Saints and Sinners
1 John 3:4–10
The First Epistle of John teaches that people who are truly born again are children of God and will practice righteousness (2:29), keeping themselves pure from sin, just as Christ is pure, through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (3:3).
In 1 John 3:4–10, the apostle John revealed the true nature of sin and that living in sin is diametrically opposed to the Christian’s new nature. How people live in relation to sin and righteousness either validates or repudiates their claims to be Christians.
Verse 4 describes the nature of sin: “Whoever commits [the] sin also commits [the] lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” There are no exceptions. Anyone who practices sin commits rebellion or lawlessness against God. The word commit does not refer to one sin committed at a particular time but to an ongoing lifestyle of sin.
The Greek text uses the definite article the before the words sin and lawlessness, indicating the terms are interchangeable when referring to an individual’s nature or disposition of sin. Thus someone who lives in sin willfully defies and rebels against God and His law.
A professing believer who continually lives in sin contradicts the very purpose for Christ’s coming: “And you know that He was manifested [made visible to mankind in the flesh] to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin” (v. 5). The readers of this epistle knew Christ’s mission in coming to Earth was redemptive, “to take away our sins” through His death on the cross. Sins are removed at the moment of belief, but a Christian’s sinful disposition (nature) will remain until he or she receives a glorified body at his or her resurrection.
The phrase and in Him there is no sin (v. 5) literally means, “sin in Jesus does not nor ever did exist.” Scripture is clear that Jesus lived a sinless life on Earth (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). He had to be sinless to be able to pay for the sins of others. If Jesus were not sinless, He would not have been qualified to remove sin because He would have needed a redeemer Himself.
Through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, He destroyed the works of the Devil (cf. Jn. 14:30; Heb. 2:14). Thus Christ is the one after whom all believers should pattern their lives.
Comparing Saints With Sinners
John advanced his argument by contrasting people who are born again in Christ with people who are not: “Whoever [everyone] abides [remains] in Him [Christ] does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him” (1 Jn. 3:6).
Born-again individuals are set apart from unsaved sinners by their ongoing relationship or commitment to Jesus Christ. Saved people “abide” in Him by keeping His commandments (Jn. 15:10). Although John said a saved person “does not sin,” he was not teaching that believers can attain sinless perfection. Not at all! He already said Christians cannot say they never sinned (cf. 1 Jn. 1:8—2:1). All believers must confess and forsake known sin in order to be forgiven. Rather, John was saying true Christians do not willfully rebel against God by habitually practicing sin.
In contrast, “Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him” (3:6). This statement is true of everyone who is not born again. Unredeemed people live in continual rebellion to God’s New Testament commandments, and they habitually sin. The phrase neither seen Him means they have never discerned, perceived, or received spiritual insight into the true nature and character of the incarnate Christ. Such people are spiritually blind and dead in sin.
The words nor known Him reinforce the same thought. Such sinners have never had a born-again relationship with Christ. They never came to know Him personally. They know about Him (as did the Gnostic false teachers), but intellectual comprehension does not equal a born-again experience (cf. 2:3–6).
John again exhorted Christians to guard against deception:
Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil (3:7–8).
By addressing his readers as “little children” or children within God’s family (cf. 2:1, 12), he admonished them with tenderness and pastoral concern for their spiritual well-being. The epistle warns readers to be continually vigilant and guard against the deceptive, anti-Christian teachers who left the church (cf. 2:18–19). Earlier John had warned believers about being deceived by false doctrine (v. 26); in this passage he warned about being deceived by the moral practices of false teachers.
True believers are to “practice righteousness,…just as He [Christ] is righteous” (3:7). People who are born again should live moral lives as a result of the new birth, with Christ as their example. Their lives should not be righteous merely once in a while but always, because they follow Christ’s commands. Such a lifestyle is consistent with the new nature they possess from God.
The phrase just as does not imply believers can acquire the same degree of righteousness as Christ. Christ is infallible; people are fallible sinners. However, it does indicate that people who are born again desire to live morally righteous lives, as the Lord commands. Righteous living provides evidence of being born again.
On the other hand, someone who habitually practices sin reveals his true nature: “He who sins is of the devil” (v. 8). The phrase of the devil means such individuals reject the moral commandments in God’s Word. Instead of allowing God to control their lives, they yield themselves to the program of the Devil, who is out to destroy God’s plan for mankind. Such people are not children of God but children of the Devil.
The Devil has “sinned from the beginning” (v. 8), meaning he is the originator of sin. This verse does not refer to the beginning of existence but, rather, to when Satan fell because of his pride, self-will, rebellion, and desire to be God, rather than God’s servant (cf. Isa. 14:12–14; Ezek. 28:12–19). Since his fall, the Devil has been behind all evil in the world, promoting sin and rebellion against God through man’s sinful disposition (nature).
Deliverance from sin came through the finished work of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested [visibly appeared in human flesh], that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). The point of Christ’s coming, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection was to destroy the Devil’s evil works. The phrase Son of God is the first of seven in this letter and emphasizes Christ’s true identity.
Notice, the word works is plural, encompassing all the plans, plots, programs, and perversions of the Devil. The word destroy refers to Christ’s victory over Satan through His death and resurrection. This does not mean the Devil is inactive today but, rather, that he has no power to hold believers in bondage to sin. Satan is a defeated foe; and believers have power over him by yielding to the Holy Spirit, thus allowing God to have complete control over their lives.
Christians are delivered from the power of sin and spiritual death and will be delivered from the presence of sin at the Rapture of the church. Those who put their faith in Christ need no longer fear the sting of dying because death is swallowed up in the victory and deliverance provided through Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54–57).
John summarized his argument concerning the Lord’s deliverance from sin: “Whoever has been born of God does not sin [literally, “sin he is not doing”], for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9).
The phrase born of God identifies believers—people who have been regenerated (cf. 2:29). The regenerated person “does not sin,” meaning does not habitually practice or live in sin.
Why? Because “His [Christ’s] seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” Scholars differ on what is meant by the phrase His seed remains in him. Some believe seed means the Word of God that produced the new birth remains in the believer. Others say it refers to the Holy Spirit, who was instrumental in the regeneration process and indwells, fills, and guides Christians in righteous living.
Still others believe seed refers to the divine life or new nature the Holy Spirit implants in believers at the time of their regeneration (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4). This view best fits the meaning of the word seed in this context.1
First John 3:10 provides a test for identifying a believer from a nonbeliever: “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.”
The word manifest means to make visible to the world so that one can clearly discern who is a child of God and who is a child of the Devil. People who love other Christians and practice righteousness are truly born again and thus children of God. People who do not live righteously and do not love other Christians are not children of God, regardless of what they profess. There are no exceptions.
These are strong statements in God’s Word, and every believer needs to heed them.
- For a full study on 1 John 3:9, read Dr. Renald E. Showers’ book The New Nature (pp. 129–135), available through The Friends of Israel.