Practicing Sin: 1st John 3:4a

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; indeed, sin is lawlessness.

The beloved apostle brings his epistle to its apex by identifying what differentiates the children of God from the children of the Devil and confronting the gnostic dichotomy between “sin” and “lawlessness” that many believed made it possible to “be righteous” while living in sin.

“Everyone”: As in the previous verse, John uses the all-inclusive πᾶς (pas – “Everyone”) to make clear that there are no elite Christians that transcended God’s moral standards. While those who had left the church thought themselves to be above accountability, John emphasizes that no one is excluded from the following rule: “Everyone doing sin also does lawlessness.”

This truth is universal and without exceptions.

“Practices sin” (ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν): We have been paying careful attention to John’s use of present-active verbs throughout this epistle because their sense is very difficult to capture in English and they play an important role in his epistle.  So, we must pay careful attention to this expression to make sure we properly understand its meaning.

When speaking of someone’s engagement with sin, John uses the present-active participle “ποιῶν”.

Participle — A word that has characteristics of both a verb and an adjective — a “verbal adjective” (cf. the word “shining”). As such, Greek and Latin participles have gender, number and case (the adjectival side), as well as tense and voice (the verbal side). Participles do not have mood, but can function in an imperative sense. In general, a participle’s tense is similar to a finite verb’s tense. The aspect of a participle cannot be simply equated with that of verbs.

Heiser, M. S., & Setterholm, V. M. (2013; 2013). Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database Terminology. Lexham Press.

In other words, this word is both descriptive and active; meaning that ποιῶν describes the state of its subject (“everyone-who”) and the action being taken towards its object (“sin”).  John is describing the state and relationship that one has with sin, which is going to be a vital construction going forward.  To be subject to sin and practice it is to be subject to and practice lawlessness.

This targets gnostic heresies that sought to differentiate between “sin” and “lawlessness”:

HILARY OF ARLES (c. 401–449): John says that sin and iniquity are the same thing, though there were heretics who denied this. According to some of them, iniquity was a crime deliberately committed, but sin was a fact of nature and therefore not a crime.

BEDE (c. 672–735): Let no one say that sin is one thing and wickedness another. Let no one claim to be a sinner but not wicked. Sin and wickedness are the same thing. Actually, the true meaning of this verse is clearer when we look at the Greek, because the word which in Latin is rendered “wickedness” (iniquitas) in Greek is “lawlessness” (anomia). So what John really means is that sin is lawlessness.

We cannot believe that we can be subject to sin and practice its vices while simultaneously being subject to Christ and practicing his virtues.  These are contrary claims because one is either a servant of Christ or a rebel whose soul is set against him.

Therefore, the weight of John’s claims deserves further exploration as we study the next six verses.

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