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.)
C. Michael Patton