Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. – 1 John 3:4 ESV
This section of John’s letter can be very confusing and seemingly contradictory to what he has written earlier. In chapter one, John addressed the false assertions of those who had claimed “we have no sin” or “we have not sinned.” Not exposed them as liars who were devoid of the truth. Then he encouraged his readers, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). Just a few lines later, he wrote, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin,. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1 ESV). So it is clear than John believes sin is constant threat for the believer. But then we read these words in chapter three: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6 ESV). But wait, there’s more. “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 ESV). Is John suggesting that believers can and should live in some kind of sinless state? Is he saying that the presence of sin in our lives evidence that we are not truly believers? What complicates the matter is verse eight. “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8 ESV). This seems to stand in direct opposition to John’s earlier assertion that “we are God’s children now” (1 John 3:2 ESV).
So what is John saying? What is his point? Are those who are born of God to live in sinlessness? If we sin, is it an indication that we are of the devil? I think one of the keys to understanding this entire section of First John is found in a little used Greek word found in verse four. It is the word “lawlessness” (anomia) and it means “contempt and violation of law.” This word is used here in John’s epistle and is found also in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, to describe “the man of lawlessness” who will oppose Christ at His second coming. “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 3:3-4 ESV). “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-8 ESV). It would seem that John’s use of this particular word fits in with his earlier reference to the antichrist in chapter two, verse 18. John would appear to be making the point that sin is lawlessness, or rebellion against the will of God. To commit sin is to inadvertently take sides with Satan in his opposition of God and His Son. It is to stand in opposition to Christ. With this in mind, the meaning of John’s reference to sinning has less to do with specific immoral actions than it does with the attitude of opposition to God and Christ. One can’t help but recall the startling words of Jesus spoken to Peter just after he had rebuked the Lord for saying He was going to Jerusalem where He would be suffer, die and rise again. Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matthew 16:23 ESV). At that moment, Peter had stood in opposition to the will of God and the words of Jesus. Upon hearing what Jesus planned to do, Peter had said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22 ESV).
Peter was refusing to accept God’s plan for the salvation of the world. He had other expectations of Jesus. He wanted Jesus to rule and reign, not suffer and die. He wanted a human Messiah who would set up earthly kingdom, not a divine Savior whose Kingdom was spiritual in nature and somewhere out there in the future. So Peter opposed Jesus. And when we sin, we do the same thing. It is so easy to get hung up on the particular sin we commit. We see one sin as greater than another. We stop doing one and count it a victory, only to commit another one of a different variety. But John would have us see sin as lawlessness – as rebellion against God. And as children of God, born again by His regenerating power and possessed of His Spirit, the very idea of lawlessness or rebellion against the One who loved us enough to send His Son to die for us should be the farthest thing from our minds. John reminds us, “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5 ESV). Jesus was anything but rebellious. He was perfectly obedient to the will of the Father. And no one who abides in Him keeps on sinning against God. The key is abiding. The more we remain attached to and dependent upon Jesus, the less we will sin. When we come unmoored from Him, we fall prey to our own sin nature and the attacks of the enemy. And like Peter, we become guilty of setting our minds on the things of man, rather than the things of God (Matthew 16:23). John is not offering us a life of sinlessness, but a key to sinning less. And just as in our salvation, the answer is Jesus. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 ESV).