No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.
This verse is the natural deduction of the previous proposition regarding Christ’s mission and sinless nature. John has already talked about God’s Word abiding in his readers (1st John 2:14) and their need to abide in the apostolic instruction (1st John 2:27), and now he calls on believers to abide in Christ because Christ is our life and holiness. This call to believers to fellowship with Christ as an “abiding” relationship reflects Christ’s instructions to the apostles in the Upper Room (John 15:4-7), wherein “abiding” results in fruitfulness and answered prayers (cf. 1st John 5:14-15).
“πᾶς ὁ ἐν αὐτῷ μένων οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει” (Everyone who resides in him does not sin): John writes a series of “πᾶς ὁ” (“everyone who”) statements intended to contrast the children of God with the children of the Devil. We must pay attention to these propositions because John is writing in clear terms what sets the redeemed apart from the condemned.
“μένων οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει” (who resides not sins): This phrase is very difficult to express in English because the present tense active verb (ἁμαρτάνει) does not merely convey “habitual sin”, as many understand the ESV and NIV rendering to suggest, but more accurately conveys the state of sin.
To convey the singular act of sin, John most likely use the aorist tense “ἁμάρτητε”, as he did previously:
1 John 2:1 (CSB) — 1 My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin…
Instead of suggesting the singular act of sin, we see John employing a common Hebrew literary device known as an “antithetic parallelism”, wherein the concept of “abiding” (μένων) informs the sense of the action being described. This means that John is saying that no one who abides in Christ will abide in sin.
That John is not suggesting sinless perfection is abundantly clear from within John’s own theology:
1 John 1:8-9 (CSB) — 8 If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 2:1-2 (CSB) — My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the righteous one. 2 He himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.
1 John 5:16 (CSB) — 16 If anyone sees a fellow believer committing a sin that doesn’t lead to death, he should ask, and God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t lead to death. There is sin that leads to death. I am not saying he should pray about that.
Rather than saying that it is impossible for Christians to commit single acts of sin, John is saying that no Christian remains in their unregenerate state of sin because Christ is without sin and came to destroy sin, and we now reside in him.
Therefore, it is necessary for us to describe the unregenerate state of sin that John has in view here:
Ephesians 4:18–24 (CSB) — 18 They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. 19 They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more. 20 But that is not how you came to know Christ, 21 assuming you heard about him and were taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to take off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.
The unregenerate state of sin is one in which someone is excluded from the life of God (See the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23) in the darkness of their mind because of the hardness of their hearts. They have surrendered themselves to live and grow in sin according to their carnal nature. This is contrasted with those who have come to know Christ and have been taught by him to take off their former way of life and be renewed in the spirit of their minds while being clothed in righteousness and the purity of truth.
In other words, someone who remains in an unregenerate state of sin is insensitive to the conviction and life of the Holy Spirit and their mind and passions remain in bondage to the will of sin.
In Jesus Christ the guilt of our sins is washed away by his blood and the chains of sin’s bondage are broken from our soul.