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1st John (2011)

The Nature of Sin

1 John  3:4-9

Lesson audio

Unlike Paul, in his letter to the Romans, John actually has little to say about the nature of sin. He is much more concerned with the spirit which overcomes sin.

1 John 3:4-9 NIV  Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.  (5)  But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.  (6)  No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.  (7)  Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.  (8)  He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work.  (9)  No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.

Nature of Sin

Some writers just naturally seem to have the gift of being both eloquent and terse. John is one of those writers. He touches here on the nature of sin, assuming that you understand it already and that he is just reminding you of the truth. Unfortunately, in our day, the very existence of sin is challenged by our society (and sometimes by our own church).

Does Sin Still Exist?

Up until the 20th century, the question would have seemed absurd to most Christians. Sin is the necessary precursor to salvation by grace. Matters have changed; the church now views things somewhat differently.

·         Some — including the pastor of this author's church — simply ignore it. Even when quoting from the Scripture which mentions the word sin, it is simply ignored. We just don't talk about it. The subject is unpleasant to any number of hearers, so we just don't bring it up. This makes it somewhat difficult to determine exactly what theological position we hold; it has the corresponding advantage that the listener is never "turned off" by the mention of the subject. I leave to the reader the very difficult task of determining whether or not this particular strategy is the most fruitful possible.

·         Many equate sin with the feeling of guilt. In doing this, the problem changes from what to do about the fact of guilt by sin to what to do about one's emotions. Enter modern psychology; consider the techniques used to deal with irrational guilt; apply liberally.

·         A more recent development is to declare that sin is "cultural." There is an aspect of truth in this; modest clothing for an Eskimo Christian probably doesn't resemble the same thing for an African jungle Christian. The development is that all sin is now cultural. It can therefore be explained away. This is usually accompanied by statements like, "you need to think outside the box."

·         In a combination of some of the above, you will also hear that sin is a "church word." Church words are now as forbidden as obscenity used to be. The use of the church word is equivalent to fire and brimstone preaching; a more polite euphemism must be found. The most common euphemism is the word "mistake." The difficulty with this technique is that mistake carries with it no sense of moral error or guilt; mistakes are things that happen on your arithmetic test. It's not good performance in arithmetic; but it's not morally evil either.

For the purposes of this lesson, we shall assume that sin still exists; that it still has its original, scriptural definition; and more important that it still has its original effect.


Besides the techniques listed above, we have a number of time tested frauds which diverted the Christian from the true meaning of sin. These are not new developments; a fraudulent misunderstanding of sin dates back to the Garden of Eden.

·         You will sometimes hear that it is sin "only when someone else gets hurt." This has a number of problems. The first is that it opens up the very real possibility that you get hurt. Second, we usually mean that no one gets hurt immediately. Long-term damage is exempt. Third, we have a very flexible definition of the word "hurt." Fourth, it distinctly opens up the possibility that, to use a specific example, "she wouldn't have been hurt if she didn't find out."

·         An alternate technique is to insist that every possible sin must have a specific chapter and verse in the Scripture which carefully defines it and gives an example. This is legalism being used as an excuse. Neither the legalism nor the excuse work.

·         Today, of course, we are infected with the doctrine that "if it's legal, it's moral." The ultimate authority in right and wrong is now the state, not the church. This neglects the fact that the state is limited in what kind of moral conduct it can enforce (think about adultery.) God suffers no such limitation.

·         Somewhat fading today, but still popular, is situational ethics. This is the idea that you can't understand whether something is right or wrong without taking into account the situation. This provides a great deal of opportunity for human cleverness.

True Definition

So just what is sin? The word in the original Greek means to "miss the target." In other words, by some moral law you know that this or that action is morally wrong. If you do it anyway, you sin. This reduces the problem then to defining that moral law. There are three common definitions; they overlap somewhat but at least one is applicable in any circumstance.

·         The classic example is the Old Testament law. Most Christians do not recognize the Old Testament law in its entirety as being valid; where fond of ham sandwiches, for example. But the great, abiding moral principles laid out in that law still pertain to the Christian.

·         That law is tempered by the New Testament law, which is the law of love. This love relieves us of the more legalistic aspects of the Old Testament, but also imposes upon us more clearly the duty to love the Lord your God, and love the neighbor as yourself.

·         For those unaffected by the Scriptures (either willfully or by ignorance) there exists what is referred to as "natural law." To put it in modern shorthand, "what goes around comes around." The universe is a moral place; there are recognize moral laws common to all cultures; to violate them is sin.

Sin is commonly separated into two categories. There are the sins of omission; those things you knew you should have done and you didn't. There are also sins of commission; things you knew you should not have done but still did.

Work of Christ

It is fruitful to examine the work of Christ with respect to sin.

Review: Atonement

It should not be necessary to review the atonement. But, just in case, we state as fact that Jesus of Nazareth was, is, and always will be God in the flesh. But he walked on this earth just like the rest of us humans; was tried, crucified, died, buried and rose again. In the sacrifice of his life, we have remission of sin.

If there is one point which might be emphasized in this, it is that the crucifixion is the solution to the dilemma between righteousness and love in God the Father. His righteousness demands a sinless sacrifice to pay the price of sin. His love wants to forgive. The resolution is in sending his own Son to the planet to die for us. This carries some very serious implications.

Sinlessness of Christ

The part about Christ being sinless seems to bother some people. How, they ask, can anyone human being the sinless? Either there is no such thing as sin, or it doesn't really affect this, or we are all sinners. So how is it that Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed to be sinless?

The answer is in his very nature. He is perfectly human; that is, he shares with the rest of us are human flesh and blood and a general nature. As the ancients would say, he possessed a reasonable soul in a reasonable body (in the old-fashioned sense of reasonable). To be the sacrifice, he had to be human. But the sinless, he had to be God. He was perfectly man, perfectly God — and that is core to the Christian faith. Over and again this has been hammered at; over and again the heretics who deny it fade away.

What's really exciting about this is that, since he partakes of our nature, we can partake of his. He is the perfect bridge between man and God.

Cannot Keep Sinning

Perhaps most don't realize this, but the atonement does not just take care of our sins at the moment we become a Christian by baptism. It continues to correct for our sins all of our Christian life. Of necessity then, we must have some mechanism for the correction of sin and its prevention in the future.

There are two such mechanisms identified in Scripture:

·         The first is human in nature: the church. God knows that we take our examples and advice much more readily from other human beings. The thought of having the heavens open up and the voice of God descending upon a saying, "thou art a sinner!" just doesn't appeal to us. We like to get good advice from our fellow sinners. That way, we don't feel that someone is lording over us, but coming beside us to help.

·         The second is divine in nature: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is specifically identified to us as "the helper." It's as if God quite well understands that no collection of human beings can possibly be enough. Therefore, there is divine assistance as well.

The result of all of this is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. In short, if you are in Christ and attempting to live the Christian life, results will soon show.

Self Test

This lesson may seem dry and dull and theological and boring. My apologies for that, but even the most boring lesson has to end with some statement of just exactly what you should be doing about it.

Satan and His Children

Let's begin with an examination of the enemy of your soul: Satan. It is fashionable today to omit his existence, but I must ask you: consider all the atrocities of the human race in the last hundred years. Are we really so bad that we had no help in doing these things? Let's take a look at his character:

·         John begins by telling us that he is a murderer. This takes a little understanding. Let's suppose that you have decided to bump off your husband to obtain the proceeds of his life insurance policy. It seems tacky do you to pull the trigger yourself; so you arrange for some down and out soul to pretend to rob and kill him. Despite the fact that you yourself did not pull the trigger, the law considers you a murderer. Rightly so; and so it is with Satan. If God is love, Satan is the chief agent of hate. And hate is the chief cause of murder.

·         As Christ tells us, he is the father of lies. When he lies, he speaking his native language. Have you ever worked for someone who lied when the truth would go better? You wonder how such a person can continually lie so often, and it's embarrassing to have to deal with them. They have a certain brazenness which challenges you; "are you going to call me on this lie? Can you really prove it?" Polite people don't want that challenge, and they let the lie continue. Satan depends on this.[1]

·         The reason Satan gets away with this is that he is defiant and completely lawless. Most of us have the feeling that the person lying wouldn't really be lying because they might get caught at it. Satan doesn't care. He's going to continue to lie, knowing full well that he repeats the lie often enough you will believe it. Have you seen this technique at work?


The practical question is this: have I been sucked into Satan's scheme? The answer is always just a simple as it can be: by their fruits you will know them.

·         Are you living the life of defiant lawlessness and constant lies? If you are, you are a child of Satan.

·         If you are living the Christian life, you are filled with the Holy Spirit — and the fruit in your life shows it.


Of course, most of us don't particularly resemble great Saints or great sinners. So we're going to have to do a little more work to prevent becoming great sinners. Just how does one become a true saint and prevent being a great sinner?

·         First, there is the process of self examination. Please, when the time comes for communion, despite all interference, distractions and annoyances, examine yourself. Take the time to take stock of your life. That which you find sinful, ask forgiveness for — and strength to prevent it from happening again. Do not miss this opportunity.

·         You are commanded to pray; you are commanded to "think on these things." That's called meditation. In your inner spiritual life, the life of prayer and meditation, start with your repentance but focused mainly upon the things that Christ would have you to do. Overcome evil with good.

·         Stay with the church. Many Christians gone astray because they felt that the church was not doing what they wanted to do, so they could leave and be by themselves. Teddy Roosevelt had a great answer for this. Someone once told him that he could worship God just as well out among the trees, lakes and forests. Teddy replied, "yes — but you won't."

·         Once you get it right, keep it right. As the Scripture tells us, "walk in the light as He is in the light."

[1] One is reminded of Mark Twain's comment that "Satan is the spiritual head of 4/5 of the human race, and the political head of all of it."

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