We’re examining whether John taught sinless perfectionism. I think it would be helpful to take a quick survey or summary of the things John has already pointed out that we covered in part 1.
The Beauty of John’s Concise Argument
In chapter 1, John says that the only way to be forgiven our sins and be cleansed from all unrighteousness is to confess, or admit to, our sins. We might wonder why he doesn’t speak about belief here. But John emphasizes confession over belief because the Gnostic heretics he’s warning his readers against would say that they did believe (although their understanding of Jesus Christ was faulty). But the heretics would not admit to being sinful. So, in 1 John 1:8-10, John is pointing out that, as long as they didn’t admit their sinfulness, the heretics were still in their sins.
Having established the fact of the sinfulness of the heretics, John turns his attention in chapter 2 to the saints. He tells them that the fact that they keep Christ’s commandments distinguishes them from the heretics. (John explains what he means by Christ’s commandments in 1 John 3:22-23: belief in Jesus’ full identity as Son and Christ, and love for one another.) He drives home his point with his assertion, “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother, is in the darkness even until now” (1 John 2:9).
He then gets back to the heretics by warning the brethren of the Antichrist, or “he who denies that Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22). He also gives his specific purpose statement: “These things I have written to you concerning those who would lead you astray” (1 John 2:26). John has written this letter to distinguish the heretics and their false teachings from the saints who know Jesus Christ, dwell in Him, and practice righteousness because they have been born of him (1 John 2:27-29).
1 John 3:4: Historical Context
In 1 John 3:4, we find a verse that preachers commonly point to as proof that believers are still under law: “Everyone who sins also commits lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). By lifting this verse out of its historical and textual context, they corrupt its meaning.
In reading John’s first epistle, we must not lose sight of the fact that the apostle was exposing the false teachings of the Gnostic heresy. These heretics believed they were sinless apart from faith in Jesus Christ. But, of course, this was false. The Gnostics were still in their sins. John wrote 1 John 3:4 with this in mind.
The Gnostics believed that what they did in the flesh didn’t matter and that their special knowledge freed them from any possibility of sin. But, since they had not admitted their sinfulness, and they were not trusting in Jesus Christ as their Savior, they were not freed from sin. They were not under grace. They were under law, their deeds were lawless, and they were sinning.
The word “lawlessness” is anomia. It does not mean lack of law or being without law. It means being under a law, but disregarding it, acting unlawfully or illegally. The Gnostics were behaving as if they had no law while they were still under the law. This was sin.
No one can be sinless apart from Christ. But those who are trusting in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior are sinless. This is what so many preachers miss. Because believers are not under law, they cannot be lawless. Believers are ennomos, meaning legal or lawful to God because they are in Jesus Christ and under grace.
1 John 3:4: Textual Context
When we look at the textual context of 1 John 3:4, we see that it agrees with the historical context. The fact that John was distinguishing the born-again believers, who are sinless and under grace, from the lawless Gnostics, who sin, is seen in the verses that surround 1 John 3:4.
We who are born of God are the children of God, “and it is not yet revealed what we will be. But we know that, when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is” (John 3:1-2). Now, notice John’s emphasis on purity: “Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). “Purifies himself” might sound like works, but John gives no works to perform. By setting our hope on Him who is pure, we become pure.
John used a grammatical similarity in 1 John 3:3 and 1 John 3:4 to show their relationship. Compare, “Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself,” with, “Everyone who sins also commits lawlessness.” John is showing that these two groups of people are separate and distinct. No one who hopes in Christ is sinful and lawless, and no one who sins hopes in Christ and is pure.
What remedy does John give against lawlessness? Obeying the law? No. The way to avoid lawlessness is to set our hope on him who is pure.
If that wasn’t clear enough, John goes on to plainly state, “You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin. Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him, neither knows him” (1 John 3:5-6). If you sin, you don’t know Him and haven’t spiritually seen Him. The Gnostics fit into this category.
Preachers who try to say that Christians can sin and must obey law to avoid it don’t understand the riches of the Gospel. “Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7). The only way to do righteousness is to believe in and be in Christ Jesus. Doing righteousness isn’t a work; it’s Christ’s righteousness imputed to us as part of the salvation we receive by grace through faith.
Only those who have seen Jesus Christ and know Him don’t commit sin, and this is because they are born of God (1 John 3:8-9). These people, those who are born of God, are the children of God. The others are the children of the devil, and they are distinguished by not doing righteousness and not loving their brother (1 John 3:10).
The fact that these heretics have not seen and don’t know Jesus is evidenced further by their claim that only Jesus, and not the Christ, came in the flesh. By not confessing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, they revealed that they were of the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:2-3).
Are You Born of God? Then You Don’t Sin
Before going on, I would like to again point out the construction that we saw in 1 John 3:3: “Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure.” By setting our hope on Jesus, we purify ourselves because Jesus is pure. John’s construction is that someone becomes pure because Jesus is pure. We see this again in 1 John 3:7: “Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.” Someone does righteousness because Jesus is righteous.
Keep John’s construction in mind as we look at 1 John 5:18: “We know that whoever is born of God doesn’t sin, but he who was born of God keeps himself, and the evil one doesn’t touch him.” It’s hard to pick out John’s peculiar construction in this translation, so let’s look at another:
We know that no one who has been born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.
1 John 5:18 (New American Standard Bible)
John is again using his construction. Yet, it’s an expanded form because he starts with a negative “no one” and must use “but” instead of “as” or “because.” If he had stuck more closely to his construction, he could have said, Everyone who is born of God doesn’t sin, as He who was born of God. But John’s slight variation makes perfectly clear where our ability to not sin comes from. No one born of God sins, but He who was born of God keeps him (from sinning).
The evil one is the accuser of the brethren—the devil (Revelation 12:10). He can’t touch or accuse those who are born of God because they don’t sin, and they don’t sin because Jesus Christ keeps them from sinning. And, of course, if someone is not sinning, that person can’t be accused.
Nothing in the Greek or in the context allows for the interpretation that these verses are only saying that we who are born again do sin, but that we sin less or we no longer sin habitually or we don’t sin willfully. It is at best weak faith that causes commentators, translators, and preachers to interpret these verses this way. John is as plain as He can be. If we are born again, we don’t sin.
We Know Him Who Is True
Now, let’s look at verses 19-21:
We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding, that we know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
John now contrasts the children of God with, not just the Gnostic heresy, but the whole world. So, as verse 18 says, the evil one doesn’t touch those who are born of God, but the entire rest of the world lies under his power.
I want to expand a little on the word “understanding” in verse 20. It’s John’s parting shot in this epistle at the Gnostic’s belief that they had secret knowledge apart from Jesus Christ. The Gnostics may claim what they falsely call knowledge (see 1 Timothy 6:20, where “knowledge” [poorly translated in the KJV as “science”] is from gnosis). But none other than the Son of God who has come from the Father has given us “understanding.” The Greek word is dianoia. It means deep or penetrating mind, thought, or intellect. This divinely given intellect causes us to know Him who is true. That’s real knowledge.
John’s shot at the Gnostics is also a slap at those who today are against Christian intellectualism. So many today want to denigrate the idea of Christians using their minds, the very minds that God has given them. John shows that this is wrong. It is through the use of our minds in study of God’s written Word and as led by the Holy Spirit “that we know him who is true.”
We Are in Him Who Is True
In 1 John 5:20, John teaches that, not only do we know Him who is true, but we are in Him who is true! Notice the construction. The “Him who is true” must refer to the Father, since John then refers to His Son.
John uses two ins. So, we know Him who is true—the Father; we are in Him who is true—the Father; and we are in His Son Jesus Christ. We’re in the Father because we’re in the Son who is in the Father. It’s like those Russian matryoshka or babushka nesting dolls, one inside another.
This reminds me of the words of Jesus that John recorded years earlier: “Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21). We born again believers are one in Jesus and in the Father.
Commentators debate over whether “true God” at the end of 1 John 5:20 refers to the Father or to Jesus. I believe John has both in mind. This, the Father and the Son and our being in them, is eternal life.
Many wonder why John ends his letter with what seems to be the disconnected thought, “keep yourselves from idols.” It is not disconnected. John has just divided all people into two groups: those born of God, and the rest of the world that lies under the power of evil. And, we who are born of God are in Him who is true. John uses the term “Him who is true” for a reason.
Anything that we put in place of Him (who is true) and His truth (that He enables us to understand with His mind) is an idol.
John Was Not Teaching Sinless Perfectionism
In addressing the Gnostic heresy, John made many assertions that those born of God and abiding in Jesus Christ are sinless. Such statements as, “Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin,” “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,” are as straight as an arrow and plain as can be. To ignore them or water them down to say something else is to tamper with God’s Word. So, was John Wesley properly understanding the apostle John? Did John teach sinless perfectionism?
John Wesley’s teaching on perfectionism isn’t wrong insofar as his assertion that 1 John 5:18 means exactly what it says: “whoever is born of God doesn’t sin.” Wesley was right in disparaging claims that John was merely saying that born again Christians don’t habitually sin or willfully sin. He understood that such claims have no Scriptural basis and are foreign to John’s text. Wesley was also right in saying that appeals to the sins of the Old Testament patriarchs are useless. It is wrong to equate the patriarchs under the Old Covenant dispensation to regenerated saints living under the New Covenant. Even the greatest Old Covenant prophet was less than the least New Covenant saint living in the kingdom of God (which is here and now). The patriarchs under the law sinned; believers under grace do not.
Wesley’s understanding was wrong, however, because, among other things, he ultimately taught a works-based salvation.
Wesley misunderstood how “whoever is born of God doesn’t sin.” Instead of seeing the sinlessness of the saints as entirely the work of God received in full when the sinner believes the Gospel, Wesley saw the new believer as only on the first rung of a three-step ladder. He believed the Christian was to progress up these steps until reaching entire sanctification, which he believed to be a second work of grace. He spoke of the Christian life as one of waiting for the final change in death “in vigorous, universal obedience, in a zealous keeping of all the commandments, in watchfulness and painfulness, in denying ourselves, and taking up our cross daily; as well as in earnest prayer and fasting and a close attendance on all the ordinances of God” (“Thoughts on Christian Perfection,” 1759).
John Wesley also taught, “They who are sanctified…may fall and perish” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, 422, 426). Wesley didn’t see Jesus Christ as having completed the believer’s salvation and giving it to him or her through the instrument of faith. Christ, to Wesley, made power available to the believer to reach entire sanctification, but the believer had to use that power or risk losing salvation. Logically, John Wesley’s teaching was one of either attaining a works salvation based on increasing one’s works of love until reaching perfection or of not attaining it and perishing.
John Taught the Sinlessness of the Believer in Christ
The teaching of John the apostle on the sinlessness of the saints must not be confused with the sinless perfectionism taught by John Wesley. The apostle taught that our sinlessness was the work of God in Christ working through the Holy Spirit. It’s not in any way the work of man. John Wesley taught that the saints could attain sinlessness by cooperating with God and using the power He provides. This belief makes man at least partly responsible for his own salvation. It gives man a reason to boast, something God’s Word specifically excludes (Romans 3:27; Ephesians 2:9).
Because I teach that believers cannot accurately be said to be sinners, some have assumed that I teach sinless perfectionism. As this article now documents, I do not teach this. I believe that Wesley’s ideas concerning sinless perfection, Wesleyan perfectionism, entire sanctification, or whatever you want to call it, are biblical heresy.
I also don’t believe that John is only saying that we don’t sin as a way of life or don’t willfully sin. Those who assert this are not accepting the plain statements of God’s Word. They have no support from the Greek or the context. They’re simply using their own notions to blunt and weaken each of the passages in which John teaches the sinlessness of the born-again believer.
Oddly enough, many of these same teachers correctly understand that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer. But you can’t be righteous and sinful at the same time! What would the imputed righteousness of Christ be to us if we still accumulated sins? The righteousness of Christ is the flip side of the sinlessness of Christ. He can’t have one without the other, and neither can we.
As I’ve already explained, the way God makes us sinless is multifaceted, including the fact that when our flesh gets the best of us, it doesn’t count as sin because we’re not under the law. This doesn’t give us license, but it does give us grace.
We’ve answered the question: Did John teach sinless perfectionism? We have seen that when we understand the historical context under which John wrote, his meaning becomes clear. When he wrote 1 John 1:8-10, he didn’t have Christians in mind. He was pointing out that those who were following the Gnostic heresy and claimed to be sinless apart from Christ were still in their sins. If they were going to be forgiven, they needed to confess their sins. This meant giving up their heretical beliefs, since those beliefs held that they were sinless because of special knowledge. So, these verses cannot rightly be used to say that those who are born again are still sinners.
Because we are in Jesus Christ, His sacrifice has paid the penalty for our sins and God has imputed His righteousness—and His sinlessness—to us. Paul says, “Blessed is the man whom the Lord will by no means charge with sin” (Romans 4:8). And,
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.Romans 8:1-4
This has nothing to do with some sort of sinless perfection that we attain, but it has everything to do with what Jesus has done for us (see also Isaiah 53:11; Jeremiah 23:6; Romans 5:18; and 2 Corinthians 5:21).
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:21-26, English Standard Version
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