Today we dip into the Ask Pastor John podcast inbox. “Pastor John, my name is Jake from Mexico. What does 1 John 5:18 mean?” That’s the end of the question. And I’ll go ahead and read the text from the ESV: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” Pastor John what does this text mean?
I am not sure what part of this verse Jake is stumbling over. There are three things he could stumble over.
- “Everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” — what does that mean?
- “He who was born of God protects him” — what does that mean?
- “The evil one does not touch him” — whoa, really? What does that mean?
So I am not sure which of those three he is stumbling over, so maybe I better say a word about each one.
And what I am thinking is maybe Jake is reading the King James Version or the New American Standard Version of that first clause, because it is even more perplexing. The King James says, “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not.” That is the King James. Or the New American Standard says, “We know that no one who is born of God sins.” So I would join Jake, if I read those, and say, “Huh, really? Christians don’t sin?”
That sounds truly problematical — “Christians never sin.” I met a woman one time who believed that. She threw 1 John 5:18 and 1 John 3:9 at me. And I asked, “Well, what do you call the bad things you do?” And she had invented a lot of names for her sins, like: mistakes and flaws and shortcomings and imperfections, but she was adamant. I don’t sin.
Now the ESV is right to translate “we know that everyone who has been born of God” — and then it translates the verb — “does not keep on sinning&,” which helps a little bit, maybe. First John 3:9 has the same issue: “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.”
Now I could pull rank with Greek here — which I will — and then I will back up and say that is not the key issue. The idea of the Greek present tense (hamartanei in 1 John 5:18) which is being used is that those who are born again and have the Spirit of God in them cannot ever make peace with sin, settle in with sin, make sin a friend, be okay with sinning — just go on sinning as though no war needs to be made against it, and nothing will come of it if we do. The present tense says: no, you can’t do that, you can’t make a practice of sinning like that.
But if you don’t know Greek, you don’t have to trust me at this point, because there are a couple of other reasons why non-Greek readers know that this text does not mean that Christians don’t ever do anything wrong.
First John 5:16, two verses earlier: “If anyone sees his brother [a Christian] committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life.” So he can’t mean that Christians don’t sin, because he just gave instruction for how to help Christians who do sin.
The same thing is true in 1 John 1:8–10: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
So in the meaning of 1 John 5:18, I think here in the context, the first and obvious meaning would be: The one who is born of God does not sin unto death; that is, we don’t make peace with sin, settle into a pattern of sinning that will destroy us in the end, prove that we are not truly born of God and are not truly Christians. Christians walk in the light, and, according to 1 John 1:8–10, walking in the light is not sinlessness. It is walking in a way that you have eyes to see in the light the ugliness of what you just did, and you are sorry for it. You confess it. You keep short accounts with God, and you move on.
So I think “does not sin” means (1) doesn’t commit the sin unto death, and (2) doesn’t settle into a pattern of sinning that proves you have no spiritual life in you.
Christ Our Protector
Second issue: “He who was born of God protects him.” I think that means that Christ — who is called the one born of God, the only begotten of God, the eternally virgin-born Spirit, but born by the Spirit Son of God, Christ — guards us from the devil.
He intercedes for us (Hebrews 7:25), and he is with us to the end of the age helping us, (Matthew 28:20), and his blood covers us (Ephesians 2:13) and keeps us safe from Satan’s accusations because none of them can hold because Christ has died for us.
Safe from Satan
Third issue: “The evil one does not touch him.” The devil’s accusations and temptations and harassments can hurt us terribly, but they can never destroy us. There is no deadly touch. There is no poisonous bite. His fangs were removed at the cross, and his lethal poison is taken away from believers. He cannot destroy us.
So I take “cannot touch us” to mean that Satan can’t touch us with any deadly touch. He can hurt us terribly. I don’t want to minimize Satan’s realty in this world. He can throw us in prison and he can move others to kill us, according to Revelation 2:10. But he can’t hurt us ultimately. He can’t touch us with the touch of destruction and damnation. That has been taken out of his hand by the blood of Jesus. Jesus did that when he died on the cross according to Colossians 2:15. He disarmed the principalities and powers when he died and shed his blood.
So the only begotten of God is, indeed, our perfect and everlasting protector.