When John writes of keeping commands (2:3,3:22,24,5:3), doing what is right (2:29,3:7,3:10), and not sinning (2:1,3:6,9,5:18), he is speaking directionally. Everyone is headed toward something and the disciple is headed in the direction of His Father. God is both the light (v. 5) and in the light (v. 7), (think of our sun, it is light and at the same time in its own light). So when John says the follower of Christ doesn’t sin, he isn’t speaking absolutely. That would put him at odds with he tells us in 1:8-10. Instead, we’re to understand him as making a statement about the believer’s lifestyle—they are pursuing God, not sin.
If we keep in mind the context of John’s letter, it will help us to understand why he phrases things the way that he does. Remember, he is writing to disciples who were in danger of being led astray by advocates of what would later be known as Gnosticism (2:18-19, 26, 3:7, 4:1-3). Unable to reconcile the material and the spiritual, Gnosticism held that all material things were evil and all things made of spirit were good (and incapable of evil). This dualism led to some ridiculous conclusions. Gnostics believed that:
- God didn’t create the universe or mankind (because it was evil)—some lesser being did,
- Jesus didn’t come in the flesh—He just appeared to be in the flesh but was like a hologram or phantom (Docetism), or that the spirit of the Son of God entered the carpenter’s body at his baptism and departed at the cross (Cerinthianism), or that Jesus was human but not divine (Ebionites),
- Since flesh was inherently evil, they weren’t responsible for what the body did (it might sin, but they were sinless),
- Salvation consisted of possessing enlightenment about these things. Knowing was important, not obeying or loving (Gnosticism comes from one of the Greek words for “know”). Not surprisingly, they tended to be a loveless bunch that looked down upon those outside their group as unenlightened.
- All of this meant that their orientation was away from the true nature of God, Jesus, the cross, righteous living, and loving one another. They had some big problems!
When we hear John speak of someone not being a disciple if they keep sinning (3:6), or not doing what is right (3:10), he is aiming at this group (and anyone who might be influenced by them). Their failure to keep the commands wasn’t the result of stumbling as they tried to follow Christ, it was the consequence of them rejecting His teaching though John and others (4:5-6).
We must be careful not to wrongly apply Scriptures like these to the follower of Jesus (whether ourselves or others), who is locked in a struggle with some sin. (I don’t mean to suggest by this that all disciples don’t struggle with sin, they do. Still there are seasons when they find the struggle is greater – Luke 4:13). It matters not that they sin repeatedly (see Matthew 18:21-22)—frequency isn’t the issue! What matters is this—are they headed in the direction of Jesus? If they are, there will be penitence followed by them getting back on their feet and it doesn’t matter how many times this cycle is repeated. If penitence isn’t shown, they’re headed away from Christ. It’s all about direction. It is the difference between sin that leads to death and sin that doesn’t (5:16-17).
There is assurance for the one who is headed toward the light and we must make sure they receive it!