This is another passage that must be carefully considered, and in context, to do it proper justice. If not, it can lead to faulty, or cultic, or even heretical teachings. For example, some will use it to teach a type of sinless perfectionism and the like. So we need to examine it a bit more closely, and in the light of the rest of Scripture.
Some translations may be somewhat at fault here, giving a wrong impression. Consider how the KJV runs with it: “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.”
That makes it seem that the born-again Christian does not sin – ever. But other versions give a different and perhaps clearer rendering of the Greek, and of John’s overall point. Consider the ESV: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” The NIV renders it this way: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.”
And if you do know your New Testament Greek, you can simply pull out your Greek New Testament and see for yourself how the original word is being used. The verb form in question, hamartenei, is in the present tense. To be precise, the verb is third person singular, present, active indicative.
It means to keep on sinning. It has to do with continuous, habitual or permanent sinning, not just sinning now and then. As Daniel Akin comments on a similar passage, 1 John 3:6, we need to keep in mind “John’s use of the present tense of the verb”:
“John is not suggesting that the child of God will not commit a single act of sin. Instead, John is describing a way of life, a character, a prevailing lifestyle. Here the present tense verb contextually depicts linear, continual action. In other words, the believer will not live a life characterized by sin.”
So getting a proper handle on the original language and how best to translate that into English is a major part of how we deal with this text. And the principles of reading each text in context, and letting Scripture interpret Scripture, also offer us a way to proceed here.
If we simply go back a few verses, we see John talking about brothers who sin (verse 16). So yes, the believer can and does sin at times. Some folks may see verse 18 as contradicting this. But not so, as I. Howard Marshall explains:
“John is well aware of the sad facts of life in a sinful world; his statement that the child of God does not sin is at once a promise and a demand. But how is this sinlessness possible? The answer given is that the One who was born of God keeps him safe, and so the evil one cannot lay hold of him and overpower him.”
And consider the rest of 1 John as well. On several occasions John makes it quite clear that we DO sin, and denying this fact makes us a liar. Consider these two passages:
1 John 1:8-10 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1 John 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
The first passage could not be more clear. And the second one speaks to the truth that we should make it our aim not to sin. That is the goal, the ideal. But at times we will sin, so the terrific news is that Christ has dealt with the sin question at Calvary, and we can find forgiveness and a restored relationship with the Father.
The idea that the child of God does not ‘keep on sinning’ is the point John is trying to make. Consider also 1 John 3:4-10. Again, translations like the ESV make this rather clear:
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. 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.
It is the deliberate and ongoing sin that John is speaking about here. We all sin, and as we grow in sanctification, we hopefully sin less and less. That is what John is seeking to tell us here. In sum, let me quote from David Jackman who seems to get the biblical balance right on this. On 3:6 he comments:
It is important to remember that John is not for one moment saying that a true Christian never sins. He has already warned us against that error (1:8, 10) and reminded us of the means God has provided for our cleansing and restoration (1:9; 2:1). Although Christians fail and fall, Christians can be forgiven. But we are to remember that such forgiveness is at the expense of the life-blood of the Son of God. Grace is free, but it is not cheap. The mark of true gratitude is that we do not keep on sinning….
The implications for us are clear. Fellowship with a sinless Saviour and continuance in our sins (keeping on sinning) are mutually contradictory. No compromise is possible. And the logical conclusion we are to draw is that we cannot expect to be confident on that day when we see Christ, if we are complacent about sin in our lives here and now.
And on 5:18 he says this:
This ground we have travelled over before. . . . By now, we know better than to say that if we sin this verse means we cannot be truly born of God. The letter does not promise or encourage perfectionism, as we have often commented. Nor does it say that this is a special level of super-spirituality or holiness available only to the favoured few. No Christian goes on sinning as he did before he turned to Christ. The reason is that the one who was born of God keeps him safe.
I conclude with how John Stott nicely puts it when commenting on 5:18: “The new birth results in new behaviour. Sin and the child of God are incompatible. They may occasionally meet; they cannot live together in harmony.”