The apostle John makes some striking statements in his first epistle about true believers not continuing in sin. At first glance, these statements seem to contradict our daily experience as Christians, since we all continue to struggle with sin to some degree. A closer examination of the context reveals that John is describing an idealized state of Christian maturity and obedience, while recognizing that it is not yet perfectly fulfilled in believers on this side of eternity.
1 John 3:6
“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.”
In this verse, John contrasts two types of people:
1. Those who “abide” in Christ. This refers to genuine believers who have fellowship with Christ and continue in a life of faith and obedience.
2. Those who keep on sinning without restraint. This refers to unbelievers who live a lifestyle of habitual, unrepentant sin. Their lack of repentance shows that they have neither seen nor known Christ savingly.
John is not saying that genuine Christians never sin or have achieved sinless perfection. But rather, the essential distinguishing mark of a Christian is that they persevere in resisting sin through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. While they may stumble into occasional sins, they do not persist unrepentantly like unbelievers do.
As John says later, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 John 2:1). Here we see that John understands Christians will still struggle with sin, but should not use that struggle as an excuse for lowering their standard of obedience.
So in summary, 1 John 3:6 does not teach that Christians never sin, but that they do not persist unrepentantly in sin like unbelievers do. The verse offers both warning and encouragement – warning not to persistent sin, and encouragement that victory over sin is possible by God’s power for those abiding in Christ.
1 John 5:18
“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
Here John reiterates that those “born of God” (true Christians) do not “keep on sinning” continually without restraint. As in chapter 3, this is set in contrast with unbelievers who live in unrepentant sin.
Also again, John is not teaching that Christians never sin, but rather that sin is incompatible with their new nature in Christ. When they do sin, they are convicted of it and led to repentance by the Spirit, being protected by Christ from persisting in it without remorse. While Christians may occasionally give into temptation, the “evil one” no longer has free reign to lead them into unbroken patterns of sin like he does with unbelievers.
An important phrase in this verse is that “he who was born of God protects him.” Our protection against persistent sin comes not from our own power but from Christ. It is only by his grace and strength that believers are able keep from returning continually to their former sins, despite facing periodic failures. Thankfully, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).
So again, 1 John 5:18 should not be taken to mean that Christians never sin or have achieved perfection. But properly understood, it offers great hope that victory over sin is possible for those trusting fully in the Son of God who “protects” them. Sin no longer has to reign over us. As we walk in the light, its power over us is broken more and more.
A Tension, Not a Contradiction
In both of these texts, John holds in tension two important truths:
1. Genuine Christians have been freed from slavery to sin through spiritual rebirth in Christ. While they may occasionally stumble, they do not persist unrepentantly in sin.
2. Christians are not yet perfected. They still struggle with sin in this life and need to grow into greater maturity and obedience to Christ.
As theologian John Murray writes, “The Christian is not under the dominion of sin but under the dominion of righteousness and the contradiction involved in a Christian being ruled by sin is so glaring that it compels the diagnosis that any who continue without confession and without repentance in the state described could never have been born of God.”
So while John expects growing victory over sin in the believer’s life, he does not teach instant perfection. There is an ongoing battle with sin that continues throughout this life, even as we aim to put it to death more fully. The good news is that greater obedience is possible as we abide in Christ, walk in the light, and depend on his strength rather than our own.
How then should we apply these verses about victory over sin in our daily lives? Here are a few brief suggestions:
– Remember that as Christians we have been decisively freed from slavery to sin through the cross of Christ and have a new power source in the Holy Spirit. We no longer need to feel hopeless against or complacent about our sin.
– View occasional failures rightly as just that – occasional failures – rather than evidence that we are still enslaved to sin. Avoid excusing persistent sin patterns in your life.
– Deal with sin seriously and daily through repentance, confession, accountability, and proactive effort by the Spirit’s power to put sin to death. Don’t become passive about sin under the false pretense that victory is impossible.
– Meditate often on Christ’s death and resurrection, counting yourself dead to sin and alive to God in him (Rom 6:11). Allow gratitude for grace to compel greater obedience.
– Be patient with yourself and others in the lifelong fight against sin. Without excusing sin, remember that sanctification is a process. Don’t lose hope over failures along the way.
– Find encouragement that as you walk with Christ, sin will lose its grip on you more and more. Though the battle continues, greater obedience is possible by God’s grace.
While sin remains a daily reality, it no longer has to master us. As we depend on Christ’s strength and walk in the light, we can make progress over sin’s power and reflect God’s love more fully. Our hope rests not in our own willpower, but in the merciful Savior who is able to keep us from stumbling.