Sin and Perfectionism (in 1,2,3 John)

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An attentive reading of 1 John quickly reveals that the author is working with a complex understanding of sin. At places he seems to say that believers can or must avoid sinning (3:6, 9; 5:18). At other points he firmly confronts anyone who would suggest they do not or have not sinned (1:8, 10). And at still other places he holds out the possibility of avoiding sin, but reassures his readers of divine grace if they do sin (2:1–2; 5:16–17). Apparently John’s answer to the question, “Do believers sin?” is “Yes, no, and maybe.” Though we may never totally resolve this dilemma, we certainly can make significant strides. In order to do this we need to recall the larger context for this letter, which included a schism and John’s firm commitment to the Johannine tradition. In particular, the tradition about Jesus’ teaching on love helps resolve this situation.

The first observation to be made has to do with the notion of “perfectionism,” or sinlessness. Though the modern reader may look at various translations of biblical passages that talk about “being perfect” or “perfection” in one’s behavior, we need to be very careful. As Jeffrey Lamp notes, the biblical words translated “perfect” usually refer to moral or ethical maturity, completion, or having reached a goal (443–44; cf. the comments on 1 John 2:4–6, above). Twenty-six times this concept is applied to OT figures who lead a “blameless” lifestyle (443). In this sense they are people of “integrity, honor, or truthfulness” (443; cf. Josh 24:14; Judg 9:16, 19; Prov 28:18) and not “perfect” as such. In the NT, God is identified as perfect, and God is the standard for Jesus’ followers (Matt 5:48). However, this is not some vague ethical or moral abstraction; rather, Christians are to “exercise love” (Lamp: 443; cf. Matt 5:43–47).

Not surprisingly this theme of love, especially for members of the Johannine community, is a recurring theme in the first letter (1 John 2:7–11; 3:11–24; 4:7–21; 5:2–3), and it occurs also in the Gospel of John (13:34–35; 15:12–14; 17:26). It would not be an overstatement to say that love is the central moral or ethical concern within the Johannine tradition. The reason love is central is the fact that Jesus, the incarnate Word (John 1:1–5, 14–18), has both embodied divine love (15:13; 17:26) and commanded his followers to love (13:34–35; 15:12). When the author of 1 John refers to avoiding sin, he is possibly thinking quite “narrowly” in terms of “loving one another” within the community of faith, and doing so with specific tangible acts as evidence of this love. Thus the secessionists reveal their true nature as child[ren] of the devil (3:8) because they do not love tangibly in the face of other believers’ needs (3:11–24, esp. 3:17–18). Yet despite their failure to adhere to the Johannine tradition of love, they still claim to be sinless.

If we were to think about sin within the narrow context of this tradition, letter, and social situation, this focus on love makes sense of John’s understanding of sin. The ultimate issue is integrity or maturity in the way we love or view our behavior as it expresses or fails to express love. Within the Johannine community, anyone who has truly been born of him [God] (2:29) understands the importance of finding ways to display the love they have been called to embody. Only someone who does not understand this basic point can fail to express love in the face of needy brothers and sisters (3:11–17). Despite their failure to love, they may claim to be sinless, but they do so quite erroneously (1:8, 10). On the other hand, the mature (“perfect”) believer knows the goal is to find tangible ways to live faithfully in light of Jesus’ command to love (2:7–12; 3:11, 23–24; 4:7–21, esp. 12, 17–18; 5:2–3). Therefore, no one who abides in him sins (3:6, 9), that is, refuses to love other believers as the secessionists refuse to do. John is aware that no one, not even the most devout or mature believer, flawlessly embodies the commandment to love others. Therefore, at some level we do sin and need to accept the advocacy provided by Jesus Christ (2:1–2). Finally, we must recognize that John is not unaware of other types of sin, as 1 John 5:16–17 shows. However, these verses are almost like an addendum to his main argument about the commandment to love or the sin of failing to love.

J. E. McDermond