4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
5 And you know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.
6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
7 Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;
8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil.
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.
10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
(1 John 3:4-10, NASB).
This is one of those passages that I have had used against me as a “gotcha” for my crazy grace message. John may have been talking about grace here and there in other passages, but you can’t throw out this passage, right? Well, of course you can’t throw out this passage, any more than you can throw out 1 John 1:7,8,9,10, or 1 John 2:1,2. It is a unity, a single message which embraces Christ and Him crucified and by this the confession and cleansing of the believer. If your understanding makes you want to deemphasize certain passages then you may be wrong about some things.
Overall, I think it is always important to notice that there is only one imperative statement in this passage. He does not say, “stop sinning and practicing lawlessness!” He observes that there are those who do so. He merely says, let no one deceive you – sin is sin and righteousness is righteous. The main idea we might pull from this passage is that we want to be born of God and abide in Him, as this is the antidote for the practice of sin.
Where we see the word “practice”, we have the present active participle (poiwn), which indicates the persistent habit of sin. We have someone who hones their skill at sinning through persistent repetition. We either practice sin and lawlessness, or we practice righteousness.
What is the significance for John to emphasize the connection between sin and lawlessness? The word for lawlessness is anomia, meaning “contempt and violation of law, iniquity, wickedness”. Not just ignorance of the law – no one is ignorant:
12 For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law;
13 for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.
14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,
15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,
16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
(Romans 2:12-16, NASB).
So, not the absence of the law, but rather contempt for the law. It means actions born of contempt of the law. In light of 1 John 1:8,9, lawlessness really means that you count the law wrong, and believe that you have no need for confession or cleansing.
So, if we are going to be faithful to the whole text here, we must say that there is no distinction, that all have sinned. Lawlessness is not the same as sin. The difference here is that the righteous confess their sin as wrong, and count the law as right. The lawless count their sin as understandable or even good, and count the law as wrong.
Even Christians sin and have need of confession, but from their agonized soul confess the law as right and their deeds as evil, thus showing themselves not to be lawless:
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
15 For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.
16 But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good.
17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me.
18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.
19 For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.
20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good.
22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,
23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
(Romans 7:14-24, NASB).
However, we have this phrase tacked onto the end: “and sin is lawlessness.” Yes, every time we sin, as a Christian or not, we count the aesthetic value of sin to be greater than the advantage of a clean conscience. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you believe, in that moment when you sin you declare the law evil and your desire for the forbidden good. It is always lawless, always sin, always wrong. When we do so we do not abide in Him. No one in deep prayer and worship and repentance and confession before God runs and goes into a wild orgy of gluttonous lustful rage in that moment.
As a Christian we have entered into faith in Christ’s propitiation. In an overarching and final sense, we have confessed ourselves completely as sinners, we have declared the law as right and ourselves as wrong. We have come to trust in Christ’s righteousness completely. The seed of God is in us as a result, to be tortured by our transgressions and to love by the Holy Spirit poured out within our hearts. So, we may stray badly from the path, led on by habits we have not kicked, but we seek to be cleansed.
Put another way, if 1 John 3:4-10 indicates a complete or even mostly complete level of behavioral righteousness and there is actually no grace for the struggling and only partially repentant sinner, then in what sense do we need to purify ourselves? (1 John 3:3) If we purify ourselves, it is implied that we still have impurity, because no one purifies that which is already pure. Purification is for the impure.
Thus, we can be lawful through our faith in Christ’s blood and by applying it in the here and now to our present sins through confession (1 John 1:8,9). We may temporarily act in a way that shows we don’t perfectly abide in Him, but through confession we return to a state that belies the truth, that His seed is in us and that we are not at peace unless we abide in Him. The idea of “practice” must therefore mean, increasing through repetition, and not simply “forever perfectly do”. Any other interpretation does violence to the context.
I am going to take this a step further. Anyone who does think that this passage indicates a strong degree or even a perfection of visible behavioral virtue, and not simply faith in Christ’s blood and confession and cleansing, advocates lawlessness. In order to say that we have reached success according to this passage, we must water down the law. We must say that we can obey in an outward sense without perfectly and wholly loving God (Matthew 22:37).
Now, when we confess, when we deem Christ’s blood as sufficient for our current sin, is there not cleansing? Is there never any rest? Do we never see behavioral virtue? Of course we do; to say otherwise is to denigrate the power of God in our lives. However, we never become self-sufficient, and so we are always leaning on the power of God to transform us, and always counting ourselves as lacking sufficiency. This is all about rest and dependence, and why this passage makes the salient point to be about abiding in Christ rather than repentance in a fleshly behavioral sense. If we are leaning on Him, confessing to Him, living at the foot of the throne of grace, there will of course be fruit; but it will be born of Him and not of ourselves. The burden therefore is off of us to be perfect, but the fruit and purification we produce by going back to a deeper and more real confession produces more and more genuine purity of heart. Purity is senseless if it is not purity of the heart, and this only comes through grace and through His one-way love for us.