CAN A CHILD OF GOD COMMIT SIN?
T. PIERCE BROWN
About 60 years ago I was reading 1 John 3:8-9 and5:18, both of which say that the person begotten of God does not commit sin. I was considerably disturbed, for I was just a little boy who had not yet obeyed the gospel, but I was studying God’s word, and it appeared to me that since John had just finished saying in 1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” there was some terrible problem somewhere. Because of my simple, childlike faith in God, I felt sure that the problem was with my understanding and not with the apparent contradiction of the text.
Since a nationally known gospel preacher was in a nearby town preaching on the radio, and my neighbor had a radio, I wrote him a postal card asking him about it. He did not reply, so I asked a younger preacher, and he told me that the idea of “cannot sin” in 1 John 3:9 meant “cannot afford to sin,” very much like Exodus19:23where Moses said, “The people cannot come up toMount Sinai.” It appears evident that they could come up, but if they did they would die, so they were prohibited, and could not afford to. A mother might tell her child, “You can’t play in the street” without meaning that it was impossible to do so.
Since that was the best explanation I could get, it seemed to help, though it did not explain why it was that he specified that the one born of God could not afford to commit sin, as if others could. It also seemed unreasonable to me that God would say, “Those born of God are prohibited from sinning” as if others were allowed to. In those days, I did not know there was any such things as commentaries, and if I had known, I could not have afforded to buy them, so I had to wait until I learned a little about the Bible for myself before I discovered a better explanation.
The basic thought in both the aforementioned passages is the same — that the one who is begotten of God sinneth not. There are two things in the passage that need to be understood before one can see properly the meaning of John. First, the expression, “is born of God.” The Greek word “gegennemenos” is a perfect passive participle. The significance of that is that it is used to describe an action that has reached its termination, with emphasis on the fact that the results of the action still remain. The approximate meaning is, “Whoever has been begotten of God, and still remains in that same relationship.” Now, what is that relationship? Surely it is evident that one can not be begotten of God who is not doing the will of God. 1 Peter1:23says, “Having been begotten again — by the Word of God — .” The seed of the kingdom is the word of God, and that seed does remain in the person about whom he is speaking here. We know it does, for two reasons. 1. The tense of the verb indicates it — he remains like he was when he was begotten and 2. The text actually says, “for his seed remaineth in him.”
The second thing we need to know about that verse is the meaning of “doth not commit sin.” Again the tense of the verb is significant. The verb is “poiei” and is present, indicative, active. The usual indication of that tense is “continuous action.” The man who is mentioned here can not continue in willful sin. It is not merely that he should not, or that he “cannot afford to.” It is simply a fact that a man who continues in a relationship of obedience to God cannot continue in actions of disobedience to God at the same time, for the simple reason that the “seed” (the Word of God) remains in him. “Thy Word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee” (Psa. 119:11).
There is an additional question about 1 John 5:18 which is raised as different texts are consulted. The explanation above takes care of the first part of the verse, but the question about the last part of the verse, where the phrase “he that is begotten of God keepeth himself” needs our consideration. Without dwelling on the fact that there is considerable doubt as to whether the original text has “keepeth himself” (heauton) or “keepeth him” (auton), and therefore some doubt as to whether “he that is begotten of God” refers to Christ or the saved person who has been begotten of God, let us realize that it really does not matter with reference to the end result.
It is my judgment that the weight of evidence leans slightly in favor of the conclusion that it speaks of Christ. This is not only because of the many manuscripts, copies, etc. that indicate that, but primarily because the last phrase, “he that is begotten of God” is not the same as the first phrase, “whosoever is born (or begotten) of God.” Everywhere else when John speaks of the saved person, he uses “ho gegennemenos” and never “ho gennetheis” as he does here. This is a first aorist passive participle, and literally might be translated, “He that was begotten of God,” referring to Christ.
Translated in a broad, amplified way, it is my judgment that this is its meaning, “Whosoever has been begotten of God and sustains that kind of relationship with him does not continue to sin, but He that was begotten of God (The Christ, the “monogene” of John3:16) keeps him.”
But the reason that it does not make any practical difference whether the passage says, “He keeps himself,” as the King James Version puts it, or “Christ keeps him” as I believe the best manuscripts and versions indicate, is that the Bible indicates that both must operate for a man to be kept. We are “kept by the power of God through faith” (I Peter 3:5). He will keep us, but we are the ones who must have and demonstrate the faith. “I know him whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day” (2 Timothy1:12). He does the keeping, but you and I must do the commitment.
So Jesus said in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me — they shall never perish.” That is so true! The sheep are the ones who are hearing (continuous action) and following. There is no power on earth or in hell (neither man nor the Devil) can pluck such a one out of the hand of Jesus. But the fact that a person can quit being a sheep and turn into a goat needs to be understood! None of these verses give any hope to him. The goat can never be saved, and the sheep can never be lost! But by definition the goat is one who is NOT following God, and the sheep is one who IS following Him. We should know, however, that the “goat” can turn into a sheep by following Jesus and then he can be saved. The sheep can turn into a goat by turning away from following Jesus. Then, in that condition, he cannot be saved. That person who is following Jesus and heeding his voice cannot be touched in a harmful way by the wicked one (1 John5:18; Cf. 1 Cor.10:13).