The First Epistle Of John
Part 14 1 John 3.9-10
"No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil." (1 John 3.9-10 RSV).
This is a striking statement, more so even than that in verse 6 for it is couched in even bolder terms. "Doth not commit sin" . . . "he cannot sin!" These are daring words indeed. Even with all in mind that has just been said, can they be justified? Can it be truthfully said, from any possible standpoint, that we who are born of God, born from above, as Jesus put it to Nicodemus, cannot sin?
Most of the early twentieth century translators seemed to be uncertain how to take this. They adopted a variety of expedients to get around the literal meaning of the words. "Is not habitually guilty of sin" says Weymouth. "He does not value sinning" is Ferrar Fenton's suggestion. "No one who has received the new life from God lives sinfully" is the rendering adopted by the Twentieth Century version. They all give an impression of dubiousness, of perplexity. None of them mirror the simplicity of the Greek — "is not able to sin". The one born of God cannot accept and practise the way of sin because it is unthinkable that he should do so. A good example of the principle is afforded in the case of Joseph and his master's wife. "How can I do this great wickedness, and sin before God?" (Gen.39.9). Physically and in fact, he could have done so, but nonetheless his allegiance to Divine law made it a perfectly true thing to say that he could not commit this sin. That is the heart attitude of all who are born of God; they do not and cannot have any sympathy with the violation of God's laws, and even though they may and do come short of their ideals, their inward sincerity remains unblemished, and God, looking upon them and judging them according to that perfect heart-attitude, declares that they, the born of God, are sinless in His sight.
There is an important but somewhat obscure phrase here in the AV "His seed remaineth in him." Whose seed? Remains in whom? Grammatically, the "seed" referred to might be of God or it might be of the one born of God. It is not altogether clear why it is that the one who "doth not commit sin" finds himself in this honoured position by reason of the fact that "his seed remaineth in him". What is the explanation?
It seems most likely that there is a direct connection between the fact of being "born of God" and the remaining a receptacle, so to speak, of this "seed". It is almost as if there is an assurance against sin coming in and defiling one who continues in possession of a purifying or vitalising "seed". Weymouth has it "a God-given germ of life abides in him'. Moffatt ''the offspring of God remains in him'1 and the Twentieth Century "the very nature of God dwelleth in him". Rotherham, more obscurely, renders "a seed of him with him abideth". In most cases, at all events, the translators appear to take this "seed" as a vitalising or living influence from God, entering into the man and remaining there. That view, at any rate, makes the verse intelligible, and in harmony with all other scriptural doctrine regarding our spiritual quickening and "begetting" and "birth". Whoever has experienced this "new birth" has been "born of God". Thereafter and throughout life, whilst faithful to his calling, has an inward possession of the life-giving and quickening Holy Spirit. This not only sustains the inward spiritual life but also causes us to grow and develop spiritually so that in due time we shall be fitted to be clothed upon with our "house which is from heaven".
The continued possession of the Holy Spirit is a guarantee against our being brought into bondage to sin; conversely, our lapsing into the power of sin indicates that we have lost the Holy Spirit. The expression "his seed remaineth in him" does not mean that it must inevitably remain in us without possibility of loss for the remainder of life. No more can the parallel expression "he cannot sin" means that it is impossible for one to repudiate his Lord and his consecration and his faith and turn to unrighteousness like the "sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire". (2 Pet. 2.22). What it does mean is that while that seed remains, and because it remains, the new birth, the being "born again" remains a truth, and freedom from sin is a truth also.
There are not many who would seriously claim that one thus accepted into this relationship with God is thereafter rendered incapable of turning his back upon the sacred things and embracing again the evil from which he has escaped. "Once saved, always saved" is certainly a theme not altogether unknown among some groups of Christian believers, but the belief, when analysed, is seldom found to be so extreme as the bare utterance of those four words would seem to imply.
Our final conclusion, in the light of all that John has to tell us in this remarkable passage, would seem to be that complete faith in Christ and in His atoning sacrificial death, gains for the believer a judicial decree of righteousness, and of sinlessness, in the sight of God. This also requires absolute sincerity of heart in one's personal consecration to God. This is judged by God's own fundamental standards and is backed up with such good endeavours in words and conduct as the weakness of the body and the outward influences of the world permit,. That blessed condition rests upon the basis of faith and consecration and while that basis and standing before God persists. But if the basis be destroyed, the whole edifice that is built upon it is destroyed also. If one turns aside from the paths of righteousness and commences deliberately to violate Divine law, knowing that he is violating Divine law, then the Holy Spirit, the "seed", no longer remains in him. Such lose their standing of justification and they are no longer born of God and it is no longer true that he "cannot sin". Such manifest that they are no longer children of God but are children of the Devil. If it is possible for a man to be delivered out of the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God, it must be equally possible for one to be delivered into the bondage of corruption out of the glorious liberty of the children of God.
The great truth that can give the weakest of the Lord's sincere children supreme confidence is that our Father, having accepted one who has come to Him, will never of Himself let that one go. He who has promised to perform a good work in us will abundantly complete that work and fulfil that promise, no matter how unpromising and unsatisfactory the human material with which He has to work, if we on our part will let Him. But there is one barrier the Father cannot and will not break down — the barrier of the human will. He will, and does all that lies in His mighty power to turn us away from sin and toward righteousness, but we have now and shall have for all time the power within ourselves to choose the way of evil, if we will. If, after every possible means of persuasion has been used, and failed, and we remain obdurate in our determination to continue in the way of evil, the Father can do nothing but leave us to the logical consequences of our choice. He will ever abide faithful, but attainment of the promised prize rests not only upon God's faithfulness to us, which cannot be questioned, but also upon our faithfulness to God, which is much more of an uncertain matter. We have been "once saved"; of that there is no doubt nor dispute, and so far as the Father is concerned we are, thereafter "always saved". So far as we are concerned we do well to remember that we shall remain "saved" only so long as we ourselves comply with the conditions which alone can keep us "saved" in His sight.
(to be continued)