This is a verse that sounds like it is speaking against the experience of every believer. Because of it some believers have come to the conclusion that they do not sin any longer. One must admit that it gives no wiggle room.
The book of I John is written to believers. “If we confess our sins… (1:9) and then… “My little children, these things I write to you, so you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (2:1)
The ‘we’ includes the writer and the ones he is writing to. John includes himself and clearly acknowledges that believers sin. He also refers to them as ‘my little children’ and the fact that sinning is possible for them.
The book is written for believers to exhort them to fellowship with the Lord. John describes fellowship by walking in the light (1:7), not walking in darkness (1:6); walking as He walked (2:6); abiding in the light (2:10); keeping His commands (3:24); and loving one another (4:12). These can only be done when one is abiding in Him. (3:6)
When a person comes to faith in Christ as Savior, he is born again and has come into a relationship with the Lord. (Galatians 3:26) However, in order to have fellowship with the Lord one must learn to abide in Him. Jesus told his disciples, “Abide in Me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” (John 15:4) “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit…” (John 15:8) To abide in Christ is to live according to His word. (John 15:7) To abide in Christ is to have fellowship with Him.
In chapter three, the apostle gives assurance to those to whom he is writing calling them ‘beloved’ and ‘children of God.’ John was not writing to them to cause them to lack assurance of their salvation by looking at their performance. In fact in chapter five he assures those who believe in the name of the Son of God that they possess eternal life. (5:11-13) He is writing to exhort them to have fellowship by living through Him. (4:9)
How does fellowship by living through Him happen? It happens when we abide in Him. “Whoever abides in Him does not sin.”(3:6)When the Spirit of God through the word of God controls the believer, he cannot sin since he is operating from the new nature.
Some translations say that he cannot continue in sin. But that is not a reality for any believers. Even John said that believer’s sin (1:9). And there are many examples in Scripture of believers who continue to sin.
Others teach that a believer will not habitually sin because of the present tense of the verb ‘do’. But how does one define habitual? For example, Jesus commanded the apostles to go and preach the gospel and make disciples… teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:18-20) The last two of the commands were to preach the gospel and make disciples. How many Christians fail to share the gospel or make disciples? Most believers do not share the gospel or participate in the disciple making process. Are they not disobeying Christ and is that not a habitual sin for many?
Habitual has the same problem that practicing does. It’s not definable – how many or how often are acceptable or unacceptable? Is habitual once a week, once a day, once an hour or more? Did not the apostle Paul confess to practicing the things that he did not want to do? (Romans 7:15) Did not many of the Corinthian believers practice uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness? (II Cor. 12:21) Was that not habitual sin? Were they spiritually lost because of it?
If habitual sinning is the proper interpretation, that also presents a problem in some of the other verses in I John. For example in chapter 5 verse 16; “if anyone sees a brother sinning a sin…” is in the present tense. If one follows the same consistent interpretation, one will have to conclude that the brother is habitually sinning a sin. But then how could one be a ‘brother’ and habitually sin if there is no possibility for a believer to sin habitually according to I John 3:9? The interpretation is inconsistent.
The word for ‘do’ in chapter 3 verse 9 is the Greek word, ‘poieo’. Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament states that the word ‘practice’ (‘Prasso’ in the Greek) differs from ‘do’ [poeio], which properly refers to a single act. Literally then whoever is born of God does not do one single sin.
The only way one cannot sin is when a believer abides in Christ. In Him, there is no sin. (3:5). Abiding in Christ is responding from the Divine nature, His seed in the believer. Every believer has a choice either walking in the Spirit or fulfilling the desires of the flesh. (Gal. 5:16) If one abides in Him, he will walk just as Christ walked (2:6). He who loves his fellow believer abides in the light (2:10). He who abides in Him does not sin (3:6). He who keeps His commandments abides in Him (3:23). He who abides in love abides in God and God in him (4:16).
Therefore, when one is born of God and abides in Him, he cannot sin. But as we know being born of God (saved from the penalty of sin through faith in Christ) does not prevent one from sinning. And if we are honest with ourselves we all continue to sin either in thought, word or deed.
Thus, John told them to confess their sin (1:9). He commanded them to love the brethren (2:10) and not to love the world (2:15). He then commands them to “let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning (2:24). In doing so they would not walk in darkness (1:6) but would walk in the light having fellowship with Him and one another (1:3, 7)
John clearly established the fact that a believer will sin. However, when one is born of God and abides in Christ he is operating from the seed that remains in him, the Divine nature and cannot sin.
Whoever is born of God is a person who has trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior. That person receives a new nature indwelt by the Spirit of God and does not ever do one single sin because the new man cannot sin for he is born of God. The old man is not born of God and still can sin and does so. That is why the apostle wrote to the Ephesians to put off the old man and to put on the new man, “which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:22-24)
John is saying the same thing Paul taught, in a linguistically different way. Paul commanded “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16) If one lives according to the Spirit of God through the word of God, you will not sin. (Galatians 5:25) John says that if you abide in Christ you will not sin and cannot sin because His seed remains in you. (I John 3:6; 9)
Every day a believer lives moment by moment with the choice of responding to the events of the day either in the Spirit that results in righteous and holy living or the flesh that results in sin. “Therefore …let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1, 2)