Did John teach sinless perfectionism? Did he, by saying such things as, “whoever is born of God doesn’t sin” (1 John 5:18) assert what centuries later came to be called entire sanctification or Wesleyan perfectionism? According to this doctrine, Christians can attain a state of perfection in this life in which they completely defeat sin. Alternatively, other Bible teachers interpret John as merely saying that Christians no longer sin as a way of life or don’t sin willfully. Who’s right? Well, John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was right. And, maybe he wasn’t teaching either one of these things.
This article is a rewrite of a Q&A I wrote in 2014. I wanted to expand on it and make it clearer. The original question was, “Q. First John 5:18 seems to be saying that born again Christians don’t sin. But can we ever really reach sinless perfection in this life?”
Reconciling John with Himself
John didn’t write the verses that speak of the sinlessness of the saints in isolation. Yet, when we put together what John says about sin in his first epistle, he seems to be saying both that we’re liars if we say we don’t sin (1 John 1:8) while also saying that we don’t sin (e.g. 1 John 3:6). What are we supposed to make of that?
I’m sure John was no feebleminded fool who contradicted himself. More importantly, all Scripture is inspired by God, and God is completely rational. The Bible doesn’t teach real contradictions.
In the first chapter of 1 John, the apostle teaches, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). Taken out of context, this is often used to say that we—we born again believers—are sinners, and that we’re liars if we say that we aren’t sinners.
But notice another passage. Speaking of believers who are in Jesus Christ, John said, “Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him, neither knows him. Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:6-7). Certainly, John knew what he was talking about, and he said to “let no one lead you astray.” It behooves us to find out what he means. Can believers sin or not?
John’s words in the above passage are very straightforward. He plainly says, 1) those who remain or abide in Christ don’t sin, 2) those who sin haven’t seen Christ and don’t know Him, and, 3) those who do righteousness (instead of sin) are righteous as Christ is righteous. Nevertheless, many insist these verses only mean that, while we continue to sin, we no longer sin as a way of life or that we don’t willfully sin. So, let’s look into this further.
The Historical Context
Most commentators agree that John wrote this epistle to combat a heresy. From the topics he covers, this heresy appears to have been an early form of Gnosticism. John may specifically have been countering the teachings of Cerinthus, an early Gnostic teacher and contemporary of John. These heretics believed that they were sinless apart from faith in Jesus Christ. This was because they believed that whatever was done in the flesh had no meaning. Further, they believed that special knowledge they had gained from higher spiritual beings freed them from any possibility of sin.
Because of what they believed about the flesh, some Gnostics taught that Christ only appeared to have a body, but he did not really come in the flesh. Cerinthus and his followers held to a variation. They asserted that Jesus was only a man until joined by the divine Christ at baptism. The Christ then left Jesus before His death.
If you do some research into Gnosticism, you’ll see that John hits upon their heretical doctrines in his writings. For example, in 1 John 4:2-3, he writes, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit who doesn’t confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God, and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, of whom you have heard that it comes. Now it is in the world already” (1 John 4:2-3). Notice that he uses “Jesus Christ,” not merely “Jesus” or “Christ.” He wanted to emphasize here that they were not separable. Jesus Christ came in the flesh.
Sin and Sinlessness
Understanding that Gnosticism is the focus of his letter, let’s see what John says about sin and sinlessness. John addresses the heresy right from the beginning of his letter. He says that he and his fellow apostles heard, saw, and touched the very Word (logos) of life (1 John 1:1). He continues in this vein, and says at the end of 1 John 1:7, “the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.” He is leading his readers to the true solution to sin. John didn’t write 1 John 1:8-10 with Christians in mind. He wrote these verses to counter the doctrine of the heretics.
John wasn’t saying that believers sin. He had these heretics, who didn’t realize that they were still in their sins, in mind. Yet, he uses “we” to include the state of everyone before trusting in Jesus Christ. He even included himself in what is sometimes called a preacher’s we. As Alfred Plummer, writing his commentary on the letter says, “With great gentleness he puts the case hypothetically, and with great delicacy he includes himself in the hypothesis” (Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges).
The Gnostics were negating the very heart of the Gospel, the fact that Jesus came to save sinners. So, John writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
Today, these verses have an application to unbelievers. But they don’t describe the condition of believers. Believers can only see in them their past that is now cleansed by the blood of Christ. John wrote them as a statement of the condition of natural man, from which readers could conclude that the Gnostic teaching is in error.
I can’t, of course, address everything that John wrote. But, in chapter 3, the apostle addresses the true way to sinlessness: “You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin. Whoever remains [menō—“dwells” or “abides”] in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him and doesn’t know him” (1 John 3:5-6). Putting this together with the verses in chapter 1, John is saying that sinlessness is obtained only by admitting our sinfulness and trusting in Jesus. God then forgives our sins. By dwelling in Christ who is sinless, we do not sin and are sinless. Those who do sin, then, are manifesting that they don’t perceive Jesus Christ and don’t know Him.
So, what can we today learn from what John says? We learn that, while sin was our natural state, by confessing our sinfulness when we came to believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, God forgave our sins. In fact, Jesus Christ “was revealed to take away our sins” and “Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin.”
Contrary to the extraneous wording of many translations and the suggestions of commentators, nothing here suggests John merely meant that we sin less frequently or unwilfully. John is as plain as plain can be. Those who have their abode in Christ don’t sin. The heretics claimed sinlessness apart from Jesus Christ; John asserted that dwelling in Jesus Christ was the only way to true sinlessness. Partial sinlessness is not in the picture. But there are those who call themselves teachers who will not accept the plain meaning of the Word of God. So, John’s warning that follows can have application for us.
Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he can’t sin, because he is born of God.1 John 3:7-9
Remember that John is addressing himself to the heresy that taught that sinlessness could be attained because 1) whatever was done in the flesh was meaningless, and 2) because attaining special higher knowledge could free one from any possibility of sin. So, John starts by warning his readers not to be deceived by this nonsense.
Then, he tells them the straightforward truth: Righteousness comes only from being righteous. It does not come from doing whatever you want in the flesh, no matter how strongly you assert that the flesh doesn’t matter. And, righteousness doesn’t come from holding some esoteric knowledge. Righteousness comes only from being righteous. Does this mean that we gain righteousness by our works? No.
Jesus Is the Source of Righteousness
Someone might have asked, “What is righteousness? What about someone who has never professed Jesus as His Savior but who seems to do nice things?” Yes, looks can be deceiving. We can’t know someone’s motives, and even the person may not be fully conscious of his or her motives. So, John defines what he means by being righteous. Someone who is truly righteous is “righteous, even as [Jesus Christ] is righteous.” This is the determining factor. A person can be genuinely righteous only by being righteous as Jesus is righteous. And, the only way to be righteous as Jesus is righteous is by the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness. In turn, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed exclusively to those who trust in Him alone as their Savior.
I must emphasize that we cannot work this backwards. That is, we cannot look at someone’s works, see that they appear good, and then assume that the person is righteous. John is not implying that we do this, and it is a big mistake to do such a thing. Good works do not imply righteousness. We can only go by what someone says, specifically by the person’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ alone as Savior. Of course, there can be false professions, but we must assume the profession to be genuine unless proved otherwise. But know that only someone who is righteous as Jesus Christ is righteous—having Jesus’ righteousness imputed—will do righteousness.
Next, John says that he who sins, such as these heretics, is of the devil. Jesus Christ came in the flesh to destroy (literally, unloose) the works of the devil. The essence of John’s statements about righteousness and sin are parallel: He who works righteousness is righteous because he is of Jesus Christ. He who works sin is sinful because he is of the devil.
The heretics believed they had attained sinlessness through esoteric knowledge. In response, John says, “Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin.” The cause of sinlessness is an act of God: the new birth.
Being born of God and committing sin are mutually exclusive. Our experience, of course, is that even after putting our faith in Jesus, we still commit what the law would define as sin. We know that we just cursed the driver who cut us off, or that we told a “white lie” about why we were late for work, or whatever. But we are wrong if we think that these remnants of fleshly habits are sins.
John has said that those in Christ don’t sin. Do we believe the Bible, or do we insist on putting our wrong-headed piety above God’s Word? Jesus has washed us and justified us and sanctified us (1 Corinthians 6:11), Jesus has fulfilled and taken away the law that defined sin and was against us (Matthew 5:17; Romans 3:30; 2 Corinthians 3:7; Colossians 2:14), Jesus has put us under the New Covenant (which is the same as saying that we are in Christ, where there is no condemnation—Isaiah 42:6; 49:8; Romans 8:1-2; 1 Corinthians 1:30), and God has given us Jesus’ righteousness (Romans 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
As Paul said, we have been “made free from sin” and become “bondservants of righteousness” (Romans 6:18), so John plainly states here, “Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he can’t sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9).
The distressing things we sometimes do stem from the habits of the flesh we still walk in. But they are not rightly called sin, and we are not rightly called sinners. God should be our standard, and He sees the righteousness of His Son imputed to us and the fact that we are not under the law but under grace. Don’t let false piety obscure your vision of the full gloriousness of the Gospel! We who are born again no longer have sin.
These fleshly things, then, can be thought of as never being entered into the record. All that is left are the positive deeds, the righteousness that stems from the righteousness of Christ, who is in us (Colossians 1:27).
In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother.1 John 3:10
So, we see that John has deftly exposed who is who. But don’t miss the clause he adds to the end. The unrighteous who aren’t of God are marked by an absence of love. This doesn’t mean that righteousness and love are works that earn salvation; they are the results of abiding in Christ. Neither, as I explained above, are we to judge by works.
In part 2, we’ll look at 1 John 5:18-21 and answer whether John is teaching sinless perfectionism.
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