In 1 Jn 3:9, what does, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” mean?

The First Epistle of John deals with several different doctrines.  The doctrine that we’re addressing from 1st John is sin.  One of the reasons we want to look at this epistle is that we want understand what John wrote in 1 Jn 3:6-10.  In 1 Jn 3:9 he said, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin… he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”  There are myriad opinions about what this means.  I believe the Lord will help us make sense of this passage.  But before we jump into the deep end, let’s wade out into the doctrine of sin as covered by John and see what we can learn from his first epistle.

Sin affects our fellowship with God.  In 1 Jn 1:3-4 John wants us to have fellowship with the Father, with the Son and with each other.  And he wants our joy to be full.  One thing that keeps us from having fellowship with the Lord is sin.  So, Jesus shed his blood to cleanse us from sin.    His blood justified us [Rom 5:9], made peace between us [Col 1:20] and drew us nigh to God [Eph 2:13].  And it cleanseth us from all sin.  As a result, we can have fellowship with him and with each other.  A person who’s in darkness can’t have this fellowship [1 Jn 1:5-6].  He must be a saved child of light before he can enjoy our fellowship [1 Pet 2:9; 1 Thes 5:4-5].

Sin, after you are saved, affects your fellowship with the Lord, as well.  Pretending that you have no sin won’t help [1 Jn 1:8].  You’re just deceiving yourself.  Saying that you haven’t sinned, won’t help; you’re making God a liar [1 Jn 1:10]. The only thing that will help is 1 Jn 1:9.    You must confess your sins [Prov 28:13; Ps 32:5].  You agree with the Lord about your sin.  He’s faithful and just to forgive your sins.  And he will cleanse you from all unrighteousness, through the blood of Jesus Christ and based upon his propitiation for our sins [1 Jn 2:2].

Sin is well defined in the Bible.  Some may disagree about what constitutes sin.  Well, John covers this in his epistle.  “Sin is the transgression of the law,” [1 Jn 3:4].  “All unrighteousness is sin,” [1 Jn 5:17].  You can find some clear lists in “the law” that define sin.  Look at Rom 1:29-31; 1 Tim 1:9-10; Mk 7:21-22; Prov 24:9; Gal 5:19-21; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Jn 16:8-9; and so forth.  So, let me ask you, did you do any of these before you were saved?  Have you done any of these since you’ve been saved?  If your answers to these two questions “Yes” then you are telling the truth and you aren’t calling God a liar [1 Jn 1:8, 10].

God doesn’t want us to sin.  In 1 Jn 2:1 John wrote, “these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.”  God doesn’t want us to sin, clearly.  Did he mean to imply by this statement that you would be sinless?  The answer is “No.”  You know this because he wrote in 1 Jn 2:1, “if any man sin…”.  When you and I sin after we’re saved, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”  1 Jn 2:2 goes on to say, “he is the propitiation for our sins.”  To propitiate is to gain the favor of; to appease.  And based on his propitiation, he will forgive us when we confess our sins [1 Jn 1:9].  So, does this mean that we can just go along merrily committing sin and confessing sin like some of us did when we were Catholics? No, as we see in 1 Jn 3.

God doesn’t want us to sin because:

We are sons of God – 1 Jn 3:1-3.  We are going to be like Jesus one day.  Therefore, we are to purify ourselves even as he is pure.

Christ died to take away our sins – 1 Jn 3:4-5.  He didn’t just come to die for our sins [1 Pet 2:22-24] and to forgive our sins [Col 1:14].  He came also to take away our sins [Jn 1:29].  There is no sin in Jesus.  And he doesn’t want sin to be in his other sons, either.

He wants us to abide in him – 1 Jn 3:6.  “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not.”  Jn 15:4-7. We’ll explain further when we get down to verse 9.  Only people who are saved can abide in him.

He wants us to do righteousness – 1 Jn 3:7.  See 1 Jn 2:29.  Only people who are born again can do righteousness.  That’s impossible for a child of the devil [1 Jn 3:10].

Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin – 1 Jn 3:8-9.  Here’s where the myriad explanations surface.  Verse 9 goes on to say, “he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”  

  • One interpretation, from those who look to the Greek for their authority, is that the word “commit” means he “keeps on committing” or he “habitually” sins or practices sins.  So, a real Christian doesn’t continually keep committing the same sin over and over.  But look at Ex 20:14; Matt 5:27-28; Matt 19:18.  Commit means to carry into action deliberately.  It has nothing to do with whether you do it once or more than once.
  • Another interpretation, from those of us who believe in the spirit, soul and body, is that these verses mean that the “new man” can’t sin because that’s what is born of God.  While this is true, I don’t believe that’s what John is addressing here.  You don’t see him dealing with the old man and the new man in this epistle.
  • Another interpretation comes from some holiness people who would have you believe that they literally don’t sin anymore.  They say that they are now sinless.
  • Another interpretation comes from those who say that if a person is still committing certain kinds of sin, he never was saved in the first place.

The first clue to what John is saying here is in the word “cannot.”  We read it to mean that it is impossible for him to sin.  “Cannot” can mean absolutely not, like Jn 3:3, 3:5, for instance. However, in 1 Jn 3:9 “cannot sin” is used in the same way that “cannot” is used in the following verses Matt 21:27, “we cannot tell.”  It was possible.  Mk 2:19, “they cannot fast.”  It was possible.  Lk 11:7, “I cannot rise.”  He could and eventually did.  So, it’s not that a child of God can’t possibly sin [1 Jn 1:8-10; 2:2].  Rather, he cannot sin in the sense that it wouldn’t be righteous for him to sin.  John’s saying, “You’re born of God; you can’t do that.”  A fellow on a diet will say, “I’m on a diet; I can’t eat that pie.”  John’s not saying that we can’t possibly commit sin.  He’s saying that when you get saved, you are not to sin.  A father tells his son, “Son, you can’t do that.”  

People who “abide” in Christ don’t sin [v.3:6 whosoever abideth in him sinneth not (in him is no sin, v.5)].  Therefore 1 Jn 5:18 “whosoever is born of God sinneth not” doesn’t mean that he never sins or that he cannot sin.  Rather, it’s like a teacher encouraging a student not to lie by saying “good boys don’t lie.”  A Christian knows that “all unrighteousness is sin” and so he “doeth righteousness… as he is righteous,” [1 Jn 3:7].  It’s like Rom 6:1-2 and Rom 6:15, where Paul says, “God forbid” that we should sin.  It’s like Jesus saying “sin no more,” [Jn 5:14; 8:11].  We don’t get saved so that we can keep sinning.  Like Peter says in 1 Pet 2:16, “not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness.”

He wants the children of God to be manifest – 1 Jn 3:10.  If a child of God is living in sin, you aren’t going to know whether he’s saved or lost.  But when he’s abiding in Christ, when he does works meet for repentance [Acts 26:20], when he quits his sinning, when he loves the brethren, and so forth, then it is manifest that he is a child of God.

This is one of the main reasons John wrote this epistle.  That ye sin not [1 Jn 2:1]. When you start getting that sin out of your life and you start getting in good fellowship with the Lord and with others who love the Lord, your joy is full [1 Jn 1:4].