Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Do Christians Sin, or Not? Resolving an Apparent Contradiction in 1 John

There are three verses found in 1 John which are the source of endless confusion and which seem impossible to reconcile with our experience as Christians or even with other parts of the same letter. These verses are 1 John 3:6, 3:9 and 5:18. I think that there IS a solution to be found, but first let’s explore the popular understandings of these verses and see why these ultimately fail and why we must look for another way to make sense of these passages.

1 John 3:6:
Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.

1 John 3:9:
Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.

1 John 5:18:
We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him.

In each case, it’s the first clause that proves so difficult to understand. And it’s not hard to see why. Many have pointed out that there is a potential contradiction between these ideas and the ideas expressed in 1 John 1:8 and 10. Those verses are understood by many to say that Christians should not deny that they sin. And yet, here are three verses in the same letter which seem to be saying that we shouldn’t expect Christians to sin.

I have come to believe that verses 8 and 10 are misunderstood by many because it’s assumed that “we” in these verses is a reference to believers exclusively. I think there are good reasons to think that those plural pronouns were intended as references to humans generally, but I won’t develop that any further here.

The most popular way that these three verses in 1 John are understood are helped along, unfortunately, by several of our English translations. The ESV is one such example:

1 John 5:18
“We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin…”

The NIV, ESV and the NLT translations offer similar “solutions” for all three of these verses. But there are several reasons why we should reject these translations.

First of all, it should be noted that there is no verbiage in the original Greek text to convey the idea of “continuing” action. The Greek is much more straightforward:

“Pas meno en autos hamartano ou…”
“Whoever abides in Him sins not.”

So where does the idea of “continuing to sin” come from, then? It comes from a distortion of the present tense that results in a basic misunderstanding of the function of the present tense. Many commentators insist that because “sins” is a present-tense verb, the intended meaning is this idea of on-going, continual or habitual sin. But it’s fairly easy to see why this is not a sound conclusion regarding the present tense.

Indeed, we can go to other NT passages which use a present tense verb and see how such a conclusion, if applied universally, would result in absurdities:

Luke 16:18
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery…”

In this verse, the words “divorces,” “commits” and “marries” are all in the present tense. But do these imply continuing, ongoing or habitual action? It’s quite plain that even a man who divorces ONCE and marries another ONCE is guilty of adultery. The charge of adultery applies after just ONE occurrence, and yet the present tense is employed.

It’s also easy to see, using contemporary English, how we often use the present tense to refer to something that might only happen once. For example, I could say:

“He who swims gets wet.”

Even though “swims” is in the present tense, it’s quite obvious that in order to get wet, a person doesn’t have to continue swimming. Truth is, you don’t have to swim for long at all to get wet. Continuous, on-going, perpetual swimming is not required. You get wet if you swim only for a moment.

To support this further, consider 1 John 2:17, which uses the same Greek word in the same tense:

“…he who does the will of God abides forever.”

What’s interesting here is that when you look at the ESV, NIV and NLT translations of this verse, you find that the translators did NOT choose to add this idea of “continual” or “on-going” to the passage. In this case, they seem quite satisfied with a translation that is much more straightforward.

There is another reason why we should reject this notion of “continual” or “habitual” or “on-going” in the context of these three very challenging verses:

No one has any idea about what constitutes “continual.” One man might place that bar very low, while another might place that bar very high. If a man sins just once after accepting the gospel, I think it’s fair to say that he has continued to sin.

But someone else might say “No! That’s ridiculous! Give the guy a break, everyone stumbles occasionally!”

Okay then. Let’s have a number. Let’s have a way to quantify this. Is there no way to quantify it? If there isn’t then of what use is it? This understanding of these verses is quite popular and is typical of those who hold to a Lordship Salvation position, where you have to in some way prove that your faith in Christ was valid. They view 1 John through the “Tests of Life” lens where we are to use what they see as “tests” in 1 John to assess whether they are really saved or not. Let’s suppose they’re right about that… these are pretty important tests, then, aren’t they? And yet here we have criteria set up that is entirely ambiguous, subjective and undefined, totally unquantifiable. And God has given us THIS as a way to assess something so important? Sorry, but that doesn’t compute.

Let’s face it: Every Christian continues to sin. Some may continue to a lesser extent, but “lesser extent” is relative and subjective and so cannot be a reliable basis for a “test” of anything.

That brings us, then, to the typical way that Free Grace theology interprets and applies these verses, typically in conjunction with what I call “Frangible Fellowship” doctrine. In order to understand this, it’s necessary to make a comparison between the three verses in question:

1 John 3:6:
Whoever abides in Him does not sin.

1 John 3:9:
Whoever has been born of God does not sin.

1 John 5:18:
We know that whoever is born of God does not sin.

Notice that all three describe someone who DOES NOT SIN. But 3:6 is unique in that it uses the phrase “abides in Him” rather than “born of God.” This becomes important in understanding how many in the Frangible Fellowship tradition understand these passages.
It seems clear that 5:18 duplicates 3:9. And since all three sentences (or clauses) end with “does not sin,” it would be reasonable to suggest that “abides in Him” is but another way of expressing the idea of being “born of God” and vice-versa. However, those in the Frangible Fellowship tradition insist that the two are not to be equated, and understand “abides in Him” to be roughly synonymous with the idea of being “in [frangible] fellowship” with God. However, it seems that many in that tradition do see “born of God” as a reference to union with Christ or positional truth… we might say that “born of God” equals “born again,” invoking John Chapter 3.

It might be helpful, then, to re-word these verses in a way that conveys this more directly:

1 John 3:6:
Whoever is “in [frangible] fellowship” with Him does not sin.

1 John 3:9:
Whoever has been born again does not sin.

1 John 5:18:
We know that whoever is born again does not sin.

With respect to 3:6 in particular, a lot rides on the understanding of the phrase “abides in Him.” Lordship proponents generally understand “abide” to be a reference to union with Christ or positional truth, but Frangible Fellowship generally objects to such an understanding and insists, instead, that John uses “abide” as more-or-less a synonym for being “in [frangible] fellowship.” Accordingly, the Frangible Fellowship understanding of these three verses is expressed in two different ways, depending on which verse is being discussed. We’ll explore the Frangible Fellowship solution to 3:6 first.

An article on Chafer Theological Seminary’s web site describes “abiding in Christ” in the following way:

“’Abiding in Christ’ is synonymous with ‘fellowship with Christ.’ The Christian is either (a) in carnality, resulting from personal sin, or (b) in fellowship with God, resulting from personal, private, confession of sin directly to God as a part of our priestly ministry. Thus, confession of personal sin—an admission of personal responsibility—is the basis for our restoration to fellowship with God and the filling by means of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the believer has the ability to be spiritually self-sustaining—to maintain fellowship with God.”

So “abiding in Christ” and “in fellowship” are essentially synonymous. The Christian who is “out-of-fellowship” is described as “carnal,” and notice that the carnality is the result of personal sin. Also, notice that only two possibilities are presented: You are either in [frangible] fellowship, or you’re out-of-fellowship (carnal). You are either abiding in Christ, or you are not… there is no middle ground. And notice that if you are not abiding, if you are not “in fellowship,” if you are in “carnality,” it is the result of your sin. Your sin was the cause.

With this in mind, the explanation offered for 3:6 in particular boils down to this: A Christian who is “abiding,” who is “in fellowship” with God is a Christian who will not sin, and in fact CANNOT sin. The option of sinning is not available to the Christian who is abiding in Christ, or who remains “in fellowship.”

One teacher puts it this way:

“John is saying that the person who abides in Christ and is walking by the Spirit, filled by the Spirit, can’t sin. But once he chooses to leave that position of dependency that activates the sin nature, he is out of fellowship and walking in darkness, and when he is walking in darkness he is spiritually blind and spiritually ignorant.”

Close examination of this idea, however, reveals a fatal flaw. Notice that sin causes a loss of fellowship; that sin causes us to go from the state of “abiding in Christ” to the state of “carnality.” But at the same time, we’re told that a Christian who is “in fellowship” or who is “abiding in Christ” is not able to do that which would cause him to lose fellowship. And if that is true, then we could ask “How can a Christian ever get out of fellowship, then?”

Many teachers who hold this view seem to want to talk around this problem by positing that in order to enable themselves to sin, a Christian must first decide to break fellowship or otherwise exit the state of “abiding in Christ.” It is only after they do this that they gain the ability to sin.

However, Christ commands us to “abide in Him” and if that means to “remain in fellowship,” then any choice to leave fellowship can only be described as disobedience, and disobedience is, well, sin. So this ends up being no escape at all, and if we grant the Frangible Fellowship understanding of “abide,” we would really have to disagree with John and say that the “abiding” Christian certainly can sin. There really is no escape from this, and yet John clearly writes that whoever abides in Christ does not sin.

On this Frangible Fellowship view of 1 John 3:6, “abiding” in him amounts to obedience, or “not sinning.” A person who “abides in Christ” in this sense is the person who is being obedient. So if John means that if you’re abiding in Him then you won’t sin, we could express this same idea with “if you avoid sinning, you won’t sin.” But of course this is an utterly useless tautology. This cannot be what John intends. We must look for a better way of understanding this passage.

The other two verses, 1 John 3:9 and 5:18, however, are more difficult for the Frangible Fellowship proponent to deal with because, generally speaking, they admit that “born of God” equates to union with Christ.

As an aside, there are a few Free Grace teachers who would insist that “born of God” actually equates to being “in fellowship” as well. That is, Christians who are “in fellowship” or who are “abiding in Christ” are “born of God,” but a genuine Christian might be “out-of-fellowship,” or may not be “abiding in Christ” and such a Christian would not be described as “born of God.” But if that’s what it means then the difficulties I raised above still apply, and are still fatal.

The challenge faced by the Frangible Fellowship proponent with respect to 3:9 and 5:18 is daunting. On their own understanding of 1 John 1:8 and 2:1, John admits that Christians sin. And yet here he is saying that Christians don’t sin. What to do?

The solution offered is to posit that John is thinking of the believer in terms of two distinct persons: The “old man,” which is driven by the sin nature, and the “new man,” which is the believer together with the new nature he received at salvation. The idea is this: John is saying that the believer’s “new man” doesn’t sin. He’s saying that when a believer sins, it’s the believer’s “old man” that’s doing the sinning and not the “new man.”

First of all, it’s interesting that this bifurcation of the individual only seems to surface in these three verses and not in, for example, 1 John 1:9 or 1 John 2:1 or 1 John 2:12.

In other words, 1 John 1:9 is seen by many as an instruction that every believer should follow. But is it an instruction for a believer’s “new man,” or should the believer’s “old man” follow those instructions? And we could also ask “Is it my old man or my new man that loses fellowship with God when I sin?” After all, it’s not my “new man” that sins, only my “old man.” So why should my “new man” lose fellowship with God when it’s my “old man” that committed the sin?

Notice also that in 2:1, John says “If anyone sins…” He doesn’t seem to be concerned about new man vs. old man here, does he? He seems to be treating the individual as a “whole” throughout the letter. And in 2:12, John says that “…your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.” Whose sins? Is he talking to the “new man” or the old? This solution seems a little ad-hoc, doesn’t it?

Secondly, how does this actually solve a problem for me, as a believer, knowing that when I sin it’s my old nature and not my new nature? What difference does it make if, at the end of the day, it’s still me doing it? And what difference does it make if I’m still the one who suffers a loss of fellowship with God and has to confess it?

In the final analysis we all seem to recognize that within each Christian there resides a motivation to sin. If this were not the case, why would we need to admit that Christians sin at all? In addition to this, everyone acknowledges that the same person who can choose to continue abiding can also choose to stop abiding. And by the way, is that the “new man” or the “old man” who decides to stop abiding?

Do we become controlled by the “old man” as a result of a decision to allow the “old man” to control us, and if so, how was the “new man” able to make such a decision if only the “old man” has the capability to sin?

See, we’re really back to the same circularity we dealt with earlier: The phrase “old man” ends up describing the Christian who is out-of-fellowship or “not abiding,” and the phrase “new man” is a description of the Christian is “abiding in Christ” or is “in [frangible] fellowship.” If the “new man” cannot sin, he can’t decide to activate the “old man,” because that in itself would have to be a sin.

What these explanations boil down to is something like this:

“An abiding Christian cannot sin if he continues to be obedient.”

Suppose that you’re hanging from the end of a rope 500 feet above the ground and someone shouts up at you: “Whoever holds onto the rope cannot fall as long as he doesn’t let go of the rope!” Is this a source of comfort for you? Don’t you suppose that the person clinging to the rope already knows that they won’t fall IF they hold onto the rope? Do you think telling them makes it any easier to hold onto the rope?

What would be helpful to the person hanging from the rope? What would be a source of comfort? What if there was a giant airbag below and you told the person clinging to the rope that even if they let go, they’ll still be safe… Might that be a source of comfort for the person?

This, I think, is closer to the intent behind these three verses and, in fact, the letter of 1 John. The entire epistle of 1 John seems to emphasize the believer’s security in Christ; that his sins are forgiven, that he has been given Christ’s righteousness and has eternal life. Jesus is described as our advocate, John says that Jesus was the propitiation for our sins. The key, really, is in understanding imputed righteousness and justification though faith in Christ and in looking at this issue from a divine viewpoint rather than from a human viewpoint.

The word “imputation” simply means to “credit to one’s account.” When God “imputes” righteousness to you, you are declared righteous. This imputation does not make us righteous in practice… we still have an Old Sin Nature and we’re still largely driven by it. But when someone trusts in Christ, their faith is counted as righteousness.
This declaration or imputation of righteousness is a function of how He sees us once we have trusted in Christ. Among other places, this idea is found in Romans 4:5:

“But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”

That is the judicial imputation of righteousness, what we ordinarily refer to as “justification.” God declares us righteous, and this means that He sees us as righteous, even righteous as Jesus is righteous. And this is the principle of identification. From God’s perspective, what’s true of Christ is true of us. We are said to be “in union” with Christ, we are said to “wear the robes of Christ’s righteousness.” All of this is consistent with this idea of a judicial imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

It’s useful to consider these truths when we get to verses like 1 John 3:6 and 3:9 and 5:18 because with those things in mind, these verses can be seen as descriptions of the believer from God’s perspective. That is, because He has declared us righteous, because Christ is our advocate, because Christ presents us faultless before the Glory of God, God actually sees us as faultless. He declares us righteous. Is it so controversial to suggest that this means He actually sees us as righteous? And if He sees us as righteous, then doesn’t that mean that--from His perspective--we don’t sin? What else could it mean?

The difficulty we have is that this “judicial” imputation cannot be seen with our eyes. We look at ourselves and see abject failure. And this is where Lordship comes in… they suppose that the imputation of righteousness is real and that our behavior ought to reflect that imputation and that if it doesn’t, you must have never received it. But that’s not the reality, and it turns out that the only way to account for the fact that perfectly righteous Christians still sin is to say that this perfect righteousness is a “judicial” imputation only, it is merely a declaration, though it’s a declaration that counts.

I already mentioned a few verses in 1 John which lend support for this idea, but 1 John 3:7 and 1 John 4:17 are two powerful supports for this. To understand these verses, we will need to compare various other verses as well…

1 John 3:7
“Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.”

This is another rather strange verse. What does it mean to “practice (do) righteousness?”
We’ll get to that shortly… but notice how the verse winds up. Whoever does righteousness is righteous just as He is righteous. John is describing parity between the one who “does righteousness” and Jesus, and when you think of it in those terms, it sounds an awful lot like imputed righteousness.

The hitch, of course, is that it appears to be conditioned upon “doing righteousness” rather than believing the gospel. Okay, that’s a fair point… but before we jump to any conclusions, let’s compare some other verses…

1 John 2:29
“If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.”

1 John 5:1
“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…”

It’s curious that these two verses both describe the person who is “born of God,” and yet, they describe that person in different terms. One is described in terms of “practicing righteousness” and the other is described in terms of believing in Christ.
Consider these two verses for a moment:

1 John 3:23
“And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His
Son Jesus Christ…”

1 John 2:3
“Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.”

We’ve already seen that “keeping His commandments” or “keeping His Word” appear to be allusions to believing the gospel. For more on this, see “Keeping His Commandments.”
So what would be the difference between doing what is right and keeping His commandments? Whatever those expressions mean, wouldn’t you think they were synonymous?

Let’s consult John Chapter 3, where we’ll see more support for this:

John 3:20-21
“(20) For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.
(21) But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

When you understand this in the context of John 3, it becomes quite clear that Jesus is contrasting the one who rejects Jesus (does evil; does not come to the light) against the one who accepts Jesus (comes to the light).

Now, let’s throw 1 John 3:10 into the mix:

“…Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God…”

Consider that if, for example, “doing righteousness” or “keeping His commandments” were allusions to believing the gospel, then this verse would make very good sense. The one who rejects the gospel (does not do righteousness; does not keep His commandments) is not of God. Hmmm.

Turns out we find more support for this understanding in John 5. First, consider verse 24:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”

Here, Jesus is spelling out for an audience of unbelieving Jews what he explained to Nicodemus back in Chapter 3. The one who believes in Jesus is passed from death (eternal separation from God) to life (eternal union with God) and will NOT come into condemnation. And notice the implication here that those who reject Jesus remain where they are already (John 3:18) and that is headed for eternal separation or “death” because they have not believed. A few verses later, Jesus continues with the following:

John 5:28-29
“(28) Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the
graves will hear His voice
(29) and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

Now we all know that no one is given eternal life for “doing good…” that would be a works-based salvation, wouldn’t it? And yet Jesus seems to be describing that very thing in John 5:29. Those who have “done good” (done what is righteous) are resurrected to life while those who have “done evil” are resurrected to condemnation.

Is Jesus teaching a salvation by works? NO! He’s saying that believing the gospel is the right thing to do and rejecting the gospel is evil. It’s the wrong thing to do. If you believe in Him (which He’s just described in verse 24) then you’ve done the right thing.

And it’s really the only “right thing” you’re equipped to do because you’re a sinner who is utterly unable to justify yourself. The only thing you can do is make a decision to rely on Jesus to justify you. So those who do the right thing by believing in Jesus are passed from death to life and do not come into condemnation, while the ones who do evil, who reject Christ, remain in death and are resurrected to condemnation.

And so we see that “he who practices righteousness is righteous just as He is righteous” is simply an allusion to believing the gospel, which results in the imputation of righteousness, identification with Christ, in which case the person is (from God’s perspective) righteous just as He is righteous. This is why there is parity between 1 John 2:29 and 1 John 5:1. The person who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and the person who “practices righteousness” is born of God also. Why? Because “practicing righteousness” is an allusion to believing that Jesus is the Christ.

Then we come to 1 John 4:17:

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the
day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.”

Here we have another allusion to imputed righteousness. As He is, so are we. And knowing this, we have have boldness and confidence at His coming; in the day of judgment. Why do we have boldness in the day of judgment? Because we have His promise that we will not come into condemnation; that we have passed from death to life. We abide in Christ and Christ abides in us, Christ is our advocate, Christ presents us faultless before the Glory of God. We have boldness because we believe (confess) that Jesus is the Christ, we are born of God, and because of this, God sees us as righteous just as He is righteous. This is imputed righteousness.

And let’s not forget 1 John 2:17:

“And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”

Here John highlights a contrast between something that will depart or go away (parago) and something that will remain or dwell or live forever. It is the “world” which will go away, and this is the Greek word “kosmos,” a word that has quite a range of meanings. It can mean the universe, it can refer to the Earth, it can refer to the “aggregate of things earthly,” but it can also mean “the ungodly multitude; the whole mass of men alienated from God, and therefore hostile to the cause of Christ.” Well, this makes good sense in the context, since John mentions “antichrists” in the very next verse, and “antichrist” turns out to be those who oppose Christ; those who deny that Jesus is the Christ. And these are the false teachers John is warning his audience about. So it is the assembly of unbelievers who will pass away. But, in contrast to that, the one who “does the will of God” will abide forever.
And here is another instance where the word “abide” appears and it’s one occurrence that clues us into the meaning of that particular word. The word translated “abide” is the Greek word “meno.” This word also has a range of meaning, which includes “to dwell” or “to stay” or “to remain” or even “to live.” My home is where I dwell or remain, my home is where I “abide.” I might even call it my “abode.” In this particular verse, the word stands opposed to the idea of passing away. But what does it mean to “do the will of God?” Well, once again we can jettison the notion that this needs to be “ongoing” or “perpetual” doing of the will of God, we examined that earlier. But what does it mean to “do the will of God?”
Matthew 7:21 provides some insight into this:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”

This passage also seems to make entry into the Kingdom of Heaven contingent upon “doing the will of God.” But we know this isn’t about general obedience for the same reason we know that “keeping His commandments” isn’t about general obedience. Nobody does! If doing God’s will means being obedient, then no human will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The best we can do is act consistent with the will of God every now and then, or in the sense of a statistical average. But we know that God’s standard is higher than a mere statistical average, don’t we?

There are many passages which mention the will of God and there’s no doubt that many of them do speak of behavioral ideals. But there are also passages such as 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:3-4 which emphasize God’s desire that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, that no man should perish.

And as we look at Matthew 7:21 again, we see that those whom Jesus turned away with “depart from me, I never knew you” were those who were relying on their own performance for their justification. They were calling attention to the many wonderful works which they had done in Jesus’ name. Even so, that Jesus sent them away implies that they had not done the will of the Father and the will of the Father is that they believe (rely upon) Jesus and not themselves.

And finally, in John 6:40, we find this very idea:

“And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

The phrase “do the will of God” in 1 John 2:17 is another allusion to believing the gospel. The one who believes the gospel will dwell, remain or live forever. This is eternal life, contrasted against the “world,” which is headed for destruction.

And we also find some interesting clues as to the intent behind the word “abide” in John 6 as well:

John 6:47
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life.”

John 6:54
“Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

John 6:56
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.”

Notice that the one who believes in Jesus has eternal life, and also that the one who “eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks Jesus’ blood” has eternal life as well. Because the result of either is eternal life, we can conclude that eating and drinking here is a metaphor for believing in Jesus. Jesus, after all, is the bread of life. Eat Him, and you live… so-to-speak.

But John 6:56 adds another element, it would seem. The one who eats and drinks abides in Jesus, and Jesus abides in him. This expands the equation, doesn’t it? If you have eternal life, then you abide in Jesus and if you abide in Jesus, then you have eternal life. And either one is the result of believing in Him or, metaphorically speaking, eating His flesh and drinking His blood. To “abide” in Christ, therefore, is to be united with Christ and this unity is permanent.

There are very good reasons to understand phrases like “keep His commandments,” “practice righteousness” and “do the will of God” in 1 John as allusions to believing in Jesus. Our first instinct, unfortunately, is to understand these expressions as demands upon our conduct. But such is not the focus of 1 John. The focus of 1 John is the rudimentary truths of salvation—justification, union with Christ, imputed righteousness—all for the purpose of restoring the confidence of a people whose confidence had been compromised by false teachers with a contrary message.

Consider again 1 John 2:29 and 1 John 5:1. Both describe the person who is “born of God,” but in different terms. And in both instances, the phrase “born of God” is an expression that relates to positional truth. It invokes the new birth that Jesus mentions in John 3. And so with that in mind, we circle back to 1 John 3:9 and 1 John 5:18, both of which say that whoever is born of God does not sin.

John can say that the one who is born of God does not sin because he understands the imputation of righteousness associated with faith alone in Christ alone. He understands what it means for God to declare someone righteous. He understands what it means to forgive sin. He understands why this should make his audience bold and confident, erasing the fears that were drummed up by the false teachers who had been there before. This is the simple solution to these difficult verses: God sees us as righteous, ad so from God’s perspective, whoever has believed the gospel does not sin.

A Fresh Look At "Sin Unto Death"

In 1 John Chapter 5 you will find what has to be one of the strangest verses in all of the New Testament. Stranger still are the doctrines which are drawn from this verse which, in English, appears to be barely even coherent.

Before I get into the “positive” case for 1 John 5:16, we should review the traditional understanding so that we see why we need to look for something else. Here’s how the NKJV has it:

“If anyone sees his brother sinning
a sin which does not lead to death,
he will ask, and He will give him life for
those who commit sin not leading to death.
There is sin leading to death.
I do not say that he should pray about that.”

It turns out that Koiné Greek is a little odd in that, apparently, there are ways that pronouns can be attached to verbs, so that it isn’t always necessary to write “he ran from the dog.” There’s a form of “ran” in Koiné Greek that carries that masculine pronoun with it. And so when you look at the Greek text, some of the pronouns you find in the English translation appear to be missing. Here’s how it looks (using English words) without adding those pronouns, and I’ve also left out punctuation, since we know that the Greek text had no punctuation:

“If one sees the brother his sinning sin not to death desire and give him life those sin not unto death not about it say should desire.”

This is interesting, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that the translators made any mistakes in adding the pronouns that they did… although when I first noticed this I was a bit skeptical. You find this sort of thing with some frequency when comparing Greek with English.

The Frangible Fellowship tradition teaching on 1 John 5:16 can be summarized in the following way: If a believer sins too much or too severely for too long without confessing his sins, then God might bring about the physical death for that person or, as it is often expressed, “take that person home early.”

I think it would be helpful to examine this understanding by setting up a scenario… Suppose that there are two men, Bob and Jim. Suppose Bob sees Jim doing something that Jim shouldn’t do. The traditional “Sin Unto Death” teaching would say that if Bob sees Jim committing a particular kind of sin, Bob is supposed to ask (God, presumably) and God will give Jim life, Jim being the one who committed this “sin not leading to death.”

Right away, this ought to make us scratch our heads, because in this instance, Jim committed the “sin not leading to death.” So why would Bob have to ask God to let Jim keep his physical life when Jim hasn’t committed a sin that would bring about physical death for Jim? Wouldn’t physical life for Jim be something Bob might ask if Jim had committed the sin that does lead to physical death?

There’s a bit of ambiguity about who the pronouns in this verse are referring to. The first occurrence of “he” would seem to refer to Bob, the one who saw his brother (Jim) committing this sin that does not lead to death. The second occurrence appears to be a reference to God. If it’s Bob that should ask God to give Jim life for having committed the sin not leading to death, then it stands to reason that it’s Bob who should not make the same request if the sin Jim committed is the sin that does lead to death. Very strange. Understood this way, it seems that when Jim needs life most, Bob should not ask God for it on Jim’s behalf, but when Jim doesn’t need life, Bob is supposed to ask God to give Jim life. This makes no sense whatsoever, but we’re told it does and that we should believe it.

In addition, if Christians are not supposed to fear death, if we are (without being suicidal) supposed to look forward to death in a certain sense, then why would God use the fear of death to motivate an improvement in our behavior? Should Christians really view “premature” death as punishment?

And by the way, from God’s perspective, just what is “premature” physical death anyway? God has foreknowledge, but this idea of taking someone home “early” or “prematurely” seems to cut across that grain because it implies some target that has been abandoned or changed. It’s as if God is saying “I had planned on letting Jim live until he was 54, but now that he’s gone and done that, I think I’ll cut it short.” This doesn’t seem to be compatible with God’s foreknowledge at all.

One one more thing: Every human has to face physical death anyway. Even if we’re keeping our nose clean and regularly confessing when we don’t, we all know and accept that we might get hit by a truck even tomorrow. What sense does it make to say “You’d better watch your step or you could die tomorrow” when the truth is I could die tomorrow even if I watch my step?

These problems are difficult enough… but there’s another gigantic problem with this, and that is that the sin is undefined. Nobody knows what sins “lead to death” or which sins do not “lead to death.” The Bible doesn’t tell us, except to say (in various ways) that the wages of sin in general is death, meaning eternal separation from God. And yet, John is telling Bob to take a particular course of action which depends on whether he sees Jim committing a sin that does—or does not—lead to death. Isn’t it strange that John doesn’t bother to fill Bob in on just what constitutes a “sin not leading to death” versus a “sin leading to death?” Because the sins are undefined, Bob has no way of knowing which course of action to take in which circumstance.

Some teachers try to explain this away by saying that it’s different for every person. But how does this help Bob to know which course of action to take? He still has no way of knowing whether what Jim has done amounts to a sin leading to death or not. If this is how we are to understand this passage, I’m afraid it turns out to be utterly useless, even incoherent.

Houston, we have a problem. It seems pretty clear that the traditional way of understanding this verse is incoherent nonsense and paints God as capricious, with a variable standard of righteousness which applies differently for different people. This seems quite inconsistent with a perfectly Just and Righteous God. If we are going to make sense of this verse, we’re going to have to re-examine the language used.

What Is “Death?”

The Frangible Fellowship view insists on seeing “death” in 1 John 5:16 as a reference to physical death. I’ve yet to hear a compelling reason to take it that way. The best anyone can do is point out that, well, John was addressing believers and eternal separation isn’t something believers have to worry about… but that hardly forces such a conclusion.

And of course, I agree that believers never have to worry about eternal separation. Some commentators—like Chuck Smith for example—take “death” to mean eternal separation, but they insist that if you commit this sin that leads to death, it proves you were never really a believer in the first place and so you will experience eternal separation after all. And of course this view, which comes more out of a Lordship mentality, makes as little sense as the standard Free Grace view and ends up basing assurance on our avoidance of this undefined, unspecified sin thus making assurance of salvation impossible.

Although the door to such conclusions is opened when you conclude that “death” here is a reference to eternal separation, it turns out not to be the only door. And so we shouldn’t reject the notion so quickly.

It’s quite reasonable to ask whether the Greek word “thanatos,” which is translated “death,” can mean eternal separation. An example of where we do find the word used that way would be Romans 6:23:

“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Here, Paul is reminding his audience of what they have escaped through faith in Christ. Because of sin, we (humans) are owed eternal separation. That’s the wage we’ve all earned. But, by contrast, God gives us the opposite of that, which is eternal life through faith in Christ. So eternal life is juxtaposed against this idea of “death.” The contrasting reference to eternal life is one cue that tells us that “death” in this verse does not mean physical death. And this seems to put us on the right track, because the phrase “sin leading to death” appears just a few verses prior in Romans 6.

Certainly, “thanatos” can refer to physical death… but context will help us decide whether that’s an appropriate way to understand that word. According to Blue Letter Bible’s “Outline of Biblical Usage” for the word “thanatos,” the following usage is included in its range of meaning:

“The misery of the soul arising from sin, which begins on earth but lasts and increases after the death of the body in hell”

This meaning would fit the context because of the contrast against eternal life. Whatever Paul means by “death,” he sees it as the opposite of eternal life. And we know what the opposite of eternal life is, don’t we? It’s eternal death, or eternal separation.

So it’s not a stretch at all to think that “thanatos” in 1 John 5:16 might be a reference to eternal separation. Let’s look for other clues from the surrounding text and see if we find support for that conclusion.

Just four verses earlier in Chapter 5, John writes “He who has the Son has the life, and he who does not have the Son does not have the life.” Well, what’s John talking about here? Is he talking about physical life? In the very next verse he tells his readers that the reason he wrote this letter was to assure them that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). And in the verses prior to that, John contrasts between those who believe the Son and those who don’t, (1 John 5:10) and in verse 11 he writes:

“And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.”

In 1 John 5:16, then, both death and life are mentioned. But again, what does John mean by “life?” Does it make any sense, considering the context, to say that John is talking about physical life here? And given John’s widely known affinity for stark contrasts and categorical opposites, this ends up being another pretty powerful reason to conclude that “death” in this verse refers to eternal separation. If the “life” he’s referring to is eternal life, then we would expect “death” to refer to its opposite. This makes physical death look like not a very good option. That John means eternal separation seems to be the better fit.

Oh, Brother!

At this point, it’s likely that someone will say that if we say that “death” means “eternal separation,” we will necessarily conclude what Chuck Smith and other Lordship teachers have concluded; that if a believer fails in a particular way or to a certain extent, it proves they’re not really a believer. But that’s only because of how they understand another word used in this verse, and that’s the word “brother.”

Whether they teach the “Tests of Fellowship” view or Lordship’s “Tests of Life” view of 1 John, it seems that the vast majority of commentators insist that “brother” here is necessarily a reference to a fellow Christian. But again, the support for this is really rather weak. There are good reasons to take “brother” to mean “fellow human” in certain contexts, and so it’s fair to ask ourselves whether this context might be one of them.

In Acts 7:26-27 we find that the Greek word “adelphos” (brother) can be used as a synonym for “plesion” (neighbor,) which we know means “fellow human.”

“(26) And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’
(27) But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made
you a ruler and a judge over us?’”

In this passage, Stephen is recounting the history of the Hebrews and is describing an incident that took place the day after Moses had killed an Egyptian man. Moses tried to intercede in a dispute between two other men. According to Stephen, Moses asks the men why they are fighting, since they are brothers. And then Stephen says that one of the men who did his neighbor wrong pushed Moses away. Here, Stephen uses the Greek word “plesion” (neighbor) interchangeably with “adelphos” (brother). This means that the words can be synonymous.

We also see that John’s use of “brother” elsewhere in the epistle appears consistent with “fellow human.” But we should also recognize that just because John uses the word one way in one verse, doesn’t mean he’s necessarily confined to that usage everywhere else in the epistle. The point is that “fellow human” is a possibility; there is no reason to assume and insist that John necessarily means “fellow Christians” when he uses the word “adelphos.”

Sin Leading to Death?

If by “death” John means “eternal separation,” then we can see that sin leading to or resulting in eternal separation would boil down to the sin of unbelief… the sin of rejecting Jesus. And that fits the surrounding context quite well, doesn’t it? All through the epistle we see that same contrast repeated over and over again, a contrast between believing in Jesus and rejecting Jesus. Even so, it makes sense to check out the only other verse in the Bible that uses this phrase. It just so happens to be found just a few verses prior to the verse we just looked at, Romans 6:23. The passage is Romans 6:16-18:

“(16)Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey,
you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?
(17)But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.
(18)And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

Notice that Jesus commands all humans to believe the gospel, and that when we obey that command, the result is righteousness. The context here works quite well with that understanding, as Paul is expressing thanks to God that, though the folks in his audience were once slaves of sin, they obeyed the teaching they were exposed to and, in so doing, were set free from sin and became instead slaves of righteousness.

Paul seems fond of expressing thanks on behalf of his audience for the gift they have been given, for who they are in Christ contrasted against who they once were. In Ephesians 2 he says of his audience that they once were dead in trespasses and sins, but now they are alive in Christ, and also that they were once far off, but have been brought near by the blood of Christ and elsewhere he expresses the same thing in terms of having once been at enmity with God, but now they are reconciled. And here in Romans 6, he seems to be going over much the same ground. They were once slaves to sin but now they are slaves to righteousness. This is made more clear in Romans 6:20-21:

“(20) For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
(21) What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.”

The end of those things is death? Yes, indeed… the end result of sin (and unbelief) is eternal separation. But then comes verse 22 to bounce back to the other side of the contrast:

“But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.”

Again, notice the contrast. Everlasting life is juxtaposed against death. And the point comes again, as we already saw, in verse 23 where Paul reminds his readers that the payment owed for sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.

Some would scoff at this and say that “obedience leading to righteousness” is us actually behaving ourselves and becoming more righteous as a result. However, I’m not inclined to think that my obedience makes me any more righteous… Christ has already made me as righteous as I can possibly be in God’s eyes, so I tend to reject that understanding.

What does it mean that we have been “set free from sin?” Does it mean, as many seem to think, that we will be less obedient to our sin nature and “display righteousness” more? I don’t see any good reason to think that. Rather, it seems to me that Paul is simply saying that we were set free from the looming consequences of sin, the results of sin. Why would you describe a mere reduction of sin in terms of being “set free from sin?” The words “set free from sin” seem to imply a complete cessation of sin, do they not? It strikes me that a person who still sins—even if they sin less than they used to—is not a person who has been “set free from sin.” Since we know that nobody this side of physical death actually ceases to sin, we should probably jettison that way of understanding the phrase. But we do know from numerous other verses that believers are set free from the consequences of sin.

So, in Romans 6, the contrast is between “sin leading to death” and “obedience leading to righteousness,” and this seems to be a contrast between rejecting the gospel and accepting the gospel. Rejecting the gospel leads to eternal separation, while obeying the command to believe the gospel leads to the imputation of righteousness. Notice that this is the same contrast that can be seen throughout 1 John: The contrast between belief and unbelief. Interesting.

But 1 John 5:16 puts it a little differently, and that (perhaps) is why things get so tricky. In 1 John, the contrast is between the “sin that leads to death” and the “sin that does not lead to death.” So what can we make of that? You can hardly blame folks for grasping the way they have for something useful to say about this passage. I think it’s safe to say that either way you go with it, there’s no “taking it at face value.”

Again, we should consider that, from start to finish, the epistle of 1 John is chock full of contrasts, and all of them seem to pit belief against unbelief, but using different terms. And so we should—if only for the sake of exploration—posit that whatever John’s doing, he’s remaining consistent in that pattern. And in the verses that follow, we see that pattern does seem to continue. That is to say, on either side of 1 John 5:16 you find verses which relate to those same contrasts.

So, suppose that the “sin leading to death” is merely unbelief; rejecting God’s testimony about His Son (which is talked about just six verses prior and really throughout the letter). (And some commentators do take it that way… Chuck Smith, for example) If that’s how it’s intended, and if we’re right about the contrast, this would mean that “sin not leading to death” would describe believing the gospel. But how would that make sense? Why would John describe faith in Christ as a “sin?”

This is a good place to look at John 6:29. Jesus is talking with the Jewish leaders and they ask, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus replies “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

But what does this have to do with 1 John 5:16? Well, here Jesus seems to be associating faith in Christ with work. And yet we know that faith in Christ is not “work.” (Romans 4:5) Jesus is simply expressing it in terms that the Jewish leaders would understand… He wasn’t concerned about being theologically precise. “You want work? Here it is, here’s your work… you might even think of putting scare quotes around the word “work.” Jesus says “Believe in Me, that’s the ‘work’ of God.”

Now, remember the context that’s been proposed for 1 John: False teachers have come (and gone) while John has been away and they have attempted to deceive these people by bringing their confidence in the righteousness that had been imputed to them into doubt. The context strongly suggests that these false teachers may well have been Jewish, and just as we find in other NT epistles, these folks were trying to pull John’s audience away from faith in Christ and back into Judaism. They certainly would have tried to convince them that they really didn’t have fellowship with God (union with God) and that Jesus really wasn’t the Messiah after all, and so these false teachers would have claimed that faith in Christ was misguided and, from the false teachers’ perspective, misplaced and any departure from Judaism was sin.

Indeed, we have many examples that demonstrate that the Jewish leaders at the time had a very low view of anyone who would abandon the Law and accept the gospel. Clearly, they viewed this as a sin. The pharisee in Luke 18 is one example, but look at these passages from the Gospel of John:

John 9:22
His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.

John 12:42
Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue

Pharisees clearly did not think Jesus was the messiah, and therefore anyone who thought He was, was out of his mind and was a sinner because they were abandoning the Law and clinging to what the pharisees thought was a false messiah. So from the pharisee’s perspective, accepting the gospel was a sin… but this “sin” leads not to eternal separation, but to eternal life.

So here’s the idea… In 1 John 5:16 John is calling acceptance of the gospel (which leads away from eternal separation and toward eternal life) a “sin” because the false teachers, the anti-Christs, had told John’s audience that’s what it was. John is engaging in some rhetoric here, some sanctified sarcasm, and that if we put scare quotes around the word “sin” in “sin not leading to death,” that might better represent what I’m suggesting about John’s intent here.

Paraphrase of 1 John 5:16-21

16: If someone commits the “sin” (scare quotes) that does not lead to eternal separation (faith in Christ, leads to union with Christ and eternal life) God will give him the life (eternal life) he desires. This is for the person who commits the “sin” not leading to eternal separation, which is faith in Christ.

There is sin that does lead to eternal separation, and no one should ask for that. It’s not anything to be desired.

So John’s equivocating in a manner similar to Jesus’ equivocation in John 6:29. Think it’s a stretch? Sure… I’ll admit, it is. But why would I reject this idea and then accept the tradition, which isn’t even coherent? To do so seems akin to straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel. And besides, this seems to fit the flow of the text. The one who desires life and trusts in Christ commits the “sin” (so-called by the false teachers) that leads away from death and toward life. Look what comes next:

17. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is “sin” that does not lead to death, and that “sin” (so called by the false teachers) is faith in Christ. Faith in Christ leads not to eternal separation, but rather to eternal union.
18. We know that whoever is born of God (by believing in Christ) does not sin (is declared righteous); but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him.
19. We know that we are of God, but (by contrast) the whole world lies under the influence of the wicked one.
20. And we know that the Son of God came and brought to us the message which we heard at the beginning so that we know we are united with Him, united with the truth, one with His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and this is eternal life.
21. From now on, stay away from teachers that represent falsehood. (idols)

I can’t say that I’m certain that this is the correct way to take the passage. But it’s the best conclusion I’ve seen thus far. I know it is somewhat speculative and some folks may not be comfortable with this idea of John referring to faith in Christ as a “sin,” even if it is rhetorical. But it’s clear that the false teachers would have seen faith in Christ as a sin, and we know that John is doing some damage control regarding the impact that false teachers have had on his audience, and there’s no reason to think that John is above using language for rhetorical effect. So I think it’s a reasonable solution… far more reasonable than the “God will kill you early if you commit a certain sin that He hasn’t specified.”