Question: How would you reconcile 1 John 3:6, 8, 9 and 1 John 1:8? According to 1 John 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (KJV). In other words, everybody—including Christians—sins. Yet, according to 1 John 3:6, 8, 9, those who abide in Jesus do not sin (6, 9), and those who do sin are of the devil (8). How does all this make sense?
Let’s begin with 1 John 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
The wording in this verse, both in English and in the original Greek, is straightforward. There is no fancy parsing of verbs, no unique translation of unusual Greek words. In fact, this teaching in First John is an answer to false teachers who were claiming that spiritually “enlightened” Christians are above sin and that, even if actions others would consider sinful are committed, they are not sinful for truly “enlightened” believers. This is the kind of self-deception John was fighting against in the early church.
John is spelling out an axiom—a spiritual truth: We all sin at times, and to claim otherwise is self-deceptive and reveals that a person is deviating from the Truth of God’s Word.
When we get to John chapter three we encounter examples of how sin enters the Christian’s everyday experience. To describe this, John leaves behind the straightforward language of a spiritual principle and uses more active and descriptive language. This gets a little technical, but hang in there—it’s worth it!
When John says, “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him,” the word translated “abideth” is a present active participle, meaning ‘who ever is presently, actively abiding’ in Jesus does not commit sin.’ In fact, the phrases “sinneth not” and “sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him,” translate the perfect active indicative tense, meaning ‘does not continue to see Jesus or perceive Him.’
In simple English, John is saying that you cannot be engaged in a sinful action and, at the same moment, be in close communion with Jesus. Nor can a genuine born again follower of Jesus live in a state of perpetual sin. The two are mutually exclusive. Modern translations convey this better to the modern ear than the KJV can:
1 John 3:6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him (NIV).
1 John 3:8-9 continues this line of reasoning. Verse 8 literally reads, “He who is doing sin is of the devil.” John is saying, either you are doing the Lord’s work or the devil’s work, and Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work—so choose whom you want to serve! If you truly love Jesus you cannot continue serving in the devil’s camp!
This is one of those passages in Scripture where the finer points of Greek grammar do not translate smoothly into English, and where the differences in English usage between 1611 (KJV) and today complicate matters further. But, in the end, it is only a complication, not a contradiction, and God’s Word once again shows itself to be not only true but—
…living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb. 4:12 NIV).