John now makes an extraordinary statement, declaring that whosoever abides in Christ sins not, and the person who does sin has not seen Christ, and does not know Him after a saving manner.  Such blunt language as this has surprised and confused many a reader, and some have in their ignorance taken these words too literally, and ran with them to their own destruction.  I speak here of those who take these words as they stand, without considering any context, and attempt to prove the doctrine of sinless perfection.  They who do so fail to recall the very sober warning contained in 1:8, where John declared unequivocally, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  That one passage ought forever to demolish the heresy of sinless perfectionism, which has been upheld from time to time by men who were otherwise sound.  It also proves this to be a very dangerous error.  A man who takes to heart the lesson of 3:4, that sin is the transgression of the law, ought never to conclude that he has achieved sinless perfection, for he will be weighing himself by the standard of God’s law, and recognizing day by day just how short he falls of the mark.  This is why John reminded us of the second chapter that, when we do sin, we need not despair, for we have a gracious Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.

What shall we say then?  Has John contradicted himself?  Those who are persuaded that all Scripture is given by inspiration of the God that cannot lie will never admit to such a thing.  There are, then, two reasonable interpretations for us to give to this, and its parallel passages.  Both are held by sound men, and good interpreters of Scripture, and I fancy we do no great violence to the text, or to our system of doctrine, whichever course we adopt.  First, it is suggested by some that, when John says the man who abides in Christ sins not, that he is speaking exclusively of the new nature, placed within us at the time of regeneration.  I would certainly agree that this new nature does not sin, for it is created by the Spirit of God, and immediately goes to war with the old man, which is completely corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.  When once this mortal body perishes, the old sin nature will die with it, and only that new nature, created by God in righteousness and true holiness, will remain, to be a suitable inhabitant of the new heaven and the new earth.

I personally prefer the second interpretation, that John is pointing to the course of life of the believer.  This fits in with the theme of his epistle, which is to establish the great distinction between light and darkness, between spiritual life and spiritual death.  The tenor of the believer’s life must always be towards righteousness, for he is in the light, as God is in the light.  This necessitates he depart from sin, which connects us back to John’s point in verse 3, that the man who possesses the hope of eternal life will purify himself, even as Christ is pure.  On the other hand, the man who professes to be in the light, but walks in darkness, is a man whose course of life is still after the sinful lusts of the flesh.  This is the man who has never seen Christ with the eye of faith, and does not know Him with a saving love.