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Thematic-Structural Analysis Of 1 John 3:6, 9, 5:18 for the Problem Of Sinlessness

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I. Introduction

Although sanctification is one of the most crucial components in the biblical doctrine of salvation in the Christological and pneumatological context, it has generated many theological controversies and debates, especially regarding the relationship between the believer and sin. The promise of freedom from the persistently robust control of sin seems to be unrealistic in the real life experience of the believer, so some affirm that it is impossible to attain such a sinless perfection in real life,1 while some others deny this affirmation.2

Particularly, the First Epistle of John presents a seemingly irresolvable contradiction regarding sinlessness.3 On one hand, the author unequivocally affirms that sin is a reality in the Christian life. Therefore, one who denies the existence of sin in his life is self-deceived and misrepresents God (1:6, 8, 10). The conscience of a believer condemns him on account of his sin (3:20) and sin can be obviously observed among the believers (5:16). If believers confess their sins, they are consistently being forgiven (1:9) because of the propitiatory work of Christ (2:2). On the other hand, the Epistle also presents absolute denials of sin for those who abide in Christ and are born of God (3:6, 9; 5:18). Furthermore, those who commit sin are not among God’s family, but are rather “of the devil” (3:8).

Many scholars agree that John may not see any necessary conflict between his statements regarding sinlessness and the actual existence of sin, for John did not make any attempt to explain this contradictory tension.4 However, there have been many interpretative attempts to explain the enigma through the Church history.5 The goal of the paper is to present major scholarly discussions which have tried to solve this dilemma and to suggest an appropriate solution by thematic-structural analysis. Although thematic-structural analysis has been recently developed in relation to text-linguistics, hence rarely applied to the biblical studies, this analysis would be a valuable tool for interpretation of the Bible. After thematic-structural analysis of the given passages, the theological implication of sinlessness on sanctification will be explored.

II. Interpretation of 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:8

1. Criticism of the major interpretations of 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:8.

Among numerous scholarly discussions to solve the present dilemma are five main interpretations. The first is a grammatical approach, which is also called “tense solution”. The primary focus of this approach is upon the aspectual consideration of the present tense of the verbs in 3:6, 9 and 5:18. Its proponents have emphasized the habitual force of the present tense6: πᾶς ὁ ἐν αὐτῷ μένων οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει (3:6), πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἁμαρτίαν οὐ ποιεῖ…, καὶ οὐ δύναται ἁμαρτάνειν, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται (3:9) and οἴδαμεν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει (5:18). NIV translates these verses as follows, reflecting this approach: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning” (3:6); “No one who is born of God will continue to sin…he cannot go on sinning” (3:9); “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin” (5:18).

According to this view, the believer may commit some acts of sin, but perpetual sin is not characteristic of a believer because the direction of the believer’s life is toward godliness. Yet this interpretation carries a few difficulties. John also uses the present tense in 5:16 which cites the sins of believers, “If any man sees his brother commit a sin which is not unto death.” Had the present tense of 5:16 been used in a “habitual” sense, believer would go on sinning, so it would lead contradictory conclusion.7 Similarly, John uses the present tense in 1:8 (“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”). If the present tense of 3:9 were habitual, that of 1:8 would be habitual where the present tense stands.8 C. H. Dodd comments, “It is legitimate to doubt whether the reader could be expected to grasp so subtle a doctrine simply upon the basis of a precise distinction of tenses without further guidance…the apparent contradiction is probably not to be eliminated (though it may be qualified) by grammatical subtlety.”9 Furthermore, B. M. Fanning considers the present tense of 1 John 3:9 in “generic gnomic sense” rather than “customary”. He defines that the use of the present tense in generic statements describes “something that is true any time rather than a universal statement that is true all the time”.10 Actually, this grammatical approach generates a contradiction, failing to provide a satisfactory solution to the current problem.

Second, the Wesleyans insist that believers cannot commit willful and deliberate sin. D. W. Mills cites J. H. A. Ebrard’s statement, “One who is born of God cannot willfully, and against his better knowledge and conscience, do that which is sin; he cannot love, and cherish, and entertain sin…To the regenerate man is it a thing impossible-by his very nature-…to withstand and run counter to the commandments of God knowingly and with deliberate will.”11 Wesley categorized sin in a dualistic way: “proper sin” and “improper sin”. According to him, a proper sin is a voluntary transgression of a known law, while an improper sin is of a non-moral nature, such as ignorance, error or infirmities.12 It is true that in the Epistle, John presents two kinds of sin: “sin leading into death” and “sin not leading into death” (5:16-17). The Wesleyans connect these two kinds of sin in the Epistle with the concept of “proper sin” and “improper sin”. La Rondelle states that “a mortal sin” is hopeless because a man has radically broken with God (proper voluntary sin) and “sin which is not mortal” can be forgiven (improper ignorant sin).13

Yet I. H. Marshall properly points out three difficulties to the view. He comments, “One is that by itself it is an inadequate solution to the problems of the text. Wesley himself has to admit that even saintly people (he cites David and Peter) could commit gross, deliberate sins, and therefore he has to admit that, even with this limited definition of sin, the text represents an ideal rather than something that is universally true of all believers. The second difficulty is that it is notoriously difficult to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary transgressions; we can never be sure that even our best deeds are entirely free from selfish motives, or that our errors were in no way due to our own fault. And, third, the crucial objection is that there is no indication that John is working with such a limited definition of the term sin. He is talking about all sin.”14 According to the approach, the entire sanctification of the Wesleyan does not refer to freedom from all sin, but only from consciously deliberate sins or from the commission of “known sins”.15 Moreover, D. M. Scholer points out that even in the “sin leading into death” of 5:16, there is no clear distinction between deliberate sin and inadvertent sin, while insisting that “sin leading into death” refers to the unbeliever’s sin, but “sin not leading into death” the believer’s sin, similar to J. R. W. Stott’s view.16 Although what “sin leading into death” refers to is unclear, the passage of 1 John 5:16-17 does not seem to endorse any dualistic distinction about sin.

Third, it is from the Gnostic context where there were two different theological conclusions within Gnosticism, which were reflected respectively in 1:8-10 and 3:6, 9. J. R. W. Stott proposed the idea that Gnosticism led its adherents to different conclusions. He comments,

Some (among Gnosticists) supposed that their possession of gnosis has made them perfect; others maintained that sin did not matter because it could not harm the enlightened. Both positions are morally perverse. The first is blind to sin and denies its existence; the second is indifferent to sin and denies its gravity. To the first John declares the universality of sin, even in the Christian; to deny sin is to be a liar. To the second he declares the incompatibility of sin in the Christian; to commit sin is to be of the devil. It is in order to confound these particular views of his opponents that John states the Christian position in such categorical terms.17

It has been said that Gnosticism was a serious adversary against the Johannine community. Stott’s suggestion, however, is greatly dependent on subjectivity of the historical Sitz im Leben because there is no supporting evidence that John was arguing with two different Gnostic groups in his Epistle. S. Kubo well summarizes the difficulty of the view, “Actually as we have seen it is very difficult to make this kind of subtle division among the heretics. In fact, even Dodd’s description does not make a clear-cut distinction. The heretics described in 1 John are quite homogeneous and it is not necessary for our interpretation of these verses to require distinctions among them.”18

Fourth, it is based on a hypothesis about two different kinds of perfectionism. According to J. Bogart, the statement of 1 John 1:8, 10 is based on a Gnostic anthropology, which had been treated as heretical, but that of 1 John 3:6, 9 derives from the Gospel of John, and has been regarded as orthodox.19 The orthodox sinlessness is qualified in that only those who are born of God and abide in Christ are regarded as sinless. The sacrificial death of Christ makes this possible (2:1). Bogart argues that since John’s orthodox perfectionism is not found anywhere else in the New Testament except for the Johannine literature, heretical perfectionism did not evolve from John, but was introduced into the Johannine community either by the Johannine Christians who accepted Gnostic tenets or an influx of pro-Gnostic converts.20 It may be true that Gnosticism, like the Johannine community, also held some theological concepts such as “sinlessness”, and “anointing one”.21 Although this hypothesis is widely accepted by numerous scholars like E. Kasemann, H. Conzelmann, W. Meeks and J. L. Houldon, it is doubtful whether orthodox perfectionism can be found in the Gospel of John as Bogart claims.22 R. Alan Culpepper comments, “A decision on this issue is made difficult by the evidence Bogart adduces which shows that such a belief would not be out of place in John (e.g., the believers are “clean” and have passed from death into life) and by the fact that John never addresses the issue directly. He neither affirms nor denies “orthodox” perfectionism even though at times it may be implied. The gospel (of John) simply does not deal with the issue of sin within the community except perhaps in John 15:1-10, where the allegory and accompanying exhortation imply that believers may sin.”23 Furthermore, although Bogart assumes that the Johannine community had suffered from an influx of pro-Gnostic gentiles who had never accepted the basic biblical doctrines of God and man, 24 he does not present any evidence to his assumption.25

Finally, the fifth approach is that the concept of sinlessness in 1 John is based on the eschatological setting of the Epistle. According to this view, John refers to the ideal futuristic character of believers in 3:6 and 9. I. H. Marshall states, “What he is describing here is the eschatological reality, the possibility that is open to believers, which is both a fact (“he cannot sin”) and conditional (“if he lives in him”). It is a reality which is continually threatened by the tensions of living in the sinful world, and yet one which is capable of being realized by faith.”26 As a matter of fact, the expectation for a sinless state has been strongly endorsed not only by the Old Testament (especially, in the prophetic writings) but also by some extra-biblical documents such as Targums, the Jewish apocalyptic writings, and the Dead Sea scrolls.27 This hypothesis is most convincing even though some scholars have suggested that the passages of 3:6 and 9 are not written in a futuristic sense, but in a realistic sense. 28

Through the evaluation above, we recognize that the five major views have offered the strengths as well as weaknesses. In the next section, two valuable structural analyses of the Epistle will be introduced and evaluated; it might be valuable for further discussion of the exegetical, thematic-structural analysis of 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:18 in order to deal with this problem properly.

2. Evaluation of the two structural analyses on 1 John.

As scholars have admitted, the structural analysis of 1 John is notorious for its difficulty. No single proposal has attained a consensus, and the diversified scholarly opinions have led some to despair of even attempting such a quest.29 Nevertheless, it would be still proper that the present writer examines two insightful and popular structures of the Epistle, and then propose a new structure by combining the strengths from the two structures. The first is R. Law’s structure, which has gained much popularity and is considered a classical view. The second is R. Longare’s structure, which is based on the text-linguistic consideration.

Law’s structure has primarily focused on a cyclic pattern according to the consistently repeated themes at ever higher levels of discussion.30

Law’s Thematic Structure

Prologue. 1:1-4.

1. First Cycle (1:5-2:28)

The Christian Life as fellowship with God, tested by Righteousness (1:8-2:6), Love (2:7-17), and Belief (2:18-28)

2. Second Cycle (2:29-4:6)

Divine sonship tested by Righteousness (2:29-3:10a), Love (3:10b-24a), and Belief (3:24b-4:6)

3. Third Cycle (4:7-5:21)

Closer correlation of Love (4:7-5:3a) and Belief (5:3b-21)

The structure persuasively describes that three major themes (righteousness, love, and belief) are repeated in the Epistle because some repetitions of a few phrases such as “abide in me”, “do righteousness”, “eternal life”, and “keep the commandment” are easily found in the Epistle. However, the major weakness of this structure is that the repetition breaks down in the third cycle, in which we cannot find the theme of righteousness.31 Nevertheless, Law’s thematic structure shows at the very least the existence of cyclic patterns of the major themes in the Epistle.

Longacre’s structure is based on current text-linguistics which is “an analysis of language features that draws its explanation, not from within the sentence or word (i.e., the factors involved are not syntactic or morphological), but extrasententially (from the linguistic and wider context)”.32 In his study, Longacre pays attention to distribution of the performative verbs, especially, the verb “to write” because, as he believes, its distribution breaks the linear string of the paragraph down into introduction, body, and conclusion.33

Longacre’s Text-Linguistic Structure34

I. Introduction (1:1-2:29)

A. 1:1-4   Opening Paragraph: Expository Structure

B. 1:5-10  Expository Coordinate Paragraph

C. 2:1-6   Hortatory Reason Paragraph

D. 2:7-11  Expository Cyclic Antithetical Paragraph

E. 2:12-17 Ethical Peak: Hortatory Simple Paragraph

F. 2:18-27 Doctrinal Peak: Hortatory Coordinate Paragraph

G. 2:28-29 Hortatory Reason Paragraph

II. Body (3:1-5:12)

A. 3:1-6   Hortatory Amplification Paragraph

B. 3:7-12  Hortatory Comment Paragraph

C. 3:13-18 Hortatory Amplification Paragraph

D. 3:19-24 Expository Antithetical Paragraph

E. 4:1-6   Doctrinal Peak: Hortatory Evidence Paragraph

F. 4:7-21  Ethical Peak

1. 4:7-10  Hortatory Reason Paragraph

2. 4:11-21 Hortatory Amplification Paragraph

G. 5:1-12  Post Peak: Expository Evidence Paragraph

III. Closure (5:13-21) Expository Coordinate Paragraph

With this structure, Longacre concludes that the Epistle is fundamentally not an expository but a hortatory discourse with dual peaks: an ethical peak and a doctrinal peak.35 His conclusion brings a new interpretation about 1 John 3:6 and 9 that the statements “No one commits sin” and “He cannot sin” should be treated as hortatory. He comments regarding 1 John 3:6 and 9, “These are mitigated commands such as ‘a good American votes faithfully in every election’ or ‘a responsible father keeps his children from running the streets late at night’. In general, these commands are general ethical considerations.”36 According to his view, 1 John 3:9 implies that the one who is born of God does sin, although John wishes him not to sin; therefore, John urges him not to sin.

Longacre’s text-linguistic analysis provides a lucid and well-reasoned structure, but it contains some difficulties. First, he places ethical and doctrinal peaks, respectively, in the introduction and the body. A “peak” is defined as “points of cumulative development” in paragraph discourse, marked by “heightened vividness” such as shift of tense.37 Since 1 John 2:12-17 presents the frequent repetition of the verb “to write” and the tense of the verb shifts from the present to the aorist, Langacre considers 2:12-17 an ethical peak. Yet the two ethical peaks in the introduction and in the body refer to entirely different themes, while two doctrinal peaks in the introduction and the body have the similar theme, i.e., warning against the antichrist.

Second, in 2:28, Longacre suggests that the καὶ νῦν structure is used as a summary marker.38 Most commentators, however, considers it a transitional marker which opens a new section.39 Among other passages in the Gospel of John (4:18, 23; 5:25; 11:22; 14:29; 17:5) and the Johannine Epistles (1 John 2:18; 4:3; 2 John 1:5) which shows the καὶ νῦν structure, in most cases except for John 14:29, this structure refers to the temporal aspect (“and now”), particularly, both 1 John 2:18 and 4:3 refer to eschatological time. It is likely that the καὶ νῦν structure of John 14:29 (“And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe”) is understood as a summary marker— until now is a better translation because of the perfect tense and of the conclusion of Jesus’ sermon. Yet it is unlikely that the καὶ νῦν structure in 1 John 2:28 is used as a summary maker like that of John 14:29 because of many differences. In John 14:29-31, there is no additional information, whereas in 1 John 2:28-29 new information (“is born of Him”) is introduced, and connects directly to the next paragraph. Furthermore, the structure of 1 John 2:28 is not only transitional, but also temporal for two reasons: firstly, it includes the eschatological notion (“when he appears”), and secondly, all verses of the Epistle with this structure also refer to eschatological time. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the καὶ νῦν structure of 2:28 is both transitional and temporal, rather than functioning as a summary marker, as Longacre has insisted.

Third, Longacre considers 1 John 3:9 to be a mitigated command such as “a responsible father cannot keep his children away from his eyes late at night”. According to him, the two statements of 3:9 (“He who is born of God does not practice sin” and “He cannot sin because he is born of God”) are undifferentiated because both maintain a proverbial nuance. The context, however, does not support Longacre’s proposal since the Johannine community had been under severe suffering from their opponents. It is impossible to imagine that John wrote his Epistle with a mild proverbial nuance to those who were experiencing suffering daily. In spite of these weaknesses, Longacre’s text-linguistic structure well depicts the significance of discourse markers in a larger unit beyond the sentence level.

Although Law’s and Longacre’s structures have shown some difficulties, both benefit us understanding the structure of 1 John in light of the repeated themes and division markers. Now the present writer would like to reorganize the structure of 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:18 by combining these two methods: thematic (like R. Law) and structural analysis (like R. Longacre).

3. The structural comparison between 3:6, 9 and 5:18.

Before analyzing the structure of 3:6, 9 and 5:18, we need to decide the structural boundaries of 3:6, 9 and 5:18 in light of the major theme. For achieving this purpose, it is necessary to find out the major theme in the passages.

a. What is His seed? It is obvious that “His seed” is the main them in 3:9 because it derives from its chiastic structure as follows:

Chiastic Structure of 1 John 3:9

A πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ

Everyone who is born of God

B ἁμαρτίαν οὐ ποιεῖ,

does not commit sin

C ὅτι σπέρμα αὐτοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ μένει,

because His seed abides in him

B καὶ οὐ δύναται ἁμαρτάνειν,

and he cannot sin

A ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται.

because he is born of God

It has been the subject of much debate regarding what “His seed” refers to. Among many five interpretations are worth noting.40 First, “seed” refers to Christ as God’s heir. Yet Christ is never called the seed of God in the New Testament. Contextually introducing Christ as the seed of God is too sudden. In addition, if the seed of God refers to Christ, the definite article would be necessary.

Second, “seed” indicates the “Word of God”. Similar to the first view, no verse in Johannine literature associates it with begetting of the Christian.41 Moreover, in the New Testament, the term σπορά is referred to the Word of God (Luke 8:11; 1 Peter 1:23), but the term σπέρμα used in the Epistle is never related to it .42

Third, “seed” represents the “Holy Spirit”. This is the most popular view. The Spirit is clearly shown as a major factor involving with the begetting of the Christians in the Johannine writings (John 3:5). In 1 John 2:27 the “anointing” refers to the Spirit and in 3:24 and 4:13 “divine abiding” is also associated with the Spirit. Like the first two views, however, the Spirit is never called the seed of God in the New Testament.

Fourth, “seed” signifies the “divine principle of life” or “new nature of the believer” generally.43 I. H. Marshall comments, “John is using the metaphor of a seed planted in the heart which produces new life, just as in Jesus’ parable of the sower the seed planted in receptive soil is the Word of God which ‘grows’ into eternal life.”44 Marshall does not want to push this metaphor too far, but his proposal, however, makes “seed of God” too generalize by combining the Word of God, the Spirit, and the divine principle of life.

Fifth, “seed” symbolizes “offspring” in general. In Jesus’ parable of tares and wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) the word σπέρμα is used. Together with 1 John 3:9, the Matthew passage is the only place to use σπέρμα metaphorically in the New Testament. Especially, Matthew 13:38 is worth noting, “The field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one.” In fact the Matthew passage shows good similarities to 1 John 3. Like the Matthew passage, 1 John 3:1-17 is talking about the dualistic division between the children of God and of the devil in light of the story of Cain and Abel. Judith M. Lieu comments, “That story was developed in Jewish exegesis where Cain is the offspring of the devil, and where, being evil, he kills his righteous brother, Abel, after a dispute about the justice of God. The ‘seed’ theme belongs to the Cain story already in the biblical text (Gen 3:17; 4:25); since Eve greets Seth on his birth as ‘another seed’…The point in 1 John 3:9 may be that God’s seed is to be found not in Cain and his contemporary ‘followers,’ but in those of God’s choices, who have been born of him.”45 These two passages are not identical, however. In Matthew 13:38 the “good seed” represents the children of God, but in 1 John 3:9, strictly speaking, the “seed of God” should not refer to the children of God. Rather, it refers to something in the believers and makes them the children of God because in the Johannine literature, the term “abide in” does not mean “to be identical,” rather it refers to the mysterious union. For example, “Abide in him (Jesus Christ)” in 1 John 2:28 does not mean that we would be Jesus, but it indicates that we have the mysterious union with Jesus. Likewise, in 1 John 3:9 “seed” does not refer to the children of God.

Then what does “seed” represent? According to the Johannine context, it may indicate “eternal life”. R. B. Brown comments, “The imagery of begetting was the corollary of the Johannine emphasis on the Christian’s possessing God’s eternal life, an image carried to the point of speaking of God’s seed.”46 He implies that the imagery of being “born again” refers to the nature of eternal life metaphorically in the Johannine literature. The nature of eternal life appears in numerous passages in 1 John: 2:25 (eternal life as God’s promise), 3:14 (gaining eternal life from death), 3:16 (eternal life does not abide in unrighteousness), 5:13 (Christians have eternal life), and 5:20 (true God is eternal life). In 1 John, eternal life is portrayed as earthly present possession of heavenly reality. This nature does perfectly fit with the concept of the “seed of God” in 1 John 3:9. Eternal life is a heavenly reality only God can retain, but that reality becomes present possession within the believers. Thus, 1 John 5:13 clearly says, “You (believer) have (present tense) eternal life now.”

b. Thematic-structural analysis of 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:18. As discussed just above, based on the major theme, “eternal life” to which “seed of God” refers 1 John 3:9, the present writer would like to propose the thematic-structural analyses of two boundary units (2:24-3:17 and 5:13-21).

Thematic-Structural Analysis of 2:24-3:17

.

Thematic-Structural Analysis of 5:13-21

These two structures shown above are derived from thematic and text-linguistic considerations. As already mentioned, thematic analysis is to determine thematic boundaries from the discussion of the “seed of God”, while text-linguistic analysis brings some divisions within the thematic boundaries. For example, 1 John 2:24 is established as the beginning point of the boundaries because verse 24 (ὑμεῖς ὃ ἠκούσατε ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς, ἐν ὑμῖν μενέτω.) provides a new paragraph from the position of two words: ὑμεῖς and μενέτω. Literally it would be translated, “Let what you have heard from the beginning remain in you.” Contextually the word ὑμεῖς is either nominative (subject) or vocative (emphatic address).47 Regardless of whatever syntactic function it may take, it has emphatic significance because it emphatically begins a new unit with the renewal of an object.48 John’s usage of the imperative verb μενέτω supports this emphatic force since John starts new units by imperatives in many cases. This imperative verb at the end of the sentence is a focal point which “either has not been established or needs to be reestablished” in the discourse.49 In the Johannine literary context, the imperative verb seems to be reestablished for the further discussion. Another example would be 3:10, which can be considered a transitional verse because of the two discourse markers (ἐν τούτῳ in 3:10 and the distribution of the verb οἴδα) which make vv. 11-17 as a single unit. As a matter of fact, these two considerations (thematic and linguistic) are quite beneficial to us to figure out the structure of a given passage.

Now let us pay attention to the structures of 2:24-3:17 and 5:13-21. The passage of 2:24-3:17 represents some synonymous (2:29-3:1; 3:5, 9, 10, 14-15) and antithetic parallels (3:3-4, 6, 7-8), a chiastic structure (3:9), and also an inclusio structure (2:25 and 3:15) according to the main theme, “eternal life”. We can also observe two major cyclic thematic developments. The first one is a consecutive process of first doctrinal, second doctrinal, and ethical development. Each development shows the parallel structure because ABCD, A*B*C*D*, and A**B**C**D** structures are repeated according to the progress. The structure of A and B (or A* and B*, or A** and B**) shows an antithetic parallelism. It is worthy to note that both A and A* have the motive of “just as he is” except for the A** structure in 3:14. Since this motive is quite important, it will be discussed in details in the following section. C, C* and C** show the redemptive works of Jesus, the Son of God, and D, D* and D** demonstrate the faithfulness of the believer as a result of what Jesus had done in C, C* and C**.

The second thematic development divides the critical theme, “eternal life” into three stages: promise stage, doctrinal and ethical stage. In the promise stage, “eternal life” is emphasized only in an eschatological sense, but in the ethical stage, it appears in a real life setting. This development clearly shows a process of how a heavenly reality becomes earthly present possession.

The passage of 5:13-21 presents some parallel structures with that of 2:24-3:17 in that it shows an inclusio structure of “eternal life”, theme of “confidence” and also ABCD structure, even though the order of ABCD is a little different. In 5:13-21, John explains how a believer preserves “eternal life” with other believers by intercessory prayer. If so, 5:13-21 seems to be further development from 2:24-3:17 because it is obvious that John develops the theme of “eternal life” from the personal aspect in chapter 2 to the communal aspect in chapter 5.

4. Interpretation of 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:18.

Until now we have discussed the thematic-structural consideration for the two passages (2:24-3:17 and 5:13-21). Now, let us turn our attention to three problematic verses (3:6, 9 and 5:18), based on the two structures discussed above. Here, it is worth noting that in the first structure (2:24-3:17), three verses (3:2, 3, 7) indicate “just as he is”. It is evident that “he” refers to Christ in association with “I am” saying unique to the Gospel of John. M. M. Thompson comments, “As the ‘I am’ statements especially in chapter 8 reveal, Jesus claims to share in Gods eternal existence. He has life in himself (5:26), and the power to lay down his life and to take it again (10:17-18). He also has the power to give life to those who keep his word (8:51; 17:2), thus exercising the unique life-giving prerogative of God…These claims resonate with what is perhaps the central theme of the Gospel: that Jesus has and mediates eternal life.”50 Thompson’s observation fits quite well with 1 John 3:16 and 5:16. In John 8:58, Jesus claimed, “Before Abraham was, I am.” In the passage of 1 John 3:2, John declares the same eternal existence of Jesus Christ toward the eschatological future. 1 John 3:3 and 7 emphasize the eternal, unchangeable, perfect righteousness of Jesus. In this sense, the concept of “just he is” is closely connected to the central theme, “eternal life” in its nature, and also provides the standard of the Christian perfection.

Now we need to raise a question. Does the current possession of eternal life include its activation in the present life? In other words, do we now have eternal life? If so, are we now tasting eternal life? The answer is assertive in the Johannine context because the expression “abide in” refers not only to possession, but also to activation by the mysterious union with Christ. The notion that we have eternal life means we are also living eternal life. Then, does this mean that a Christian does not die? Is this denial to the human fate? This question is the same as the main inquiry of this paper, i.e., is the statement that a Christian does not sin a denial to his real life?

The Epistle does not negate the real life of Christians. Rather, it emphasizes the eternally changed nature of the Christian life through the mysterious union with Christ. Although a Christian dies, he will be alive with the Second Coming of Christ. Thus, John insists that the believers are tasting eternal life, divine reality. It provides hope and confidence in which the believers overcome shrinking away from God (2:28-3:3). Based on this confidence, as John does, the believers could have the foundation to declare, “We cannot die.” Likewise, the believer surely sins (1:6-10), but Christ has already accomplished the redemptive work for the believers (3:5, 8). His work provided the believers a new identity. Furthermore, his perfect righteousness became the standard for the believers to reach. The believers will eventually attain perfect righteousness like Christ with his appearance. Based on this hope, the believers can have confidence and they can further taste a heavenly reality called sinlessness in their present lives in two ways: the first way is personal confession (1:9), and the second is prayer of the believers for other sinning believers (5:16). For John, sinning is serious, but not critical. Yet repentance is crucial. John considers repentance to be the sinless process of the believers. Based on confidence that the believers are in the sinless process, tasting sinlessness, and will eventually reach to the perfect state of sinlessness, John proclaims, “Believers cannot sin” (3:9). The passage of 5:13-21 also confirms this.

In summary, in the passage of 1 John, John explains two unchangeable foundations for confidence of all the believers: “eternal life” as the promise for the eschatological hope and the redemptive work of Christ. By faith, eternal life becomes a present reality, but not yet with its complete form. Therefore, John manifests that the believers are tasting eternal life and will perfect eternal life eventually. According to his logic, believers cannot die. Likewise, John further develops his argument on sinlessness. Believers are tasting sinlessness now and will perfect sinlessness. Thus, he confirms that believers cannot sin. In this sense, the passages of 3:6, 9 and 5:18 are closer to exhortation, but R. Longacre is wrong in considering them as mitigated commands. Rather, these are very strong, serious urges not to sin with a nuance such as “We ought not to sin.”

III. Conclusion

This paper examines the problem of sinlessness, focusing on 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:18 in light of thematic-structural analysis. The discussion of 3:6, 9 and 5:18 provides quite a valuable sanctification model. According to the Epistle, a heavenly reality such as “eternal life” and “sinlessness” already becomes possessed and activated in the present lives of the believers, but is not fully completed until the appearance of Christ. John did not ignore the real life of the believers; he fully understood their sinful nature (1:6-10). Nevertheless, John focused more on the absolute state (from the motive of “just as Jesus is”) of perfect sinlessness, which the believer will eventually attain. On the basis of Christ-redeemed confidence, (2:1-2; 3:5, 8; 16; 5:20) he proclaimed the sinlessness of the believers with a hortatory, but forcefully urging tone.

John urged that the believers should live as if they were sinless and the foundation of this sinlessness is from the past redemptive work of Christ and future eschatological hope. Johns focus was more on realized eschatological aspect, but based on the already/not yet eschatology regarding the problem of sinlessness.


1 B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism (ed. Samuel G. Craig; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1958) 32. Basically, he rejected every kind of perfectionism by criticizing not only perfectionism of the ‘Wesleyan perspective’ but also that of the ‘Higher Life Movement,’ and of the ‘Keswick perspective’. He comments, “Perfectionism is impossible in the presence of a profound sense of sin.” See also Anthony A. Hoekema, ‘The Reformed Perspective’ in Five Views: 61-97.

2 R. Newton Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology: A Historical Study of The Christian Ideal for The Present Life (London: Oxford University Press, 1934) 313-341. Melvin E. Dieter, “The Wesleyan Perspective” in Five Views on Sanctification (ed. Stanley N. Gundry; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1987) 11-46.

3 Harry C. Swadling, ‘Sin and Sinlessness in 1 John,’ Scottish Journal of Theology 35 (1982) 205-211, esp. 205.

4 R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John (AB 30; New York: Doubleday, 1982) 413. He comments, “We should never assume that ancient authors were stupid or illogical and could not see difficulties, especially within the same brief piece of writing.” Also refer to R. Schnackenberg, The Johannine Epistles: A Commentary, trans. Reginald and Ilse Fuller (New York: Crossroad, 1992) 254-79.

5 It is helpful to look at some commentaries which overview several approaches for this problem. For example, R. B. Brown presents seven suggestions: 1) two different writers’ redaction; 2) two different groups of adversaries; 3) specific kinds of sin; 4) special or elite Christians; 5) habitual sin; 6) two different levels (real level and ideal level); 7) two different texts (eschatological text and kerugmatik text). Similarly, John R. W. Stott also summarizes seven different approaches to this problem: 1) specific sins; 2) different conceptions of sin; 3) old nature and new nature in the believer; 4) idealistic view; 5) relatively realistic view; 6) willful and deliberate sin; 7) habitual and persistent sin. The commentaries of I. H. Marshall and of S. S. Smalley are also helpful. R. E. Brown, Epistles 413-15; John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John (Tyndale NTC; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1988) 134-40; I. H. Marshall, The Epistles of John (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1978) 178-184; Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John (WBC 51; Waco, TX: Word, 1984) 159-163.

6 This view has gained much popularity. It has been popular especially among the British Bible scholars, many Bible teachers, and conservative commentators. Among the major proponents of this theory are W. Barclay, F. C. Cook, L. Morris, H. A. Ironside, E. Palmer, J. Boice, F. L. Fisher, R. C. H. Lenski, A. T. Robertson, M. Zerwick, and G. E. Radd. For more detailed information, see Donald W. Mills, ‘The Concept of Sinlessness in 1 John in Relation to Johannine Eschatology’ (Ph. D diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1998) 267-69.

7 Marshall, Epistles 180.

8 Sakae Kubo, ‘1 John 3:9: Absolute or Habitual?’ Andrew University Seminary Studies 7 (1969) 47-56, esp. 51.

9 C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (The Moffatt NT Commentary; New York: Harper & Row, 1946) 79-80. Similarly, M. Silva, God, Language, and Scripture (FCI 6; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1990) 111-18. M. Silva comments, “No reasonable writer would seek to express a major point by leaning on a subtle grammatical distinction-especially if it is not a point not otherwise clear from the whole context.”

10 Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990) 209.

11 Mills, Sinlessness 248, fn. 102.

12 H. K. La Rondelle, Perfection and Perfectionism (AUMSR 3; Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrew University Press, 1979) 318. And also refer to Melvin E. Dieter, ‘The Wesleyan Perspective’ in Five Views 11-46, esp. 23.

13 La Rondelle, Perfection 235.

14 Marshall, Epistles 179.

15 Warfield, Perfectionism 351.

16 David M. Scholer, “Sin Within and Sin Without: An Interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1975) 230-246. John Stott and I. H. Marshall generally agree with the view of Scholer, whereas R. E. Brown rejects it by insisting that the nonbelievers have been the former brothers, the secessionists throughout 1 John. He proposed that ‘sin unto death’ is the sin of those who went out away from the believer. Brown, Epistles 618; Stott, Epistles 190-92; Marshall, Epistles 248-50.

17 Stott, Epistles 130. C. H. Dodd generally agrees with John Stott. Dodd, Epistles 80-81.

18 S. Kubo, “1 John 3:9” 47-56, esp. 56. R. E. Brown agrees with Kubo’s opinion. Brown comments, “There is only one detective set of adversaries.” See Brown, Epistles 415.

19 John Bogart, Orthodox and Heretical Perfectionism in the Johannine Community as Evident in the First Epistle of John (SBLDS 33; Missoula: Scholars Press, 1977) 123-41. See also R. Alan Culpepper’s critique of it, “Orthodox and Heretical Perfectionism in the Johannine Community as Evident in the First Epistle of John”, review of John Bogart, Orthodox and Heretical Perfectionism in the Johannine Community in JBL 97 (1978) 601-02. Similarly to the view of John Bogart, R. E. Brown insists that there are two kinds of perfectionism. R. E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979) 104-05.

20 Bogart, Orthodox 134-135.

21 Some documents like the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Truth which were heavily influenced by Gnosticism, have shown these concepts. These concepts also appear in the Johannine Epistles. Refer to Mills, “Sinlessness” 27-29.

22 Culpepper, “Review” 601-601.

23 Culpepper, “Review” 601-02.

24 Bogart, Orthodox 135.

25 Brown, Community 127.

26 Marshall, Epistles 182-83.

27 Mills discusses this view in chapters 2-4 in his dissertation. Mills, “Sinlessness” 59-212. See also for detail argument, Brown, Epistles 414-15; Smalley, Epistles 161.

28 Stott, Epistles 136-37.

29 Marshall, Epistles 22-27. In his commentary, I. H. Marshall introduces seven different structures about the First Epistle of John.

30 Robert Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909) 1-24.

31 Marshall, Epistles 22.

32 Stephen H. Levinsohn, Discourse Features of New Testament Greek: A Course book on the Information Structure of New Testament Greek (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2000) 8.

33 R. E. Longacre, “Toward an Exegesis of 1 John Based on the Discourse Analysis of the Greek Text” in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Discourse Analysis (eds. David Alan Black, Katharine Barnwell, and Stephen Levinsohn; Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1992) 271-86.

34 R. E. Longacre, “Exhortation and Mitigation in the Greek Text of the First Epistle of John,” Selected Technical Articles Related to Translation 9 (1984) 3-44, esp. 20.

35 Longacre, “Toward an Exegesis of 1 John” 271-86.

36 Longacre, “Exhortation and Mitigation” 3-44, esp. 20.

37 R. E. Longacre, The Grammar of Discourse (2nd edn; New York: Plenum Press, 1983) 33-48.

38 Longacre, “Toward an Exegesis of 1 John” 271-86, esp. 279-80.

39 Brown, Epistles 379; Marshall, Epistles 165. Some commentators such as R. Law, C. H. Dodd, and A. E. Brooke agree that this structure is functioned as an opening marker.

40 R. E. Brown has introduced the main arguments of a few major interpretations and their proponents in details. Brown, Epistles 408-411.

41 Brown, Epistles 408-411.

42 This result is done from the Bible Works software research program.

43 Marshall, Epistles 186, fn. 38.

44 Marshall, Epistles 186.

45 Judith M. Lieu, The Theology of the Johannine Epistles (NTT; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 35 and also “What was From the Beginning: Scripture and Tradition in the Johannine Epistles” NTS 39 (1993) 467-72. In her article, she proposes an ‘offspring’ view. She comments, “Yet within the tradition just explored it is clear that the ‘seed’ refers not (as usually suggested) to the word of God, or even to the Holy Spirit which protects the believer from sin; instead it recalls the theme within the Genesis narratives just explored of the seed of the woman and the ‘other seed’ which Eve acknowledges in the birth of Seth. This means that for 1 John the believer, like Seth, either carries the ‘seed’ of God’s promise or is the ‘seed,’ in contrast to those who like Cain are the children of the devil.”

46 Brown, Epistles 422.

47 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996) 36-72.

48 Levinsohn, Discourse 7-28.

49 Levinsohn, Discourse 16.

50 M. M. Thompson, “Gospel of John” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight; Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1992) 368-383, esp. 377-78.

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Sanctification