By Johnny Stringer
Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God (1 Jn. 3:9).
In teaching on 1 John 3:9, brethren usually stress that the expression “doth not commit sin” denotes habitual action. John is not saying that the one who is born of God never commits a single act of sin. That idea would contradict other clear passages (1 John 1:8-2:1; Acts 8:13-24). The point is that the one who is born of God does not continue in sin as a way of life. When he sins, he repents of it and seeks God’s forgiveness (Acts 8:22).
The reason the one who is born of God does not and cannot habitually sin is clearly stated: “for his seed remaineth in him.” The seed of the new birth is the word of God (1 Pet. 1:23; Lk. 8: 11). The word of God, working as seed within the heart, will not permit one to persist in sin, but will influence him to be faithful (1 Jn. 2:14,24; Psa. 119:11).
Brethren often make these points in discussing this passage. This is good, but one question is often not adequately answered because a key point is overlooked. The question is, does this mean that if one becomes a Christian, he will never go into a life of habitual sin? The verse says that the one who is born of God does not continue in sin because the seed remains in him and prevents him from doing so. We know that sometimes one who becomes a Christian does later go into a life of habitual sin (1 Cor. 5:1; 2 Pet. 2:20-23), but John seems to be teaching otherwise. Does John mean to teach that if anyone was ever born again, he will not go into a life of sin because the seed remains in him and will prevent it?
The solution to this problem is found in a point that is often overlooked: the tense of the verb “is born.” The verb tense which John uses proves that he is not talking about everyone who was ever born again. He is not saying that anyone who was ever born again does not live in sin. The KJV says, “Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin.” It does not say, “Whosoever was ever born of God doth not commit sin.”
The KJVs translation of this verb is good. The Greek verb which is rendered “is born” is in the perfect tense. Concerning the prefect tense, Marshall says, “The Greek perfect can generally be taken as represented by an English present: a past action continuing in its effect down to the present, in contrast to an action wholly in the past” (The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, p. vii). Machen staes, “The Greek perfect tense denotes the present state resultant upon a past action” (New Testament Greek for Beginners, p. 187). Machen goes on to say that the perfect tense is never used unless the past action had a permanent result.
John’s use of the perfect tense, therefore, shows that he is talking not about everyone who was ever born again, but only about the one in whom the relationship begun at the new birth continues – the one in whom the seed continues to work. This is the one who does not habitually sin.
Concerning 1 John 3:9, Vincent says, “The perfect participle indicates a condition remaining from the first: he who hath been begotten and remains God’s child.” The famous B.F. Wescott comments, “The perfect . . . marks not only the single act . . . but the continuous presence of its efficacy. ‘He that hath been born and still remains a child of God.”‘ John is not talking about everyone who was ever born again. Completely out of his view is the one who was born again, but later rebelled against God; such a person is not one who “is born of God.” John is talking only about the one who continues to let the seed work in him. This is the one who does not habitually sin.
The Contextual Point
The point John is making in the context is that those who sin are not of God, but of the devil (v. 8). In verse 10 John divides men into two groups: children of God and children of the devil. He teaches that those who do evil are children of the devil, not children of God. Obviously, he is using the term children with reference to character. Those who partake of God’s character are his children, and those who partake of the devil’s character are his children. For this usage of the term children see Matthew 5:44-48-, John 8:39-44. All who obey the gospel do not continue to be God’s children in this sense; when they go into sin they are children of the devil (1 John 3:8,10).
In verse 9, John simply says that the one who continues the relationship begun at the new birth – that is, continues to be a child of God through the continued working of the seed – does not persist in sin, for the seed will not let him. Those who live in sin, therefore, no longer sustain the relationship that was begun at the new birth. Inasmuch as they have ceased to derive their character from God through the working of his seed, they have ceased to be his children.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 6, p. 174
March 17, 1988