He Appeared to Destroy the Works of the Devil
4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
We are in a section of John’s letter in which he is dealing with the necessity of right behavior as a “proof” that one is in fellowship with God. It is at least the second time that John has dealt with this topic (see 2:3-6). John wrote in 1 John 2:29: “you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” And in today’s passage we read, “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.”
So what we find in this week’s passage is a continuation of what we read last week in 1 John 2:28–3:3. We pick up in 1 John 3:4 where we left off in 2:29. In between was John’s reflection on the significance of the new birth. The implication is that righteousness is possible only for those who have been born again. John does not want us to think that he is only interested in behavior modification. He insists that true righteousness comes only from the new birth and not from human effort.
THE INTERPRETIVE CHALLENGE
But there is something that stands in the way of righteous behavior, and it is this that John focuses on in this passage. John has much to say about sin and the relationship those born of God have with it. And what John has to say has been the occasion for much interpretive debate. 1 John 3:6 and 1 John 3:9 are two of the most difficult verses to comprehend in this little book. Accordingly, many English translations have been forced to translate these verses with an interpretive bias. But the NASB rendering of verse six is very literal and helps us to see why this passage has been the cause for the spilling of much ink. It reads, “No one who abides in Him sins.” And verse nine reads, “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.”
The grammar of this passage is simple enough, and John makes clear what his point is in verse 10. He is wanting to give us yet another “test” to discern between the children of God and the children of the devil. But what make the passage difficult to interpret are the absolute terms John uses to describe those born of God and those who are of the devil. Those born of God are those who do not sin (even cannot sin!). Those who are children of the devil do not live righteously. So the interpretive problem is simply this: Is John teaching sinless perfection for true believers? If so, doesn’t that contradict what he said in 1:8-10?
It’s obvious that these questions are a bit of a problem, and there is no shame in admitting it. We should not merely dismiss this problem by offering quick explanations. Liberal scholars have often dealt with the problem by suggesting that John did not write these verses but they were added later by someone else. But is there no other way to reconciling what John has to say here with what he has already said in chapter one? I think there is.
SIN IS LAWLESSNESS
Let’s begin where John begins, with verse four. “Everyone who commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” John wants us to come to grips with what sin is before we can understand what more he has to say about it. So he offers us this definition: sin is lawlessness.
It is, of course, true that sin is the breaking of God’s law. That is, every sin is a sin against God because it is his law that we violate when we sin. This simple fact is enough to demonstrate the seriousness of sin. But John may have more in mind here. He has recently told us that because the “last hour” has been inaugurated, there are many “antichrists” now on the scene. When Paul described the coming of antichrist in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7, he described him as “the man of lawlessness,” the same word that occurs here. It is quite possible that the word lawlessness became “associated with the final outbreak of evil against Christ and that it signifies rebellion against the will of God.” So when John says that those who commit sin are committing lawlessness, he may be referring to the fact that sin is not just the breaking of God’s law, but the aligning of one’s self in rebellion against God and in opposition to the Christ.
I do not think John intended to give us an exact definition of sin. We are still sinners even when we are not actively doing anything in violation of God’s law. But John seems to be more concerned here with the various acts of sin. So when John says in verse six that “no one who abides in him sins,” it is clear that John is not differentiating between different types of sin. He does not mean, for example, that those who abide in God commit only unintentional sin but not deliberate sin. It is sin in general that is in view here, including sins of omission (“whoever does not practice righteousness.”) And John says that by sinning we line ourselves up with the enemies of God.
John’s opponents did not apparently have such a view of sin. Unfortunately, many today also do not look at sin the same way God does. How difficult it can be for us to admit that most of our failures and mistakes and “goofs” are nothing but sin. Our tendency to underestimate the negative effects of sin indicates that we are still in need of hearing John’s message.
THE REASON THE SON OF GOD APPEARED
Thus we can see already the seriousness of sin, knowing that all acts of sin involve the breaking of the law of God. Sin is rebellion against God. So serious is the subject and so damning its effects that God went to great lengths to counteract it. It is because of sin that Jesus came to earth. He “appeared to take away sins,” verse five tells us. And verse eight says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
So the “works of the devil” are the sins of the world. Again we can see the connection that John makes between sin and rebellion against God. The devil, as the arch-enemy of God, stands opposed to God in every way. His “works,” then, would involve things done in opposition to God. When we sin we are doing things that oppose God and are working to support the devil.
But the devil will not succeed in his opposition to God. Jesus came to earth for the very purpose of taking away sins and thereby destroying the works of the devil. In 1 John 2:2 we read that the way that Jesus took away sins was by becoming our propitiation. Remember that a propitiation is a satisfaction of the wrath of God. Jesus needed to propitiate because of sin. John concludes here that if Jesus came in this way for the very purpose of taking away sins, then Jesus must also be opposed to sin. Indeed, John tells us at the end of verse five, “in him there is no sin.”
We learned last week that the ambition of every true believer is to become like Christ, and that this ambition causes us to strive for Christlikeness now. So if Christ is sinless, our aim should be to be sinless. And when John says in verse six, “No one who abides in him sins,” he is only drawing a logical conclusion from verses four and five. If sin is rebellion against God, and if Christ came to take away sin, and if he himself is sinless, then those who “abide” in him will also be opposed to sin. Radically opposed to it.
This is one reason why our “interpretive problem” cannot be solved by saying that when John mentions sinlessness he is talking only about the new nature given to believers. Some have understood John’s words to mean that when the believer sins it is not really him that sins but his old, sinful self. While our desires may come from our two natures, our actions are always singular. We are responsible for how we behave.
Now I hope that this is as obvious to you as anything possibly could be. Sin is serious because it is rebellion against God. And you and I are responsible for our sins. But it seems that these two truths are not all that obvious, either in our day or in John’s. He writes in verse seven, “Little children, let no one deceive you.” And then he essentially repeats what he wrote in 2:29: “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” It seems that John had to deal with those who were saying that sin was not all that significant, either because they professed to be sinless or because they didn’t think sin made much of a difference in their lives. The Apostle Paul had to make a similar clarification: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Rom 6:1-2). I do not think that the great danger of our day is to think so much about sin that we end up feeling unduly guilty, discouraged, and hopeless. I fear the great danger is that we would think too little of sin and end up ignoring its serious consequences in our lives.
The Puritan writer, John Owen, compiled several works on the subject of sin in the life of the believer. One such work is entitled Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers and is based on Romans 8:13 which gives professing Christians two options: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Owen famously quipped, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Sin, since it is rebellion against God, is a dangerous enemy, and its presence in our lives is a real threat to our souls.
So we who are Christ’s have no option but to take up arms against sin with as much seriousness as you would have for anything else. This is no small thing. Jesus came to take away sins, to undo the works of the devil. John wants to encourage his readers to resist apathy toward sin and instead to see it for what it really is, and consequently to make every effort to see that it is destroyed in their lives.
THOSE BORN OF GOD CANNOT SIN
I think we are now ready to understand the “interpretive problem” in this passage. First of all, it should be clear what John is not saying. He cannot be saying that no true Christian will ever commit any act of sin. John has clearly spoken out against the belief in sinless perfection earlier in this letter with very strong words (1:8-10). And in 2:1 he is equally clear: “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin, but if anyone does sin...” So is there another way to understand his words here in verses six and nine?
One of the most popular ways to interpret these verses is by emphasizing the fact that in both cases John uses present tense verbs, a tense which is used if one wants to denote habitual or continuous action. Many modern versions opt for this explanation. Accordingly the ESV and the NIV will use phrases like keeps on sinning or continue to sin to make this distinction. The problem with this view is it requires further explanation on what is meant by habitual and continuous sin. These words come near to suggesting sinless perfection, for how infrequent would sin have to be to not be habitual or continuous? If sinless perfection is not attainable in this life, then in one sense we all sin habitually and continuously. All of us will keep on sinning.
One commentator who holds to this view explains that although the Christian “may sin sometimes, even with the consent of the mind and the will,” he will be “overwhelmed by grief and repentance afterwards.” (Stott, 139) I agree with that commentary, but not that such a view requires us to understand John’s words in verses six and nine as referring to habitual, continuous, or persistent sin. One can be “overwhelmed by grief and repentance” and still continue to struggle with that particular sin.
It is far better to view John’s absolute statements another way. We can begin by asking ourselves this question: If the reason Jesus came to earth was to “take away sins” or, stated another way, “to destroy the works of the devil,” then did he succeed in his mission? The answer is clearly “yes” (John 17:4).
So if Jesus came to take away sins and to destroy the works of the devil, and if he succeeded in his goal and yet believers continue to have frequent battles with sin, then John must not have meant that Jesus came to earth for the purpose of completely removing sin from our lives now. The best way to understand our “interpretive problem” is to identify exactly in what sense Jesus “took away sins” and “destroyed the works of the devil.”
Romans 6:6-7 is key to our understanding. It reads, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” These verses make it clear that what Jesus came to do was to deliver us from the dominating power of sin and the devil. And although he succeeded, the devil’s overthrow up to this point has been a “dethronement rather than a decisive destruction.” And so it is with sin. It no longer has us under its dominion. We are now able not to sin because sin’s power has been broken. We are free to live righteously in Jesus Christ even though sin continues to be a threat to us.
This is why John can say that the practice of righteousness is a true test for differentiating between those who are the children of God and those who are the children of the devil (1 John 3:10). For those who are born of God something decisive has happened to them. But we have still not answered for why John can say that those born of God “do not commit sin” or that they are “not able to sin.”
For that we need to see that our passage is in two symmetrical sections. In verses 4-7 and then in verses 8-9 John speaks about the seriousness of sin, then about the reason for Christ’s appearance, and concludes each section with a logical conclusion. The conclusions are similar but slightly different. In verse six John concludes that “no one who abides in him keeps on sinning.” In other words, to the extent that we abide in Christ we will not commit acts of sin. So John urges his readers to abide in Christ in 1 John 2:28. Daily victory over sin is made possible only by the abiding power of Jesus in our lives.
But this is not the conclusion of verse 9. There John says not only that those born of God do not sin, he emphatically states that the child of God “cannot sin” due to God’s seed “abiding in him.” Here is where I think John is referring to the effect that the new nature, received at the new birth, has upon the Christian. “It exerts a strong internal pressure toward holiness,” says one commentator. Because of the new nature the believer cannot sin without the new nature reacting strongly to the act.
When Polycarp, bishop of the church in Smyrna was arrested and condemned to be burned publicly because of his faith in Jesus, he was offered release by the governor. “Reproach Christ,” the governor demanded, “and I will release you.” Polycarp reportedly said, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never once wronged me. How can I then blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
When Potipher’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he exclaimed to her, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
When I say, “I cannot eat fish,” I do not mean that I am unable to put fish into my mouth, chew it up, and swallow it. I mean simply that I do not enjoy the taste of fish and so will choose not to eat it. (Or I may mean that though I can get it down my throat I am not able to keep it down there very long so I choose not to eat it!)
So verse six tells us that the Christian will not sin to the extent that he abides in Christ. Verse nine teaches us that we cannot have victory over sin apart from the new birth. It is the new birth that gives us the ability to reject sin. The new birth gives us a new appetite. For those who are born of God, we can no longer “stomach” sin.
This is not just a cute way of skirting around John’s direct statements in verses six and nine. The use of the present tense, especially when generic subjects are in view (note John’s use of “no one” and “whoever” in this passage), can describe something that is true any time rather than a universal statement that is true all the time. Such statements are somewhat proverbial in character. They describe a general, timeless fact, such as “laptop computers run on batteries.” That is, of course, true, even though most of the time when I am using mine it is plugged into an outlet.
APPLICATION: DO NOT SIN!
We should take note of the effect this interpretation has on the passage over all. In other words, if John is saying only that the Christian, since he has a new nature, is now free from sin and indeed finds his new nature is repulsed by sin, then what difference does this make in John’s letter at this point?
First of all, given the fact that those who left the church and were trying to deceive those still in the church were apparently passive about the seriousness of sin, it fits with the situation of John’s letter for him to argue that how one reacts to sin is a good indication of whether or not one has been born of God. While we should all expect to see progress in our holiness by attaining victory over sin, this progress can also be identified with sincere hatred of sin, even if one continues to struggle with some besetting sin.
Second, John’s statements in verses six and nine, though they are grammatically descriptive, are logically imperatives and statements of obligation. They describe what is ideal Christian behavior and implicitly command us to pursue the ideal. John is saying, “Christians do not sin, so, if you really are a Christian, don’t sin!” He wants to urge his readers to reject the lies of the apostates who argued that sinful behavior was just not that big of a deal. John argues for exactly the opposite. Sin is a big deal. It is the reason for which Christ came to this earth. Those who are true lovers of Jesus will respond to its seriousness by waging war against it.
And believers in Jesus can confidently wage war against sin in their lives because for them sin has already been dealt a mortal blow. As John has said, it is the last hour. Those born of God do not sin because God’s seed in them has rendered sin powerless. This is already true. But final victory over sin is not yet here. That’s why it is still a battle. And one that every true believer will gladly fight until the end has come.
 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 176.
 John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 139.
 Ibid., 142.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 131.
 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 523.
 Marshall, The Epistles of John, 184.