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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.