The apostle, having alleged the believer’s obligation to purity from his hope of heaven, and of communion with Christ in glory at the day of his appearance, now proceeds to fill his own mouth and the believer’s mind with multiplied arguments against sin, and all communion with the impure unfruitful works of darkness. And so he reasons and argues,
I. From the nature of sin and the intrinsic evil of it. It is a contrariety to the divine law: Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also (or even) the law (or, whosoever committeth sin even committeth enormity, or aberration from law, or from the law); for sin is the transgression of the law, or is lawlessness, 1 John 3:4. Sin is the destitution or privation of correspondence and agreement with the divine law, that law which is the transcript of the divine nature and purity, which contains his will for the government of the world, which is suitable to the rational nature, and enacted for the good of the world, which shows man the way of felicity and peace, and conducts him to the author of his nature and of the law. The current commission of sin now is the rejection of the divine law, and this is the rejection of the divine authority, and consequently of God himself.
II. From the design and errand of the Lord Jesus in and to this world, which was to remove sin: And you know that he was manifested to take away our sins, and in him is no sin, 1 John 3:5. The Son of God appeared, and was known, in our nature; and he came to vindicate and exalt the divine law, and that by obedience to the precept, and by subjection and suffering under the penal sanction, under the curse of it. He came therefore to take away our sins, to take away the guilt of them by the sacrifice of himself, to take away the commission of them by implanting a new nature in us (for we are sanctifies by virtue of his death), and to dissuade and save from it by his own example, and (or for) in him was no sin; or, he takes sin away, that he may conform us to himself, and in him is no sin. Those that expect communion with Christ above should study communion with him here in the utmost purity. And the Christian world should know and consider the great end of the Son of God’s coming hither: it was to take away our sin: And you know (and this knowledge should be deep and effectual) that he was manifested to take away our sins.
III. From the opposition between sin and a real union with or adhesion to the Lord Christ: Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not, 1 John 3:6. To sin here is the same as to commit sin (1 John 3:8, 9), and to commit sin is to practise sin. He that abideth in Christ continues not in the practice of sin. As vital union with the Lord Jesus broke the power of sin in the heart and nature, so continuance therein prevents the regency and prevalence thereof in the life and conduct. Or the negative expression here is put for the positive: He sinneth not, that is, he is obedient, he keeps the commandments (in sincerity, and in the ordinary course of life) and does those things that are pleasing in his sight, as is said 1 John 3:22. Those that abide in Christ abide in their covenant with him, and consequently watch against the sin that is contrary thereto. They abide in the potent light and knowledge of him; and therefore it may be concluded that he that sinneth (abideth in the predominant practice of sin) hath not seen him (hath not his mind impressed with a sound evangelical discerning of him), neither known him, hath no experimental acquaintance with him. Practical renunciation of sin is the great evidence of spiritual union with, continuance in, and saving knowledge of, the Lord Christ.
IV. From the connection between the practice of righteousness and a state of righteousness, intimating withal that the practice of sin and a justified state are inconsistent; and this is introduced with a supposition that a surmise to the contrary is a gross deceit: “Little children, dear children, and as much children as you are, herein let no man deceive you. There will be those who will magnify your new light and entertainment of Christianity, who will make you believe that your knowledge, profession, and baptism, will excuse you from the care and accuracy of the Christian life. But beware of such self-deceit. He that doeth righteousness in righteous.” It may appear that righteousness may in several places of scripture be justly rendered religion, as Matt. 5:10; Blessed are those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, that is, for religion’s sake; 1 Pet. 3:14; But if you suffer for righteousness’ sake (religion’s sake) happy are you; and 2 Tim. 3:16; All scripture, or the whole scripture, is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine—and for instruction in righteousness, that is, in the nature and branches of religion. To do righteousness then, especially being set in opposition to the doing, committing, or practising, of sin, is to practise religion. Now he who practiseth religion is righteous; he is the righteous person on all accounts; he is sincere and upright before God. The practice of religion cannot subsist without a principle of integrity and conscience. He has that righteousness which consists in pardon of sin and right to life, founded upon the imputation of the Mediator’s righteousness. He has a title to the crown of righteousness, which the righteous Judge will give, according to his covenant and promise, to those that love his appearing, 2 Tim. 4:8. He has communion with Christ, in conformity to the divine law, being in some measure practically righteous as he; and he has communion with him in the justified state, being now relatively righteous together with him.
V. From the relation between the sinner and the devil, and thereupon from the design and office of the Lord Christ against the devil. 1. From the relation between the sinner and the devil. As elsewhere sinners and saints are distinguished (though even saints are sinners largely so called), so to commit sin is here so to practise it as sinners do, that are distinguished from saints, to live under the power and dominion of it; and he who does so is of the devil; his sinful nature is inspired by, and agreeable and pleasing to, the devil; and he belongs to the party, and interest, and kingdom of the devil. It is he that is the author and patron of sin, and has been a practitioner of it, a tempter and instigator to it, even from the beginning of the world. And thereupon we must see how he argues. 2. From the design and office of the Lord Christ against the devil: For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil, 1 John 3:8. The devil has designed and endeavoured to ruin the work of God in this world. The Son of God has undertaken the holy war against him. He came into our world, and was manifested in our flesh, that he might conquer him and dissolve his works. Sin will he loosen and dissolve more and more, till he has quite destroyed it. Let not us serve or indulge what the Son of God came to destroy.
VI. From the connection between regeneration and the relinquishment of sin: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin. To be born of God is to be inwardly renewed, and restored to a holy integrity or rectitude of nature by the power of the Spirit of God. Such a one committeth not sin, does not work iniquity nor practise disobedience, which is contrary to his new nature and the regenerate complexion of his spirit; for, as the apostle adds, his seed remaineth in him, either the word of God in its light and power remaineth in him (as 1 Pet. 1:23; Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever), or, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit; the spiritual seminal principle of holiness remaineth in him. Renewing grace is an abiding principle. Religion, in the spring of it, is not an art, an acquired dexterity and skill, but a new nature. And thereupon the consequence is the regenerate person cannot sin. That he cannot commit an act of sin, I suppose no judicious interpreter understands. This would be contrary to 1 John 1:9; where it is made our duty to confess our sins, and supposed that our privilege thereupon is to have our sins forgiven. He therefore cannot sin, in the sense in which the apostle says, he cannot commit sin. He cannot continue in the course and practice of sin. He cannot so sin as to denominate him a sinner in opposition to a saint or servant of God. Again, he cannot sin comparatively, as he did before he was born of God, and as others do that are not so. And the reason is because he is born of God, which will amount to all this inhibition and impediment. 1. There is a light in his mind which shows him the evil and malignity of sin. 2. There is that bias upon his heart which disposes him to loathe and hate sin. 3. There is the spiritual seminal principle or disposition, that breaks the force and fulness of the sinful acts. They proceed not from such plenary power of corruption as they do in others, nor obtain that plenitude of heart, spirit, and consent, which they do in others. The spirit lusteth against the flesh. And therefore in respect to such sin it may be said, It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. It is not reckoned the person’s sin, in the gospel account, where the bent and frame of the mind and spirit are against it. Then, 4. There is a disposition for humiliation and repentance for sin, when it has been committed. He that is born of God cannot sin. Here we may call to mind the usual distinction of natural and moral impotency. The unregenerate person is morally unable for what is religiously good. The regenerate person is happily disabled for sin. There is a restraint, an embargo (as we may say), laid upon his sinning powers. It goes against him sedately and deliberately to sin. We usually say of a person of known integrity, “He cannot lie, he cannot cheat, and commit other enormities.” How can I commit this great wickedness, and sin against God! Gen. 39:9. And so those who persist in a sinful life sufficiently demonstrate that they are not born of God.
VII. From the discrimination between the children of God and the children of the devil. They have their distinct characters. In this the children of God are manifest and the children of the devil, 1 John 3:10. In the world (according to the old distinction) there are the seed of God and the seed of the serpent. Now the seed of the serpent is known by these two signatures:—1. By neglect of religion: Whosoever doeth not righteously (omits and disregards the rights and dues of God; for religion is but our righteousness towards God, or giving him his due, and whosoever does not conscientiously do this) is not of God, but, on the contrary, of the devil. The devil is the father of unrighteous or irreligious souls. And, 2. By hatred of fellow-christians: Neither he that loveth not his brother, 1 John 3:10. True Christians are to be loved for God’s and Christ’s sake. Those who so love them not, but despise, and hate, and persecute them, have the serpentine nature still abiding in them.