In I John 3:9 it says:
“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.”
When examined in a vacuum, this verse can appear to say that it is impossible for someone who has accepted the gospel to ever sin again – that it simply cannot happen. I must admit that when I first read this verse as a young Christian that is how it sounded to me. This idea terrified me because I knew full well that I had sinned a lot since obeying the gospel and being baptized into Christ. It even caused moments of doubt to creep into my mind as to whether I ever did abide in Christ. I can remember wondering if my sin was evidence I never really was saved. While I have since come to a very different and hopefully more accurate understanding of this passage, many still subscribe to the popular interpretation that once you have been saved you cannot sin. This is an extremely dangerous false doctrine. Not only does it leave those who sincerely strive to follow God discouraged in their walk, but it also keeps many who need the continual cleansing of Christ’s blood, as we all do, from acknowledging and seeking it.
Fortunately, we are not restricted to viewing this verse inside a vacuum. We have both the ability and responsibility to examine it in context of the entirety of the scriptures. And when we do so, it quickly becomes clear that a sinless life after obeying the gospel is not the subject of this verse. If we did try to give it such an interpretation, it would create a wide variety of contradictions with other scripture. In James 3:2, James makes it quite clear that “we all stumble in many things”. If we were to back up into the first verse of chapter three we’d find he was addressing “brethren” with that statement. Later, James urges the brethren to confess their trespasses to one another (5:16). Paul follows up his declaration in Romans 6:18 that we have been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness by describing an ongoing conflict between his spiritual mind and his fleshly body in the last half of chapter 7. In Galatians 6:1, Paul tells the Galatian brethren that those who are spiritual should restore those that have been overtaken by a trespass and to be careful lest they also be tempted. None of these verses would make sense if it was impossible for a brother in Christ to sin. There would be no stumbling, there would be no internal struggle, and there would be no need to restore or to be mindful of our own potential downfall. Even beyond that, we would need to address the inconsistencies within the letter of I John itself. I John 1:8-10 states that if we say we have no sin we not only deceive ourselves, but make God a liar. Instead of making the case that if we are in Christ we cannot sin, John seems to be making the stronger point that if we think we have no sin we cannot be in Him because His word is not in us.
So if that isn’t what I John 3:9 means … what does it mean? What is it getting at when it says those born of God cannot sin? One thing that helped me answer this question was to look back at some of the characteristics that identify someone who is “born of God” as defined in I John. Besides being described as someone who does not sin, those born of God: practice righteousness (2:29), possess love (4:7), believe that Jesus is the Christ (5:1), overcome the world (5:4) and keep themselves (from the sway of the wicked one)(5:18). While we could spend a great deal of time on each of these and how they help keep us from sinning as those born of God, I will just briefly address one for now. One of the keys to this passage for me was the fact that those who are born of God practice righteousness. If I understand this verse correctly, it is not talking about the occasional sin that comes from the weakness of the flesh that besets us all; but rather, one who practices sin. One who makes sin their lifestyle as many of us probably did before coming to Christ. If we are born of God then we practice righteousness. And if we practice righteousness then, by default, we cannot be practicing unrighteousness. It reminded me of the analogy of serving two masters in Matthew chapter 6. You can’t be loyal to both masters, but it doesn’t mean you can’t disappoint or disobey the one you are seeking to serve. In much the same way, you can be a practitioner of righteousness and still be guilty of malpractice from time to time. It seems the idea that practicing righteousness versus practicing sin is being discussed in this verse. That is substantiated by the fact that this passage is bookended by the distinction of those who do practice righteousness as being children of God (vs. 7) while those who don’t as being children of the devil (vs. 10). The idea of walking in the light that is mention in I John 1:7 also gives the illustration of a purposed and continued life of pursing the path of righteousness. And if we do this it says the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin. This seems to be something that is ongoing.
The message of I John is not that we’ve left sin far behind never to experience it again. But it’s also certainly not intended to make us feel comfortable or resigned to its presence in our lives. I John chapter two starts off by stating these things are written so that we may not sin. And if we do we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Praise God for that!