I'll always quote from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 edition, unless I mention otherwise. Sometimes I'll make comments in the middle of quotations in brackets [ ] or [[ ]] to make them more obvious. cf. means compare; e.g. means for example
INTRODUCTION. 1 John probably has more verses (percentage wise) dealing with the call, enablement, requirement, and privilege for Christians to keep the commandments of God and walk in His righteousness with the victory over all sin than any other book of the Bible. And some of the verses of this epistle are rather shocking; speaking, for example, of US PURIFYING OURSELVES AS THE LORD JESUS IS PURE in 1 John 3:3; of OUR BEING DOERS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS AND BEING RIGHTEOUS AS HE IS RIGHTEOUS in 1 John 3:7; and of THE LOVE OF GOD BEING PERFECTED IN US AS WE MANIFEST THE LOVE OF GOD IN OUR DAILY LIVES in 1 John 2:5; 4:12, 17, 18.
We will discuss 1 John 1:8; 2:3-6; 4:7-21; 3:3; and 3:7 in that order in this paper. I will discuss 1 John 4:7-21 in more detail since I have not discussed those verses to any extent in my previous writings.
The call, enablement, requirement, and privilege for Christians to walk in the righteousness of God with the victory over all sin is widespread in the New Testament. We desperately need to understand, to emphasize, and to believe (to have faith in) these things in the Christian church in our day. Righteousness, holiness, and the victory over sin can only come by grace THROUGH FAITH, FAITH IN GOD AND IN HIS WORD. We cannot be righteous/live in righteousness without being committed in our hearts to God and His Word. We have to do the right things for the right reasons (motives), by His enabling grace, and for His glory.
We have a serious problem with Christians, including many leaders, sinning in our day, and the problem seems to be getting worse all the time here at the end of this age. Sin destroys divine order and causes every kind of problem. God wants to transform us, not condemn us! WE WILL NEVER GAIN THE VICTORY OVER SIN WHILE WE THINK, AND BELIEVE IN OUR HEARTS, THAT THE NEW TESTAMENT TEACHES THAT WE CANNOT HAVE THE VICTORY OVER SIN, WHICH IS THE DOMINANT VIEWPOINT IN OUR DAY! It doesn't surprise me much when I see all the sin, because (for one primary thing) so many Christian leaders have been teaching that we cannot have the victory over sin in this life for a long time.
We certainly will not hit the target of victory over all sin if we aren't even aiming at the target! And most of us tend to take the path of least resistance; if some sin is OK (but it isn't), then we don't have to make it a top priority to walk in the righteousness of God with the victory over all sin, which is far from always being easy, and it certainly isn't automatic. I'm not concerned about Christians who are totally committed to God and to His Word in their hearts, and who are making it a top priority to walk in His righteousness and holiness by His grace - they are aiming at the target.
If we believe the New Testament teaches that we cannot have the victory over all sin (which is the majority view), we will not have the victory. That's the thing that concerns me the most. I'm concerned because I believe God is concerned. The world, the flesh (the old man who wants to continue to live in sin), and the devil and his hosts are against us, and they are formidable opponents, but they are no match for the extremely powerful saving grace of God in Christ. Things aren't going to improve until many Christians (especially ministers) reconsider what the Bible - especially the new covenant - teaches about righteousness, holiness, and the victory over sin.
Another gigantic problem is that many (or most) of us haven't made nearly enough room for the Holy Spirit and all of His work, fruit, and gifts. We will never walk in much victory over the evil angels and large numbers of demon spirits who are arrayed against us without understanding the Word of God and walking by the Holy Spirit on a continuous basis (by grace through faith). Our enemies (God's enemies) work full time trying to keep us from the truth, or to get us out of the truth that we have; trying to keep us in bondage to sin, or to get us into sin and ever deeper into sin; trying to destroy us physically, financially, etc., but especially spiritually.
I suppose one reason the apostle John emphasized the requirement for Christians to be totally righteous, pure, etc. as the Lord Jesus is righteous (which certainly excludes all sin) to such an extent in this epistle was to emphasize the contrast with the "gospel" (and lifestyle) of the Gnostic heretics that he wrote this epistle against. More importantly, the apostle John understood that the victory over sin is far from being automatic or always easy, since we are engaged in intense warfare against the world, the flesh (the old man who still want to live in sin), and the devil and his multitudinous, organized, and committed hosts.
Even though John emphasized the high call to walk in the righteousness of God with no sin in this epistle, he made it clear that Christians can be tempted and they can sin (see 1 John 2:1, 2); these verses also make it clear that we will be forgiven and restored through the blood of Christ when we repent. This is good news, but we cannot put the emphasis on forgiveness (as it so often happens in our day); we must put the emphasis on victory over all sin through the saving grace of God in Christ. God hates sin! And He paid an infinite price to set us free from bondage to spiritual death and sin! WE WILL NEVER HIT THE TARGET IF WE AREN'T AIMING AT IT!
I have already discussed many key passages of 1 John in my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin: Full Salvation Through the Atoning Death of the Lord Jesus Christ," including verse-by-verse studies of 1 John 1:5-2:6 and 2:28-3:12 on pages 200-216, and many other verses from that epistle (including 1 John 2:19, 22, 23; 4:1-6; 5:5, 6) are also discussed on those pages. (The book is available on my website and at amazon.com.) Articles #s 15-17 of my "Twenty-Eight Articles on Holiness and the Victory Over Sin" discuss these passages.
HOW ABOUT 1 JOHN 1:8? I'll quote the verse, "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us." I devoted much attention to the interpretation of 1 John 1:8 in the writings I just mentioned. It would be difficult to overstate how much damage has been done to the Body of Christ through a very widespread misinterpretation of 1 John 1:8. Although 1 John puts such a strong emphasis on Christians living in the righteousness of God with the victory over all sin, and in very strong terms (which I will demonstrate in this paper more than I demonstrated it in my previous writings), the majority of Christians believe that 1 John 1:8 proves that Christians cannot walk with the victory over all sin in this life, and that any Christians who believe they are walking with the victory over all sin are deceived and the truth is not in them. This is extremely important because, as I mentioned, it is impossible for Christians to have faith for victory over sin if we believe the New Testament teaches that such a victory is impossible. Based on my observations some 80 to 90 percent of Christians in our day (who have an opinion on the meaning of 1 John 1:8) think this verse proves that Christians cannot walk with the victory over all sin. Can the majority be wrong? Very much so!
1 John 1:8 has been one of the two primary passages that have been used by many Christians for many hundreds of years to argue for the idea that Christians will not be able to walk with the victory over all sin until after we are glorified. ((The other primary passage is Rom. 7:14-25. That passage is discussed in some detail in my writings. See my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin: Full Salvation Through the Atoning Death of the Lord Jesus Christ"; my paper on the Interpretation on Romans Chapter 7; and Article #s 12-14 of my paper "Twenty-Eight Articles on Holiness and Victory Over Sin." They are all available on my internet site (Google to Karl Kemp Teaching) and on this Christian article site.)) Many Christians have a list of verses that supposedly prove that we cannot walk with the victory over all sin. Some even say that we all sin daily in thought, in word, and in deed. When Christians (like John Wesley or Charles Finney, for example) came on the scene preaching that Christians are called, enabled, required, and privileged to walk with the victory over all sin they were attacked with 1 John 1:8 and Rom. 7:14-25, which supposedly proved that they were wrong.
On page 194 of my book I have the heading "A Discussion of the Three Most Important Passages Often Used to Try to Prove that Christians Cannot Walk in Victory Over Sin During this Present Age." I'll quote the first paragraph there: My studies indicate that the three most important such passages are Rom. 7:14-25; Gal. 5:17; and 1 John 1:8. [These verses are all discussed in this book.] Of these three, the first and third are the most often used. From my point of view, much damage has been done to the Body of Christ through a serious misunderstanding of these passages. I don't believe any of them suggests that Christians cannot walk with total victory over sin. In fact, each of these passages is set in a context that clearly teaches victory over all sin. In my opinion, the New Testament consistently teaches that Christians can and should live above (without) sin. (It also clearly demonstrates that some of the Christians back then had serious problems with sin, but that doesn't change God's call, enablement, requirement, and privilege for us to walk in His righteousness with the victory over all sin.) The call, and enablement, to walk in victory over sin is a big part of what salvation in Christ is all about!
One primary goal I have for this paper is to convince as many readers as possible that there is no way that the apostle John could have exhorted his readers to such a high level of righteous living (PURIFYING THEMSELVES TO BE PURE JUST AS THE LORD JESUS IS PURE and BEING DOERS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS AND BEING RIGHTEOUS JUST AS HE IS RIGHTEOUS, for example), and have also taught (in 1 John 1:8) that if any of his Christian readers thought that they were walking with the victory over all sin, they were deceiving themselves and the truth was not in them. I believe it is past time to set aside that serious misinterpretation of 1 John 1:8. The correct way to understand 1 John 1:8 is briefly discussed as we continue. See the writings I mentioned for more detail.
1 John 1:8 must be understood in the context in which the apostle John wrote this epistle: There is very widespread agreement that he was dealing with early forms of the Gnostic heresy throughout the epistle. The Gnostics claimed to be Christians, but they denied that they were sinners who needed to be saved through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. They denied that sin is the problem (they denied that they were sinners [1 John 1:8]; they said that they had not sinned [1 John 1:10]), and they denied that the blood of Christ is the answer (1 John 5:6; they even denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh [1 John 4:2, 3]); they totally rejected the all-important atoning death of the Son of God.
Nevertheless, this epistle makes it clear that they were living in sin and not keeping God's commandments, no matter how they tried to justify their sin, which very much included their heretical doctrines. They rejected what the Bible teaches about God the Father and God the Son (cf., e.g., 1 John 2:22-24; 4:14, 15; and 5:5). We should be careful with how we use the word "heretic," but the "Christians" that John wrote against in this epistle certainly needed to be called "heretics." John mentions in 1 John 2:19 that these particular heretics had left the Christian community, and in 2:26 he says that he was writing these things to his Christian readers "concerning those who are trying to deceive you." See my book and Articles #s 15-17 of "Twenty-Eight Articles on Holiness and Victory Over Sin" for more details. And you can learn more about the Gnostics from the Bible commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, Bible dictionaries, etc. You will never understand 1 John if you don't understand that every chapter of this epistle was written in large part to refute the teaching of those heretics.
1 JOHN 2:3-6. "And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. [[The Gnostics claimed that they knew God, but they did not keep His commandments. No matter how skillfully the heretics tried to explain why they didn't (and were not supposed to) keep the commandments, John expected his readers to understand that God's people will keep His commandments, in line with the teaching of the Old and New Testaments.]] (4) The one who says, 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; (5) but whoever keeps His word [which includes keeping His commandments], IN HIM THE LOVE OF GOD HAS TRULY BEEN PERFECTED [my emphasis]. By this we know that we are in Him: (6) the one who says he abides in Him OUGHT TO WALK IN THE SAME MANNER AS HE WALKED [my emphasis]." Did you hear that? "The one who says he abides in Him [in the Lord Jesus Christ] ought to walk in the same manner as He walked." True Christians will all agree that the Lord Jesus Christ did not sin.
These verses strongly confirm that Christians are called, enabled, required, and privileged to walk in the righteousness and holiness of God, with the total victory over sin (by grace through faith). This is good news! Very good news! No true Christian wants to commit even one sin. These verses also further demonstrate that the heretics didn't really know God, no matter what they claimed for themselves. The Gnostics did not regard the God of the Old Testament, who was the creator of this physical world and who gave the commandments, to be God; to them He was an inferior being. For one thing they believed that physical matter is evil. That is at least one reason they denied that Jesus Christ had a real physical body; they said He just seemed to have a body [docetism]. No problem, because they didn't believe in His atoning death either. The different Gnostic groups didn't agree on every detail.
The apostle John makes it clear in 1 JOHN 2:3, 4 that true Christians do keep God's commandments. They walk in His righteousness (see, for example, 1 John 2:5, 6, 29; 3:3-12, 22-24; 5:2-4, 18, 19; John 14:15, 21; 15:10; Rom. 8:4; and 2:26, 27). Surely John had the heretics in mind in verse 4: "The one who says, 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him." The heretics claimed to know God, but the fact that they didn't keep His commandments (along with their heretical doctrines) demonstrated that they didn't really know Him.
I'll quote 1 JOHN 2:5 again, "but WHOEVER KEEPS HIS WORD, IN HIM THE LOVE OF GOD HAS TRULY BEEN PERFECTED [my emphasis]. By this we know that we are in Him." To keep God's word here in verse 5 is probably the equivalent of keeping His commandments in verses 3 and 4. (Compare the use of the words "word" and "commandments" in 1 John 2:7, 8 and in the Gospel of John 14:15, 21, 23, and 24.) The primary commandment is to walk in love (the love of God), and walking in love (being enabled by the grace of God, which includes all the work of the indwelling Spirit of God) is the equivalent of keeping God's law/commandments (see, for example, 1 John 2:7-11; 3:10-12, 14-24; 4:7-21; 5:1-3; Matt. 22:34-40; John 13:34, 35; 15:12, 17; Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-15; and James 2:8). Christians must love God, but they must also love the other Christians. This epistle of John emphasizes both of these aspects of love. We are to have a special love for the other members of the born-again family of God (see 1 John 1:3, 7; 2:9-11; 3:10-23, especially verses 10, 14, 16, 17, 23; 4:7, 11, 12, 16, 20, 21; 5:1, 2), but the New Testament makes is clear that we are obligated to love non-Christians too.
I'll quote 1 John 5:1, 2 (which were the last verses listed at the end of the preceding paragraph), "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ [which was being denied by the heretics John was writing against (1 John 2:22)] is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. [[The NASB has the word "child" in italics; we could translate "loves the one born of Him"; this is a perfect participle in the Greek. The one born of God the Father refers to every child of God born again into the family of God; it refers to the ones called "the children of God" in verse 2.]] (2) By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments."
I'll quote two sentences from what Donald W. Burdick says under 1 John 5:1 ("The Letters of John the Apostle" [Moody Press, 1985], pages 342, 343). "Although the verse begins a new chapter, it does not mark a change in thought. John continues to insist, as he does in 4:20-21, that love for God, if it is genuine, will be accompanied by love for fellow believers. It is clear from this verse that in this epistle John has restricted his discussion to the love of those who have been born again." Quite a few commentators make the point that the apostle John restricted his discussion to the love for those who have been born again in this epistle.
"IN HIM THE LOVE OF GOD HAS TRULY BEEN PERFECTED [my emphasis]" (1 JOHN 2:5). 1 John 4:12 helps us understand the meaning of these words: "if we love one another, God abides in us, and HIS LOVE IS PERFECTED IN US." (We'll discuss 1 John 4:12-19 in the following section of this paper; I'll quote 1 John 4:7: "Beloved, let us love one another, for LOVE IS FROM GOD [my emphasis]; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.") God's love is in Christians by His indwelling Spirit. The first "fruit" that is produced in the hearts and lives of Christians by the Holy Spirit listed by the apostle Paul in Gal. 5:22, 23 is love.
To the extent Christians walk by God's Word and by His Spirit (which we are called to do on a continuous basis), we will manifest God's love; John says His love is perfected in us. For God's love to be in us is one thing. To speak of His love being perfected in us is another thing! For God's love to be perfected in us includes our walking with the victory over all sin, as do the words of 1 John 2:6 and several other verses in 1 John that we discuss in this paper. To me it is rather shocking that the apostle John says it this way, but such terminology is rather common in 1 John and many other places in the New Testament (cf., e.g., Matt. 5:48 ["Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"; in Matt. 5:43-48 Jesus was speaking of our loving others]; Romans chapter 6 and 8:1-14; Phil. 3:15; Col. 4:12; and 1 Pet. 1:13-19).
God's love has always been perfect, but it is not perfected in the Christian until the Christian walks in love on a continuous basis. (A walk by the Holy Spirit is far from being automatic, and it is not always easy: We face significant opposition from the world, the flesh [the old man who wants to continue in sin], and the devil and his hosts.) In Gal. 5:16 the apostle Paul exhorts His born-again Christian readers (including us) to always walk by the Holy Spirit, so they will not sin. When we become Christians we are enabled, and required, by covenant (the new covenant) to always walk by the Spirit through faith. (We have signed a contract, so to speak.) The apostle John is not speaking of some unattainable level of love (he is speaking of a relative perfection; not of an absolute perfection that cannot be increased; where we are fully like God in our loving), but of a level that even a newly converted Christian can walk in, being enabled by God's grace/Spirit. This walk in love is a major part of the ideal state of righteousness and holiness that we are called (and enabled) to walk in.
It is very important that we understand these words (and all the teaching like this in the New Testament) to be good news! GOD DIDN'T HAVE HIS APOSTLE SAY THESE THINGS TO CONDEMN US, BUT TO GIVE US A SUPER-SOLID BASIS FOR FAITH FOR VICTORY OVER ALL SIN, AND TO EXHORT US TO WALK IN THE FULLNESS OF WHAT GOD HAS PROVIDED FOR US AND REQUIRES OF US. No true Christian wants to rebel and sin against God (and all sin is against God), not even one act of sin.
I'll read 1 JOHN 2:6 again, "the one who says he abides in Him [and every true Christian is obligated to abide in Him on a continuous basis] ought [or, better, "must" with the NIV, or IS OBLIGATED] TO WALK IN THE SAME MANNER AS HE [THE LORD JESUS] WALKED [my emphasis]." The apostle John undoubtedly wrote these words (at least in part) to help show that the heretics were not really abiding in God, no matter what they claimed for themselves (see, for example, 1 John 1:6; 2:3-5; and 3:6). It would be difficult to imagine a higher call to holiness and righteous living, with the victory over all sin, than the call expressed in this verse. It is somewhat shocking to say it this way. Every true Christian is called to abide in God (God the Father and God the Son [1 John 2:24]) and to walk in the same manner that Jesus Christ walked. (See, for example, 1 John 3:3-7; 4:17.) All true Christians will agree that Jesus walked above all sin.
What a powerful statement of the fact that Christians are called, enabled, and required to walk with total victory over sin! This one verse (1 John 2:6) by itself should suffice to show that the apostle John was not saying in 1 John 1:8 that if Christians say they are walking with the total victory over sin they are deceiving themselves. And, significantly, this epistle is filled with quite a few similar verses, including 1 John 2:5; so too is the rest of the New Testament.
We desperately need the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches. For one thing, when the apostle John speaks of God's love being perfected in us (in 1 John 2:5; 4:12, 17); of our walking as Jesus walked (in 1 John 2:6); of us purifying ourselves as Jesus is pure (in 1 John 3:3); of our doing righteousness and being righteous as the Lord Jesus is righteous (in 1 John 3:7); and as the Lord Jesus is, so also are we in this world (1 John 4:17) some qualifications are required: For one thing, John made it clear in 1 John 2:1, 2 that, although we are called, enabled, and required to walk in the righteousness of God with the victory over all sin now, true Christians can sin. (Also see 1 John 5:16, 17.) The fact that true Christians can sin is confirmed many places in the New Testament. The epistles to the Corinthians, for example, contain many examples; many of the Corinthian Christians were quite fleshy; they thought they were spiritual, but they were not walking in line with God's word and by the Holy Spirit on a consistent basis by faith; there was a lot of sin. The apostle Paul continually exhorted them with the serious need for them to repent and become what Christians are called, enabled, required, and privileged to be.
The New Testament makes it clear that we are not called to manifest some kind of absolute perfection now. Even if we are fully living in the ideal state of the righteousness of God with the victory over all sin (by grace through faith), with a relative perfection, we will continue to grow and be changed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18) throughout this life. As far as I can see, the apostle John didn't include any idea of growth, or being changed from glory to glory, in this life (it didn't fit with his emphasis throughout this epistle of Christians living in the ideal state of the righteousness and holiness of God with the victory over all sin), and I believe that includes 1 John 2:12-14. (I discussed 1 John 2:12-14 on the last few pages of my paper on John chapters 13-17, which is available on my internet site and on this Christian article site.) Throughout 1 John we are informed that we are CALLED, ENABLED, and REQUIRED to walk in the righteousness of God, with the victory over all sin, in accordance with God's new-covenant salvation plan. It's rather amazing (in a sad way) that so many Christians think that the apostle taught in 1 John 1:8 that if any Christians think they can live with the victory over sin they are deceived and the truth is not in them. The apostle John was "guilty" of believing and teaching that himself.
The apostle John makes it clear in 1 John 3:2 that we will experience a major transformation at the end of this age. We will be glorified! This demonstrates that any relative perfection we can have in this life is far from an absolute perfection. And, after we are glorified, even though we will have some form of absolute perfection (for one thing, we clearly won't be tempted to sin, or sinning at all after we are glorified), there still will be a gigantic difference between us and God the Father and God the Son. Besides that, even if we continue to grow after we are glorified (and I assume that we will), there always will be a gigantic difference between us and God the Father and God the Son. They are deity! We won't be! We will be worshipping the triune God!
So, I believe that John clearly believed and taught that Christians are called, enabled, and required to walk in the righteousness and holiness of God, on a continuous basis, with the victory over all sin, but he wouldn't want to teach any kind of absolute perfection, or to overstate our likeness to God. As I mentioned, at least one reason the apostle spoke in such high-level terms of true Christians being righteous as God is righteous throughout this epistle was because he was refuting the false gospel of heretics who called themselves righteous while living in sin and denying the reality of, and their need for, the all-important atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ. They said that they were not sinners who needed to be saved from sin. They were saved by their secret knowledge, they said. (The Greek word "gnosis" means knowledge.) It was totally necessary for the apostle John to refute those early forms of Gnostic heresy. Gnosticism proved to be a powerful opponent of true Christianity for a long time. For one thing, many people don't want the truth.
We will continue this study of key passages from 1 John in Part 2, starting with 1 John 4:7-19.