No One Who Abides in Him Keeps on Sinning

The longer you fight against your sin, the more temptations you may face to no longer fight so hard. Once, perhaps, your zeal burned; your spiritual blood boiled. But as months passed and years rolled by, desires for a more comfortable Christianity somehow wedged beneath your armor.

Paul talks of killing sin, starving sin (Romans 8:13; 13:14), but you have begun to wonder whether a less decisive, more long-term approach may work just as well. Jesus speaks of tearing out an eye and cutting off a hand (Matthew 5:29) — you theoretically agree but, if honest, can hardly imagine self-denial so extreme.

You may have once found relish in the righteous ferocity of a man like John Owen, who wrote of walking “over the bellies of his lusts” (Works, 6:14). But some time has passed since your boots have trampled any lusts. And as another Puritan once put it, you may feel tempted to speak of your sins as Lot did of Zoar: “Is it not a little one?” (Genesis 19:20). Time makes way for many little sins — and little sins, in time, make way for larger ones.

The softening happens slowly, by degrees, as I can attest. And often, what we need most in such seasons is a righteous trumpet blast, a rousing note that shakes the bones and awakens us back to reality. Such the apostle John gives to us in his first letter:

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. (1 John 3:9)

“Time makes way for many little sins — and little sins, in time, make way for larger ones.”

To the question, “Can the born again make a practice of sinning?” John responds simply, clearly, unequivocally: impossible.

Let No One Deceive You

Recent events had cast a shadow over the community that received John’s letter. We catch a glimpse in 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out.” Once, a group of seeming brothers and sisters belonged to us; now, John can speak of them only as they.

And they did not leave quietly. No, they left speaking strange new ideas about Jesus — that he didn’t really come in the flesh (1 John 4:2–3), that he wasn’t really the Christ (1 John 2:22). And with this new theology came a new and twisted spirituality. Many, it seems, professed to know God while walking in darkness (1 John 1:6), as if somehow one could be righteous without doing righteousness (1 John 3:7). They claimed new life; they kept old sins.

Some scholars call them “proto-gnostics,” forerunners of the heresy that would bedevil the church in the next century. John himself speaks with a sharper edge: they are liars, antichrists, children of the devil (1 John 1:6; 2:18; 3:10). Tough words from the beloved apostle. But the church desperately needed to hear them.

No One Born of God Keeps on Sinning

John knew the church was standing firm for the moment. In fact, he wrote his letter in large part to assure them that eternal life was theirs (1 John 5:13). Their faith in Christ was steady, their love for the brothers deep, their righteousness evident. Though not perfect (1 John 1:8–9), they belonged to God.

Yet John knew the power of flesh-pleasing lies, especially when given time to work. He knew too how demoralizing it could be to watch a brother-in-arms lay down his weapons and cross enemy lines. Perhaps the church wouldn’t embrace the heresy, but their hands might grow slack around the sword hilt. They might wonder if the Christian life really requires such ruthlessness against sin. Some might wander into a “practice of sinning,” less afraid of what such a practice might mean.

So, John writes, “Little children, let no one deceive you” (1 John 3:7). Remember, little children, that sin is lawless. Remember that Christ is sinless. Remember that you are new.

Sin Is Lawless

When a professing Christian begins to make “a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9), a deep yet subtle change has already taken place. Somewhere along the line, sin has become less serious in his eyes: no longer black, but gray; no longer damnable, but understandable. A slow hardening has crept over his conscience. Where he once blushed, he shrugs.

John will have none of it. He had stood on Calvary. He had watched God’s wrath against sin swallow the sun — had seen the wages of sin stain the dirt red. And so he writes, “Everyone who makes a practice of sin also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).

Woven into the DNA of sin is a lawless, traitorous, insolent, anti-Christ character. It cannot bear God’s authority; it cannot bend to Christ’s rule. And though isolated instances of sin do not amount to a life of lawlessness — only “a practice of sinning” does (1 John 3:4) — even the smallest sins are lawlessness in utero. Every sin bears some resemblance to the nails and spear that pierced our Lord; every sin sounds something like, “Crucify!” So, if nourished and cherished, if cultivated and indulged, any sin can take the heart captive to a kind of rebellion that cannot abide with Christ.

We will continue to sin this side of heaven — on that point John is utterly clear (1 John 1:8). Yet as D.A. Carson writes, sin never becomes something less than “shocking, inexcusable, forbidden, appalling, out of line with what we are as Christians.” “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil” (1 John 3:8) — and every sin, however small, beats with his lawless heart.

Christ Is Sinless

If in sin we see absolute darkness, utter lawlessness, in Christ we see absolute light, utter purity. The two are mortal enemies, opposite poles: the one crooked, the other straight; the one night, the other day; the one hell, the other heaven. And therefore, because of both who Christ is and what Christ does, “no one who abides in him keeps on sinning” (1 John 3:6).

“If we abide in him, sin cannot abide in us — not persistently, not presumptuously, not peacefully.”

Consider, first, who Christ is. “In him there is no sin,” John writes (1 John 3:5). How then can anyone abide in him — live in him, commune with him, worship him — and keep sinning as before? We could sooner light a fire under the sea or breathe deeply on the moon. Christ holds no tinder for sin; he gives no oxygen to lawlessness. If we abide in him, then, sin cannot abide in us — not persistently, not presumptuously, not peacefully.

Then, second, consider what Christ does. “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins” (1 John 3:5). Or again, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). He came, the Sinless One, to make many sinless ones — first by forgiving and justifying us, and then by gradually yet ceaselessly purifying us.

In a season of encroaching sin, then, we do well to ask ourselves, “Jesus came to destroy the devil’s works — and will I endorse them? Jesus died to take away my sins — and will I now take them back? Will I roll the stone back over his tomb; will I take down his cross?”

You Are New

So far, John has bid the church to look outside themselves. Now, however, he tells them to look at themselves. For sin is lawless, Christ is sinless, and they are new. Three times in one sentence, the apostle points to their newness in Christ:

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. (1 John 3:9)

Conversion involves not just a change of mind, but a change of heart and soul — a change so great it can rightly be called new birth. And new birth brings the truth about sin and Christ down into the deepest places.

By new birth, we not only see sin as lawless, but we have hearts whose lawlessness has been replaced by God’s life-giving law (Jeremiah 31:33). The pen of the Spirit has reached where ours never could. And by new birth, we not only see Jesus as sinless, but we enjoy him as glorious, the Spirit opening our eyes to a Beauty far beyond sin (Ezekiel 36:27). We have felt, deep down, the blessing of obedience without burden (1 John 5:3), the delight of abiding in the one who knows no darkness (1 John 1:5).

Pulsing in these words of John, then, is not only a mighty cannot — “he cannot keep on sinning” — but a mighty can. However strong temptation seems, and however weak we feel, we can kill sin and cleave to Christ. We can raise these weary feet and flee again; we can lift these tired arms and strike again. We can put our face in the Bible and our knees on the ground. We can say no to the loudest urges of the flesh and yes to the quietest promptings of the Spirit.

Our ‘Truceless Antagonism’

The battle against sin lasts long, even all life long. But in Christ, we have a different disposition, a better bent, a new life that will never die. And buried deep in our spiritual DNA is a ruthless opposition to sin — a “truceless antagonism,” as Robert Law calls it.

Such antagonism will look strange and unnatural to the world around us; at our worst, we too may wonder if the Christian life can run on roads less narrow. But when we remember what sin really is, who Christ really is, and who we really are, then even seemingly small compromises — little lies, secret glances, prayerless mornings, quiet bitterness — will appear for what they are: Lawless guides leading us from Christ. Dark hands stealing our hearts. Utter contradictions of our new birth.

And then our zeal will burn again. And then our blood will boil again. And then our boots will feel again the bellies of our lusts. For “no one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9). And in Christ, we are born of God — irrevocably, eternally, powerfully new.