The next passage of scripture focuses in on how we morally act in our day-to-day lives. We have seen that the fact that Jesus did appear and will appear should motivate us to “purify” ourselves. It is interesting in the material that I have been reading that there are many explanations for what John is putting forward in the verses found at 3:4-9. The hang-up appears to be John’s straight-forward statement in verse 6 that “[n]o one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him”; followed by the statement in verse 9 that “…one born of God…cannot keep on sinning…”
Some explanations given over the years:
1. “Sin” in these passages is meant by John to refer to notorious crimes only. (Augustine, Luther, Roman Catholic)
2. What is sin in the life of a non-believer is not so regarded as sin in the believer. (some gnostics)
3. An argument from Galatians 5:16-17. We have two natures, and our nature “led by the Spirit” will not sin, which is our new nature. Our old nature may keep on sinning in certain situations, but we know are in possession of a new nature. “It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:17). So it is not I that is doing it, but that old, sinful nature.
4. John is setting out the ideal, which is the example set by Jesus of living sin-free. The argument is that sinlessness is a characteristic of the age to come and John recognizes that the new age has come (see 2:8). The commentators who take this line of interpretation argue that John is opposing the heretics with statements that are theoretically true of the Chrisitian character. (William Barclay, Robert Law)
5. The sin that a Christian cannot do is the voluntary and wilful act of breaking God’s law. Some may unknowingly sin, or be ensnared by sin which he does not want to do. John Calvin: “they do no consent to sin, but in fact struggle and groan, so that they can truly testify with Paul that they do the evil they would not.” John Wesley: “sin properly called…is a voluntary transgression of a known law.”
6. John means that the sin that a Christian cannot and will not do is a habitual and persistent pattern of wrongful conduct, while leaving open the fact that a Christian will continue to sin.