WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER THREE (Lesson XXV) 08/17/21

3:4 But those who keep on sinning are against God, for every sin is contrary to God’s will.

Henry Sawtelle (1868-1934) points out that in contrast with the person seeking purity is the one still wallowing in pollution. This individual’s nature and character are just like a rotten tree that produced bad fruit. They live in the sphere of sin. When they go against the law, they are lawless. The sinning of the heart, or the body, can be of any sort, small or significant. It is more than something terrible in itself; it is also in every instance a transgressing of God’s law, a violation of His will, an affront to God. A person may plead that they are only insignificant sinners; that although they fail God, He removes any conviction from their conscience. But John will not let a person be a peace with this. He declares that any sin is breaking the law, a criminal in God’s eyes. We are under the divine government, and it is a universal law. Thus, a sinner is a rebel against it. Both the offense and the condemnation are punishable.[1]

Taiwanese preacher and hymn writer Witness Lee (1905-1997) asks, “Now that we are born again, do we still have sinful tendencies active in us?” Regarding this, there has been much debate among Bible teachers. Years ago, there was widespread teaching that claimed sin had been eradicated from believers. Those teaching this use certain verses from First John as their basis, [2] saying that these verses prove that sin has been rooted out of our being.[3]

Daniel Snaddon (1915-2009) gives what he feels is a better translation of verse four: “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness because that is what sin is.” It is a clear picture of an unbeliever. However, it is the opposite of what was taught by the Apostle John.

D. Edmond Hiebert (1928-1995) explains why the Anointed One came to “take away sins.” The Greek verb airō means either “to lift and bear” or “to take away.” The latter is the meaning here. That this involved His redeeming sacrifice on the cross is certain, but that is not the point here. In view is the effect of the atonement on human character and living. The stated purpose here is parallel to the definition in verse eight, “that He might destroy the works of the devil.”[4] How clear that makes the fact that He helps conquer the sinful tendencies in sinners. We are not to cleanse ourselves once or twice a year through rites, rituals, or ceremonies, but constantly through active sanctification. It also helps us understand what John said about the devil, in verse eight, about having sinned from the beginning through Adam and Eve.

Current scholar John W. (Jack) Carter (1947) instructs us that as we venture into these verses, it may be instructive to be reminded that the Greek New Testament manuscripts contain at least eight different words that are rendered “sin” in the English versions. The variety of meanings is essential in our understanding of this passage.  If the same word is applied throughout, we can develop doctrines contrary to the overall biblical narrative. The original Greek New Testament manuscripts include:

  • Hamartia – missing the mark. The idea is that one desires to be obedient, but fails in the attempt. (Romans 4:7 “sins”) [KJV, NIV]
  • Hettema – Diminishing that which should have been given full measure. (Romans 11:12 “diminishing” [KJV]; “loss” [NIV]; 1 Corinthians 6:7 “fault”) [KJV]; “completely defeated” [NIV]
  • Paraptoma – Falling when one should have stood. (Romans 5:15 “offense”) [KJV]; “trespass” [NIV]
  • Agnoema – Ignorance when one should have known. (Hebrews 9:7 “errors”) [KJV]; “sins” [NIV]
  • Parakoe – To refuse to hear and heed God’s Word. (Romans 5:19 “disobedience”) [KJV, NIV]
  • Parabasis – To intentionally cross the line. (Galatians 3:19 “transgressions”) [KJV, NIV]
  • Anomia – Willfully breaking the laws that have been set down. (Romans 4:7 “iniquities” [KJV], “transgressions” [NIV].
  • ParanomiaPurposefully breaking the law. (2 Peter 2:16 “iniquity”) [KJV]; “wrongdoing” [NIV]

Just as there are different words for sin, Greek grammar has different shades of meaning. For example, hamartia can range from a simple mistake to a continual lifestyle.  Both ends of this spectrum of meanings is utilized in the following verses.[5] This is why all serious Bible scholars should obtain a Concordance to help them see how words are used in any given context.

Colin G. Kruse (1950) notes that the Apostle John returns to his treatment of the central theme – the fundamental connection between knowing God and doing what God says.[6] It was only interrupted by an appeal to consider the greatness of God’s Love, the immense privilege of being His children, and the hope of being made like the Anointed One at His appearing.[7] In contrast to those who do what is right[8] and purify themselves, [9] John now turns his attention to those who continue in sin: Everyone who sins breaks the law. In fact, sin is lawless living. The Greek noun anomia, translated as (“transgression of the law” – KJV), is found only in verse four. It does not carry the idea of breaking the law, for the whole law question is absent from this letter. We do not find the Greek noun nomos (“law”) at all in First John.[10]

Contemporary Chinese pastor, theologian Vincent Cheung (1952) points out that the Bible defines sin as violating God’s moral law. Thus, a person sins when they fail to do what God commands them to do or not to do. Since sin breaks God’s moral law, a particular action must be defined by its relation to this law, that is, in order to determine whether a violation indeed occurred.[11]

Gary M. Burge (1952) states that the Final Covenant contains many descriptions of sin, its character, and compulsions.[12] But few passages are as clear as verses four to ten. The Apostle John’s firm condemnation of evil suggests that he has in mind the secessionists, who claimed to be sinless.[13] Paul confronted the same problem in the Roman congregation, where some believers viewed sinfulness as an opportunity to exercise the grace of God more fully.[14] John is not only affirming the universality of sin once more but is describing its inner character. Sinners break the law. John uses the term lawlessness in verse four (anomia) in two ways. First, he may be referring to the moral quality of sin as breaking some divine command. Indeed, this is true. To sin is to offend a rule or word given by God. Many read the verse in this light and believe that John is describing the essence of sin. John’s heretics were viewing immorality with indifference, and he writes to confront them. In this sense, lawlessness and sinfulness are virtually synonymous and interchangeable.[15]

Since God’s law addresses all areas of human life either by declaration or inference, our thoughts and actions are never morally neutral.[16] It sets up the next principle of deciding whether breaking God’s law is worthy of death. We can look at it this way: God has established moral laws to govern what the Apostle Paul defined as “works of the flesh.”[17] These can be forgiven because we have an advocate as a mediator. But there are spiritual laws that oversee our retention in the kingdom of God and our gift of eternal life. These cannot be forgiven because they involve the rejection of the Advocate as a Savior and Redeemer.

Bruce B. Burton (1954) states that after the Apostle John describes purity, he then defines sin by presenting negatively the same truth he expressed positively.[18] Since being born of God demands self-purification, then a life of sin, or a continual lack of moral cleanliness, demonstrates that one cannot be God’s child. Sin cannot coexist with the new nature derived from the new birth. Sin as lawlessness provides a basic definition of sin. The Greek word for “sin” (hamartia) means “missing the mark,” and God’s law gives people this mark or standard. If God does not tell his people what they should be like, they would never realize how sinful they are. One can see how crooked a line is by putting it next to a straight edge. The Greek expression behind “lawlessness” means “opposes the law of God.” Lawlessness means more than an absence of law; it conveys an active rebellion against the rules. Those who keep on sinning are active rebels against God.[19]


[1] Sawtelle, Henry. A., Commentary on the Epistles of John, op. cit., p. 36

[2] 1 John 3:9; 5:18

[3] Witness Lee. Life-Study of the Epistles of John and Jude (Life-Study of the Bible) (Kindle Locations 1831-

[4] Bultmann, Rudolf: The Johannine Epistles, p. 51

[5] Carter, Dr. John W. (Jack). 1,2,3, John & Jude, op. cit., pp. 75-76

[6] 1 John 2:29-3:10

[7] 1 John 3:1-3

[8] Ibid. 2:29

[9] Ibid. 3:3

[10] Kruse, Colin G., The Letters of John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, op. cit., Kindle Edition.

[11] Cheung, Vincent. Systematic Theology, op. cit., (Kindle Locations 3378-3382)

[12] Romans. 1:18–3:20; James 4:17; 1 John 5:17; etc.

[13] See 1 John 1:8-10

[14] Romans 6:1

[15] Burge, Gary M., The Letters of John (The NIV Application Commentary), op. cit., p. 148

[16] See 1 Corinthians 10: 31

[17] Galatians 5:19-21

[18] 1 John 3:1-3

[19] Barton, Bruce B., 1, 2, & 3 John (Life Application Bible Commentary), op. cit., p. 65

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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