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Reason and Revelation Volume 41 #7

Can Sin vs. Cannot Sin?

Those who disbelieve the inspiration of the Bible commonly call attention to passages that appear, on the surface, to contradict each other. Oftentimes, the apparent disparity is easily clarified by a closer look at the original language which the Holy Spirit selected to express Himself. One confusing concept where knowing the underlying grammar sheds further light is seen in 1 John. In 1 John 1:8-10, we find these words:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness…. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

These words are hardly surprising, since most people understand that they are not perfect and, in fact, have sinned many times. Yet reading further in 1 John, one encounters the follow startling remarks:

Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him…. 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 3:6,9).

The skeptic might easily conclude that the Bible contradicts itself—or at least John did.

However, in Greek, tense generally refers to “kind of action” which consists of linear or punctiliar. “Linear” refers to continuous action, while “punctiliar” refers to point action, a single event. The verb rendered “have (not) sinned” (a perfect active indicative) in chapter 1 refers to point action in the past with abiding results. John was saying that Christians sin, but they commit isolated, less frequent acts of sin since they are no longer under the rule of sin, and they constantly repent and confess their sins (vs. 9).

Chapter 3, on the other hand, uses a present indicative of continuous action. It refers to habitual, ongoing sin without compunction, with sin ruling one’s life as in his pre-Christian state. John did not contradict himself. He simply called attention to the fact that Christians are certainly not perfect. We make mistakes like everyone does. However, having changed our minds (the meaning of “repent”) about our pre-Christian lifestyle, we have deliberately chosen to forsake the sinful behavior that characterized our lives as non-Christians. Those who have not become Christians, however, have no motivation to resist sin, striving every day to eliminate it from one’s mind and life.

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