Friday, December 14, 2012
Sin and Sinlessness in 1 John
Another popular view supported by the ESV focuses upon the present tense of the verb in 1 John 3:9. The ESV translates 1 John 3:9 as, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning..." The idea found both in the ESV and the Concordia Commentary is that the Christian still sins but does not engage in a life of habitual sin and his life is marked by a general trajectory of getting better. It relies heavily upon the use of the present tense in verse 9. This is a convenient way to resolve the paradox but doesn't seem to be what John is actually trying to communicate. The present tense does not denote a habitual action but an action in progress. The same tense is used in 1:8 which says, "If we say we do not have sin" The ESV is a revision of the RSV and the RSV seems more honest when it translates the verse as "No one born of God commits sin..." If the verse contained something other than "sin" I doubt that the ESV would have translated the verse in this way. If the verse had said, "No one born of God eats bacon," I doubt that the ESV would have translated the verse as, "No one born of God makes a practice of eating bacon." John's point in using the present tense is not to give someone an out who dabbles in sin from time to time. To translate it as "practicing sinning" seems to weaken the intentionally harsh statement that John is delivering.
Some commentators such as Rudlof Schnackenburg, see an eschatological tension at work here where the Christian is already and not yet sinless. This would fit nicely within the simul justus et peccator framework that exists in the Pauline letters and I think there is some validity to that method of interpretation.
I also think that the particular sins that are being addressed should be considered. From the rest of the Epistle it appears that there are false teachers who left the church after their ideas were not accepted and set up their own competing church. The false teachers are walking in darkness and claiming to be sinless. They are denying that Christ has a true human body and that He is the Christ and that He is the Son of God. John refers to the denial of Christ having a real human body as being antichrist (4:4).They are denying the true Christ. They are showing hatred towards their brothers in Christ by separating from them (2:19). They are not providing for the needs of their brothers and not united in doctrine. John implies that they are not helping their brothers in their physical bodies because they deny that Christ had a physical body. They are engaging in immoral behavior but claiming that it is not truly sin because it is only done in the body and the body isn't important. Those who are in the light hold fast to Christ's commandment. The commandment is to confess the true Christ and to love the brothers.
Those in darkness appear to be denying the sacraments as well which is pretty common throughout history among those who deny that Christ had a physical body. In typical Johannine fashion because of the persecution that the church was suffering, John speaks in code about the sacraments. He speaks of the "anointing" (2:27) that those in the light had received. In ancient practice anointing occurred just after baptism. This seems to imply that that those in darkness denied baptism. The references to "love" also seem to be a reference to the Lord's Supper. In John 13 the commandment to love one another is closely tied to the Lord's Supper. John is the Apostle whom Jesus loved and at the beginning of chapter 13 this love is extended to all the Apostles. In John 5:6, John speaks of Jesus and says "This is the one coming through water and blood." Most translations say something like, "This is He who came by water and blood." But the verb is in the present tense (practicing coming probably wouldn't be a good translation either). Jesus comes to us in water and blood. Jesus comes to us in baptism and the Lord's Supper. There are three that testify--the Spirit, the water, and the blood. They are all in agreement in their testimony. The Spirit is not contrary to the water and the blood. The Spirit is not contrary to the physical. You do not attain some higher level of religion by freeing yourself from the earthly elements but rather end up denying the testimony of the Spirit. This statement is closely tied to John's Gospel where Jesus' side is pierced and blood and water flow out (John 19:34-35). John makes quite a deal about this fact. It not only shows that Jesus truly died as a real human being with a real human body but also shows the source of the church's life which is drawn outside of the side of Jesus just as Eve was created from the side of Adam.
Another relevant but difficult passage in understanding how the Christian can be both confessing sins and sinless is found in 1 John 5:16-17. John instructs the congregation to pray for those who have sinned but not if the sin is unto death. John speaks of this sin unto death in a roundabout way. I'm not entirely sure as to exactly what is meant here. The "sin unto death" seems like it must correspond in some way to the sins already described, especially the denial of Christ as He comes to us as the Son of God and Messiah in His human body. It seems like it would have to refer to those who were once part of the church in some way and who have left. It doesn't refer to those who were never a part of the church. Is this judgment reserved for leaders of the movement or maybe even to those who have died in their denial of Christ? I'm not sure.
I think the best way to understand John's statements about the Christian as sinner and as sinless is similar to that of what we find in Romans 7 but from a different angle. The Christian who confesses that Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah who has paid the price for his sins, and who has a real human body is truly sinless according to his new nature. All of his sins have been covered by the blood of Christ. The person who denies that he is a sinner does nothing but sin and remains in the dark.
Posted by Chuck Wiese at 2:17 PM