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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus' Sinlessness, Human Sinfulness (3:4-6)
Jesus' Sinlessness, Human Sinfulness (3:4-6)

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.

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