Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Can you not sin? (1 John 3:6)

What is the difference between saying, “I studied” and, “I was studying”? Both are in the past time, but there is another difference. You may not be able to describe it, but if you are a native English speaker you can feel it.

The difference is what we call “aspect.” “I studied” is indefinite. It does not tell you anything about the nature of your studying. It doesn’t specify if you were studying over a period of time. It doesn’t specify if you studied regularly or repeatedly. It simply states a fact. “I studied.”

On the contrary, what does “I was studying” tell you? It describes the action as continuous, as an ongoing action (in past time). It tells the hearer or reader what you were involved in doing.

Some of the Greek tenses are quite specific. If you want to describe an action that occurs in the past and you do not want to say anything about its aspect, you use the aorist tense. But if you want to describe a past action and want to be explicit that it was a process (“I was studying” rather than “I studied”), then you use the imperfect aspect. This distinction takes some of the guesswork out of the translation process.

However, if you want to describe an action that happens in the present, there are not two Greek tenses. Only one. In other words, if you were to say manthano, it could be translated as either “I study” or “I am studying.” The translator has to make a decision with present tense verbs. Because English distinguishes between an undefined and a continuous action in the present tense, you have to use one or the other in translating a Greek present tense verb. Which one will it be?

For example, what about the possibility of sin? 1 John 3:6 is translated by the NRSV as, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. ” Wow. If you commit more than one sin, it means you do not know God? There are people who twisted John Wesley’s doctrine of perfection to say precisely that. They believed in a second work of grace whereby God removes your ability to sin. (It was interesting to read Wesley’s two sermons against that position, a position often attributed to Wesley by many Calvinists.)

The fact of the matter is that “sins” is a present tense verb, and you can translate it either as “sins” (indefinite) or in some way that makes it clear the sinning is an ongoing process. If it takes an extra word or two in English to make the continuous aspect explicit, it is not adding to Scripture; it is being accurate.

The rule of the ESV was to keep the translation as simple and transparent to the Greek as possible unless it would lead to a serious misunderstanding (i.e., we preferred not to make the continuous aspect explicit as a general rule). I suspect the same rule was in place in other translations. The ESV and TNIV say, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.” The NASB leaves it indefinite; “No one who abides in Him sins.” Surprisingly the NET also uses the simple present tense; “Everyone who resides in him does not sin.”

The NLT uses both halves of the verse rather elegantly; “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.”

A translation decision here is determined not by the translators’ specific understanding of the verse but by their translation philosophy. I am sure the the NASB translators do not believe in perfection.

And yet there is another way to look at this. John has already made it clear that all followers of Christ sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). But sometimes a goal can be stated absolutely as a means of encouragement. A coach may tell his beleaguered team, “We do not lose!” A mother may discipline her daughter, “Good girls do not do that.” Really? A team never loses? Good girls never fail? Of course not. Sometimes the goal stated in absolute terms becomes the motivation for achieving that goal, no matter how imperfectly.

John was writing to people who believed it was okay for followers of Jesus to live in ongoing sin. As their apostle, their coach, their spiritual parent, John takes a deep breathe and proclaims for all sinners to hear: “We do not sin.” “It is not in our character to walk in darkness.” “We have been made better than that by Christ.”

I think if I had to do it over again, I would change my vote on 1 John 3:6.


This shows how important the task of translating is, since it is translators who pass the Bible to Christians who on the basis of the translation available to them create doctrines. Case in point is the movement of people running around claiming they "never sin." Maybe there is wisdom in the idea that unless you know the original languages or at least understand how translating works you should not be able to teach Christian doctrine.

The context is about abiding in Christ. Sin puts us out of fellowship and continual sin puts us in danger of the sin unto death. We truly do not know God on a mature level if we are out of fellowship, and if sin has become a way of life, we are blind believers. We are never outside the realm of our sin nature, we simple learn to use the tools God afforded us to temper our innate nature. And only then can the Spirit teach us His word and reveal our so great God to our heart. Then do we know "Him". So at any given time we are being led by our deprived natures, or we confess our sins an relinquish our wills to the Holy Spirit and walk in the light

As a young man, this verse really caused me to examine my own salvation. I think this was good. We are to examine ourselves and see if we are really of the faith, especially if we have dominating sin in our life (2 Corinthians 13: 5). We should realize that unrepentant, habitual, sinful living does lead to hell and needs drastic corrective measures (Matt. 18: 8 - 9). At the same time, Christ forgives and cleanses us of our sin if we come to him in true repentance and faith and we have no fellowship with him without seeing our sinful neediness for his forgiveness and atonement (1 John 1:9 - 2:2). I think a good interpretive key to this verse can be found in 3 John 9 - 11. Here John describes a man named Diotrephes who refuses to submit to the apostle's authority, speaking evil against him, and puts people out of the church who show hospitality to the messengers John has sent. John sums up Diotrophes' actions by saying "whoever does evil has not seen God" (v. 11). This man was stubbornly unrepentant, refusing to accept correction from apostolic authority, and living in sinful pride. He is an example those John was describing in 1 John 3:6; not meaning those at all like Peter who stumbled greatly in denying the Lord, but repented wholeheartedly and was restored (John 21: 15 - 17).