When one reads the Epistle of First John in the English translation (KJV), the reader may draw the conclusion that John not only contradicts himself but that he establishes an impossible test in determining the genuineness of one’s Christian profession, that being “Christian perfection.”  It appears the aged Apostle contradicts himself when one reads what he states in 2:1 compared with 3:9. Is this the case or is there a satisfactory explanation as to what John meant?

In I John 1:8 he makes it clear that all men are sinners and only the provision of Jesus is able to forgive our sins. John writes in 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” This could be called John’s equivalent to what Paul stated in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” All men are sinners and need a Savior. And for one who recognize their sinfulness John writes, “If we confess our sins, he (Father/Jesus) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1:9).

Now once one is a Christian John expresses his desire, “My little children, these things write I unto you that ye sin not” (2:1a). That is the goal, the desire, to sin not. But what if as Christians we do sin? John gives us good news, “And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (2:1b). When a Christian does sin we have a lawyer, a go-between, an intercessor, and one who pleads our case before the Father who secures our forgiveness, Jesus Christ the righteous.  While the goal, desire and ideal is not to sin, John realizes that as finite creatures the reality is that at times we will sin, but Christ has made provision by His Advocacy to secure our forgiveness and restore our broken fellowship with the Father.

Now when we come to I John 3:9, the Apostle makes a startling statement which appears to contradict what he stated in I John 2:1. In the KJV 3:9 reads, “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.”

In 2:1 John recognizes that no Christian measures up to the ideal of not sinning; therefore, the need for an Advocate. However, as 3:9 is translated in the KJV it appears John is saying the proof we are genuine Christians is that we don’t sin anymore! Is John advocating Christian perfectionism as to whether we are saved or not? To gain a proper understanding of the verse let us look at in its context by examining I John 3:4-9, which  reads, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. 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.” (KJV)

In 3:4 John says sin manifests itself in lawless rebellion and willful defiance of God, His character being expressed in the Law. In 3:5 John proclaims that Christ, who had no sin, came to earth for the purpose of taking away our sins. In 3:6 John informs us as Christians we need to abide in Him so we will not keep on doing sin. Let it be pointed out the Greek word translated “abide” is a present active participle, meaning to continually remain or abide in Him. The word translated “sin” in the Greek is present indicative active, indicating continual action. In other words, John says in 3:6 if you are not continually abiding in Christ but instead are living in continual sin, you don’t know Him! In 3:7 John says those that continually “doeth” righteousness (“do” Gk poieō) – present active participle, indicating habitual action) prove they are righteous.  In 3:8 he writes that those who continually commit sin are of the devil. Again, the Greek word translated “committeth” is a present active participle, indicating habitual action. Then in 3:9 John writes that whosoever is born of God does not continually commit sin, doesn’t live a habitual lifestyle of sin. Once again, the word translated “commit” is a present active participle, meaning one born again doesn’t live a lifestyle of sin.  The reason the Christian doesn’t live a lifestyle of sin, is God’s seed, His divine life, remains in the believer (3:9). The life principle of Christ indwells the believer who instills within the Christian the desire to flee from sin and enables the Christian to live a victorious life whereby sin is not the habit or way of one’s life.

Now we come to the translation that appears contradictory and has created controversy. John adds in 3:9 that because the “seed” of God abides in the believer, “he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”  The Greek phrase is οὐ δύναται ἁμαρτάνειν (ou dunatai hamartanein).While “he cannot sin” or “not able to sin” is a strict translation it fails to bring out the true thought that is consistent in 3:4-9 and is revealed in the Greek tense of  hamartanein. As has been pointed out, the word translated “commit” in verse 9 is a present active participle, denoting action that is habitual. Gleason Archer insightfully comments, “In one respect this otherwise adequate translation fails to bring out one very important feature of the hamartanein (to sin) after ou dynatai (not able), a present infinitive in Greek implies continual or repeated action.” [1] In other words, no one who is born of God engages in a lifestyle sin. To do so is proof one hasn’t been born of God.

S.M. Baugh also points out that the phrase ou dunatai hamartanein, translated “cannot sin,” is a present infinitive. Baugh writes, “The fact that John chose to use the present infinitive…shows he was thinking about ‘sinning’ in v. 9 as a characteristic action. Hence, John does not teach ‘perfectionism’ that Christians can experience sinlessness in this life. Rather, when he says ou dunatai hamartanein he teaches that the genuine Christian cannot be characterized by a life of unrepentant sin.” [2]

Kenneth Wuest succinctly writes that “cannot sin” in verse 9 is “the present infinitive, [which] in Greek speaks of continuous, habitual action, never the mere fact of the action…The translation therefore is, ‘He is not able to habitually sin.’ The Greek text here holds no warrant for the erroneous teaching of sinless perfection.” [3]

While there are other explanations which seek to explain 3:9, the above explanation as to what is meant by the translation “cannot sin” is both consistent with the thought of John of in 3:4-9 and doesn’t contradict 2:1. While for this writer the KJV is the preferred translation for reading and studying, I John 3:4-9 in the ESV gives a good sense of what John is seeking to convey:  Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 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. 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.” (ESV)

John is clear that those who live a lifestyle of sin, who habitually practice sin, are not saved and are not genuine followers of Christ. It might be added, in order the Christian not find a loophole to sin C.H. Dodd has astutely suggested, “The apparent contradiction is probably not to be eliminated, though it may be qualified, by grammatical [astuteness].” [4] The Christian’s life should be markedly different from an unbeliever.  For one to say they are a Christian and live in habitual sin, John doesn’t mince words, “You are a liar and the truth is not in you” (1:8-10). The teaching of John through his epistle refutes those who contend that because of grace one can live a life of habitual sin. Let it not be so in our lives, but instead heed the words of John, “And now, little children, abide in him; that, when [Christ] shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (I John 2:28).


Dr. Dan


[1] Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 428-429

[2] S.M. Baugh, A First John Reader, (P&R Publishing, 1999), 50-51.

[3] Kenneth Wuest, “I John,” In These Last Days (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1957), 150.

[4] C. H. Dodd, “The Johannine Epistles,” The Moffatt New Testament Commentary (London, 1946),  80.







One of the cardinal rules in writing is not to make sentences too long. A good sentence should be concise, containing no unnecessary words. It is easy to make a sentence too wordy, and in the process lose the reader. When we come to First John 1:1-4, the Apostle introduces his epistle with a sentence that covers four verses. In the Greek it is one majestic sentence of 87 words (in KJV 108 words)! Leon Morris writes that, while profound in its content, the entire four verses of the prologue being “but one highly compressed and complicated sentence in the Greek.” [1] It is as if John doesn’t know where to begin and where to end. What a profound sentence it is! It is a sentence which contains so many sparkling diamonds of truth it would take a lifetime to unpack all the treasures contained within.

While the majority of English translations put a period after verse 3 for the sake of readability, 1:1-4 is a sentence bursting with heaven’s illuminating brilliance whereby John with each inspired word seeks to pierce the darkness with the radiance of the Light of Christ. (The ASV translates it as one sentence). The four verses read: “1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; 2 (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) 3 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” (KJV)

The aged disciple of Christ writes what reads more like a sermon than a letter, to churches in Asia Minor about 95 AD. The content of his eighty-seven-word opening sentence is like a musical filled with soaring crescendos. It is so rich in truth a whole commentary could be written on just those four verses, so just the hem of the sentence’s garment will be touched. Seeking to unpack some the golden nuggets found within 1:1-4, it is hoped it will whet the appetite of the reader to dig deeper into the text. O, what a sentence.

I. The Eternality of the Word
First, we discover The Eternality of the Word in verses 1-2. John refers to Jesus Christ in his epistle as he did in his gospel, as the Word, the Logos – more specifically the “Word of Life.” In Greek Philosophy “Logos” was that one abiding principle in all the universe that never changed and was the force by which all existed; the Logos was the Ultimate Reason which controlled all things. John informs the Logos was more than an impersonal force, but a Person in whom was life, eternal life. That person was Jesus Christ. Two truths John reveals about the Word of Life, Jesus Christ.

(1) The Eternal Existence of the Word. John says, “That which was from the beginning” (v. 1). The Greek word translated “was” (ἦν) is in the imperfect tense, it speaks of continuous action in past time. “Was” emphasizes the preexistence and divine character of Christ. Christ, the Word did not come into being at some point in time. Christ has eternally existed from “the beginning” (v. 1), thus He is not a created being.

(2) The Eternal Equality of the Word. The Word was not lesser than God, but was God. John writes that the Word was “with the Father” (v. 2). The Greek phrase “with the Father” (πρὸς τὸν πατέρα) indicates one who is facing the Father, one who is on an equal plane with the Father. The Word, who is eternal, is eternal life Himself. John is clearly teaching the Trinity, that one God exists as three Persons. “With the Father” reveals that Christ and the Father are equal and one, yet distinct in their person. While there will always be a mystery about the Triune Godhead, the majestic words “with the Father” cause us to bow in worshipful awe.

II. The Entrance of the Word into the World
Second, we discover from John’s opening sentence The Entrance of the Word into the World (v. 1-2). Two truths stand out about the Logos, Christ’s entrance into the world.

(1) The Word came to Earth as a Man. John says twice in verse 2 Jesus was “manifested.” He who was eternal, He who was equal with God, He who was God, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The word “manifest” (phaneroo) means to make visible or known what has been hidden or unknown. The word was used to speak of a bright light appearing, like the sun. It is in the passive voice, meaning that God coming to earth robed in flesh was totally separate from any action of man, but it was God who took the initiative. Man is a recipient of God’s action in His revealing Himself. While creation teaches us there is a Supreme Being, we could not know God personally apart from Him taking the initiative to revel Himself in Jesus Christ. In Christ the invisible God became visible. John is clearly affirming the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

(2) The Word was Examined by Man. John is not writing about hearsay information, but as an eyewitness. He says he actually heard Jesus speak, looked upon Him, and handled Him with his hands (v. 1). When John says he handled Christ, the word he uses (ἐψηλάφησαν) means “to examine closely, to handle with a view of investigation.” John in describing his examination and encounter with Jesus uses the perfect tense, which means that which happened in the past still has lasting results in the present. He is saying, “What I heard Jesus say is still ringing in my ears and what I saw him do is still in my mind’s eye 60 years later. What I heard, I can’t unhear; what I saw, I can’t unsee.” To all the naysayers who contend Jesus was not a historical person, John knew for a fact He walked on earth, because he saw, heard, and touched Him, and He was more than a mere man. John affirms Christ was God become flesh. He is the revelation of God seen in human form. Upon careful examination and investigation of Christ, John was convinced beyond all doubt that He who was called the Word was the transcendent God invading time.

III. The Enduring Witness for the Word
Third, we discover from John’s opening sentence The Enduring Witness for the Word (v. 2-3). John makes it clear that which he heard, saw and touched, he bore “witness” to (v. 2) and “declared” to others (v. 3). The word “witness” (martureo) means to testify of and was used to speak of someone who was a witness in court. It is in the present tense which means he was an ongoing witness for Christ. The word translated “show” (v. 2) and “declare” (v. 3) (anaggello) means to proclaim, report unto, to bring tidings from. It was used to speak of one who heralded news to the town. It is in the present tense, meaning he kept on proclaiming what he saw and heard. As to John’s certainty that Jesus was the Word, two truths present themselves in his enduring witness and declaration of Jesus Christ.

(1) John Declares Christ as Fact. Once again, the Apostle says he is declaring what he had seen and heard (v. 3). It is a fact. John is saying, “We deliver nothing by hearsay, nothing by tradition, nothing from conjecture; we have had the fullest certainty of all that we write and preach.” Again, John uses the perfect tense, meaning what he saw and heard had so impacted him that the voice of Christ is still ringing in his ears and what he saw he can’t unsee. Because John had a personal encounter with the Living Christ, he can’t help but declare Him, and continue to declare Him. The Good News that is worth proclaiming is that God in Christ has visited earth to restore the brokenness of humanity.

(2) John Declares we are Called into Fellowship. John declares Christ is the God-Man, therefore, we have been called into fellowship with one another and with the Father and the Son (v. 3). Fellowship with one another in Jesus Christ, issues from a real, practical, fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ. The word translated “fellowship” (koinonia) means “belonging in common to, participation in/partnership in.” It carries with it the meaning of communion, participation, share a common life, and partnership. In Hellenistic literature it was used to describe partners in business, joint owners of a piece of property, or shareholders in a common enterprise. The idea is that of one person having a joint-participation with another in something possessed in common by both. The word koinonia indicates the setting aside of private interest and desires and the joining in with another or others for common purposes. John says for the Christian that common interest and purpose is Jesus Christ, the Living Word. Fellowship with Christ and with one another is the bond that ties believers together.

The kind of relationship John describes is only possible because Jesus is who John says He is in 1 John 1:1-2, the Word of Life. If someone invited you to have a “personal relationship” with a past historical person you would think them foolish. One cannot have a genuine “spiritual” relationship with a dead man. But with the eternal God who became man and who arose from the dead we can have a relationship with Him and one another.

IV. The Explanation for Writing
Fourth, we discover from John’s opening sentence The Explanation for Writing (v. 4). He writes, “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” “These things” of which John is writing refers to the entire contents of the letter. As the reader digests the contents of what John penned, his prayer is that the reader will be filled with the joy of all that the Living Christ accomplished. The word translated “be full” means complete overflowing joy. It is in the perfect tense, meaning joy that continues and persists throughout the believer’s life. John desires his readers possess the assurance of knowing that they are in fellowship with the one in whom eternal life is found, for there is where true joy is found. Throughout the letter John hammers home the truth that our joy comes from knowing that in Christ we have eternal life (5:13), knowing God is love (4:16), loving our fellowman (2:9-10), not living in habitual sin (3:6-7), knowing that greater is he that lives in us than he that is the world (4:4), knowing we have an “Advocate” when we do sin who cleanses us from all unrighteousness (2:1-2), living in such a way that we will not be ashamed before Him at His coming (2:28), and in this world we can live as “overcomers” (5:4). When the Christian is cognizant of those truths, there is created a joy within that the world can’t give.

John wants his readers to realize that Christ is the source, object and center of the Christian’s joy. It is a joy that can only be found in an abiding relationship with the Living Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. It is entering into abiding fellowship with Christ and fellow Christians that John desired for his readers and desires for you and I. Expressing that desire, John brings his lengthy sentence to an end.

As one can see, trying to plumb the depths of John’s opening sentence is like trying to dive into the deepest depths of the ocean or ascending to the highest mountain peak. One would have a better chance of counting the sands on the seashores of the world than to ever fully grasp the wonder of John’s thoughts as he searches for words to describe the magnificence of Christ and how He affected his life.

O, what a sentence. O, what a Savor!

Dr. Dan


Leon Morris, “I John,” The New Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1970), 1260.