18 We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him and the evil one does not touch him.
19 We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
20 And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.
21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.
(1 John 5:18-21, NASB).
The tension throughout 1 John
Holy contradiction Batman! No one who is born of God sins? Really? What about this verse:
8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
(1 John 1:8, NASB).
All through 1 John, we have this tension. If we have come to know Him, we will keep His commandments – yet, if we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father. If we keep His word, the love of God has been truly perfected in us. Yet we are told to beware of loving the world, which is not from the Father – indicating the love of the Father has not been perfected in us. Everyone who hopes in Christ purifies themselves (indicating a lack of purity), yet no one who abides in Him sins (indicating a perfection). A brother can be seen committing a sin so alarming that you have to wonder if he is saved, and we are to pray for him. Yet no one (who is a brother) who is born of God sins. Which one is true? Are we sinful or sinless?
Embracing the mystery
I think that there is a power and a mystery and a great truth to this which we are not meant to water down by our feeble attempts to pin things down. If we can verbalize an explanation which other theologians approve of, does that make our understanding complete or true? This is a subtle kind of performancism. If our explanation diminishes or explains away either side of the problem, that we are very sinful and that in Christ we do not sin, then we close the door to the truth. It is similar to hearing people explain the trinity in terms of ice/water/steam. It sounds good, but it just isn’t true at all. The individuals in the Godhead are persons, not states of the same substance. You don’t get to the truth by defining things so simply that your problem disappears.
Maybe the explanation for this tension is that God is God, and His perspective and His theology is going to be difficult on occasion. Maybe He sees us in a different light which allows Him to say that we who are born of Him do not sin. For me, I have not primarily come to believe that I am sinless in some strange way that is hard to explain. I have come to believe in the love which God has for me. I can understand the cross, and that if I am in any sense free from sin, it is through that door. Letting go of the need to pin all of this down perfectly, I do understand that somewhere in myself, I am pure. I do hate sin. I regret when I sin. I pray fervently for purity. Sin really isn’t my operative motivation at all. I want to see His love and His grace spread to others, and I want to live in light of His love for us all the time. I think that I sin differently now that I am in Christ. How does that jive with this verse? I’m still trying to understand that, and the truth is that I really have not understood it yet. My eternity does not hinge on my ability to perfectly verbalize an acceptable explanation for this tension. However, I am going to make a stab at it, with the caveat that my explanations are bound to be flawed one way or the other.
Explanation 1: Married people can’t be single?
Which is it? If we say we have no sin we lie, or if we are born of God we don’t sin? If a brother (meaning a fellow believer) can commit a sin not leading to death (1 John 5:16), and we can pray for him, then the case can be made from the direct context that the one who is born of God can commit a sin not leading to death, but he can’t commit a sin leading to death. If this is the meaning, that in 1 John 5:8 the word “sin” points to the sin leading to death, it seems obvious – you can’t be a believer and simultaneously commit the sin of unbelief. It’s like saying a married person can’t be single, or a teetotaler can’t drink. By definition, you can’t say that you’re a non-drinker and then drink. In the same way, you can’t be a believer in Jesus and simultaneously not believe in Jesus.
Explanation 2: The two selves
However, I am not convinced this is the best understanding. Let’s take the more difficult path, just for fun. It says in 1 John 5:17 that all unrighteousness is sin, just before this. We could make the case that he explicitly says that the unrighteousness that is defined with the word “sin” includes that sin that does not lead to death. Then in the next verse, in the direct context, he says that no one who is born of God “sins”. So it is difficult to say that he only means the sin leading to death since the immediate contextual antecedent explicitly counters this idea.
We can reconcile this by clarifying our idea of the word “sin”, as we did above, or we can reconcile this by clarifying our idea of the self. If someone sins who is a believer, it is not the believing part of them that is driving the sin. However, the believing part of them that is born of God never drives this way. Paul explains it like this:
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?
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
(Romans 7:14-25, NASB).
Paul’s idea is that my true self, my believing self that is born of God, does not sin. It is at war with my old self, my dead self, my “flesh”, that does sin. Even though I am a new creature in Christ, my old flesh that loves sin lives on as a kind of living dead zombie presence. The sin that leads to death is unbelief, so that the only dynamic present is the drive of the flesh. Surely John has this duality of identity in mind when he says that no one who is born of God sins, because he has just said that a brother (a believer!) can commit a sin not leading to death, and yet says that no one who is born of God sins.
Both explanations are true
What’s strange is, this means that upon reflection, both of these ideas are true. The division between having the new self and not having the new self is belief, and this new self is born of God. So if you don’t commit the sin which leads to death, the sin of unbelief, you come into this duality of identity, and your new self, your true self, does not sin. According to Paul, your flesh sins, but you do not sin, and this being true, you do not commit the sin leading to death. In fact your new self never sins, even though you may lose your battle with he flesh on occasion.