by Köstenberger, Merkle, and Plummer
Greek Tenses and Challenging NT Texts
At times an English translation of the Bible may seem to run contrary to other passages in the Bible. For example, 1 John 3:6 reads, “Everyone who remains in Him does not sin (οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει); everyone who sins has not seen Him or known Him.” The immediate difficulty with this verse is that it seems to contradict both experience (if we are honest with ourselves) and other passages of Scripture. John himself previously stated, “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8; see also v. 10).
There are two main ways to view the present tense verb ἁμαρτάνει in 1 John 3:6. It is either to be interpreted as a gnomic present (a general truth) or an iterative present (a repeated or customary action). If it is a gnomic present, then the interpreter has another choice to make. Is John describing something that is an actual possibility (i.e., sinless perfection in this life) or something that is in view of our eschatological hope (i.e., it is not true experientially but in light Christ’s death for us, it is true positionally)?
The better option, however, is to view the verb ἁμαρτάνει as an iterative present which involves the idea of a repetitive or customary action. This is the way both the ESV (“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning”) and the NIV (“No one who lives in him keeps on sinning”) interpret this verse. But what contextual evidence is there to interpret the verb with such a nuance?
First, as we have already seen, John notes that if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves. Thus, John already implicitly acknowledges that perfection in this life is impossible.
Second, the idea that John is speaking in light of our eschatological hope does not best fit the context of the letter. In this epistle, John offers a series of three repeated tests that serve to give assurance to true believers and expose false believers. The false believers are those who live ungodly lifestyles, do not love others, and consequently continue to live in sin. Thus, John is seeking to contrast the lifestyle of the false teachers with those who are genuine Christians.
Third, the iterative nuance is supported by the immediate context where John has been speaking about “everyone who practices sin” (v. 4, NASB; πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν), “the one who practices sin” (v. 8, NASB; ὁποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν), and the one who “does not practice sin” (v. 9, author’s translation; ἁμαρτίαν οὐ ποιεῖ). In the context, John has not only been referring to those who sin but specifically to those who practice or make a practice of sinning. Thus, John is not making a statement about the possibility of Christian perfectionism in this life or about our eschatological hope based on what Christ has done for us but is giving guidelines for knowing who are the true children of God: they are those who are not characterized by habitual disobedience to God.
Andreas J. Köstenberger (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior research professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Benjamin L. Merkle (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Rob Plummer (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Check out the forthcoming volume, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament by Köstenberger, Merkle, and Plummer.
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