Studies in the
First Epistle of John
Part 13 - 1 John 3 4-8
"Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil." (1 John 3.4-8 AV).
This is a sudden change of thought from the lofty tones of the first three verses. There, John had taken us up into the very heavens themselves, exalting our minds with the celestial vision of the future glory that will without doubt be ours. The conditional qualification of verse 3, reminding us that a process of purifying is going on within each one who has this hope within him, seems almost intended to be nothing more than a reminder. The assurance and certainty of verses 1 and 2 is as though no failure is contemplated or possible. We are sons of God; that is indisputable. We shall be like Him; that is equally indisputable. Then verse 3 just hints at the fact that without purification the promised glory may never materialise. Verse 4 comes right down with a stark and uncompromising declaration that there is one dread power which might conceivably ruin and nullify the whole glorious promise, and that dread power is sin!
Of course John had spoken about sin before. In ch.1 v.2 he touches upon its blackness several times. But whereas in chapter 1 he treats sin as a defiling influence resting upon us largely because of our inheritance from Adam, that can be cleansed away by confession and repentance, in chapter 2 he speaks of sin as the general effect of our worldly environment and our own fleshly weaknesses. That can be extinguished by "abiding in Him". Here in chapter 3 he shows how sin can be a more subtle and a more personal thing, a principle that may be received into the heart and allowed to control life's actions. This is not because of the seductive influences of the world, the flesh and the Devil but because the unregenerate heart may in some cases love the darkness more than the light. It rejoices in deeds of evil for the very sake of evil. That is the darkest and the deepest manifestation of sin that can proceed from a man, the one most difficult to blot out. Weakness of the children of Adam will no longer have effect in men's lives in the Millennial Age. The snares of this world will disappear with the ending of this world; but nothing else than true conversion to Christ will ever put an end to secret sympathy with sin. The real purpose of Divine dealings with the Church in this Age and with the world in the next Age is to eliminate from all hearts the love of sin for its own sake, the last stronghold of the Devil. John, knowing that in these last days, just as in the days before the Flood, the hearts of men would be "deceitful above all things and desperately wicked", has taken care to warn all who may hear or read his words of the danger that surrounds those even who live the nearest to God. "Let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." It seems such a self-evident statement that one might wonder at first why John troubled to make the remark. "Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness." Of course he transgresses, everyone knows that; for sin is against the law. There must be something deeper in the thought, something that does not come to mind until after a few minutes' reflection. What law? The law of Moses? It could be so, but the law of Moses is altogether too restricted a framework in which to fit the implication of this verse. John's words were addressed to Christians, too, and the law of Moses is not the rule by which our lives are to be guided. The law of Rome, then? Hardly that, for again the Christian is bound by a law which is higher far than the laws of Rome. That is the clue, of course. God constituted immutable and fundamental laws for the ordered progress of His creation. They are for the guidance of those intelligent beings he purposed to create, away there right at the beginning. And sin is the violation of that primitive and fundamental law. No man-made code can reproduce all that is contained in that Divine rule in its entirety. Neither did the Mosaic law fully reflect all that it contains and demands.
The original Divine law, implanted in the constitution and in the heart of Adam in the day of his creation, and now held before the Church of this Gospel Age as the ideal towards which it must strive, is the law the violation of which is sin. Any infringement of the rules that God has devised for the orderly conduct of His creation and the happiness and well-being of those He has placed upon it, is sin. And whosoever infringes those rules, whether deliberately or unwittingly, is a sinner. There is really no better expression of this truth than is contained in the words of the Authorised Version. The plain, forthright English expression "sin is the transgression of the law" cannot possibly be improved upon when once we realise that it is Divine fundamental law that is meant.
Here comes a parenthesis. John misses no opportunity of impressing upon his readers that there is a remedy for sin and a way of escape from the power of sin. So here, immediately after the dark shadow of sin has fallen across the page, he draws aside the curtain, as it were, and lets in the light that chases that shadow away. ''You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin" (v.5). The Vatican manuscript omits the word "our" and in so doing immeasurably strengthens the passage. There is hope for all, all who repent, no matter how heinous or deliberate their sin nor how tardy their repentance. If the Parable of the Prodigal Son had nothing else to teach us it would always have that. No matter how far away the erring one has strayed nor how deeply he has sunk, nor how long he has stayed away, if he but sincerely repents and begins to make his way back, his Father will come to meet him!
Now at this point John has to embark upon an admittedly difficult subject. He has to bring another deep doctrinal truth to his readers in such fashion that they can grasp the principle he wants to expound. He does so without them misunderstanding the implication of his words, that they assume a position before God to which they have no right. He wants to show his disciples that because of their repentance and sincerity they have been awarded a justification in the eyes of God which allows Him completely to ignore and put behind His back the content of sin in their mortal bodies and in their earthly lives. He has to make them realise that in the final analysis, sin is the fruit of the desire to act in violation of fundamental Divine law, and righteousness is the desire to act in accordance with fundamental Divine law. He also says that it is from those desires that the concrete things which we call evil and good, spring forth. It is what lies in the heart rather than on the hands which constitutes a man sinful or sinless. Jesus began to lead the minds of His disciples to such an understanding when He told them that the mere desire to sin is the same to God as if the sin had actually been committed (Matt. 5. 27-28). That was a "hard saying" to those who had been accustomed from childhood to the Mosaic Law which laid absolute stress upon the performance of the letter without any regard to the spirit. The later Papal doctrine of cleansing by penances really had quite a good prototype in the typical ceremonies of the Tabernacle. The Israelite who learned that by the bringing of appropriate animal or vegetable offerings to the priest, he could be cleansed from his sin, might very easily be tempted to conclude that for so much sin the price of cleansing was so much offering, or payment. That system, initiated by Moses and practised by Israel through so many centuries, was a very necessary step in the process by which God must reveal His deepest spiritual truths to man. But it was a stage that had to be completed, and then superseded in Christ by something deeper and nearer the fundamental. The tragedy is that even in our day, so long after the ending of the Mosaic Law, there are so many who fail to realise that slavery to sin, or freedom from sin, does not lie so much in the expression of our motives through our bodies. It is in the motives themselves.
So John ventures upon this new and uncharted sea by a first tentative approach. "Whoever abides in him sins not." (v.6). It is a startling statement to make. Taken in the ordinary sense and with our ordinary everyday definition of what constitutes the practice of sin, it cannot possibly be true. But the statement, coming as it does from the inspired Apostle, cannot be other than true, and if it seems a difficult and incomprehensible remark to make we must perforce search our minds and attune ourselves to his thoughts until we understand what he means. Thus doing, we shall realise how true it is. We must not be unmindful of the fact that in chapter 1 he has already said "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us". Whatever meaning we attach to this last statement of John, it must not do violence to the earlier ones. We must understand it in such a way that both are true.
The Twentieth Century translation tries to lessen the impact of this disturbing teaching by rendering it "No one who maintains union with him lives in sin". That is a way out of the apparent difficulty but that is not what
John said. The Greek is as bold and uncompromising as the AV: "Everyone abiding in him sins not". The only possible answer to the enigma is that the words do mean just what they say and that here in this passage John is representing things as seen by God Himself. In chapter 1 the viewpoint is from the earth and of ourselves. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves" for the results of other men's infractions of Divine law are present in our bodies, and those of our own individual infractions of Divine law, willing or unwilling, deliberate or of ignorance, are also present in our bodies. But God, looking down upon us from above, says "Whoever is abiding in Me, sins not" for only those who at heart are sincere and in full sympathy with Divine law can be truly said to be "abiding in Him". And these, despite their fleshly, Adamic imperfections, their stumbling and failings and frequent falls from grace, the Father knows are at heart in harmony with Him and entirely out of sympathy with sin in all its forms. These, transferred to a perfect environment and being given bodies not handicapped by inherited imperfections and weaknesses, would live fully sinless lives in harmony with Divine law. Hence, knowing what they would do if they could and knowing that they have already pledged themselves to the standards of righteousness and have no desire for, nor sympathy with, any of the "hidden things of darkness" God declares that such "sin not". He knows that their motives and intents and sincerity are beyond question. From the Divine point of view they are without sin, even although in real life the motions of sin still work in their mortal members.
That, after all, is justification, to be declared righteous, upright, in the sight of God. That is the justification that is of God. "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth!" (Rom.8.33).
Now, immediately, and as if to guard against our taking the wrong thought from this wonderful statement defining our standing in the sight of
God, John adds an antithesis. "Whosoever abides in him sins not" ‑ yes, but ‑ "whosoever sins has not seen him, neither known him" (v.6). Here we are brought back to earth again and compelled to view matters from our own standpoint once more. "Whosoever sins!" It has already been told us that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves; we, who are the sons of God, admitted to this spiritual presence. Now, says John, whosoever sins has neither seen nor known him. Clearly here again he is talking of sin from another standpoint than that which is taken in chapter 1. How logical it is to conclude that if, in chapter 3 verse 6, the one who, abiding in Him, sins not in the sense that his motives and sincerity are perfect in the Father's sight, then conversely, the one whose motives and sincerity are not perfect, neither sees nor knows the Father. John has already told us that much, previously in his epistle; now he reiterates this truth in even more solemn tones. It is not the one who has failed by reason of some human weakness who "has not seen him, neither known him", else not one of us in the flesh could justly claim the privilege. It is the one who, like Simon the sorcerer, has a "heart not right in the sight of God" (Acts 8. 21) who, being one that sins, neither sees nor knows Him.
John wants to impress this lesson even more forcefully before he leaves the subject, but he wants to go very carefully. He must have known how that some in after days would seize upon his words to claim for themselves an actual fleshly perfection which they do not in fact and can never hope to possess. Also how others, more sincere of heart, would nevertheless mistakenly conclude that God had granted perpetual freedom from the thraldom of sin without the possibility of its bonds ever again encircling them. Also how there would be those, so blind to the essence of God's ways, that they would hail this declared freedom from sin as licence to plunge into those very excesses which must inevitably brand them as sinners in the sight of the Most High. "Let no man deceive you" he warns "He that does righteousness is the righteous one, just as God Himself is righteous" (v.7). That is not quite the A.V. rendering but it is perhaps a very readable paraphrase. It must be expected that the one whose inward purity and sincerity has earned for himself the Divine approval and hall mark of justification must show something in his outward life and actions to correspond. A good tree does not bring forth evil fruits and a grape vine planted in good ground will normally produce good grapes. Likewise, says John, it is with the sinner. "He that commits sin is of the devil; for the devil sinned from the beginning." (v.8). Just as God sets his seal upon those who are truly His, and proclaims them righteous in His sight, so the devil brands with his hall-mark those who have given themselves over to him, and proclaims them his slaves. Thus it is, and thus it has been from the entry of sin into the world. There is a subtle thought here that is not apparent in the Authorised Version. The Greek omits the definite article; it is grammatically correct to read 'a beginning'. Although it does not necessarily follow on that account that the indefinite article and not the definite article 'a' instead of 'the' is intended and should be read in this instance, it is at least a possibility. We do not know just when the fall of Lucifer occurred. It might have been at the time of Eden. It might have been earlier, and he waited his time, for an opportunity to put his rebellious designs into effect. What we do know, and perhaps this is what John had in mind at this point, is that Satan's rebellion and sin did have a beginning. Divine righteousness had no beginning. That latter existed, with the Most High Himself, "from everlasting". It will exist, after sin has been utterly destroyed, "to everlasting". This same theme, the perpetuity of righteousness and those who stand for righteousness in contrast to the transience of evil and those who embrace and retain evil, is hinted at in the next sentence. "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil" (v.8). Not created or born, but manifested. He already existed. There is no note here of the time when He was not. From a time long before whatever "beginning" it was that first saw the evil and sin of the Devil, the Son of God was. Now He is manifested, made plain in this world from whose sight He was formerly hidden, to destroy the works of the Devil. This "manifestation" must therefore include both His First and Second Advents and all that is associated therewith throughout all the past ages. While sin began and spread apparently unchecked through the earth, and the "prince of this world" ruled without let or hindrance, the Lord of All remained concealed from the world, unknown to mankind. On the historic day when the last of the Prophets, lifting up his eyes from the swiftly flowing waters, cried aloud "Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world", that manifestation began. It has continued ever since, and will continue, throughout the Millennial Age of glory that is to succeed this Age. It will continue until the final judgment has completed this promised destruction of the works of the Devil. Then all mankind is ushered into the Divinely ordained sinless eternity that is the consummation of God's purpose for this world.
(To be continued)