“Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” 1John 3:4-6
I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was in high school and college I really had a hard time with English grammar. It wasn’t that I had bad grammar when I spoke or wrote. My parents were teachers and they made sure that when I learned to talk I learned to talk using correct grammar. But they did it by modeling correct usage and by correcting me when I made mistakes. They didn’t spend any time at home diagramming sentences and defining the specific tenses and roles the various words played in the sentences I put together. I learned correct grammatical usage more by the way the sentence felt than by the way it obeyed the rules. Truth was I didn’t know the rules.
So what does grammar have to do with our focus text. A lot. You see, there are times when knowing the correct grammatical rules helps you to most accurately understand what’s being communicated to you. And this is one of the times when accurate understanding is vital. It should, however, be noted that it’s Greek grammar that we’re concerned with, not English.
The King James and the New King James versions of the Bible give the simplest and least nuanced translation for our passage. In doing so they cause it to appear to be saying that Christians, that is those who have a genuine relationship with God, will be perfectly sinless, all the time. This, however, is not the best way of understanding the message John is giving.
In Greek, as in English, the verb carries most of the meaning when it comes to communicating the tense of the sentence. However, it doesn’t carry all the meaning. Other words and they way they support one another also shape the precise meaning of the sentence.
In the case of 1 John 3:6, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” The verb, “sin”, here translated in a straight forward present tense doesn’t do full justice to what John has actually written. Biblical exegetes, those who explain the meaning of passages by studying the way the words are used, point out that the tense of the Greek verb used in the sentence John has constructed is the present durative and most accurately describes the trend or pattern of action and doesn’t actually say that that’s the way things are absolutely all the time.
A translation that better communicates what John wrote would be, “Whoever abides in Him does not go on sinning.” This better gives the message that the person has chosen a life with God and of righteousness, and this means that the choices they make in how they live their life will reflect that choice to be with God. There may not be absolute perfection, all the time, but you’ll see very clearly, by the pattern of the actions of the life, that the destination being sought is one with God.