UNABLE TO SIN or THE IMPECCABILITY OF THE BORN AGAIN
“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” (#1Jo 3:9).
This verse of Scripture plainly states that the person who is born of God cannot sin. It does not say, as some teach, that such a person is able not to sin. It is one thing to be "able not to sin," and quite another thing to be "not able to sin," for that would deny the doctrine of apostasy, a doctrine they believe and teach. It is obvious that if a person is unable to sin, he could not lose his salvation. There are those who teach that a person may get sanctified—get the so-called second blessing—get to where he is able to live above and without sin. But they also teach that the person who is able not to sin, may also be able to sin and be lost. But our text says emphatically that the born again person—the one born of God—cannot sin, that is, he is not able to sin.
1. Our text refutes several well-known and prevalent errors in present day preaching:-
1a) It refutes the doctrine of apostasy, the teaching that one born again may sin and be lost. To quote the text in any translation is sufficient to disprove that a saved person may ever be lost again.
1b) It refutes the teaching about a second blessing—a blessing subsequent to regeneration. This text is not speaking of any second blessing by whatever name it may be called; it is speaking of the new birth and of the one born of God. The inability to sin is not because of any second work of grace, but because of the initial work of the Spirit in regeneration.
1c) It is against the idea that faith precedes and is the cause of the new birth. The new birth is the work of God; it is the birth of the Holy Spirit, Who is the sole Agent. There is no such thing as selfbirth, either in the physical or spiritual realm. In the physical realm, the mother gives birth to the child; no child is self-born. And in the spiritual kingdom—in the kingdom of God-the child is born of God. "Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is (Gk. has been) born of God" (#1Jo 5:1). "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth" (#Jas 1:18). Speaking of believers, John says, "Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (#Joh 1:13). Faith is not the cause of the new birth, but rather the effect. Faith is a fruit of the Spirit: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith" (#Ga 5:22).
2. Let us try to get at the meaning of this text. Does it mean that a born again person cannot sin in any sense whatsoever? To give it such a meaning is to turn Scripture against Scripture. Moreover, it makes the apostle John contradict himself.
In #1Jo 1:9, it is written, that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." But if we are not able to sin in some sense, there would be no sins to confess, and there would be sin in confessing that of which we are not guilty. In #1Jo 2:1, we are told of provision made for sinning saints: "And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." This must apply to the believer for no unbeliever has Christ for an advocate. In "Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them" (#Heb 7:25), we are told that Christ makes intercession for those who come to God by Him, which means that they plead Christ as the ground of their acceptance with God. "God accepteth no man’s person." Our salvation is "To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved," (#Eph 1:6). And again, in "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it" (#1Jo 5:16), we are specifically exhorted to pray for a sinning brother.
It would contradict every book in the Bible and the experience of every believer who has ever lived to affirm that no regenerate person ever sins in any sense whatsoever. On the other hand, our text does teach unmistakably that in some sense every regenerate person is impeccable, that is, he is unable to sin; or rather, there is some kind of sin he cannot commit. So our task is to discover what the sin is, or in what sense he cannot sin.
3. There are various interpretations of the text before us, and something can be said in favor of most of them. There is truth in these interpretations, but whether it is the particular truth of the text is another question. We will examine some of the interpretations and give our humble judgment of them.
3a) There are those who teach that the born again person—the believer in Christ—is not under law, but under grace; and where there is no law, there can be no sin. The thought is that the born again person cannot sin because he is not under law. Now it is true that the believer is not under law "For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace" (#Ro 6:14), and it is also true that "sin is not imputed when there is no law" (#Ro 5:13). "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin" (#Ro 4:8). It is gloriously true that the sins of the believer are not charged to him; if they were nobody but a sinless person could be saved, which would preclude the salvation of anybody. The writer rejects this interpretation of the text before us, and this for two reasons. First, it is not a question of whether sin is charged; it is a question of whether sin is committed. There is some sense in which the regenerate person does not even commit sin. And in the text it is not because of position in Christ, but of condition by virtue of being born again. Second, the above interpretation smacks of antinomianism, which means being against the law. The believer is not under law as a way of life or means of salvation, but he loves the law as being holy, and just, and good; and is under law to Christ: "To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law" (#1Co 9:21). Sin is by whomsoever committed. As an illustration of antinomianism, a Baptist preacher once proposed a shameful piece of conduct to another preacher, and when he was rebuked for such a proposal, said, "That would be all right; you know we are not under law but under grace."
3b) There are others who interpret "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" (#1Jo 3:9) after this fashion. They remind us that the believer stands sinless in Christ, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. This is a glorious truth, but we do not believe it is the truth of our text. Surely this explanation is foreign to the apostles whole line of thought. John is not dealing with imputed righteousness, but with human conduct.
3c) Then there is the idea that the new nature does not and cannot sin. This view of the text makes John have in mind what Paul did when he wrote of the conflict between the two natures of the born again person. "Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 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. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me" (#Ro 7:17-21); "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would" (#Ga 5:17). But we are quite certain the apostle John did not have this truth in mind. He uses the personal pronoun: "Whosoever is born of God." He is not talking about what the new nature cannot do, but about what the person, who has been born again, cannot do.
3d) A more likely interpretation is that the born again person cannot sin habitually—cannot practice sin as the rule or habit of his life. This was the view held by Dr. A. T. Robertson, who insisted that the tense of the verb demanded this interpretation. It is also the view of Dr. C. B. Williams, who says that the verb is the present of continuous action. Now it is true that one born of God cannot roll sin as a sweet morsel under his tongue—that he cannot cherish any sin, hug it to his bosom, and take it with him to heaven. The seed of God remains in him and he cannot live as an unregenerate. There is much that can be said in favor of this meaning of the text. It is favored by the context as well as by the tense of the verb. He that committeth (practices) sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth (practices sin) from the beginning. The devil takes no vacation in his career of sinning.
3e) Dr. B. H. Carroll gives the verse this meaning: "Whoever is born of God sinneth not unto death." He thinks the context demands this explanation. The thought, as he sees it, is that one born of God may sin, but not unto death; his sins are pardonable. "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin; and there is a sin not unto death" (#1Jo 5:16-17). The writer cannot go along with this interpretation for this reason: the verse is applicable only to one born of God while an unregenerate person may commit sins that are not unpardonable.
3f) The writer has come to regard the interpretation given by Andrew Fuller as the most probable of any. Speaking of "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (#1Jo 1:8) and "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" (#1Jo 3:9), Fuller says; "It appears that the word "sin" in these passages is of different significations. In the former it is to be taken properly, for any transgression of the law of God. If any man say, in this sense, he has no sin, he only proves himself to be deceived...But in the latter it seems from the context, that the term is intended to denote the sin of apostasy. If we were to substitute the term apostasy for sin, from the sixth to the ninth verse, the meaning would be clear. Whoso abideth in him apostatizeth not; whosoever apostatizeth hath not seen him, neither known him...He that is guilty of apostasy is of the devil; for the devil hath been an apostate from the beginning...Whosoever is born of God doth not apostatize; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot apostatize, because he is born of God."
Fuller goes on to say that this sense of the latter verse perfectly agrees with what is said of "sin unto death" in "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin; and there is a sin not unto death" (#1Jo 5:16-18). And he says it also agrees with chapter two, verse nineteen: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us" (#1Jo 2:19). "Altogether," says Fuller, "it affords what we might presume to call an incontestable proof of the certain perseverance of true believers." The apostle is saying, that those who abandoned their former profession of faith and departed from them, had not really belonged to them as born again people. An if to say, that born again people do not apostatize from the true principles of faith. The born again person never renounces his faith in Christ, for he is "kept by the power of God through faith" (#1Pe 1:5).
"We know that any one born of God does not sin, but he who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him" (#1Jo 5:18 R.S.V.) This is a better rendering than the authorized version, which makes the man born of God keep himself. Satan would have the believer turn away from Christ and renounce faith in Him, but he is kept by the power of God and cannot lose his faith. The devil cannot make apostates from the ones who are born of God. "Christ in you," says Paul, is "the hope of glory" (#Col 1:27). Christ does not save the sinner and then abandon him to the devil. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (#Joh 10:27-28). The man born of God perseveres in faith; if he should lose his faith, it goes without saying, he would lose his salvation. Stony ground hearers have only temporary faith and endure for a while only, because they do not have the root of the matter in themselves. But the one born of God is not like that, "For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." (#1Jo 5:4) Glorious victory is assured for all who make their calling and election sure!