…if you think it is no longer a dependence upon His power through the Holy Spirit to manifest supernatural cleansing and virtue in you, and you boil down your idea of sinlessness to certain behaviors which you avoid, you are not sinless. You may be sinless in your own eyes, but this is really not good enough is it? The “Lord Lord didn’t I” (Matthew 7:21,22,23) people thought they were sinless but they were terribly mistaken. I don’t want MY idea of holiness to reign over me, I want God’s idea of holiness to reign over me.
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).
There is a very false idea about radical grace that supposes that it pits itself against holiness. For example, consider this snippet from Kevin DeYoung:
Sure, it would be great to be a better person, and you do hope to avoid the really big sins. But you figure, since we’re saved by grace, holiness is not required of you, and frankly, your life seems fine without it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I have proposed over and over (for example, here) that scandalous easy-believing sloppy-agape fire-insurance pure 100% get-out-of-jail-free-card grace is the only kind of grace that leads to true holiness. This is tremendously borne out in 1 John, in fact it is the key to understanding the book as a whole.
Let’s start by observing something about this passage: there is only one imperative statement in the passage: we are asked to let no one deceive us. In the prior paragraph, the one imperative was that we should see how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us. The rest of these things are helpful observations about others. Since we are little children, it is assumed that we are abiding, purifying ourselves, practicing lawfulness, and born of God. Here John is not talking about those he is writing to, he is warning those he is writing to about other people. These are not imperatives directed to the readers, they are observations about outsiders and antichrists who would eventually leave the fellowship anyway (1 John 2:18,19). It really is critical in understanding these passages to understand their full context. He is saying these things to give the little children who really know Christ some pointers on how to observe the antichrists in their midst. He is not asking them to check themselves or doubt themselves; in fact he goes overboard assuring them that they really are of the faith (1 John 2:1,2, 1 John 3:1).
However, let’s assume for the sake of argument that we want to go ahead and test ourselves to see whether we are among those readers to whom John writes, or if we are of the antichrists who will eventually leave. I’m going to go along and sidestep the fact that we are leaving the realm of good exegesis and discuss things on the level which objectors seem to want to discuss them. Let’s assume I am being shifty and circuitous; it may be worded as an observation about someone else, but come on! He means, you ought to be holy. If you are sinning, you don’t know Him. Stop beating around the bush!
The question really revolves around the meaning of the word “abide”, doesn’t it? He has already made it clear that as little children, the true children on whom the Father has bestowed a great love, He does not expect sinlessness:
8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
(1 John 1:8-2:2, NASB).
He says, if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves. Not only does he include all of his little children in this statement, but himself! If I say “we have a problem,” I do not mean you have a problem but I am fine. It means you have a problem and I have a problem, we share the problem. All Christians right up to John the Apostle as he lived at the moment of writing this amazing letter have a problem. He intends that they will not sin, but he maintains that there is mercy for the future sins of the little children who are true believers and confess their need of the all-encompassing blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7).
I want to ask you, what is it that drives you to interpret 1 John 3:6 in a way that does violence to these prior passages? As Robert Farrar Capon so aptly puts it, what makes you want the chest-beating sinful tax-gatherer show up with the pharisee’s speech in his pocket? Why would you want to resist the context once you come to this passage. Stop doing that!
There is no way that abiding means sinlessness. You don’t need to go to the greek for this, the simple flow of ideas in the book tells us so. If we think we have sinlessness, we are deceiving ourselves. This is not to say there is no progress to be made, no victory to be had. On the contrary, though we are yet imperfect, our hope of overwhelming grace to be brought to us far beyond all deserving or earning causes us to purify ourselves. This is not of law, but of joy and grace and gift.
So we arrive at 1 John 3:6. No one who abides in Him sins. If we walk in the light, and learn in deeper and more significant ways, to confess our sins, we learn the reality of being forgiven and cleansed. We learn that we go to God in the moment in prayer, and that there is power in trusting Him to change us in the right way rather than changing first and then coming to Him. We come as Abel bringing a propitiation, not as Cain bringing the fruits of our labor. The one who abides in Him is the one who walks in the light. The one who is free from sin is the one who learns to apply the precious blood of Jesus to their current day’s predicament. The one who abides in Him is the one who says, the blood of Jesus propitiates all of my sin, including this particular sin today.
Here is the thing that I would say to some in the radical grace camp. When we come and confess, when He forgives, He also cleanses. There really is cleansing, there is transformation. He does do real work in us. It may be slow and it may be halting and it may have setbacks, but the Christian is compelled by the Holy Spirit to go to the throne of grace and receive help. When He helps it works. When He forgives, He cleanses. However, it is only radical fre-gift grace which gives us access to that throne, if we approach with any fruit in our hands we will be turned away. The fruit is not the requirement, it is the gift.
So, when we walk in the light, we walk truthfully. Those good things we do are from the generous hand of God, and we are forever released from the onerous responsibility to do them or die. When we sin, we confess quickly, and the more we mature the more we learn from the heart that there is a greater joy in keeping close in fellowship with our loving Father. This is how abiding works. In that we interpret our whole existence from the perspective of the precious blood of Christ shed for us, either our practice or our imputed righteousness is sinless.
If as a Christian you stray from this, if you think it is no longer a dependence upon His power through the Holy Spirit to manifest supernatural cleansing and virtue in you, and you boil down your idea of sinlessness to certain behaviors which you avoid, you are not sinless. You may be sinless in your own eyes, but this is really not good enough is it? The “Lord Lord didn’t I” (Matthew 7:21,22,23) people thought they were sinless but they were terribly mistaken. I don’t want MY idea of holiness to reign over me, I want God’s idea of holiness to reign over me. The verbiage John uses here makes this obvious. It is the one who abides in Him who doesn’t sin. Fleshly determination to avoid sin is useless, you can’t circumvent the “confess and He forgives and cleanses” part of this equation. If you try to, you have a righteousness of your own forgery, a self-justifying Christless righteousness. You become Cain bringing your fruit instead of Abel bringing your propitiation.
It can mean no other thing than this, because this is the only perspective which fits our true experience as Christians and which does no violence to the whole context of John’s beautiful letter. This is the great rest we enter, that we depend on His help and His mercy and His agenda and His cleansing to define our sinlessness. It is a Christ-centered holiness, and it is truly and completely sinless because it is born of Him.