1 John 3:4
Continuing in Sin
In this little passage, it is necessary to offer a little Greek lesson. Don’t worry. What I’m about to explain to you is really not that difficult to understand, though it may sound strange. It concerns how the ancient Greeks (the language of the New Testament) understood their verbs. For English speakers, the tense of a verb refers to past, present, or future, and that does play a role in Greek in the indicative mood. But to the ancient Greeks, tense referred primarily to aspect or kind of action; that is, a present tense verb refers only secondarily to the present time (which is strange to us). What the present tense verb in the New Testament chiefly refers to is continuous, ongoing action.
In this passage, the verb for “commits” is in the present tense, meaning that it could just as easily be translated, “keeps on committing.” The ESV has, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning.” “Makes a practice” is not literally in the passage, but it gives the true meaning of it. The KJV (which I genuinely love) says, “Whoever committeth sin,” but that doesn’t do justice to the meaning of the Greek verb ποιων (a present participle meaning, “keeps on doing”).
So, my point is to say that verse four is to be understood as the ESV renders it: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning,” that is, continues to do so without conviction and without care. We must understand that our Father has transferred us into the Kingdom of His dear Son and sin no longer reigns over us. Granted, we all have our besetting sins, but we are to grow in grace such that one day we slough these off as well. No one will ever be sinless in this life (1:8), but the believer is to live a daily repentance in which we war against the flesh, not easily give in to it. There are no excuses; we have been set free from the slavery of sin (John 8:31-36; Romans 6:1-14).
And what is sin? John’s definition nails it: “Sin is lawlessness.” God has set down how we are supposed to live. Sin is our saying, “No thank you.” Granted, Paul teaches us that the purpose of the law is to show us how far we come short so that we may turn to Christ (Galatians 3:19-29). Through Christ we have been freed from the law to live according to the Spirit. But if we continue in sin, we are not living under the dominion of the Spirit but of the flesh and the law. I say all this to comfort you. The passage is telling you not to continue in sin; furthermore, you don’t have to. You have been set free from sin. Rejoice and abide in him and in the freedom he provides.