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.
This verse is often cited as teaching that “genuine” believers will not practice sin. They will not sin habitually, 1 John 3:9 is said to teach.
Notice how various versions and paraphrases translate the first part of the verse. Some suggest that habitual sin is in view. The New American Standard Version reads: “No one who is born of God practices sin.” The Living Bible reads: “The person who has been born into God’s family does not make a practice of sinning.” The Amplified Bible has: “No one born [begotten] of God [deliberately and knowingly] habitually practices sin.”
On the other hand, other translations suggest an absolute understanding—that the born of God person doesn’t sin at all. The New King James Version, the one cited above, reads: “Whoever has been born of God does not sin.” The New International Version has: “No one who is born of God continues to sin.”
The translations and paraphrases show that there are two broad understandings of this verse: habitual and absolute.
The habitual sin view posits that John was teaching the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints here. “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 for evidence the use of the present tense (poiei).
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 repeatedly. If John was saying this about believers sinning he would be saying that believers do not sin repeatedly. 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:
All this [the idea that a believer does not sin habitually] is true. Yet 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 that one wonders why God would preserve believers from being dominated by sin and yet not from sinning altogether. I. Howard Marshall 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 context. In verse 5 John said that there is no sin in Christ. He clearly meant that there is absolutely no sin in Him. 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. John’s point is clearly that sin is never an expression of abiding in Christ. When we abide we do not sin at all.
Verse 9 is a further development of this point. No believer ever sins as an expression of his new nature. Insofar as the believer expresses his new nature in his experience, he will not sin because God’s seed remains in him (1 John 3:9b).
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)
First John 3:9 does not teach the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Indeed, no passage does. God perseveres. Saints at best fail daily. First John 3:9 is a call 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. May we live like who we are: children of the Holy One who has saved us by His amazing, free grace.