The Apostle John’s first letter — the message he wants to share — is for every believer along the spectrum of spiritual maturity. It is a message that is for people who are brand-new in their faith. It is also for those who are a few years along in their followership of Jesus and have gained some strength and confidence in the faith. John says his letter is also for people he considers to be spiritual “fathers” — the wise, mature believers who have been following Jesus faithfully for decades. His Letter, and the content of his Letter, is for them all!
What John has to share is for everyone, and that is good news. John shares a message about holiness, about right standing with God, about Christ’s work of delivering us from the power of sin, and about the ultimate victory we can have through Christ over the works of the evil one.
Look with me in 1 John 3. In his letter, John writes,
4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. 7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
Now I want to focus in on this connection that John makes between sin and not sinning, and seeing and knowing (or not seeing and not knowing) God. The question that I am primarily concerned with is this: if I — as a believer, as a follower of Jesus — if I commit a sin, does that mean I’ve lost my salvation? Or that maybe I was never really saved in the first place?
And because I am highly interested in the particular wording of these passages, I will be using two specific English translations of the Bible:
- the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is widely regarded among all the other modern English translations of the Bible to be the version whose wording is closest to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek versions of the Scriptures, and
- the Amplified Bible (AMP), which includes all of the most commonly agreed-upon English words or phrases that scholars say represent the best translations of the message and intent of the original languages.
In the NASB, John mentions “practicing” sin vs. “practicing” righteousness. In the NASB, John says that no one who “abides in [Jesus] sins”. It says that “no one who sins sees Him or [even] knows Him”.
Well frankly these are scary prospects for me at face value, because I am not sinless. I make mistakes, and I am not perfect. What is John saying? That I don’t know Jesus?
He goes on to say that “the one who practices sin is of the devil”. Well, that’s a little different. Practicing sin is different than committing a one-off mistake. Practicing sin is different than a single moment of weakness.
Verse 9, though, is the hardest. John says, “no one who is born of God practices sin” – there’s that word again: “practices” sin. John says, the person born of God “cannot sin, because he is born of God”. Uhm, Okay. I read that and think, “What? Does this mean I am not born of God if I sin?”
Remember, John wrote this Letter to followers of Jesus at every stage of spiritual development, from the brand-new believers all the way up to spiritual fathers, and his message is for them all. But what is that message?
The Amplified Bible helps us to see more of the depth of the original language here. Like every language, there are many words in Greek for which there is not a perfect English translation. Thus, Bible scholars and translators have to choose words that come closest to expressing the idea or intention of the original Greek word.
I like the Amplified Bible, because it takes a 360-degree look at each of these hard-to-translate words. The Amplified Bible combines the most widely-agreed-upon English translations for those hardest-to-express Greek words. What you get is the many facets of each word, which combined together help you to see the heart of that word in the original Greek.
Let me share with you a few lines from that same passage of Scripture, 1 John 3:4-10, from The Amplified Bible:
4 Everyone who commits (practices) sin is guilty of lawlessness… 6 No one who abides in Him [who lives and remains in communion with and in obedience to Him—deliberately, knowingly, and habitually] commits (practices) sin. No one who [habitually] sins has either seen or known Him [recognized, perceived, or understood Him, or has had an experiential acquaintance with Him]. 8 [But] he who commits sin [who practices evildoing] is of the devil [takes his character from the evil one]… 9 No one born (begotten) of God [deliberately, knowingly, and habitually] practices sin, for God’s nature abides in him [His principle of life… remains permanently within him]; and he cannot practice sinning because he is born (begotten) of God. 10 By this it is made clear who take their nature from God and are His children and who take their nature from the devil and are his children: no one who does not practice righteousness [who does not conform to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action] is of God…
Through this, we can see more of the three-dimensional depth of John’s meaning. John writes to both young believers and seasoned followers of Jesus that Jesus’ life of sinless perfection is the ideal to which we are to aspire. As we are born of God, we take our nature from Him, and thus, we aspire to His righteousness by practicing it.
When you are practicing something, you do not always get it right. But you are trying to get it right, and you grow better and better at it the more and more you practice. Making a mistake while practicing to do right is completely different from intending to do wrong. Both the NASB and the AMP make repeated references to “practicing” sin or engaging in “habitual” sin.
In the next post, I will highlight two key assurances that the Apostle John provides within his own letter to help his audience (believers!) know that they can be certain of their relationship with God and of their standing before God.