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I have often wondered why the author of 1 John, in the beginning of his letter, seems to claim that even though people have accepted Christ they will continue to sin, but two chapters later he seems to be making the opposite claim? I've never found an adequate explanation to this. Why is this?

1 John 1:8, 10: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives."

1 John 3:9: "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God."

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4 Answers 4

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In a case like this, it's best to go back to the original Greek. As jrista pointed out, the key verb in 3:9 is the one your version translates as "continue to", in the greek "ποιέω". This Greek Lexicon gives a lot of translations for this verb, including:

to make; with the names of things made, to produce, construct, form, fashion, etc.; to be the authors of, the cause

This same verb is used in the immediately preceding verses, 3:7-8, which the NIV translates:

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.

The emphasis here seems to be on what you produce, cause or make. As such, I would interpret it similarly to Jesus' statement in Matthew 7:18,20:

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit...Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

The point of both passages does not seem to be saying that any who are "born of God" will never sin, but that the product of their lives will be to "produce fruit in keeping with repentance." (Matthew 3:8) They may sin, but they are saved by genuine repentance such that their lives are characterized by righteousness and good fruit, not sin.

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Thank you for the verb roots! :) I don't have any solid sources for that information, but its fundamentally necessary for a proper understanding of scripture. – jrista Aug 23 '11 at 21:10
@jrista even if you don't read Greek, I highly recommend grabbing an English-Greek interlinear Bible (I have this one:…). At the very least, it will give you a good word-for-word translation and a fighting chance at looking up the word in a Greek lexicon – David Fullerton Aug 23 '11 at 21:15
Thanks! I'll check it out. I'm very scientific at heart, and I am always looking for ways to improve my understanding of things...including the Bible. That bible certainly looks intriguing. The Greek Lexicon you linked in your answer is useful as well. – jrista Aug 23 '11 at 21:35
@jrista - You can also find an interlineal text at – Heath Hunnicutt Feb 17 '12 at 1:25

Another possibility:

In chapter 1, John is making an evangelistic appeal to his fellow unsaved Jews (hence his use of "we" and "us") who would claim on God but, without Christ, would be at enmity with Him. Especially note vv. 1-5...these are things believers would already know. A self-righteous Jew, however, would not believe that but would think exactly what John describes in v. 6.

In chapter 3, John is addressing the saved and states a fact about the identity believers have in Christ, one which is in harmony with what Paul said as well.

In short, two separate audiences in one letter. Test it for yourself and see what you think: read ch. 1 with the idea "he's addressing lost Jews." Then when you get to ch. 2 and John starts with "My little children..." he's clearly speaking to those in Christ.

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Hershel Shanks says, in Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Early Development, page 172, that continuing friction among early Christians over the nature of Jesus is evident in the Johannine epistles. He points out that 1 John criticises ‘secessionists’ who departed in a dispute over the reality of sin (1 John 1:8-10) and the fleshly (human) character of Jesus (1 John 4:1-3). Burton L. Mack recognises this friction and says, in Who Wrote the New Testament, page 215, he believes that a split took place in the Johannine community shortly after the turn of the second century. One faction thought it best to merge with other Christian groups of a more centrist leaning. Another party refused, holding to the enlightenment tradition of the community and developed in the direction of a Christian gnosticism.

First John is to a large extent a polemic which Mack describes as vicious, and the author's arguments against members of the other faction as ridiculous. Mack says he confronted his opponents by labelling them liars (1 John 1:6-10; 2:4; 4:20) or consigning them to demonic, cosmic, or divine destruction (1 John 3:4,10). The author of 1 John charges his opponents with being sinners (1 John 1:8-10) who, by saying they are not sinners, have removed themselves from God's grace. He did not want to offer his opponents the promise of forgiveness, but since his new soteriology was about sin and forgiveness, the topic could backfire. Mack says (page 218), this made it necessary to engage in a bit of logical casuistry with regard to sins for which forgiveness was possible rather than those for which it was not, with 1 John 3:4-10 one example of this. Because those who had chosen a more gnostic path were not "born of God", verse 3:9 does not apply to them and they will continue to sin.

Raymond E. Brown also notes in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 393, some find almost a contradiction in 1 John's insistence on love ("God is love") and the refusal to pray for those who commit a deadly sin (1 John 5:16c), whatever a "deadly sin" should mean.

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This might be a case where detail is lost in translation? According to one of my bibles, the English Standard Version, the verse 1 John 3:9 is this:

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.

The word practice there seems to give deeper meaning, and as I understand it, indicates that someone who has repented and is born of God does not willfully and intent fully practice sin. Rather they simply sin because of the fallen nature of man, and with a repentant heart ask for forgiveness under the weight of God's presence (under the weight of guilt?) The next verse, 1 John 3:10, states:

By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

I think the intent of the passage is to indicate there is a visible difference between those who have repented and have been saved by God, and those who are willfully unrepentant and choose to remain "sinners". A repentant believer who has salvation will not make it a practice to be sinful, which is in contrast with one who lacks salvation, and will by choice and nature indeed make it a practice to be sinful.

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Apologies, this really isn't much of an answer, more of a musing, as the question intrigued me. I think it is important, though, to have a diversity of biblical translations. Its difficult to get the full depth of meaning from just one English translation, as many of the root words used in original texts are difficult to fully translate into modern English. – jrista Aug 23 '11 at 20:38

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