Analysis of 1John 3:9

"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 issue at hand: Does 1John 3:9 and its surrounding context call into question the salvation status of those Christians who lifestyle of sin? Or we may ask more generally, does the context indicate some kind of correlation between a person's behavior and their salvation status?

The Traditional Lifestyle Interpretation

The Greek in which 1John was written grammatically differs from English. In particular there are tenses of verbs which differ from how we use them in English. John is utilizing the distinction between the Greek Aorist tense and the Greek Present tense in his letter.

The Aorist tense conveys the sense of point in time events, instances or boundary events. It's often use to refer to historical events because while history may "repeat itself", the actual events in history only occur at one point in time. It can refer to periodic events, but only in the punctilinear sense.

Whereas the Present tense, of which John makes use here, doesn't focus on instances of events, but rather gives the sense of general continuity of which perhaps in English is best understood in the term "lifestyle". (And this is the case regardless of whether one views the usage of the present tense here as either "Customary" or "Gnomic", which I'll elaborate upon later.) Just as the Greek Present tense, the term "lifestyle" is not open to boundary questions. It is not open to ask the question as to what is the boundary condition which distinguishes let's say a behavior or attitude as being or not being the lifestyle of a person or character quality of the person. How much should a person display a certain behavior or attitude until we can say that such is characteristic of his lifestyle? The term "lifestyle" by its very nature does not answer that question, just as the Greek present tense doesn't answer boundary questions. It's not about boundary issues. Nor does the term "lifestyle" deny that a person may (in the "aorist" sense) deviate from such a lifestyle from time to time, just as the Greek Present tense doesn't deny there being instances of deviation.

With this in mind 1John 3:9 reads more literally that "No one who has been  born (perfect passive) of God practices (present) sin as his lifestyle because His seed abides in him; and he cannot live a lifestyle of sin, because he has been born of God."

For those Greek scholars among you I mentioned "customary" and "gnomic" sense of the Greek present tense. These are not significantly distinct with regards to this passage. Chosing one over the other is a matter of interpretation, and the subtle difference between the two doesn't really matter much in this case whichever you chose.

The Customary Present refers to what is the person's custom or habit.
The Gnomic Present refers to what is characteristic of the person's life.

But then again how do you characterize a person's life but by his customs and habits? Both convey the sense of evaluating a person's lifestyle - and thus the usage.

More generally the Gnomic sense of the present is that of a timeless fact - that which is characteristic over time. An example of the Gnomic is

Mat 7:17  Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
Now it may be that good trees bear bad fruit from time to time. The Gnomic present doesn't deny such a possibility. But if it does, it does so uncharacteristically. But the statement denies the idea that a good tree could characteristically bear bad fruit. For then it would not be a good tree but a bad one.

So also in 1John 3:9,10 No one born of God will live a lifestyle characterized by sin. And in fact anyone who does not characteristically do what is right is not a child of God - nor those who do not characteristically love his brother.

And by the way notice that last phrase in verse 10 "love his brother" - the context would indicate John is referring to Christian brethren. Thus this man whom John says is not born of God is nonetheless regarded as a Christian - I would argue in name only. And I think that's the main issue of 1st John - namely how to distinguish between whether a given Christian is born of God or not - and thus also enters the issue of assurance of salvation, which is called into question on an individual basis, based upon one's characteristic behavior.

It is alleged that while 1John 3:9,10 is not inconsistent with this interpretation, there are other verses which would introduce contradictions. But let us examine these:

1John 1:8 "If we say we have no sin"
1John 1:10 "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar"

These are claims of sinless perfection which are set in contrast to 1John 1:9 in which genuine believers acknowledge their sins. 1John 3:9 is not referring to sinless perfection.

1John 5:16a "If any man see his brother sin a sin"
Here "sin" is in the present tense, and thus here a "brother" sinning in a lifestyle sense. However if we look at the surrounding context we note that this is a "brother" in name only - one who doesn't actually have the son, being still without life. 1John 6:16-18 "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death. We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not." Notice that this alleged brother does not have life. 1John 5:12 just prior to this says, "He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life." This was a fellow Christian yet to be born of God. He was living a lifestyle of sin, but not the kind of sin which was unforgiveable, namely apostacy. Notice furthermore in verse 18 that John reiterates the fact that those born of God don't sin in a lifestyle sense (present tense again). This in contrast to the sinning brother. Thus the usage of the lifestyle sense of the present tense is internally consistent - non-contradictory - in this section and making the meaning unambiguous.

These are the three verses which those who oppose the Traditional interpretation of 1John attempt to use as rebuttal. But as we can see there is no such basis for their objection.

Other Interpretations

The Jekyll & Hyde Interpretation
Those who hold this interpretation view the Christian as being composed of two separate persons inhabiting the same body. The Jekyll person is a child of God. He never commits any sin. He is sinlessly perfect in his behavior. The Hyde person is a child of the devil and does nothing but sin. When Jekyll controls the body, then the person can be referred to as born of God. But when the Hyde person controls the body then the person is referred to as the child of the devil. Not that his status changes, but rather there are two separate individuals with two separate status in the same body.

It's a strange way to view the usage of simple pronouns, and John never alludes to such a plurality of persons inhabiting the same body. But besides this  if you read the pronouns throughout 1John as referring to either the "Jekyll you" or the "Hyde you" there appear contradictions. In fact lets consider one of the verses previously mentioned, namely 1John 1:10 "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar" But the claim is the "born of God person" - the "Jekyll you" - has not sinned according to this view. It never sins but it sinlessly perfect. I corresponded with a man who held this view - a Jim Johnson. He said, "the child of God cannot and does not sin." Then I asked him whether he was a child of God and whether he sinned. He said he was and had to admit that he does sin. Yet he says that "The “new man”is an absolutely perfect new creation."

Another point of rebuttal is why isn't Jekyll always in control of the body? For it says, "He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world." 1John 4:4 So what excuse does Jekyll have for not always being in control? We can't say that on occasion he lapses or doesn't keep alert. If he never sins, then he never lapses. If he has the ability to control the body's behavior and he knows it's God's will to do so, then to do otherwise is sin. Thus the contradiction. This interpretation doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

The Changing Status Interpretation
In this interpretation the person has three parts. One part is the sinful nature. Another part is the regenerate nature. And between these is the "you" that decides which nature will control the body. Only during those times when the "you" allows the regenerate nature to control the body is the "you" referred to as a child of God. All other times the "you" is not a child of God. In this case a Christian's child of God status may oscillate quite a bit during a given week.

1. The concept of birth is not something conducive to this idea of changing one's birth status from day to day. It's one thing to be born-again. But I don't think Jesus was referring to being born again and again and again and again and again.
2. The fact that John uses the Perfect Passive form of the verb "born" in 1John 3:9 contradicts this interpretation as it conveys the idea of something that occurred in the past and has continued on to the present - just we naturally say "I have been born". It does not convey the sense of being born of God only at the present moment in time and not necessarily in the previous moment in time or the next moment in time.
3.  John 1:12,13 states "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God." Yet in contrast, this interpretation holds that your child of God status vascillates in accordance with your will.

The Expression of Nature Interpretation
Bob Wilkin holds this interpretation saying, "No believer ever sins as an expression of his new nature. Insofar as the believer expresses his new nature in his experience" or another man who said, "The fact that he has been begotten of God excludes the possibility of his committing sin as an expression of his true character."

Notice how many words have to be added to the text to make it fit their interpretation:

Original: "No one who is born of God practices sin"
Modified: "No believer ever sins as an expression of his new nature. Insofar as the believer expresses his new nature in his experience"

Original: "he cannot sin, because he is born of God."
Modified: "The fact that he has been begotten of God excludes the possibility of his committing sin as an expression of his true character."

What they view John as saying is almost trivial and redundant - like a Christian doesn't sin when he obeys God. When a Christian behaves as he should, then he doesn't sin in doing so. The proposition is that John is talking to a bunch of idiots who think that they sin by following their regenerate nature and John has to correct them on that point.

Furthermore the verse which follows verse 9 seems to contradict their point. "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." So if a person is a child of God, but isn't expressing his new nature, then this verse says that he is not a child of God but a child of the devil. Notice I made sure to include their phrase "expressing his new nature" in this verse to be consistent with their usage in verse 9. Yet by doing so we still end up with the contradiction in  verse 10 which states that a child of God is not a child of God. Thus this interpretation simply doesn't follow. It adds many unncessary words to the text - rewriting the text - and yet still ends up with a contradiction.

The Permissive Interpretation
In this interpretation first of all sin is viewed in an absolute sense - every particular sin. But the idea is that those born of God simply don't sin permissively - which is simply to say that they do sin, but when they sin they do so without God's permission. (Yet another "Well Duh!?" interpretation) Granted that the "cannot" in "he cannot go on sinning" is sometimes used to mean "may not" in a permissive sense, more commonly those words in Greek is used to refer to a lack of ability, more literally - lack of power to do such and such - and as such the action is never actually done because of the lack of power to do so. Nonetheless lets give this interpretation the benefit of the doubt concerning that word. But does such a concept fit the rest of verse 9 and 10.

Again  "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." As John is giving the giving the negative case here, namely "not doing what is right" and "not loving his brother", there seems no place appropriate to insert the word "permission" so as to modify is clear and direct meaning. Maybe if John had used the positive here and said "Anyone who does what is right is a child of God" we could claim under this interpretation that John is not excluding those born of God who do what is wrong. It's just that we can only say for certain that those doing right are born of God. But since in this verse - verse 10 - John is telling us who is not a child of God rather than who is a child of God, the Permissive interpretation does not help in the attempt to include sinning Christians among those considered born of God. For according to this verse who does it say is not a child of God? Anyone who does not do what is right. So even if the "cannot" of verse 9 were speaking just in a permissive sense, yet verse 10 would lead us to believe that in fact no one born of God actually does sin. Thus this interpretation offers nothing new to significantly deviate John's meaning from the Traditional Interpretation.

The Ideal Interpretation
The idea behind this interpretation is that John is say that it would be ideal if Christians didn't sin. It is just not appropriate for Christians to sin. Similiar to the Permissive Interpretation. Some have tried to justify this with the idea of John using the Gnomic sense of the Greek Present tense. But the Gnomic Present doesn't express an "Ideal" but rather a "Truism". The Traditional Lifestyle Interpretation gives the correct sense of the Gnomic Present Proper usage in 1John 3:9 would make it mean that "it is of a truth that Christians do not sin". That's quite different than the idea that not sinning is the goal or ideal of the Christian life. The way you would do the "ideal" translation is you would just throw in the word "ideally" here and there

"Ideally (if we lived in a perfect world)  no one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and ideally he cannot sin, because he is born of God. Ideally if we lived in a perfect world this is how we would know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Ideally anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother - if we lived in a perfect ideal world."

The presumption here - having no actual basis in fact from a grammatical standpoint - is that John is not talking about the real world, but rather a world that doesn't actually exist. And as such it could be argued that there is no actual application to what he says.

This "ideal" interpretation cannot be used throughout 1John.  Consider 1John 5:16 mentioned above "If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life." But wait a minute, in an ideal world Christians don't commit sin according their interpretation of 1John 3:9,10. Nor is the ideal interpretation consistent with the beginning of 1st John in which Christians confess their sins and in fact don't deny that they sin - not an ideal world model. So this idea, having no basis either from a grammatical nor a contextual standpoint, appears to be simply proposed simply to get around the implications of the verse.
The Certain Sins Interpretation
There are a couple of interpretations which have popped up over the centuries that view John as only referring to certain categories of sin. That is:

"No one born of God will practice certain kinds sin"

One group holds that John is referring to only "unintentional" sins - like if you find yourself swearing unintentionally under stressful conditions. But if you commit a sin intentionally you lose your salvation - your "born of God" status - and have to resaved all  over again.

This interpretation would have us believe that "no one born of God will intentionally sin". Now while there are those of a Wesleyan persuasion who advocate this limited version of "sinless perfection" or who themselves claim as a Christian to never have sinned intentionally, in fact I have yet to meet a Christian who doesn't in fact sin intentionally.

But even so, the main problem with the unintention sin interpretation is that is alleges a distinct boundary between intentional and unintentional sins. A distinct boundary that doesn't actually exists, as in fact this distinction is a matter of degree. Thus they propose that if a person sins "intentionally", such a person is not born of God. Whereas "intentional" is a matter of degree. All sin involves a degree of "intention" in that the will is involved in all cases.

Furthermore of all the categorical lists of sins indicative of those who do not inherit the kingdom of God given in Ephesians 5:5; 1Cor 6:9,10; Gal 5:19-21; and Rev 21:8, none speak of this alleged distinction between "intentional" and "unintentional" sins.

Ignorance is no excuse in Law because people know that they should know, but willfully don't try to find out. What happens when someone like myself points out the sinfulness of such alleged "unintentional" sins. From that point on is the practice of such sin to be reckoned "intentional"? Or if a person is lazy and I then point out their laziness, is their further practice of laziness to be reckoned intentional sin? It seems the type of Christian that this interpretaion creates is a Christian who willfully, intentionally, alleges to remain in diapers so as to excuse themselves for being blind to their own sinfulness and exempt from the behavior expected of mature Christians. Yes we are all subject to temptations due to our living in a shell of sinful flesh, but that's no excuse for acting upon such temptations. Acting upon temptations is not mere negligence. There is a degree of intention involved.

Now besides there being nothing in the context to indicate that John is limiting "sin" to such a degree, this isn't particularly useful for those Christians intent on living in sin either, which is the subject at hand. 1John 3:10 would become kind of awkward if the meaning were, "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are:  He who does not intentionally do what is right is not a child of God. Nor is he who does not intentionally love his brother." Is John calling us to evaluate a person's intentions to determine whether they are born of God or not. This is not what John is teaching. For how can one evaluate one's intentions? If a person naturally does what is right and naturally loves his brother without setting his mind to intentionally do so, is John saying that such a person is a child of the devil? It's absurd.

Another group - in fact this is Augustine's interpretation - holds that John is just referring to loving other Christians.

"There is a certain sin, which he that is born of God cannot commit; a sin, which not being committed, other sins are loosed, and being committed, other sins are confirmed. What is this sin? To do contrary to the commandment of Christ, contrary to the New Testament. [What is the new commandment? "A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another." Augustine

But if we were to honestly interpret sins as only particular sin or sins from the context, we'd have to include sins other than just failing to love other Christians. Notice it says in 1John 3:10 "He who DOES NOT DO WHAT IS RIGHT is not a child of God. Nor is he who does not love his brother." This "neither-nor" connection indicates that the "doing what is right" is speaking of something other than simply loving other Christians. Thus the Augustinian interpretation is incorrect.

The Sinless Perfection Interpretation
In rare instances you will come across Christians who claim to have achieved sinless perfection. That is, claiming to have been born of God they say they say since that point they never committed any sin. One such person I know furthermore claimed to  interpret 1John 3:9 to mean that once a person is born of God they automatically achieve sinless perfection.

As I see it, the apostle John states in 1John 1:8 that such people are self-deceived and they don't have the truth in them - which implies to me that they had not in fact been born of God, John writing concerning evidences of genuine conversion. .  Considering 1John 1:8,9 together which state, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." We note that claiming to be without sin is set in contrast to confessing our sins. Notice that these are both in the present tense and that John, using the word "we", indicates that such conditions apply even to his present state.

So I take this to mean that they deceive themselves who, rather than confessing their sins claim that they have no sins that need confessing. "Confess", by the way, is not in the Aorist and as such cannot be interpreted to refer to a one point in time historical event, nor to that which a person uncharacteristically does from time to time. Rather "Confess" is in the present tense indicating that such is characteristic of the person's lifestyle and as such is one of outwards indications a person is born of God.

As an example of some one who sinned after being born of God note what Paul declares in Galatians 2:11 "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong."


Perhaps there are other interpretations of 1John 3:9 of which I'm not aware - email me! But having evaluated these it appears that the meaning of 1John 3:9 and the surrounding context is the same as that which it has been understood to mean for thousands of years - namely the Traditional Interpretation. This being the case it is one of the verses which seriously calls Free Grace Theology into question.

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources Feb 10,2009