1 John vs. 1 John
By Dr. Niclas Berggren
This brief note documents a second contradiction
in the New Testament (for the first, click here),
thus undermining the view of some Christians, that the Bible is
perfectly without error. We begin by taking a closer look at the
two passages (for a check-up of different translations, go to
The WWW Bible Gateway).
- 1 John 1:8, 10
(KJV): "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
and the truth is not in us. ... If we say that we have not sinned,
we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."
- 1 John 3:9
(KJV): "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for
his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born
What do these two passages, both directed
to believers, say? The first one states that Christians are not
without sin, and the second one that Christians are without
sin. This is a clear contradiction, in that both these statements
cannot both be true.
But is it possible for the Christian inerrantist
to offer some possible re-interpretation such that the contradiction
disappears? I shall take a closer look at four such attempts.
one may question that "born of God" refers to being
a Christian. If it means something else, then the first passage
may still be said to hold as a general description whilst the
second one merely refers to some specific case, dealing with a
subset of Christians "born of God". But this interpretation
is flawed, since 1 John 5:1 (KJV) defines the term in question:
"Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of
God." Surely, all Christians are implicated.
Second, one may attempt to change the meaning of some of
the terms. Such an attempt has been made by one modern translation,
the NIV, which renders the second passage in the following manner:
"No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because
God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning because he
is born of God." Now, on this reading, it seems as if the
two passages are not necessarily contradictory. Perhaps the second
passage now does not say that a Christian is without sin but that
he has given up a life of sinning for one in which he may occasionally
sin, but where sin is not a habit. Alas, for the Christian, this
attempt is also a failure, for four reasons.
- The NIV operates on a suspicious translating
principle, presented in its preface. On the one hand, it is admitted
that changes of the wording - even insertion of words not in the
original texts - are commonplace, and on the other hand, the scholars
were all committed to the idea that the Bible is infallible. Hence,
that means that if they identified a contradiction, they felt
free to alter the text, in opposition to the original text, so
that their a priori determination, that there are no contradictions
in the Bible, was upheld. (One wonders if they have pondered upon
Rev. 22:18, 19.) Clearly, such manipulative practices are not
to be trusted, especially in light of almost all other translations,
which are in agreement with the KJV quoted above.
- The Greek original text totally undermines
this interpretation. The first part of 1 John 3:9 partly reads:
"hamertian u poiei" which literally means "sin
not commit", whilst the second part partly reads "u
dynatai hamartanein" which literally means "not he can
sin". The wordings "continue" and "go on"
are nowhere to be found. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the
Bible (Old-Time Gospel Hour Edition) assists us in finding out
what the Greek words stand for. First "poiei": "to
make or do (in a very wide application, more or less direct).
Comp. prasso." And if we look up "prasso", we find:
"to 'practice', i.e. perform repeatedly or habitually (thus
differing from poiei, which prop. refers to a single act)."
[italics in the original] Second, "harmatanein" is a
verb which means "to miss the mark, i.e. to err, esp. to
sin". Thus, we see that the Greek explicitly destroys the
suggested argument claiming that 1 John 3:9 refers to repeated
acts or habits.
- Even if
the two points just mentioned were incorrect (which they are not),
one may wonder how one is let off the hook by the NIV translation.
Consider the first part of the verse. It says that no Christian
will continue to sin. What does "not continue"
mean? It means that one stops doing something. If we sit in a
car and say: "We will not continue any more", that means
that we stop our journey. It does not mean that we go a little
longer from time to time in the near future - it means that we
stop, period. Hence, it seems as if even the NIV, upon careful
consideration, suggests that a Christian cannot commit sin. Also,
the wording in the second part of the verse, that a Christian
cannot go on sinning, implies the same thing: if we do
not go on doing something, it means that we stop doing it entirely.
It does not leave room for occasional lapses in the future. It
implies that we have sinned in the past but that when we became
Christians, that ceased altogether.
- Furthermore, one may question what habitual
sinning is, exactly. Most Christians seem to have the idea that
they do sin on a continual basis. This is confirmed in Rom. 7:19
(especially interesting translation in the NIV, for those who
invoke that translation). So what is habitual sinning? One sin
a year? One sin a week? One sin a day? Might one not divine that
Christians differ vastly on this count, such that some Christians
sin more than a non-Christian? Take, as an example, the sin of
having sexual fantasies (see Matt. 5:27-30). Who seriously thinks
that Christian boys and single men do not masturbate to sexual
fantasies for years, possibly several times a day? Is that habitual
sinning? If so, 1 John 3:9 states that the people who commit these
acts are not Christians, for Christians cannot sin habitually.
So even on the erroneous reading of 1 John 3:9, that it refers
to habitual sinning, it does not really solve the problem, since
most Christians probably sin habitually, on any reasonable definition
of that term.
it can be suggested that what 1 John 3:9 really takes into account
is forgiveness, in the sense that even if a Christian commits
a sin, in accordance with 1 John 1:9 he is cleansed and forgiven
if he confesses it. In this sense, it could perhaps be said that
a Christian, after having confessed a sin, is on record as not
having sinned at all. But this actually violates what the verse
says - that a Christian cannot sin - and it also fails to distinguish
between an act of sin and a situation where the Christian has
been forgiven for a sin. These are certainly not automatically
equivalent. In fact, a Christian may commit a sin and not ask
for forgiveness, which makes the suggested equivalence fallacious.
is it possible that what 1 John 3:9 talks about is only one part
of a Christian, namely, his born-again nature (his "spirit"),
and that this nature cannot sin? This view is incorrect, for two
- Whilst the nature of a person
may be sinful or not, the concept of committing a sin, as is discussed
in this verse, necessarily entails a volitional act. Only a conscious
act of the will can be deemed to constitute a sin. Someone's nature,
which is a condition, cannot sin - it can only be such as to induce
sin. A sin requires free will, and the free will is an integrated
part of a whole human being as such, superseding possibly conflicting
natures. If this is held not to be so, it is also held that man
does not have free will. Therefore, as most Christians claim that
man has free will, it is wrong to suggest that the passage deals
with the born-again nature of a Christian. If a Christian commits
a sin, it is true, on the Biblical account, that his "old
nature", or flesh, may influence him to do so, but the actual
decision to commit the sin is the result of that whole person's
That this reasoning holds is obvious when considering 1 John 3:9
in conjunction with 1 John 5:1. The first verse states that "no
one" who is born of God commits sin, and the second verse
states that "everyone" who believes that Jesus is the
Christ is born of God. Now the point here is to realize what
it is that believes, since it is that thing which does not
commit sin. Take a human being. Before becoming a Christian, he
is without spiritual life - the only part of his nature is his
flesh. But it is exactly that non-Christian person who begins
to believe, without before having a born-again nature. That nature
comes immediately after the belief (1 Pet. 3:18). Therefore,
invoking reasoning by transitivity, the born-again nature cannot
in itself believe that Jesus is the Christ and, hence,
neither can it be what does not commit sin in 1 John 3:9. This
view is reinforced by Rom. 7:25, which states that Paul himself
serves the law of God and that he also serves the law of
sin with the flesh. It is the whole person Paul, not his flesh,
which commits sins.
- The problem with inferring that the
verb "to sin" means that "a Christians 'old' nature,
or flesh, sins" is that it is completely arbitrary. Since
both passages discussed here use the very same Greek verb for
"to sin", are we at liberty to introduce a very restrictive
interpretation of the word in one place and not in the other?
This does not seem a very plausible Biblical principle of interpretation.
Rather then, to be consistent we should render both 1 John 1:8,
10 and 1 John 3:9 such that they talk about the born-again nature
of the Christian committing or not committing sin, rather than
the Christian committing or not committing sin, as an autonomous,
whole person. But then the contradiction remains.
the presentation has shown that two passages in 1 John contradict
each other and that suggested attempts to remove this contradiction
fail utterly. Hence, the Bible contains yet a documented error,
the implication of which is outlined in my essay "The Errancy of Fundamentalism Disproves the God of the Bible".