in his readers. But can absolute state ments such as the assertion that the child of God cannot sin (v. 9) be heard as encouragement and good news? Yes, they can--if we re member that when John reminds his readers that they are the children of God now (3:1), he also directs their hope to the revelation of what they shall be (3:2). Although there is transformation, there is also con tinuity between present and future. In speaking of the present reality, John anticipates the promised transformation, just as he elsewhere speaks of the reality of eternal life and the outworking of God's final judgment in the present time. The power that is at work in the children of God in the present is the same power that shall transform them at the return of Christ. If they are promised that they will be pure (3:3), in the present they are exhorted to live in anticipation of that promise since the same transforming power is at work in them.
Furthermore, the basis for the hope of the children of God is not their own conduct, but the work of Christ on their behalf. An analysis of the structure of the passage bears out this assertion. The passage consists of two short parallel sections, each of which contains three things: a def inition of sin (vv. 4, 8); a statement about the purpose of Christ's work (vv. 5, 8) in light of the definition of sin; and a statement about the implications of Christ's work for the Christian life (vv. 6, 9; Stott 1988:125). The following table illustrates these parallels:
(a) Sin is lawlessness (v. 4)(a') Sin is of the devil (v. 8)tx(b) Christ came to take away sins (v. 5)(b') Christ came to destroy the devil's works (v. 8b)tx(c) No one who lives in Christ keeps on sinning (v. 6)(c') No one who is born of God will continue to sin (v. 9)tx This table shows that Christ's work (b and b') stands in opposition to the power and essence of sin (a and a'). Since believers are those who live in Christ, their conduct (c and c') should reflect the work of Christ and its opposition to sin. The work of Christ--begun in his work of taking away sin, yet still to be consummated--anchors John's exhortation to Christian responsibility and his promise of future transformation. With these thoughts in mind, then, we turn to a verse-by-verse analysis of the passage at hand.
While there are, as noted above, two parallel sections (3:4-6; 8-10) that discuss sin, the work of Christ and the implications for the Christian life, each has a distinctive focus. The first subsection draws a contrast between Jesus' sinlessness and human sinfulness.
The character of sin (3:4). John begins with what appears to be a definition of sin when he writes, everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. In describing sin (hamartia) as lawlessness or iniquity (anomia), he stresses its severity. Lawlessness connotes disobedience to and rejection of the ways of God. If there are some who tolerate sin as an indifferent matter, this epistle does all in its power to dissuade them from that view.
More specifically, however, lawlessness may refer to the lawlessness expected in the last days, the ultimate rejection of God's truth to be manifested in false teaching and immorality (Mt 7:15, 23; 13:41; 24:11-12; 2 Thess 2:3). That meaning of anomia fits with John's emphasis that the secessionists are in fact the "antichrists" expected in the last hour (2:18): their sin is not just iniquity, but the iniquity of Antichrist. The fundamental understanding of sin, then, is that it is opposition to the will of God. That opposition need not be manifested in open rebellion or hostility, such as we think of when we consider the animosity to religion that some prominent atheists exhibit. Nor do we have to think of cat astrophic Armageddons. Indeed, in Johannine thought the antichrists' work is deception (3:7; 4:1), and the primary sin is unbelief. While we might think of unbelief as a passive sin, a sin of omission, the Johannine community was prepared to view it as the supreme manifestation of human sinfulness and rejection of God. Thus the statement sin is lawlessness does more than offer a definition of sin. By showing sin for what it is, it encourages renunciation of sin (Smalley 1984:155). For how can sin--opposition to God--be part of the lives of those who vow their allegiance to God?
Jesus' work and nature (3:5). Indeed, those who have vowed their loyalty to God have done so through the mediating work of Jesus Christ. And here John says that Jesus' work is to take away our sins. If sin is opposition to God, Jesus' work stands in opposition to sin. If there is opposition between what sin effects and what Jesus effects, then to tolerate or ignore sin in human conduct is to undermine the purpose of Christ's work. It is to cast one's lot with sin, not with God.
For when Christ takes away our sins he takes away sin's consequences--the guilt the sinner has before God--but he also takes way its hold over us, transferring us from darkness to light (3:14) and break ing the power of evil over us (5:18). We are transferred from the sphere of opposition to God to the sphere of life with God. But if we continue in sin, we act as though Jesus had not died for us, as though he had not torn down the walls that trapped us in sin. For although take away includes the sense of bearing sin on our behalf, it may mean something closer to "abolish" or "do away with" sin. Jesus' life and death stand in radical opposition to sin and strike at the very heart of the power of sin. Furthermore, to condone or tolerate sin is to negate the life of Jesus as a model of active righteousness for the Christian (2:6).
The implications of Jesus' work and nature for the believer (3:6). Implicit in this section are two important poles in John's thought: On the one hand, he makes repeated references to Christ's role in taking away our sins, thereby stressing the difference between the purity and righteousness of Christ and the sinfulness of the believer. On the other hand, though, his emphasis on the present likeness between Christ and the Christian cannot be ignored. Both of these must be held together: it is Christ's death alone that purifies (1:7, 9), forgives (1:9) and atones (2:1) for our sin. Thus the statement no one who lives in him keeps on sinning depends more on an understanding of what Christ has done for us than it does on what we are able or commanded to do. The Elder's understanding of the Christian life was not developed in obser vation of the Christian but in perceiving the nature of Christ's life and work.
It follows that the nature of Jesus' work gives shape to the responsi bility laid upon his followers, God's children. What is meant, then, by the statement no one who lives in him keeps on sinning is quite simple: sin is not the identifying characteristic of those who live in him.
The admonition do not let anyone lead you astray serves as a hinge between the sections (3:4-6, 7b-10) that comprise the longer unit (3:4-10). With these words the Elder warns his readers not to be led from the path of following God. They would be led astray if they were to think that righteousness need not find its expression in righteous conduct such as they saw in the life of Jesus himself (2:6; 3:5).
This second section reiterates the Elder's understanding of sin and right eousness and their relationship to the work of Christ. Although the basic structure of thought parallels that of 3:4-6, the imagery differs. Here John develops the theme of family resemblance and parentage in order to underscore what he has already said about the believer as a child of God who cannot sin (v. 9). Behavior is a test by which one's basic orientation in life may be discerned. Note once more the threefold structure of the passage.
The character of sin (3:8a). In this verse John includes some of the strongest negative statements that those who are sinful are of the devil. Both the epistles and Gospel of John frequently speak of being "of" something, a phrase that points to allegiance or orientation. Sinning characterizes the devil, not God, and so those who sin cannot be said to belong to God (3:8, 10). In fact, the Elder writes that the devil has been sinning from the beginning. That is, the devil is characterized through and through, and has always been known to human beings, as one who challenged God's standard of righteousness and tempted peo ple to do the same. His identifying characteristic is sin.
Note that the epistle does not say that those who sin are born of the devil, which would give a neat parallel to the corresponding phrase born of God. But the opposite of born of God in Johannine thought is "born of the flesh" (Jn 3:6; Brown 1982:405). All people are created by God (Jn 1:10), but those who come to faith in Christ give evidence that they are also "born of God" (Jn 1:13). A new act of the Spirit's creation has taken place. On the other hand, those who refuse to come to Christ have chosen animosity toward God and allegiance with the devil. They are of the devil by virtue of their denial of Christ, deriving their orientation in life not from relationship with and orientation to God but to darkness, evil and sin. Again the Johannine dualism comes to expression. And it is clear from this passage that such dualism is a description not of the way human beings are created but of the choices they make (see Kysar 1986:81).
The work of the son of God (3:8b). If the devil is characterized by sinning, the Son of God is known by his coming to destroy the devil's work. This work is sin, for as righteousness characterizes God, the Son of God and the children of God, so sin characterizes the devil and the children of the devil. In fact, it is their sinning that marks them as the devil's children. Not only are the devil's sin and Jesus' sinlessness con trasted but so are their characteristic works: the devil sins, Jesus destroys the devil's works (Stott 1988:129). Jesus tears down the edifice of sin that the devil builds up, and so frees people by transferring them to the realm where they abide in righteousness and in Jesus (3:6, 14).
It is important to note that this transfer is viewed as effective and secure. If believers sin--and it is clear that they do (1:8, 10)--their sin does not indicate that they have temporarily moved into the sphere of darkness. The Elder does not threaten his readers that they are in danger of "losing their salvation," of backsliding or of falling in league with the devil. They are assured that they are the children of God. The call comes, then, to live so that the family resemblance will always be manifest. If there is exhortation here, there is also encouragement.
The implications of Jesus' work for the believer (3:9-10). The de struction of the devil's works of sin is so complete that we read a very bold statement in verse 9, No one who is born of God will continue to sin . . . he cannot sin (or go on sinning). Indeed, when Jesus' work both opposes and destroys sin, how can those who are born of God dwell in it? John continues with the explanatory statement that they cannot sin because God's seed remains in [them]. Exactly what this seed is does not receive further explanation, and it has puzzled commentators. Obviously we must take it here in a metaphorical sense. Some have suggested that it means the Holy Spirit; others, the Word of God; and others, that it means both. Perhaps, however, it does not so much symbolize some thing else, but merely continues the family imagery. As Kysar writes, "God has implanted in Christians that which makes them his children" (Kysar 1986:81; Brown 1982:411; Stott 1988:133-34). And that God's seed remains points to the permanence of that work. The seed that God plants cannot be uprooted.
Verse 3:10 takes us back to 3:1-3 and its contrast of the seen and unseen, the known and unknown. In 3:1-3 the Elder asserted that now we are children of God, although what we will be has not yet been made known. The passage under discussion, 3:4-10, has assumed that just as children have a likeness to their parents, and just as that likeness will and must manifest itself in behavior, so the conduct of the children of God makes it manifest to whom they belong. Specifically, being related to God has two manifestations: righteousness and love. Both are char acteristic of God; both are characteristic of the children of God. More over, both are and need to be actively expressed, and expressed in a way that conforms to God's standard and to the pattern set by Jesus.
Although the phrase nor is anyone who does not love his brother appears to be added almost as an afterthought at the end of verse 10, in fact it is integral to the author's argument. First, the secessionists whom the Elder chides manifest both a lack of righteousness and a lack of love. Thus the statement anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother summarizes John's rebuke to the dissidents. It can also be generalized, however, for the author certainly means to say as well that every Christian is to be characterized by love and righteousness. Second, those who are related to God as children are also related to each other as brother and sister. Therefore, it is impossible to be part of the family of God and not manifest love toward others in the family. As noted above, the vertical and horizontal relationships of the Christian are always integrally related to each other. Third, the theme of love has now been introduced, and it provides the substance of the rest of the epistle. Thus the argument of the epistle is shifting now from the nature of righteousness, sin and the work of Christ to the nature of love. Here we will see that no less important in understanding love is the person and work of Christ.
In summarizing this passage, we must first underscore the author's emphasis on Jesus' own righteous ness. As the one who is righteous, Jesus effects atonement and forgive ness (2:1). He destroys the unrighteous works of sin and the devil. He provides a model of conduct for the believer (2:6; 3:5). And he will return to complete the work he has begun--to transform us into the image of the God who is pure (3:3). Both the initial manifestation of Christ and his return are spoken of in terms of the effect his work had on sin: in his first coming he took away sin (3:5, 8); in his return (2:28; 3:3) he purifies us.
Clearly, in all this discussion, attention should be focused not on our efforts to become pure or to attain a state of sinlessness, but on what has been done for us to purify us, to transfer us to the realm where righteousness, and not sin, holds sway. God's work through Christ has created a realm where the purifying and transforming power of right eousness, truth and love are operative. And if now we are children of God by virtue of that power, what we will be has not yet been made known. From beginning to end of our life with Christ, the power at work within and among us is the power of righteousness. That is the privilege and promise that is ours.
Inherent in that promise is an exhortation to righteous conduct. Those born of God no longer live without acknowledging God, but are fully aware of the responsibility incumbent upon them as God's children. Their orientation is toward the God who is light (1:5). Their direction in life derives from the character of God. Their responsibility is to live as Jesus did (2:6), in conformity with the character of a God who is righteous, loving and just. Those who say yes to God, whose orientation derives from the will of God, open themselves to God's transforming power. Although God's purifying work is yet to be completed, that trans forming power is even now at work among and in those who have been called the children of God.
In short, the statement No one who is born of God will continue to sin, and others like it, ought to be heard simultaneously at several levels: First, it orients us to our future hope, a hope that as the children of God we shall yet become more like God. Second, in directing our gaze to our future hope, the statement also assumes that the same power that will remake us at that time is already at work in us. Third, that power is now active in the world because it was manifested by Jesus himself in his work of breaking the grip of sin on us. And finally, in his own life, Jesus exemplified the self-giving love and obedience to God that is the respon sibility of God's children as well. If John's statement seems hyperbolic, it is because of his eager anticipation of the blessings of the future age, now being realized through the ministry of Jesus among his followers.