Difficult Passages Series — 1 John 3:6,9 for Feb. 10, 2010


1.     Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?

These passages have been considered difficult because of the absolute language of the traditional  translation. 

“Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. (v. 6 KJV)

“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”  (v. 9 KJV)    The RSV and NKJV also use a similar translation.

There is also a seeming contradiction with 1 John 1:8,9 which begins with the premise that if we say we have no sin we make God out to be a liar.

2.     How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?

 The key Greek verbs in verses 6 and 9 are in the present tense.  Scholars tell us that this Greek tense can also be translated in ways that speak of continuing action rather than one time action.  So in interpreting this section, even an older commentary such as Matthew Henry’s spoke about  “practicing” righteousness.   Robertson’s Word Pictures explains the verb translated “sinneth not” in 1 John 3:6 as a “linear present”  for which he suggests the translation “does not keep on sinning.”   So most newer translations such as NIV, ESV, NLT, God’s Word Translation all reflect this idea in one way or another.  For example:  “You know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. 6 Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is… 9 Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God”  (1 Jn 3:5-6,9   Holy Bible, New Living Translation ®, copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.)

However, it is important to see that the main point of the passage is not how much sin is involved but how much any sin we commit does not fit, is completely inimical to and incongruous with the nature of God, the work of God, and the Spirit of God in us.   The commentary in the UBS NT Handbook series suggested that perhaps John was less bothered by the seeming contradiction with chapter 1 than we are and preferred to state his point here in Chapter 3 as strongly as possible about the complete contradiction between sinning and our new Christlike nature.  That is the contradiction that should truly bother us. 

3.     What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?

The great truth that is being argued in this passage is that the Christian is free from the power of sin and does not live any longer in its grasp.  He or she lives a righteous life instead.   The overall section gives us multiple reasons why this needs to be true.  Sin absolutely does not fit with who a Christian is.

  • In v. 3, we purify ourselves because we look for Christ’s appearing (Compare 2 Cor. 7:1).
  • In vv 5,6 we understand that one  purpose of Jesus’ coming was to do away with sin.  So if we stay close to him we will avoid sin to fulfill his purposes (Compare Rom. 8:1-5).
  • In verses  7-10 we are taught that we do not sin because doing what is right is the family likeness of those who are God’s children.  It is our spiritual genetic inheritance; it’s in our spiritual DNA.  In contrast, those who continue to practice sin reveal that they are children of the devil.