I John 3:9
“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.”
– I John 3:9, NAU
In I John 2:28-3:10 the author writes to reassure the believers in their faith. He continues to recognize (3:7) the error of his opponents, but he wants the (3:2) believers to have confidence in Christ and His teachings. Thus, in this passage he strengthens their sense of assurance.
Believers Do Not Practice Sin
Those who are born of God, the believers, do not practice sin. In John’s writings, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Word are all very closely related in bestowing new life. Our Triune God speaks His Word; we respond; and the Triune God and the Word abide in us. As a result of the new birth, the believer does not practice sin.
In I John tension exists between sin and perfection in the Christian life. In 1:8 John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Then in 3:6 he says, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” On the surface, these verses seem to contradict each other.
Several solutions to this apparent contradiction have been proposed. It is not my purpose here to outline these views. Burge (p. 150) deals with some of them and then highlights the solution based on the verb tenses that John uses. With regard to the verb tenses, he writes (p. 150):
A helpful solution is used by the NIV, concentrating on the tenses of the verbs. In Greek a present tense (in certain forms) indicates continuous, repeated activity. Four key occurrences demand attention. (1) In 3:6a and 5:18 John says (lit.) that Christians “do not sin.” The Greek verb “to sin” appears in the present indicative, and the sense is that we should not have the ongoing, self-endorsing habit of sin. (2) In 3:6b the construction uses a present participle (lit., “the one who sins,” or better, “the one who continues to sin”) to express the same notion. (3) In 3:9a, a different verb is used (“to do sin”), and sin appears as a noun. Again, it appears as a present tense. (4) Finally, in 3:9b John describes Christians as “not able to sin.” Both the verb (“to be able”) and its infinitive (‘to sin”) appear in the present tense.
The Abiding Seed
John says the believer does not practice sin “because His seed abides in him.” Two issues arise in connection with this clause. One issue has to do with the pronoun “his.” Does “his” refer to God or the believer? The other concerns the identity of the seed. Is the seed the Spirit, the Word, or both?
First, in my view “his” refers to God. Grammatically, it can refer to the individual believer or to God, but it is clear that the seed protects the believer from sinning. If the seed is the individual believer’s then it has become his as a result of its dwelling within him. The simplest approach is that God’s seed abides within the believer. God sows the seed within the believer and produces life.
Second, scholars have different views concerning the identity of the seed. As examples, we will cite Dunn and Lenski. Dunn (p. 197) writes: “it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that by sperma John means the Spirit, especially when he uses it in talking about divine begetting. . . . It is the Spirit who effects the divine birth, the Spirit is the divine seed.” (Transliteration Mine) In contrast to Dunn, Lenski (p. 463) states: “This ‘seed’ is the Word of God (1:10; 2:5, which he guards; 2:14), the light (1.6, 7), the truth (1.8; 2:4); the commandment (2:7, etc.). Here belong I Pet. 1:23 and James 1.18.”
Even though having different emphases, both Dunn and Lenski recognize the role of both the Spirit and the Word. Dunn (p. 197) holds that the Spirit works though the Word, but does not equate sperma with the Word. On the other hand, Lenski (p. 463) says, “Does this interpretation of the ‘seed’ as the Word lose the Holy Spirit? Indeed not! The great means by which the Spirit quickens, kindles life, keeps life alive, is the Word, in which he is, by which he works.”
Actually, it makes little difference whether we regard the seed as the Word inspired by the Spirit or as the Spirit who inspires the Word. We easily could conclude that the seed refers to the Spirit and the Word. As a matter of fact, both the Spirit and the Word abide in the believer.
John says that the believer “cannot sin, because he is born of God.” As we have noted above, the verb sin is in the present tense. The clause cannot mean that a believer never falters or that it is impossible for him to sin. This would contradict what John said in I John 1:8. Many interpreters conclude that the believer cannot deliberately live in sin. He can not go on continually practicing sin. He does not persist in sin.
The reason why the believer does not persist in sin is that he is born of God. As Kistemaker (p. 303) says, “A person who is born of God cannot live in habitual sin.” He cannot because he has a new heredity. This was the essence of what Jesus taught Nicodemus (John 3:1-15). As soon as the believer is quickened by the Spirit, he has a new heredity or new nature. The new heredity overcomes the old.
Obviously, when a stalwart believer sometimes falters and lives in sin, we are confronted with all the issues of eternal or conditional security. We have the assurance (3:9) that one who is born of God will not habitually sin. Then, we have the warnings of 3:6, 8, and 10.
Many volumes have been written about these emphases. Without attempting a full resolution, Burge (p. 157) simply states: “I must be honest about both. But in the end, my aim is to strengthen, not to tear down, to fortify belief and resolve, not to weaken them though severe exhortation.” This is a goal to which all of us can subscribe.
Throughout our lives, opposition arises to our faith. The voices of false teachers and opponents are strong and persuasive. Initially, the disciples did not have the New Testament to guide them. They did have in their memories the teachings of Jesus. The Spirit brought all this to their remembrance. Now, we have the Spirit and the written Word.
Because the Spirit and the written Word dwell within us, we cannot habitually practice sin. We must beware of thinking too loosely about sin, but we must also avoid the legalism that leads to bondage. The Spirit and the Word will guide us every step of the way.
For Further Study
Burge, Gary M. The Letters of John: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Kistemaker, Simon J. Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John: New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Lenski, R. C. H. The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966.
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