1 John 3:6: No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
As a new Christian, I told another believer I was struggling with anger. She told me that I was not a genuine Christian because if I was, I wouldn’t sin this way. When I asked her how she knew this was true, she read me 1 John 3 — particularly verse 6.
If her interpretation of this passage is correct, not only was I not a Christian then — I still am not a Christian now. Is this what John is saying? How do we know?
When you discover two very different interpretations of the same passage in the Bible, how do you decide between them?
Scholar A says the passage means X and scholar B says the passage means Y. They both sound persuasive and both offer some compelling evidence, how do you know who’s right? Or in my case, my young friend understands John to mean genuine believers no longer sin; and if they do sin, something is wrong. How do I judge whether or not her understanding is right?
The 5 C’s of Bible Study
The 5 C’s of Bible Study are best tool for judging whether an interpretation of a passage. Using the 5 C’s let’s evaluate an interpretation of 1 John 3 which claims John believes genuine believers no longer sin.
Credible: understands the words, syntax & grammar according to their normal usage at the time the author wrote
Is it credible? Yes. It does legitimately understand the words, grammar and syntax. The interpretation is possible.
Comprehensive: explains each and every detail, even if the contribution is insignificant or stylistic
Is it comprehensive? Close, but not quite. The language of this passage indicates that John is talking about something other than simply committing a sin. When an author writing in New Testament Greek wants to talk about a repeated ongoing action, he uses present tense. Notice some translations add “practice” (vs 4,8a,9a) to indicates this. An interpretation that claims believers no longer sin does not completely explain why John would use the present tense.
Coherent: fits the flow of thought in the passage and in the larger context of the chapter and book
Is it coherent with the flow of thought in the book? No. John makes other statements in this letter (e.g. 1:8-10 and 2:1-2) which imply that John thinks believers continue to sin.
Consistent: is consistent with information which is not in this book (the author’s other letters and the rest of Scripture)
Is it consistent with the rest of Scripture? No. Many passages in New Testament clearly teach that Christians sin (Rom 7:14-24 for one). Additionally pick any Old Testament hero of the faith (Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon,….) and we have narratives which record their sin.
Conforms: to the author’s purpose and the author’s plan
Does it conform with the author’s intended purpose? I don’t think so. John is providing another test by which to discern true Christians from false teachers (note 3:10). We can tell not only by the doctrine they teach (2:22-26), we can also tell by the morality they practice. Eventually their lifestyle will give them away. Up to this point John has been greatly concerned with our attitude toward and response to sin, not whether or not we struggle with sin. He assumes we struggle with. Our response to that struggle says something about the state of our faith.