Can a believer sin?
If you have read John’s Epistle recently you may have come across these verses and been puzzled by them:
1 John 3:9 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 John 5:18 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.
So, is John saying that if you are born again you cannot sin? Well apparently so. In fact, he also says that if you sin you are of the devil!
1 John 3:8 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.
The immediate question in most people’s minds is: well I know I’m born again and I sinned a few times this week, so does this mean I’m no longer born again or have lost my salvation? Even John, in the very same Epistle seems to contradict himself and admit the possibility of sin in a believer’s life as per the following verses:
1 John 1:8 “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
1 John 2:1 “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, (aorist tense, one off) we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:”
So what does he mean? What is the answer to this apparent contradiction?
A believe does not practice sin
Firstly, a better translation of 1 John 3:9, 1 John 5:8 and 1 John 3:8 would be ‘practice sin’ as translated in the ASV. This is because the tense of the verb ‘sin’ is not ‘aorist’ ( ie sinning in a moment of time, even once – see 1 John 2:1), but ‘present active’ or sinning continually.
Therefore, John is saying that a true believer may sin but doesn’t sin continually or practice sin. In fact, if he or she does sin continually, then probably they never knew Christ in the first place!
1 John 3:6 “No one who sins (present active) has seen him or known him!”
Incidentally, this verse proves that if your practice sin you have never known the Lord so you can’t become unborn and then born again etc and lose your salvation!
A believer practices righteousness
However, I don’t believe the above explanation, although technically correct, is the complete answer because John not only talks about practicing sin, he talks about practicing righteousness. See the following scriptures:
1 John 2:29 “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of him”
1 John 3:7 “Little children, let no one deceive you, the one who practices righteousness is righteous even as he is righteous”
1 John 3:10 “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious, anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God”
Now this is problematic, because John uses the same present active tense to describe righteousness! In other words, a believer practices righteousness – he or she doesn’t just do occasional acts of righteousness, like an unbeliever might. No, they constantly and continually do righteousness.
Now, we can easily cope with the idea that we occasionally sin but can we honestly say that we practice righteousness day in day out? Well, John says if you don’t then you’re not born again! There must be a more complete answer – and there is!
In the flesh
I believe, that in context, the Apostle John is talking about who we are in the spirit because that is where new birth has taken place:
John 3:6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Theologically, when we are unsaved we are described as being “ in the flesh” and cannot please God. Our spirit man is dead.
Romans 7:5 “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.”
Romans 8:8 “So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.”
What is “in the flesh?” It is the body and soul (mind, will and emotions) ruled in the natural man by a dead human spirit.
In the spirit
When we are born again however, our old man or spirit is put to death in Jesus and we come alive as Christ and the Holy Spirit come to live in us. This state is described as being “in the spirit.”
Romans 8:9 “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”
The old man is crucified.
Therefore, because Christ is in us, our spirit is alive and we (our spirit man) CANNOT sin. Our born again nature therefore, is just like Jesus and is only capable of righteousness continually. This is called the new man. Our old man or dead spirit is crucified with Christ.
Galatians 2:20 “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I (the old identity) . but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh (the physical existence) I live by faith in the Son of God; who loved me, and gave himself for me”
Your spirit is united with christ
1 cor 6:17 “ But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit!”
We are righteous and holy as a gift
Ephesians 2:4 “And that ye put on the new man, which is after God is created in righteousness and true holiness”
Romans 5:17 “For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)|”
Gods laws are written on our hearts
Through new birth, God has written or programmed his laws ( this is not the ten commandments but the commandments as John refers to them) on our hearts.
Hebrews 8:10 “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts; and I will be to them a God and they shall be to me a people;” Hebrews 10:16
You have a new nature
God has transformed you internally at the centre of your being. Before your nature was sin, now you are a partaker of the divine nature ( love).
2 Peter 1:4 “Wherebye are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”
Walking or living in the flesh
So you say, if I am born again why do I sin? The biblical terminology for this is “walking or living in the flesh”. ( Unbelievers can only walk in the flesh). Believers however, though not in the flesh, still have the flesh ( soul and body) and have the possibility of walking either in the flesh or the spirit.
Gal 5:16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
Romans 8:13 “for if ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live.”
Most of us know however, because most of us have tried, that even though we desire to change because we are born again, it still takes us a while to learn that the law, even though holy – cannot help us. We cannot use rules and standards to bring the flesh into line. In fact. it just makes things worse because rather than walk in the spirit we focus on the sinful behaviour!
Galatians 3:3 “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”
No, we need someone to help. Who shall deliver me from this body of death (Romans 7:24). Evil is still present in us, even though we are born again we still need a saviour because our flesh is corrupt and we are weak.
No longer I – Romans 7
Romans 7:21 “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:”
Romans 7:18 “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.”
Take note: Paul does not say there is no good in him at all because that is not true – he is born again and therefore righteous and holy in his spirit. No, its in his flesh (mind, will, emotions and body) that there isn’t any good thing!
Therefore, sin cannot cause you to lose your salvation but you may get to heaven quicker than you anticipated! For example, Paul doesn’t downgrade sin – he disciplines the church over allowing the gross sin in their midst but he doesn’t say that the individual believer has forfeited their salvation. No, he says if he doesn’t repent (and as we find out later he did) ,he will probably foolishly lose his life as the devil is allowed full reign in his life kill and destroy.
1 Cor 5:5 “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
Therefore, Paul in Romans 7 identifies himself twice, not with his flesh and its behaviour but with his spirit man.
Romans 7:17 “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”
Romans 7:20 “Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”
Therefore, Paul has come to the same conclusion as John, that if he sins this behaviour is not coming from who he is in christ but the sinful patterns and habits ingrained in his sinful flesh! We are not therefore schizophrenic: a bad person and a good person in one person with two separate identities. No the old criminal has been put to death in Christ and I am now a saint! That is my true identity.
This of course, doesn’t free us from the responsibility of the action of the flesh – we are to put to death the deeds of the body by the spirit. So, now you are a saint – act like it! You are now a son of the king. You are righteous. That is your identity. When you believe that truth then right behaviour will begin to flow out of this right believing.
Romans 8:13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.
Example – under new management
A couple of years ago Fran and I bought a failing ladies gym. As the new owners we had a completely new vision and plan for the club. Of course, a few of the existing staff were not happy with our plans and standards because they preferred things the way they were. So, we had to try and help them change. Of course, some resisted but eventually most began to realise we were not going to change our plans and continue to run the club like the old owners. Likewise, some of the members didn’t like us turning the music up and actually coaching them but even though some left, most enjoyed the new regime!
Likewise, if you are born again, this is similar to what is now going on in your life. You (your born again spirit man) is the new owner. Your mind, will and emotions prefers things the way they always were but the old owner is no longer in charge! Your business coach, the Holy Spirit is there to advise and help you get these staff into line and ‘turn this business around’!
New birth, Christ in you – Paul Noble audio
You must be born again
What do you do when you sin?
Are all sins forgiven?
Graham Cooke – Our true identity
How to walk after the flesh – Paul Ellis
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