John,

First of all, let me say how much I appreciate your work. Your Gospel was the coup d’état of your writings. Chapter 14 was a lifeline to me as a kid. Thanks for spending so much time (four chapters!) focusing on what we call the “upper room discourse.” It is tender and comforting in so many ways. As well, I loved your emphasis on the deity of Christ. From beginning to end you magnify Christ and it is awesome! (I wish Matthew, Mark, and Luke were so bold, but I understand their reasons). Thanks for leaving your works unnamed. I am assuming that you are the “Apostle” John, but either way, your anonymity gives your testimony great credibility.

However, I do have some problems with something you wrote. This something confuses me quite a bit as I cannot find a satisfying way to fit it into my theology. I know my issue is really with God, as he co-wrote with you on this project, but I am not as comfortable writing an open letter to God! So you will have to do.

Ready? Here it goes…

I am confused by your statement in the book we call “First John”:

“No one who is born of God sins, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (1 John 3:9)

I am confused because I believe that I am born of God, but I still sin. What gives?

Now, we often qualify your statement here since the word “sin” is in the present progressive in the Greek. Therefore, many translations opt for “practices sin” instead of “sins.” I think this is a valid conclusion. Therefore, you were talking about those who continue to sin in a progressive way.

Let me be honest here . . . This justified exegetical qualification did comfort me at one time. When I first started following our Lord with a greater intensity, I did give up many sins. So for the first few years, my experience coincided with your proposition. I was no longer practicing certain evident sins which had plagued me. But here I am, twenty years later, with more questions than answers about your theology on this issue.

Here is the basic problem. I still practice sin. While I gave up certain sins twenty years ago and have yet to fall back into them, for the last twenty years I have discovered so many things in my life which I habitually practice and cannot regulate to my satisfaction. I do try and try, pray and pray, ask and ask, beg and beg, but I fall back into these transgressions. Let me illustrate (humor me). . . .

My daughter Katelynn has an iPod. She won it in a contest at school. She called me the other day crying and crying. I was very scared, seeing as how I had left the kids at home alone without adult supervision. Katelynn is thirteen and we have started letting her babysit. But we still have a pool in the back yard and a five year old who just learned how to swim, so her hysteria made my knees quite weak. “What is it?” I said with a great degree of fatherly authority. “I dropped my iPod and it is cracked.” I was very angry. Mostly, I was angry with her for letting something so trivial drive her to such hysteria. As I thought about it throughout the day, I began to realize that she is just following in the footsteps of her father. I have an iPhone and iPad which I keep up to date. I had a perfectly reliable iPhone 3, and yet upgraded to an iPhone 4 for $99. Why? Because I needed more features. Why? Just because. Oh, I justified it this way and that, but really, if I am honest with myself, I admit that I am just materialistic. And it is rubbing off on my family. I, in some sense, love the things of this world, as you put it in 1 John 2:15 (another troublesome verse). I know you may have meant the “sinful things of this world,” but isn’t materialism just that? I make $60,000 a year. I bought a house in accordance with my income. My wife drives a Ford Expedition which cost me $35,000. How did I justify that? Because I want my family to be in a heavy car . . . it is just safer (translation: I want my wife and kids to be safe in an accident at the expense of whomever they get in an accident with – selfishness). I live within the means of my salary which is ninety-percent more than everyone else in the world. Why don’t I downsize and live on $30,000 (which is possible) and give the rest to those in need? For the same reason I don’t refrain from upgrading my phone and giving the $99 to someone who needs it: I am consistently materialistic. And so are most of the other Christians in America I know. We are selfish, greedy, neglectful, and often unloving. More than that, we justify this behavior by embedding ourselves in the cultural norms. But if we are all honest with ourselves, John, we are all practicing sin.

I talked to a friend of mine who is what we call a “Johannine scholar” (how do you like that?) a few years back about you. He is evangelical and very committed to the authority of Scripture, which includes your writings. I don’t know of anyone better at interpreting you than him. He said something very curious about you. He said that you talk in “extremes.” Everything is black and white in your theology, according to him. Or should I say everything is either “light” or “dark,” to use your terminology? He said you speak in a way that is very definitive and idealistic. People are either in or out, doing right or doing wrong, having the seed of God within them and “loving” their brethren or having the seed of God completely absent and “hating” their brethren.

I am not sure what to do with that. Does it mean you overstate things? How do I fit that into my view of inspiration? I get hyperbole and rhetorical overstatements. Paul does that (1 Tim. 6:4) and so does Jesus (Matt. 18:9). But I don’t see any sign of that in your writings. I think you really believe that he who practices sin does not have God in them. Maybe I am misreading here and my friend is right about you. I hope so, because I don’t know of anyone who does not practice sin. Pride, selfishness, anger, gluttony, lust, jealousy, and coveting will be with us until we die, right? They will all be practiced. Some more intermittently than others, but they all qualify for the designation “practice.” And what about the practice of sins of omission . . . you know, those things we just neglect to do? And I don’t even want to talk about the struggles in my marriage . . . all habitual sin related.

I don’t feel any better saying that you are talking only about those sins we don’t know about. You know, the idea that as long as we are “wrestling” with or “struggling” with all known sins we are okay. That makes a lot of sense to me, but you don’t make such qualifications. You simply say, “No one who is born of God (practices) sin.” And here I am, a sin practitioner. Help me!

And to make matters worse, you write such a comforting statement at the beginning of your letter. You say,

“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:8-9)

That’s me! I don’t say I have no sin. I have lots of it. More than enough. Why couldn’t you just stop there? In truth, I know there is a way to square this passage with the one I am having trouble with, but I have yet to find this way. For now, I think the “extreme rhetoric” view will have to do.

Again, I know my beef is not really with you, but with your co-Author, and I suppose this is a roundabout way of asking Him. But I must confess that I can fit James’ letter into my theology better than I can your 1 John 3:9. I do appreciate your writing and hope to come to some conclusions about this sometime in this life. But let me assure you, I love Jesus. I confess Jesus has come in the flesh. I believe he is the God-Man who takes away the sins of the world. I think I have pretty good theology. Heck, I am even a Calvinist! (though some people might say this is my downfall :)) I pray continually for God to make me more like Jesus. But I am a sinner who continues to live with sin and I don’t know how to fit your statement into my beliefs. I believe in the absolute authority of your writing, but I have an odd request: can I just erase 1 John 3:9? 🙂 (If you don’t know…smiley face mean just kidding . . . kinda.)

Sincerely,

C. Michael Patton

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    38 replies to "An Open Letter to the Apostle John"

    • Zach

      Noooo! Don’t erase it!!!! 😀

      I wish I had a dollar for the things I can’t wrap my mind around. I don’t s’pose we will ever exhaust God.

    • Irene

      St. John, pray for us.

    • Donnie

      At least you are pretty sure the Apostle John is who you need to ask about this. That Hebrews 6 stuff about apostasy gives me lots of pause but I can’t find anyone who knows for sure who wrote it. If John answers your letter, please ask him if he knows…

    • Michael

      All believers sympathize with your struggle with sin. However John meant something when he wrote that verse. Now since John was a sinner and perfect sanctification is impossible this side of heaven, we have to take this verse to mean that an unrepentant lifestyle of sin shows a person to be an unbeliever.

      To be Frank, your issue is with Lordship vs. non-Lordship on this verse. If you thought every believer needed to show fruit of repentance that comes with faith, then this verse fits perfectly.

      Now 1 Jo. 5:16-17 is a hard verse to figure out!

    • C Michael Patton

      I don’t take sides on the Lordship non-Lordship issue. I think that the debate pushes people to extremes that they don’t really believe.

      I certainly believe that every believer needs to repent of their sins. Repentance is the other side of faith. And there will definitely be fruit. Not sure which flavor, but it will be there.

      However, that does not really help in this situation as it stands well outside that debate.

    • Michael

      Ah, I apologize as i thought you held to non-repentance at conversion.

      I think determining where we stand on the issue does help, if only in this regard: John is trying to help believers with discerning what a true follower of Christ looks like. This way they are not weakened in their faith when a fellow churchgoer apostasizes. If the Bible teaches what we today call Lordship salvation, then we expect that John would want to see repentance and not a lifestyle of habitual sin in a professing believer from day one.

      On the other hand, a person who does not think repentance comes with faith will have a hard time with 1 John for obvious reasons. This actually happened at my brothers DTS-influenced church recently and it was shocking to hear who they had change the definition of words to fit non-Lordship theology.

    • C Michael Patton

      Yeah, I don’t really like the free grace position of some of the more radical variety. But DTS has no prof that I know of these days who teaches that. I think it left with Hodge. I would say that most hold to a more mediating position like Swindoll.

    • bethyada

      Michael, I think you are reading 1 John like a bunch of syllogisms. I am not sure that is what John was doing. I see him describing 2 sets. Think of them as the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world.

      John lists things that characterise the kingdom of Christ: abiding in Christ, righteousness, not sinning, loving each other, loving God, confessing Christ, obeying Jesus’ commands, etc. And the kingdom of the world would be the lack or opposite of these things, which he also lists.

      But we are not in a specific set because tick off all the items in one or the other. Rather he is showing us what being in Christ looks like. Consider James who says similar things, that fresh and brackish water do not come the same well, he only says that because people are mixtures (though they shouldn’t be). It is an appeal to act rightly. John is doing the same by describing the ideal, and appeals to us to act rightly (stop sinning), this is something that Christ is taking us toward.

    • C Michael Patton

      Yeah, that is the “John talks in extremes or ideals position I described. It is the best I got.

    • Chris Echols

      It seems to me that we’d have a lot more love peace and joy if we thought more soberly about the so-called inspiration of scripture. I still haven’t figured out why we insist that God the Father “co-wrote” every book of the bible.

      But at the same time we watch movies and read other books that are “inspired” by true stories that never get all the fact write NOR are they co-written by the people actually involved in the true story.

      I never really had this idea that God, who is spirit, needs to communicate with his spirit children using material books, scrolls and sacred physical documents when he has written His truths on the tablets of our hearts…

      I think Paul was getting the point when he said, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone, revealing that you are a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on tablets of human hearts.” —2 Cor 3:2–3 NET

    • Irene

      Why can’t it mean what it says? If you divide sin into mortal and venial categories, with venial sin meaning our less serious imperfections as we strive toward holiness and union with Christ, and mortal sin that deliberate serious sin that removes sanctifying grace from us by our own choice, this seems to mean he is speaking of (mortal) sin. This interpretation makes sense.

    • Paul M

      What about I John 3:10 where it says, “…whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God…” or as the King James puts it, “…whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God…”? I can see how the first rendering speaks to the dual nature of the believer being both saved positionally while still having a sin nature, but the KJV appears to say that we are not of God without works. That flies in the face of Eph. 2:8-9 which you eluded to in your post. I know that doesn’t resolve the argument, and only adds to it. But, it caused me to wonder about the 144,000 in Revelation and what of their propensity to sin during their ministry. Any thoughts?

    • Bruce

      Michael, would be helpful at all to understand that what John is saying is in the context of an incipient Gnostic kind of influence or inroad into the church, an influence carrying with it the idea and practice that one can live in open blatent sin and immorality in the body, but still belong to God in spiritually. John, then, is not saying that true Christians don’t sin or stuggle with sin in an absolute sense (e.g. Jn.1:8 – 2:2), but that they do not and cannot habitually live in open sin and immoralty in the Gnostic kind of way and be a true child of God. It would be understanding John in a historically contextually sensitive kind of way. What would be your thoughts on that?

    • Bruce

      That is “still belong to God spiritually.” Sorry.

    • Lisa Robinson

      Chris, I’d like to address your comment, but briefly since it is off-topic from the post.

      The word “inspired” as used in 2 Tim 3:16 means breathed out from God. So to say scripture is breathed out from God means it is as he wanted it. And since the text says all scripture, we can conclude that everything contained within the 66 books is God-inspired.

      That is different from your analogy of books and movies inspired by true stories. Inspiration has a completely different meaning and is not analogous to the meaning of inspiration according to scripture.

      Additionally, what Paul is addressing in 2 Cor 3:2-3 is not an indication that what is written is invalid. Rather he is saying that because they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they demonstrate with their lives that they a product of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as a result of accepting truth of the gospel.

      Also, the tablets of stones he is referring to represent the law and not something that is written. This is why he says in vv 6 that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. He is making a contrast between the law and the Spirit not what is written and the Spirit. Hope that makes sense.

    • Rick

      I find this article to do the best job in understanding John’s intent in the context of the Book of I John and in his other Biblical writings. While very technical the conclusions are very easy to understand and are consistent with our Calvinistic views.

      http://bible.org/article/thematic-structural-analysis-1-john-36-9-518-problem-sinlessness

    • Steve

      Dear Michael, you have such a way of articulating questions, struggles and issues that so many struggle with. That’s why I enjoy reading your blogs–by revealing your own questions, struggles, and issues–you are revealing OURS as well. God bless you for being so transparent.

    • Irene

      Yep, me too. I’m Catholic and my favorite religious blog is Calvinist. (:

    • Aaron Walton

      Dear CMP,
      I have much I’d like to write, but I am limited to 1000 characters.
      I have been following the blog and all my professors were from DTS, so I know a bit of where you are theologically.
      Recently, I found the issue was our view of sin. No one taught me what the “Fear of the Lord” was… I had a class on Hebrew Exegesis of Proverbs, and did not learn what it was. I fear so few know or have it like John expects.

      A right view of sin and the Lord, keeps us from sin.
      In 1Cor 10, Paul relates that God killing 23,000 people because of sexual immorality was a lesson for us (v6, 11). He says these Israelites looked like they were of Israel, but set their heart on evil things and did not make it out of the wilderness, they weren’t God’s and “never entered his rest” (Heb 4:5, cf 1Cor 10:21-22).
      Before meditating on this, I could entertain lust; but when I learned God killed 23,000 people, I wanted nothing to do with lust. We would do well to fear him who can cast us into…

    • Aaron Walton

      [the final sentence] We would do well to fear him who can cast us into hell (Lk 12:5).

    • Here is a informative link, concerning the doctrine of sin.

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/beliefs/originalsin_1.shtml

    • butters

      Aaron Walton –

      It would appear that the young Martin Luther was very afraid of God. However, that did not make him sinless as a monk or lead to any peace. In fact, it made him miserable.

      “with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”

      (Psalm 130:4)

    • Here is a link, on what is called Voluntarism in metaphysics and philosophy. I am a Voluntarist myself (which maintains the will first and foremost), as I think Calvin was also. I share this, and I hope perhaps this might be helpful in maintaining our Christian doctrine and theology!

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/voluntarism-theological/

    • PS..Here’s a more simple link for our purpose..

      http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/632605/voluntarism

    • Aaron Walton

      Butters,
      To discuss Martin Luther would be a “side eddy”.

      My point, if nothing else, is that “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil” (Pro 8:13).
      We are to stay away from it–at the very least because we recognize that God hates sin and judges people who live in it. But we are also to hate sin and every evil way.

      1st Cor 10 is about how God killed thousands of Israelites so that “we [that is, the readers of Paul’s letter, then and now] would not set our hearts on evil things as some of them did” (v6).

      My point is we should not let their deaths be in vain and die like they did. God judges sin and if we continue in it, we should recognize we too will be judged.

      If we find that we are “slaves to sin”, as thousands of the Israelites were, we must cry out to God; because the Christian lives in the Spirit–not in the flesh–because the Spirit of God dwells in him; showing he belongs to him (Ro 8:9, see v3-4).

      🙁 This is too complex for 1000 keystrokes.

    • JoanieD

      Great letter, Michael! If John responds, please let me know as I would like to have the answer as well.

    • As to 1 John 3: 8, even the NASB is clear here, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” And verse 10, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice rightousness is not of God..” Then John gives the example of “Cain who was of the Evil One”…”And why did he murder murder him”, [his brother] “Because his own deeds were evil and his brothers righteous.” (1 John 3: 11-12)

      Indeed here is the difference between “regeneration” and those who are simply not! Today, it appears that the true Christians, just like before in Paul’s day, are hated! Not because they are sinless, but because they “believe” the Word of God, and seek to follow Christ the Lord & Savior. And they love their “brotherhood” In Christ!

    • […] found this article by C. Michael Patton over at Credo House and thought it worth passing on to you. Hope you like it. […]

    • C Michael Patton

      Had a lengthy talk with Dr. Jan van der Watt out of Radboud University in the Netherlands (http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Johannine-Letters-Approaches-Biblical/dp/0567045846/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338293683&sr=8-1).

      Wonderful man. He essentially confirmed what my other scholar said. . . John speaks in absolutes. For him, things are black and white, with little or no grey. Interesting. He simply said you cannot force this passage into technical theological precision, especially when we consider chapter 1.

    • george

      this verse is talking about your new nature that is sinless. you will always sin because you have to contend with your old nature until the day of redemption. refer to paul Rom 7. he, like we, are a composite of our new [sinless] nature, and our old [sinful] nature..

      Hope this helps

      • C Michael Patton

        I don’t understand it either. Let me get some coffee in me. Maybe my editor did some work on it and confused us both!

    • @CMP: I am not sure of “your” real “exegetical” point here on 1 John 3:8, etc.?

      “editor”? Never had one myself, save perhaps my wife at times. 😉

    • Luke Todd

      You’ve been writing with such honesty lately. It’s such a good thing to see someone with your prominence being open about struggling with life issues and theological issues.

      It seems like you are mourning over your sin and hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Jesus said that such people will be comforted and satisfied. I hope you have some measure of that today.

    • “Prominence”? Thank God our only real prominence is “elect” ‘In Christ’! 🙂

    • Luke Todd

      “Real”? Thank God those “prominent” Christians who are not so humble and open are only a figment of my imagination! 🙂

    • Yes, our “imaginations” are the unreality also! 😉

    • Susan

      Reading this post post made me think of a passage of scripture, and lo and behold when I looked the reference up its in this very chapter of 1 John 3 — vs. 19-21:

      “And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.”

      When I struggle with the train of thought that this post mentions, is when I take my eyes off Jesus and put them on myself.

      I once heard a pastor say, ” Holiness is the presence of God, not the absence of sin. ” And whenever I concentrate on having more of the presence of my Savior, the less I have to deal w/practicing sins because they cease to happen.

      The real question for me is why I keep taking my eyes off Jesus and putting them on myself – right? – lol.

      We are in this together, prayers for your continued acquiring of righteousness/holiness.

    • Becka

      Here’s my humble interpretation of this verse:

      “No one who is born of God sins, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”

      “Born of God” means “born again”. When you are born again, you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The verse says “because His seed abides in him;” Who is God’s seed? His Son: Jesus Christ.

      We learn from 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Christ became our sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. When we believe, our sins are gone, nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14), and we are now covered by the perfect, righteous record of the Son of God.

      Therefore, if we are born of God and have the Spirit of Christ abiding within us, it is as if we have never sinned, because HE can never sin. We have HIS perfect record, He who fulfilled the Law to every jot and tittle. Our “old selves” are therefore dead, and we are born again, or “resurrected”, into His perfection – our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).

      Perhaps St. John wasn’t talking about the sinner’s own ability not to sin, since he admitted earlier in the Epistle that if we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Therefore, it stands to reason that what he meant was that the Christian who is born of God has CHRIST abiding within him, and since God judges Christians according to CHRIST’S obedience and perfection, NOT our own, and because our lives are now hidden with Christ in God, we have likewise never sinned in God’s eyes, because our sinful lives were “overwritten” by the perfection of the Son of God. Hallelujah! O/

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