Can’t Sin? – I John 3:1-9


Canton, is the 8th largest Ohio city – about 60 miles south of Cleveland and Lake Erie. For years its population has been falling, but other cities in Ohio have dropped even more. In other words, with some exceptions, the state of Ohio is not prospering right now. I talked about this with Brother Estes, who is from Ohio, and he agreed. But the city of Canton has at least one major claim to fame; it draws a lot of visitors. One of the unusual buildings in the city appears to have a football stuck right through the roof. It looks as if a perfect spiral had been thrown straight down from Heaven by Gabriel himself. Canton, Ohio is the home of the “Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

And another Canton claim to fame is the “Canton Baptist Temple.” When I was in Bible School, one of the leading lights of the Baptist Bible Fellowship was Harold Henninger. He had taken the pastorate of the Canton Baptist Tabernacle, and built it into the Canton Baptist Temple. A church with more than 5,000 in Sunday School for ten weeks in a row isn’t a chapel, church or tabernacle; it couldn’t consider itself anything less than a “Temple of God.” You can be sure that to reach the number of 5,000, they used lots of gimmicks and tricks. One of those gimmicks came out in 1966, 3 years after the opening of the “Football Hall of Fame.” Pastor Henninger commissioned 102 original oil paintings of the most important Christians in history. He hung those paintings on the walls of one of his buildings and called it the “Christian Hall of Fame.” The fact that no living artist had ever seen Paul, or Chrysostom, or Donatus, wasn’t really important. Absolute truth wasn’t essential; it was only the thought that counts.

As much as I love history, I can’t support the veneration of mere men as in the “Christian Hall of Fame.” I’m not sure that the Apostle Paul, for example, would have wanted his portrait hung on the walls of a theologically dubious Baptist church. And if he looked anything like some preachers, I’m not sure that he’d want anyone to ever see his portrait. I’m of the opinion that no human being should supercede or be placed on a par with the Lord Jesus. Why should C.H. Spurgeon receive credit for what the Holy Spirit did through him. Why should William Carey be more highly honoured than his Saviour? And then there is the fact that the “greatest” Christians are often not famous Christians at all. So there could come quarrels about who should, or shouldn’t, be included in that Hall of Fame.

Take John Wesley as an example. Wesley is almost always placed toward the top of the list of history’s most important Christians. I have no doubt that there is a painting of this Methodist on the walls of the Canton Baptist Temple. He is often said to be the leader of the English Great Awakening, but I don’t think that is really true. George Whitefield was far more instrumental in that period of revival than Wesley. John Wesley was born an Anglican and he died as one; ie., he was a grandson of Roman Catholicism. And he was the leader of the Methodist movement for 13 years before he was converted to Christ. That is not my opinion; that is the testimony of Wesley himself. Unfortunately, he might also say that he had been a “Christian” since the time of his christening, without having actually been saved until mid-way through his life. Much of the theology of the Methodist church grew out of the mind of an unregenerated heart. And many of the things Wesley believed and taught are contrary to the Word of God. For example, he believed God’s children could be disowned by their Heavenly Father. And although he would use the word, he misunderstood the Biblical doctrine of “grace.” He was confused about the nature of election, predestination, foreknowledge and foreordination. He rejected the Biblical doctrines of Eternal Security and the Perseverance of the Saints. And then, he added his own doctrine of sinless perfection, along with a few other things. John Wesley believed that Christians could not only become completely sinless in this world. He hinted that if they weren’t sinless, they were not Christians at all. And he would use verses like I John 3:9 to prop up his argument.

What does the Bible mean when it says, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” We’re not interested in what John Wesley says, or Charles Finney, or C.D. Cole or John Gill. David Oldfield’s opinion isn’t important to anyone but David Oldfield. But what does the Bible say? This morning, let’s have a message that stretches our minds just a little bit.

That the God says something in this verse is obvious. There are some passages of scripture which are omitted in various translations for various reasons. Sometimes the explanation is that God never said it, so why let it clutter the ground? Cut it down. But the Holy Spirit did inspire the words of I John 3:7-9.. The Jehovah’s Witness Bible, “The New World Translation” omits chapter 5, verse 7 – “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” The reason for this omission is easy: they didn’t like what it said, so they took our their scissors. To be more precise, their great-grandfather Origin didn’t like that doctrine, so he cut out that verse. There are Bible perversions that omit Mark 16:9-20 and Mark 9:44 and other verses, because their editors didn’t like what God had originally said – denying that God ordained these words. A better word than “editor” might be “redactor” – someone who readies a text for publication in order to suit a particular kind of opinion. Some redactors, might have left out I John 3:9, because it contains such a confusing statement. But I haven’t found a single Bible perversion which has done it. In other words, this is an important verse of scripture – despite how confusing it might appear.

It is important because it definitely and decidedly refutes several errors.

For example it does away with some people’s definition of “apostasy.” That there is such a thing as “apostasy” no one can deny. The word comes from the Koine Greek language and speaks about “a revolt – a departure – a rebellion.” In the New Testament the word is translated a “falling away.” Today it refers to a defection, an abandonment of someone’s faith, religion, political affiliations or cause. Sure there is such a thing as “apostasy.” But the religious doctrine that someone can be a Christian, a child of God, and then decide to apostatize; that he can receive a divorce from his Heavenly Father and the Saviour – is contrary to the Bible. Every translation, paraphrase, mistranslation, version and perversion of the Bible lets this verse continue to say that the one who is born of God has the seed of God within him – and it is there to stay. But this was not something which was particularly dear to the heart of John Wesley.

This verse also denies the Charismatic false doctrine of the “Second Blessing.” It is believed by many that at some point MAN begins the work of salvation, but that God adds to it later. For some, salvation is only a legal matter – it doesn’t involve the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which may or may not come much later. Others talk about a sealing of the Spirit which comes subsequent to salvation. Depending on which confused person with whom you are speaking, this later addition to salvation might involve the arrival of the Holy Spirit giving evidence with speaking in tongues. And some people think that with the Second blessing, Christians can reach a maturity where they no longer can sin. There are a number of varieties and effects when it comes to this “Second Blessing.” But you will search your Bibles in vain to find the words: “second blessing.” Whatever this verse is teaching it is something which is given to the Christian at the time of his salvation. And this inability to sin is not a part of the second, third or fourth blessing, but a part of the very first.

This verse doesn’t suggest that we cannot sin in any sense whatsoever.

If you sin this afternoon with inappropriate anger, or an evil thought, or you blurt out a lie This verse does not mean that your sin proves that you have not been born of God. To say that a Christian doesn’t sin is to turn scripture against scripture. I don’t just mean that we are turning John against Paul, or Paul against Peter. To say that Christians don’t sin, is to turn scriptures penned by Paul against other scriptures of Paul. To say that Christians don’t sin, it to turn John against himself. I John 1:8-10 – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just 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.” I John 2:1 – “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” I John 5:16-17 – “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.”

The Bible says that we are all sinners, and we will remain sinners until the day of our death and/or glorification. Solomon astutely and divinely noted at the dedication of the Temple – “There is no man that sinneth not.” The word “sinneth” is in the present tense – it is natural for the fallen children of Adam to sin. And when he said “no man” I must assume that he was talking about the saints of God alive in his day. Later he said, “There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” People sin because it is a property of our Adamic natures to sin. Job sinned, Noah sinned, Moses sinned, Abraham sinned. But someone argues, “But that was all before the death of Christ.” Yes, but then we read of Peter’s sins, and we see what appears to be sin in the Apostle Paul. In his personal testimony to the Philippians Paul admitted his failings and his desire to be like Christ, saying, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.” And then there is Romans 7 – “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”

To claim to be sinless IS SIN, because we call God a liar I John 1:10. To claim sinlessness in life is to have a very low view of the holiness of God. To say we are living our lives completely without sin is to say that we’ve come up to the level of God.

And then there is still the problem of the sin nature that we possess. Even if it was possible not to sin, we remain sinners by nature – Adam’ s nature. John Wesley, however, got around that – “I believe that a person filled with the love of God is still liable to involuntary transgression. Such transgressions you may call sin if you please, but I do not.” In other words, sin is sin only if it is wilful. There is no such thing as a sin of omission, or of a non-premeditated sin. If we have the HABIT of a certain sinful act, it is not a sin, because it is only a habit.

Listen carefully – “To be able not to sin, is not the same thing as being not able to sin.” It is one thing to go for a period of time – however long or short – and not commit a sin. But it is another thing not to be able to ever sin again. I know that I John 3:9 seems to say that He who is born of God cannot ever sin; that he becomes impeccable like Christ. But that contradicts all the scriptures which say that Christians can sin. And it contradicts those scriptures which describe Christians in the process of sinning.

If this verse doesn’t say that we cannot sin, then what does it say?

There are literally a dozen or more interpretations of this verse. Some make more sense than others, and some make no sense whatsoever. Some must be twisted and turned in order to make just a little sense.

For example, there are people who say that since the Christian is under grace not law, he cannot sin. Where there is no human law there is no crime, and where there is no divine law there is no sin. Romans 6:14 “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.” While it is true that the Christian is no longer under the law – that is in reference to salvation. It is not through the law that sinners are saved, it is by grace through faith. The law is only the school-master to bring us unto Christ on bended knee. It is true that the Bible says that where there is no law sin is not imputed. But these references deal with how the Christian is saved – through the death of Christ under the demands of the Law of God. And now, because I am in Christ, I am beyond the power of the law to slay me. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” But that doesn’t mean that I am beyond the power of temptation and sin, as defined by the law.

Another related idea is that we stand sinless in Christ. This is a true statement – before the eyes of God the Christian is enrobed in Christ’s righteousness. “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:” Jesus is our redemption and our sanctification; we are righteous in Him. But this verse and others like it are talking about our position before God, not our practical day-to-day lives. This verse says that the Lord Jesus is also my “wisdom,” but does that mean that I am extraordinarily wise? Christ is my sanctification, and because of Him I am a saint, but I still carry the stench of the world in my flesh.

Some interpret I John 3:9 to be talking about the “sin unto death.” But that subject doesn’t come up for another couple of chapters. If John had already addressed the “sin unto death,” this argument might have a little more weight. He didn’t say, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit the sin unto death.”

A somewhat common explanation of this verse is that “Whosoever is born of God” refers to Christ Jesus. While the statement is certainly true, that is not what John is saying. The word “whosoever” opens the door to a much wider group than just One. And Christ doesn’t possess the seed of God – by nature He IS the seed.

Yet, another interpretation is that this is referring to “apostasy.” “Whosoever is born of God cannot forsake his profession of Christ and to deliberately become lost again.” While I believe that to be true, I don’t believe that is what John is saying right here. Earlier in 2:18-20 John refers to the subject of apostasy. “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.” Our verse in chapter 3 would be worded differently if this was still John’s subject. This is about four paragraphs after the subject of “apostasy.” And it needlessly limits the word “sin.”

Some of these interpretations have a degree of truth in them, but they are not John’s subject in chapter 3. Then there is the idea that the new nature within us cannot sin. II Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The idea goes something like this: Our new nature is of God – the seed of I John 3:9 refers to that new nature. Deity cannot sin, and so this gift that God gives cannot sin. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and of course the Holy Spirit cannot sin. Some say, “These things prove that no true Christian can sin.” While this is basically true, those people are still forgetting our old sinful, human, Adamic nature. The Bible says the new nature in Christ and the old nature of Adam are continually at war with each other. “The flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh.” To repeat myself, that is what Paul is talking about in Romans 7 – “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” Our new nature cannot sin, but our old nature and our flesh still do. This is coming very close to what I believe that John was saying. But it is only a corollary to the meaning of the verse.

The words “doth not commit” is a verb-tense which speaks about continuous, present tense action. If I might be permitted to paraphrase what John says, it is something like this: “Whoever is born of God does not continue constantly in sin.” “No one begotten of God deliberately, knowingly and habitually practices sin.” “The person who has been born into the family of God does not make a practice of sinning.” I think that this fits in perfectly with the context of I John 3. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” What must we do to purify ourselves? Isn’t this talking about sweeping sin out of our lives? “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.” Paul exhorts us to abide in Christ, because that is where the strength of the Christian life is to be found. Those who don’t abide in Christ will be prone to sin.

Roman 6:1-14 sheds some light on what John says here. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”

Okay then, what is the purpose of all this?

It is certainly not to give any of us the slightest reason to justify our sin. Instead of “the devil made me do it,” a lot of people try to say, “It’s just my sinful flesh; I couldn’t help it.” But sin is as hideous after our salvation as it was before – if in fact it is even more hideous. “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid.”

To my mind, we have in both Paul and John an exhortation to “reckon ourselves dead indeed unto sin.” We have an impeccable seed within us, and we should strive to live that kind of life. We are exhorted to constantly put off the old man, so that the new man might be seen.

And a second conclusion is a reinforcement of the eternal nature of salvation. Every repentant believer in Christ possesses the eternal and perfect seed of God. Possessing and possessed as we are – God will not do anything less than bring His salvation to completion.

And a third effect ought to be to fill our hearts with praise and song. “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” Is Christ Jesus your eternal Saviour; has He died for your every sin? Have you repented before Him, and is your love and trust in Him alone? Then praise the Lord and live your life in a fashion that glorifies His Name.