I just received an email asking for an explanation of 1 John 5:18, which in most translations says, “we know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin” (HCSB, NET; KJV; NKJV; RSV; WEB; LEB; CEB; see also, NASB). However, a few translations translate the last part of that phrase as “does not keep on sinning” (ESV; MEV) or “will [not] continue to sin” (NIV). The person asking the question wondered which translation is better and how can I explain what John means.
Since I wrote an article on this question 31 years ago (see here), I will simply edit what I wrote before.
First John 3:9 and 5:18 convey the same idea, but with slightly different wording. They both can be translated in the same way and are by most translations. However, the former is sometimes translated, “Whoever has been born of God does not practice sin” (MEV; LEB; NET; NASB).
These verses are often cited as teaching that “genuine” believers will not sin habitually. That is, believers will sin, but they will not make a habit of it.
However, the Greek and many translations suggest an absolute understanding—that the born of God person doesn’t sin at all.
Those are the two major understandings of these verses: habitual and absolute.i
The habitual sin view posits that John was teaching that “true” believers will not sin as a pattern of life. They will not be dominated by sin. They will be characterized by holiness and obedience. Sins for the “genuine” believer are merely occasional aberrations.
The second position has been called the new nature view. According to this view, believers never sin as an expression of their born-of-God new natures. The new nature doesn’t sin even occasionally. It is sinless. John is viewed as having called his readers to abide in Christ and live in keeping with their born of God new natures.
Which is right?
The habitual sin view cites the use of the present tense (poiei hamartian in 1 John 3:9 and hamartanei in 1 John 5:18).
There are grave problems with this argument. For one thing, the present tense, unaided by qualifying words, does not mean what the habitual sin view suggests. In Greek, when the present tense occurs, it can be understood in a number of ways, one of which is the habitual present. However, the habitual present refers to events which occur over and over again. If John intended that understanding of the present tenses, he would be saying that believers do not sin repeatedly. Sins would be rare occurrences in the lives of believers. If believers sin daily—as all believers do (cf. 1 John 1:8, 10)—then they sin habitually in the grammatical sense. I. Howard Marshall commented concerning the tense argument: “[It] involves translators in stressing the present continuous form of the verb in a way which they do not do elsewhere in the New Testament (The Epistles of John, NICNT, p.180).”
Similarly, C. H. Dodd, writes, “it is legitimate to doubt whether the reader could be expected to grasp so subtle a doctrine simply upon the basis of a precise distinction of tenses without further guidance” (The Johannine Epistles, p. 79).
Another difficulty with this understanding is expressed by I. Howard Marshall. He writes: “If believers do not sin habitually because God’s seed remains in Him (3:9b), it is hard to understand why God would preserve believers from some sins, but not from all sins. We must, therefore, wonder whether an important point of interpretation can be made to rest on what has been called a grammatical subtlety” (The Epistles of John, p.180).
The habitual sin view is also ruled out by the contexts. In 1 John 3:5, John said that there is no sin in Christ. Then in the very next sentence he said that those who abide in Christ do not sin. He could hardly have meant that Christ sins not at all, and those who abide in Him sin, but not a lot. When we abide, we do not sin.
Similarly, 1 John 5:18 is preceded by a reference to believers sinning, and reference is made to sin leading to premature physical death (1 John 5:16-17). The point in v 18, as in 1 John 3:9, is that the believer never sins as an expression of born-of-God inner self.
Alford notes that “If the child of God falls into sin, it is an act against [his] nature” (Hebrews-Revelation, p. 465). Likewise, Brooke writes: “The fact that he has been begotten of God excludes the possibility of his committing sin as an expression of his true character, though actual sins may, and do, occur so far as he fails from weakness to realize his true character” (The Johannine Epistles, p. 89).
Neither 1 John 3:9 nor 1 John 5:18 teach that believers don’t sin much. Indeed, no passage does. Saints at best fail daily and surely hourly as well. These verses are calls to holiness. Our new natures are pure and holy. Let us live in our experience like we are in our position. Of course, there is a mystery here. John said in 1 John 1:8, 10 that believers cannot attain to sinless perfection in their experience. However, we can allow our new natures to dominate our experience so that we live consistently godly lives.
A proper view of who we really are aids us in living righteously. Some believers sadly think that they cannot overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. They need their minds renewed (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18).
May we live like who we are: children of the Holy One.
i Actually, there are at least 9 different understandings of these verses. However, space does not permit a discussion of all of them.