1 John 3:4-6 – Sin is Lawlessness

In contrast to the one who is pure, the one who makes a practice of sinning is practicing lawlessness (3:4). The word lawless evokes memories of the old west, people living without restraint and making their own rules. The old west bad guy might “make it a habit to be bad.”

In the Greek Old Testament, the word ἀνομία meant far more than breaking the Mosaic Law. It has the sense of disdain for the Law. In classical Greek the noun had the connotation of the denial of a law (Brill DAG). Those who are lawless believe they are not under the authority of the law.  For example, when the state of Michigan passed the seatbelt law, many people simply ignored it and lived as if that law did not apply to them. They lived in denial of the clear command of the state government (until the police started writing tickets for not wearing your seatbelt).

Applied to a theological idea like Jesus is the Messiah, the opponents certainly know this is what John has said in his Gospel, but they deny that it is valid and they reject that teaching as having any impact for their lives. I might read an essay on the importance of going to confession and doing penance in the Catholic tradition. I can hear the words and understand what they are saying, but I will deny that it has anything to do with me as a Protestant.

The opponents seem to say that since Jesus has died on the cross and fulfilled God’s Law, God’s Law no longer any authority over them. If (as Paul says) we are free from the Law, then what the Law said was sin is no longer sin. If a kid who is a day short of his twenty-first birthday buys cigarettes and alcohol, then they are breaking the law. But if they wait a day and buy it after their birthday, that law no longer has any authority over them and they are free to drink and smoke legally. The opponents are simply saying if the Law is fulfilled in Jesus, then the old laws do not apply anymore. They can “drink and smoke” all they want since they are not under those old laws.

Karen Jobes points to Leviticus 26:43 as an example of the use of the world in the Septuagint. To be lawless is to have disdain for the Law of God, to knowingly suppress the clear revelation of God and do what he has said “ought not be done” (1, 2, & 3 John, 143). This is not far from Paul’s description of the human race in Romans 1:18-32.

In the context of eschatological judgment, it is possible John knew the teaching of Jesus in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:21). When the many who did miracles in the name of Jesus come before the Son of Man at the judgement at the time of the second coming, Jesus will send them away into the darkness where there is gnashing of teeth, saying “I never knew you, away from men you evildoers (ἀνομία).

Is this a reference to the opponents who have gone out from John’s churches? Likely, they are denying the clear revelation of God’s word through the witness, the last of the Apostles, John. They know what John has said about Jesus and they are simply denying it as valid for them.

Since Jesus has dealt with sin, the one who remains in Jesus does not make a practice of sinning (3:5-6). This is the second “appearing” of Jesus in this section of 1 John. In 2:28, the word refers to the future appearing of Jesus in judgment. Here the word refers to the incarnation, he appeared to take away sin.

Since Jesus has no sin, the one who is abiding in him should not keep on sinning. In the context of these verses, John is making a contrast with the ones who are lawless, who deny that God’s clear revelation has any authority over their lives. For the one who is remaining in Christ, it is impossible to think God’s revelation has no authority over them!

The grammar is once again very important for understanding the practical theology of this verse. The Greek phrase καὶ οὐ δύναται ἁμαρτάνειν can be understood as “he is not able to sin,” of “and he cannot sin” (KJV). This sounds like the opponents as I suggested above. But the present tense verbs are usually taken here as continuous, so that most modern translations say no one who abides/remains in Jesus will “keep on sinning” (as in the NIV, ESV).

The argument John makes is also based on the nature of Jesus: he took sin away and he himself had no sin, so those who are so closely associated with Jesus that they can be called the children of God (as he is the son of God) ought to live a life without sin.

5 thoughts on “1 John 3:4-6 – Sin is Lawlessness

  1. The practice of sin is the practice of lawlessness. Those who are lawless, usually believe they are above the law or that it does not apply to them, thus not following it. For example, in modern society, many do not obey the speed limit due to not believing they should. Many believers claim that God’s law has no authority over them due to what Jesus Christ did for them.
    To truly be a child of God, one must aspire to be like God, keeping themselves as far away from sin as possible. As human beings, we are born into a sin nature that does cause one to occasionally stumble, but we recognize that the grace of God is enough and covers the sin in the past, present, and future for the believer. Since Jesus never sinned, as he was the ultimate example of a righteous human being, those who follow Jesus should stop sinning. On this matter Jesus states, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). Jesus is not a fan of luke-warm Christians or those who do not attempt to be better. This is clear when he states, “you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (Rev. 3:15).
    “Claiming to be wise they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images that resemble mortal man, and birds, and animals, and creeping things” (Rom 1:22-23). Interestingly, three times in the passage of Romans 1, Paul states three times that “God gave them up.” “Hence all individual sins are a consequence of the failure to pride and praise God as the giver of every good thing” (ESVSB 2159).

  2. This was a very important blog post and the ending really stood out to me especially because P.Long states that “The argument John makes is also based on the nature of Jesus: he took sin away and he himself had no sin, so those who are so closely associated with Jesus that they can be called the children of God” (P.Long). This passage from the blog post stuck with me the most because God gave His only Son to the world, in efforts to take away sin. Moreover, it is impossible for Jesus Christ to sin so why did Go do that? I personally think that God gave His Son to the Earthly world as an example of what a good person should do in life in regard to not sinning and living a holy life. This is important because people often look up to people of wealth and status, while Jesus did not belong to that demographic, He still instilled a righteous way of life even though there was scrutiny and judgment in every action He did. 1 John 3: 3-4 states that the people who have faith and hope in God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son will be saved; on the other hand, the ones who practice sin are lawless and the lawless will be faced with a brutal judgment. If we truly want to be children of God we need to live out the rest of our lives in complete obedience and imitation of Jesus Christ and it starts with living our lives as law abiding citizens and followers of Christ.

  3. It’s extremely interesting for us as believers of Christ to dive into this discussion of defining sin- It is a vast undertaking, and a discussion that can quickly become polarizing. The blog post says “The word lawless evokes memories of the old west, people living without restraint and making their own rules.” This is wonderful imagery, and this is precisely the image I had in my mind when thinking of this concept initially. When I think of an outlaw villain in an old western film, this man is so clearly the bad guy- from his intimidating appearance, frightful speech, whatever the film contains, so many of them clearly conveyed the good guys from the bad. This is a wonderful connection for us to make when it comes to sin- more often than not, sin is always black and white. The temptation for us that we as believers face, and a temptation I would argue has become even more prevalent, is the temptation to make sin a grey area. This isn’t just a commentary on one sin, in particular, this is a broader view of all sin, of the brokenness in this world as a whole. We must hold true to the truth contained in God’s Word, and not depart from it- we must hide in our hearts, and speak the truth with boldness, love, sincerity, and humility.

  4. The Greek word that is used to describe those who are practicing lawlessness means more than just breaking the law. It meant that one had no respect for the law and lived in denial of it. “To be lawless is to have disdain for the Law of God, to knowingly suppress the clear revelation of God and do what He has said ‘ought not be done’” (Long). Those who live in this way argue that because Jesus died on the cross and fulfilled God’s Law that the Law has no authority over them. However, in verses 5-6 John says that those who are true followers of Christ will not just keep on sinning because they have already been forgiven. This was a concept that I didn’t really understand growing up. I knew that the Bible tells us to be kind, turn the other cheek, obey our parents etc. However, I thought that someone could be saved so that they were eternally secure but then live however they wanted. I didn’t understand what happened after salvation or what a relationship with Christ was. I didn’t understand that when someone was saved they became a new person in Christ and had the desire to follow Him and apply what the Bible says to their life. “Since Jesus has not sin, the one who is abiding in Him should not keep on sinning” (Long).

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