1 John 3:8-10 | The Origin of Sin

image by Thomas Hawk

image by Thomas Hawk

“The Devil made me do it!”

Flip Wilson popularized that phrase in his comedy routines.  Here’s a good example from, “The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress”:

While some people just blame everything on the devil to avoid taking responsibility for their actions (it is a pretty convenient excuse), there is a serious truth behind it. In this week’s passage from 1 John, John reminds his readers that the origin of sin is the devil.

. . .

Introductory phrase: everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.

John came out with all guns blazing. There’s nothing like calling someone a son of the devil to raise the tension in the room!  Yet that’s what John’s logic demands.  Every person is either a child of the devil (i.e. enslaved to sin) or someone with God’s seed in him or her, unable to sin. We’ll look at the contradiction in this a little further down.

For now, the stakes are set for John’s argument. If you sin, you’re a child of the devil.

. . .

Theme: the devil has been sinning from the beginning.

Here’s the logic behind John’s bold initial phrase. The devil is the origin of sin. He’s been sinning from the beginning, which implies a constant and habitual character trait. If your life looks the same as the devil’s life, then whose child are you?

Do you remember when Luke Skywalker screamed to Darth Vader: “You’re not my Father”! It was a logical conclusion. How could he, a good boy, be the son of someone whose very character is evil? John made much the same statement here. Who do you take after? When people look at you and I and say, “he’s just like his father”, which father are they referring to?

. . .

Purpose of Christ’s Appearing: to destroy the works of the devil.

Here’s a great Christological verse. One of the reasons Jesus appeared (remember this key word?) was to destroy the works of the devil. While there are many reasons why Jesus appeared (to redeem us, to show us the father’s love, etc.), his decisive win over Satan’s works was one of the key elements of his mission.

It’s important to note that the devil’s “works” are plural. They are manifold. Satan is not a one-trick-pony—he can take a variety of forms. When I chose the image for this post, I settled on the print of a business man in devil’s horns to emphasize this point.

. . .

Logical Conclusion: no one born of God will continue to sin because God’s seed is in them.

There are two very direct statements in verse 9 (NRSV):

  1. Those born of God “do not sin”.
  2. Those born of God “cannot sin”.

Compare these two statements to the liberating statement in 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”, and we run into a bit of a problem.  Which is it? Can believers sin or not?

Stott lists seven different ways in which theologians have tried to work around this contradiction. Only two of them seem to be worth considering for me:

First, many people find comfort in grammar: the tense of the verbs. The two statements in v. 9 both carry the sense of “continue on sinning”. It’s comforting to think that while John knew that we all sin, he also believed that it couldn’t be a habitual thing for believers. To be honest, I’ve always believed that explanation. However, Kruse has something important to say about it:

The use of the present tense says nothing about the habitual or nonhabitual character of the sinning, but only shows that the author has chosen to depict the sinning as something in progress, rather than as a complete action.

The second helpful way of explaining this contradiction is to believe that John is addressing two different problems. Ancient Gnostic philosophy took many practical forms. Some people believed that since they had the divine spark of knowledge within them, they were beyond sin. Thus, John responded with 1:8. Other Gnostics believed that since they had the divine spark of knowledge within them, what they did with their bodies didn’t matter. Thus John replied with 3:9.

In the end, it’s difficult to understand exactly how John would have reconciled these two divergent thoughts. What is clear is that we’re to confess our sins, and attempt—with the help of God—to cease from sinning.

< 1 John 3:4-7 | The Nature of Sin

1 John 3:11-13 | Cain’s Legacy >

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