1 John 5:16-18
“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request.”
Verses 16-18 are among the most notoriously difficult in all the New Testament to interpret. They have challenged commentators and theologians for centuries. We must presume that the language and point of reference would have been more readily understandable to the original audience than for us today. At this distance removed, it is virtually impossible to establish the context and background of the passage with any certainty. There are two points which have been especially difficult to understand:
- The statement in verse 18, to the effect that believers (those “born of God”) do not sin, when elsewhere it is recognized that believers do sin (v. 16, etc)
- The distinction between sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and sin that is not so.
The latter is especially significant since the reference to “death” (qa/nato$) would seem to relate to the giving of “life” (zwh/) mentioned in verse 16. However, since both points above are important for an understanding of the statement(s) in verse 16, it is necessary to discuss each of them in some detail. It will be helpful, I think, to begin with first point—the statement in verse 18.
“We have seen [i.e. known] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ou)x a(marta/nei]…”
I have intentionally stopped after the first clause, since it is this particular statement which has proven difficult to interpret, from a theological standpoint. First, the perfect participle (with the article)—o( gegennhme/no$, “the one having come to be born” (i.e. born “…out of God“)—is used by the author as a descriptive title for believers (also in 3:9). The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is used repeatedly this way (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4; cf. also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8). This statement essentially repeats the earlier declarations in 3:9—
“Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do/make sin [i.e. act sinfully]…”
and also in the prior v. 6:
“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin…”
- The statements in 3:9 & 5:18 reflect prescriptive, rather than descriptive, language—i.e., expressing how things ought to be, the ideal, rather than how things actually are.
- The present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6-9 and 5:18 specifically indicates a practice of sinning—i.e. continual or habitual. According to this interpretation, true believers do sin, but do not continually sin.
- The “sinlessness” of believers expressed in 3:6, 9 and 5:18 reflects the essential reality of our union with Christ, but not necessarily the daily life and practice of practice of believers, which entails the regular dynamic of both sin and forgiveness.
There are, perhaps, elements of truth in all three of these interpretive approaches. The first option is the simplest, but, in my view, is something of an artificial (modern) distinction. Probably the majority of commentators (and translators) adopt the second option, but, again, there is little clear indication of such a distinction in the text itself. The use of the present tense of a(marta/nw scarcely need be limited to the idea of repeated or continual sin; much more likely is a simple distinction between past sins (cleansed upon coming to faith in Jesus) and present sins committed during the time now that one is a believer.
In my view, the third option above best fits the thought (and theology) of the letter, and is likely to be closest to the mark. Note, in particular, the way that the “sinlessness” is worded and qualified:
- “the one having come to be born of God…”
- “the one remaining/abiding in him…”
1 Jn 3:6. The statement is: “Every one remaining in him does not sin”. This is contrasted with the parallel statement in v. 6b: “every one sinning has not looked upon [i.e. seen] him and has not known him”. The combination of these statements would suggest that, if a believer commits sin, then he/she has not seen/known Christ, and (thus) is not a true believer. However, that is not quite the logic of the verse; consider the structure of it, outlined as follows:
- The one remaining in Christ [i.e. the believer] —does not sin [i.e. characteristic of the believer] —the one who does sin (“sinning”) [i.e. characteristic of the unbeliever]
- The one who has not seen/known Christ [i.e. the non-believer]
The thrust of the statement is the kind of dualistic contrast so common in Johannine thought and expression—seeing/not-seeing, knowing/not-knowing, believer/non-believer. How, then, should we regard the similar contrast between not-sinning and sinning? This is made more clear when we look at the prior statements in vv. 3-5, working backward:
- “in him [i.e. Jesus Christ] there is not (any) sin” (v. 5b)
—this is a fundamental statement of Jesus’ sinlessness; the “sinlessness” of believers must be understood first, and primarily, through this.
- “and you have seen/known that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. revealed], (so) that he might take up [i.e. take away] sin” (v. 5a)
—a central aspect of Jesus’ mission and work on earth, esp. his sacrificial death, was to “take away” sin (cf. Jn 1:29, etc); it is through this work of Jesus that we (believers) are cleansed from sin (1 Jn 1:7).
- “The one doing sin does/acts without law [a)nomi/a], and sin is (being/acting) without law [a)nomi/a]” (v. 4)
—on the surface, this seems simply to reflect the traditional principle that “sin” entails the violation of religious and ethical standards (“law”, “commandments”); however, the Gospel and Letters of John understand and interpret the “commandments” (e)ntolai/) for believers in a distinctive way (cf. especially the two-fold ‘commandment’ in 1 Jn 3:23-24). If “sin” is defined as being “without the commandments” then, here in the letter, this essentially means being without (real) trust in Jesus and without (true) love.
- “Every one holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is pure.” (v. 3)
—this statement focuses more on the attitude and behavior of believers, with the expression “makes himself pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto\n); it functions as an exhortation for believers to live and act according to their true identity (in Christ). Paul does much the same thing when he exhorts his readers, e.g., “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also ‘walk in line’ in/by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
- “Loved (one)s, (even) now we are offspring [i.e. children] of God, but it is not yet made to shine forth [i.e. revealed] what we will be…” (v. 2)
—this declaration is vital to an understanding of the author’s perspective here in the letter; it reflects the two aspects of a “realized” and “future” eschatology, applying it to our identity as believers (“children of God”). Already now, in the present, we are “born of God”, yet this will not be experienced fully for us until the end time. Thus, while we partake of the sinlessness of Christ, we do not act sinlessly at every point of our lives on earth.
1 Jn 3:9. At first glance, throughout verses 2-6ff, the author seems to be speaking generally about “sin”, and it is easy to insert a conventional religious and ethical sense of the word, as though he were simply summarizing traditional immorality such as we see in the Pauline “vice lists” (Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Yet, a careful reading of the letter itself indicates that this really is not what he is describing. Indeed, apart from 2:15-17 and (possibly) 5:21, there is very little evidence of traditional ethical teaching in the letter. Which is not to say that the Johannine congregations were careless about such things; however, the emphasis in the letter is specifically on the two-fold “commandment” for believers stated in 3:23-24, etc—of (proper) trust in Jesus and (true) love for fellow believers. We must keep in mind the rhetorical background of the letter, which is directed against the would-be believers (“antichrists”) who have separated from the Johannine congregations. The author views them as breaking both of these “commandments”, and are thus sinning in a fundamental way that the remainder of the faithful are not.
In verse 10, the author begins transitioning his discussion toward the two-fold commandment, beginning with the duty to love one another, according to Jesus’ own example (Jn 13:34-35, etc). This is prefaced by the dualistic contrast of righteousness/sin and God vs. Devil, sharpening and intensifying the line of rhetoric. These characterize true believers, against those who are not (e.g. the Johannine separatists):
- “the one doing justice/righteousness” vs. “the one doing sin” (vv. 7-8a)
- “(the works of God)” vs. “the works of the Devil” (v. 8b)
- “the one born out of God” vs. “the one (born) out of the Devil” (vv. 8a, 9a)
It is thus not merely a question of committing (or not committing) particular sins, but of attributes and qualities characterizing two different “groups” of human beings (and supposed Christians). Again, it is the purity and sinlessness of Jesus himself, the Son of God, by which we come to be made pure and ‘without sin’—i.e. “born of God”, “offspring of God”. The essence and character of this fundamental identity is clearly expressed in verse 7:
“the (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just”
Doing justice does not make a person just; quite the reverse—the believer’s “just-ness” in Christ results in his/her acting justly. Note how this is expressed in verse 9; it will be useful to look at each component in the verse:
- “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin”
- “(in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him”
- “and he is not able to sin”
- “(in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) out of God”
This is one of the most elliptical statements in the letter:
- “the one having come to be born out of God”
—”he does not sin”
——”His seed remains in him”
—”he is not able to sin”
- “he has come to be born out of God”
Central to the “sinlessness” of believers is the essential reality that God’s seed (spe/rma) remains/abides [me/nei] in us. We may fairly interpret this “seed” as the living/abiding Spirit of His Son (which is also His own Spirit). Just as there is no sin in the Son, even so there is no sin abiding/remaining in us.
This brings us again to the statement in 1 Jn 5:18; let us now examine the verse in its entirety:
“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”
The difficulty of the wording (and meaning) is reflected by several key variant readings, which I discussed briefly in a recent Saturday Series post. The main question is whether the second occurrence of the verb genna/w (aorist pass. participle, gennhqei/$) refers to Jesus, as the Son of God, or the believer as child/offspring of God. Commentators and textual critics are divided on this question, which involves three different major variants, two involving the object pronoun, and one involving the form of the verb:
- o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
“the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”
- o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= e(auto/n
“the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) himself”
- o( ge/nnhsi$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
“the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps watch (over) him”
It would seem that the first reading best explains the rise of the other two, and, in my view, is more likely to be original. Though the verb genna/w, used in a symbolic or spiritual sense, otherwise always applies to the believer rather than Jesus (Jn 18:37 refers more properly to his physical/human birth), the emphasis in the letter on Jesus on the Son of God, and on that as the basis for our being “born of God”/”offspring of God”, makes it highly likely that the author is playing on such a dual-meaning here. This would also seem to be confirmed by 3:9 (cf. above), which speaks of God’s “seed” (i.e. son/offspring) abiding in the believer. It is this seed, this “offspring” born of God, which guards believers, keeping and protecting us from evil.
This detailed study should, I think, shed some light on the author’s thought and mode of expression. Still, it does not entirely explain the statement at the beginning of verse 18. A clearer understanding requires that we now turn to the second interpretive difficulty highlighted above—namely, the meaning of the expression “sin(ning) toward death” in vv. 16-18. This will be discussed in the next daily note.