Q. Does 1 John 3:9 Teach that Christians Must Be Sinless?
First of all, it is often helpful to consult several different translations, to see how they render a perplexing verse:
9 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. 1 John 3:9 (NASB)
9 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)
9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. (1 Jn. 3:9 NIV)
9 Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 1 John 3:9 (KJV)
It is fairly obvious that some translations render the verse in such a way that one could conclude that the Christian can never sin, while other translations indicate that the Christian must not persist in sin habitually.
It is worthy of note that this same verse (1 John 3:9) says that the reason one cannot persist in habitual sin is that “God’s seed abides in him.” Both “practices/makes a practice of” and “abides” are in the present tense. God’s seed remains in the believer, and this is why sin must not be one’s habitual practice. If a person could sin and loses their salvation, how can it be said that God’s seed remains in that person?
So which of these seemingly contradictory views is correct? We must now turn to other texts of Scripture to confirm or clarify the meaning of 1 John 3:9. We will begin with what John himself says earlier in this very epistle:
8 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. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 1:8-2:1, NASB).
The one who is wrong is the one who denies that sin is an ongoing problem. Just as we need God’s initial forgiveness to be saved, we likewise need his ongoing cleansing and forgiveness, because sin is still an ongoing problem (as we see, for example, in Romans 7). Following up on this, I would suggest that you give thought to our Lord’s words to Peter:
5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” 8 Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” 9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you” (John 13:5-10, NASB).
Here, Jesus distinguishes between the one-time washing of salvation from the need for ongoing cleansing from sin.
When we look at other passages we see that God clearly prescribes how we should deal with Christians who sin, and when rebuked, keep on sinning. It is not assumed that such sinning results in a loss of salvation, but it may very well lead to severe discipline:
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. 17 “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:15-20, NASB).
1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. 2 You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. 3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:1-5, NASB).
19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. 20 Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning (1 Timothy 5:19-20, NASB).
Matthew 18 says that we are to treat the persistent and unrepentant sinner as though they were an unbeliever, but this does not mean that every such sinner is an unbeliever (though some could be). In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul speaks of a professing believer who will not cease his sin. He is turned over to Satan for discipline, but this is so that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (5:20).
In the light of these texts, it is clear to me that 1 John 3:9 is saying that a genuine Christian must not live as he or she once did as an unbeliever (see Romans 6 here). Thus, the ESV says “makes a practice of sinning,” avoiding the inference that it is just one sin. In the case of ongoing and persistent sin, even after admonition, we have the necessity of exercising discipline, as prescribed by the texts above. My understanding is that sinning saints will not lose their salvation, but may very well experience God’s discipline, perhaps at the severe hand of Satan. But the end goal is their salvation, not their damnation.
In the end, salvation provides the forgiveness of sin, but it is not a license to sin. We will all sin, and for this we have the finished work of Christ on the cross and His ongoing advocacy/mediation for us in heaven. If we persist in our sin then our loving Father will discipline us as His children (see, for example, Hebrews 12).
One final comment. In truth, every Christian is sinless in God’s eyes, because He sees us in Christ, the only sinless One, who died and was raised from the dead so that we could be accepted as righteous in God’s sight (See John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:17-23).
I hope this helps,