1 John — Alleged Contradiction

(I’m moving this blog entry from the Coyote for Christ page.)

A few weeks back, a friend asked me to write a post on the topic of 1 John 1:8 and 3:9.

There are two verses in 1 John that sometimes cause confusion. When taken out of context, the verses appear to contradict each other. Do they? Well, that is the purpose of this post. My claim is that they do not, and I will seek to show this.

The verses are as follows:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)

and

No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. (1 John 3:9)

Probably the most important rule to remember when interpreting Scripture is context. It is entirely possible to rip just one verse out of a passage and make it mean the opposite of what it truly means – or at least misuse the verse to support one’s preconceived notions of what Scripture says. (Matthew 7:1 and 1 John 1:8 are frequent victims of out-of-context quoting.)
To get a better understanding of the two verses, let’s look at them in a broader context. I will still be limited in what verses I can include, but I will seek to be faithful to Scripture in all my efforts.

To better understand 1 John 1:8, we need to look at verses 5 to 10.

This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

Verse 8 is most commonly used to support the notion that Christians sin, indeed that they must sin. This interpretation is false.

Verses 5-10 are a condensed version of the Gospel message. While many would immediately object to this claim on the basis that John is speaking only to Christians, bear with me for a time and you will see the reasoning behind my statement.

John begins by saying that God is light and there is no darkness in Him. There should be no reason to further explain this statement. It should be evident to all who profess Christ that God is good and only good. Professing Christians claim to trust God, and it would be absurd for them to trust in a being that could act against them just because it felt like being cruel.

John then continues with a series of if-then statements. He uses “we” the entire time, but it will become evident that there are two distinct groups of people in “we.”

First, he says if “we” claim to have fellowship with God (that is, to be saved) and walk in the darkness, “we” lie. Since God is light, someone who walks in the darkness cannot be His.

What is the darkness? “Darkness” is often used in the Scriptures to refer to sin (See John 1 and 3:19-21). Men, it says, preferred the darkness to the light, because then their evil deeds could remain hidden. But the light God brings exposes their wickedness.

The next set of “we” walks in the light. This is the first clue that the same group of people is not being talked about. How can a person walk in the light and the darkness simultaneously? The answer is, they can’t. Furthermore, the person who walks in the light, as God is in the light, is cleansed of all sin by the blood of Jesus Christ.

This talk about “we” continues in verses 8-10:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

John just finished saying in verse 7 that believers have been cleansed of all sin. Shall we attempt to introduce another contradiction, in which John says that believers are cleansed of all sin, but if they claim to be cleansed of all sin, they are self-deceived and not having truth? Quite simply, that is absurd. If a person has been cleansed of all sin, as verse 7 states, it is natural and proper for him to proclaim that God has removed all sin from him, and that none remains.

In verse 8, he is referring to the other group of people within “we,” the ones who walk in the darkness. If they say they have no sin, they deceive themselves. They are not saved, so they are still sinning. In fact, by saying they do not sin, they make God a liar, because God says they do sin (see Romans 3:23).

But for those who insist upon the sinning Christian doctrine, a question. What if a time frame were introduced, say, five seconds? Does the statement “I can go five seconds without sin” violate the principle they claim in 1:8? If so, what about a smaller increment. A second? A millisecond? If these don’t, then why assume that longer time periods such as weeks, years, or even decades violate the verse? And if the small increments do, what then? Shall we state that there is not a single moment in time in which the Christian does not sin? This would come into conflict with their “continued sin” idea in chapter three.

However, if these sinners confess their sin, then God is faithful and just to forgive their sins and to cleanse them of all unrighteousness. This cleansing of all unrighteousness and all sin is a one-time act. Yes, it was written in the present tense. No, that does not denote a continued action. John was providing us with a series of hypothetical statements.

Now, how is this the Gospel message? Simple. Those who walk in darkness, who sin, do not have the truth, and they need to be saved. The way to do this is to believe (which is implied) and confess their sins, after which God will forgive them and cleanse them of all sin. Then they become those who walk in the light.

The next verse is 1 John 3:9. Just as with 1:8, the verse makes sense when viewed alongside the verses around it, beginning with verse 4:

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.

(It is unfortunate that the NASB decided to use the word “practice” instead of “does,” since that creates a loophole.)

The situation here is similar to that of the 1 John 1 passage. In chapter 1, we were presented with two groups of people: one walks in the light and the other walks in darkness. Once again John is contrasting two different types of individuals, this time to set up a test.

The two types are evident: one practices (does) sin, and the other practices (does) righteousness. Because these are presented as opposites, we are shown that sin is the opposite of righteousness (or of righteous behavior). This indicates that sinlessness and righteousness are synonyms of each other. More on this in a moment.

In this passage, John states without reservation that true believers do not sin. Believers abide in God, and there is no sin in God. Also, John makes it simpler by saying that those who abide in God do not sin. In fact, those who do sin are of the devil. He even says that those who sin do not know God, nor have they known God.

Why is this important? John is establishing a test so that the readers can know whether or not they (or anyone else) are saved. He does this by contrasting children of the devil and children of God. One sins and the other does not.

A common interpretation of this passage forces the words “continue to” do sin, claiming the tense denotes a continuous present. This is wrong on at least two counts (only two will be mentioned here). The first is that the tense is not continuous present, it is gnomic present. It serves to state a truth for all time.

How do I know it is gnomic? Let’s illustrate with an example:

“Fish don’t say English words.”

This is gnomic. This is a principle, something that most people would agree to without need of proof. However, you might come across someone who says that the sentence means that fish don’t often say English words, or they do not continually say them. In order to understand what is meant, we need to look at the rest of the paragraph:

“If a creature says English words, it is not a fish.”

This proves the first sentence was gnomic, because the author was establishing a test based on a principle. This is exactly what John did. He said that those who are born of God do not do sin, and those who do sin are not born of God. If John was not using gnomic present, and if he were not assuming a universal truth, then he would not be able to establish the test. It would make no sense. The test would have too many exceptions to be valid.

And besides, even if “continue to do sin” or “do sin continually” were correct, what should we make of it? How many sins does it take for “continue to do sin” to describe someone? Ten a day? One hundred? Once? Even here, the interpretation destroys itself. If a person sinned even once after supposedly surrendering to Christ, then they “continue[d] to do sin.”

Secondly, John says that the children of the devil and children of God are obvious. If sin is permitted, the “obvious” qualifier becomes meaningless. Will we allow for the occasional sin? I touched on this above, but it is worth asking again. What is the sin:righteousness ratio that distinguishes a sinner from a saint? More than half? Three-quarters? To draw the line anywhere using this line of thinking, the distinction becomes purely arbitrary.

But no, the difference must be obvious. The only line that makes any sense in relationship to that verse is obedience one hundred percent of the time. With even one sin, the “saint” is acting like the sinner.

1 John 1:8 is a portion of the condensed gospel message. It is a warning to sinners, telling them that if they claim they are not sinners, they are liars and not of the truth. Verse 3:9 is a condition of a test to determine whether or not someone is a true believer. So we can see that 1 John 1:8 and 3:9 in no way contradict each other. Both affirm true Christians won’t sin.

Bark at me