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1 John 3:6 reads:

πᾶς ὁ ἐν αὐτῷ μένων οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει· πᾶς ὁ ἁμαρτάνων οὐχ ἑώρακεν αὐτὸν οὐδὲ ἔγνωκεν αὐτόν

The KJV translates it the way the elementary Greek student would (if he lived in 1611), simply showing present tense:

Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.

The NIV and ESV both add a nuance that offers an interpretation (quoting NIV)1:

No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Is this a justified shift? Is there precedent for translating the present tense this way?2

1. The same issue applies to most of the instances of the present and present participle in vv 4-10.

2. Dan Wallace (Greek Grammar…p 524-525), if I'm understanding correctly, considers this (NIV, ESV) customary, as contrasted with gnomic use of the present (he favors the latter). However, even other examples of customary are not generally translated this way, which seems to press the contrast with the gnomic, i.e. he may occasionally sin, but he doesn't keep on doing it…

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This is where the joys of Koine Greek linguistics come into play, notably aspect vs. time. More later if I have time (no pun intended)! :) –  Dan Jun 24 '14 at 22:06
When you state the NIV/ESV "both add a nuance that softens this a bit [from the KJV 'sinneth']," you are basing that off of a misunderstanding of what "sinneth" in the KJV can mean. The "eth" is simply indicating 3rd person singular present active indicative., which can reflect any of the varieties of present tense meaning (continuous, customary/habitual, gnomic, etc.). So the "eth" can mean "keeps on sinning" or not (it does not make an interpretive statement about which idea for is intended), just as "sins" can in modern English. –  ScottS Jun 25 '14 at 16:15
@ScottS I didn't actually intend to draw any conclusion from the -eth. I was just noting that the Greek PAI is translated in the KJV as a PAI, both of which can have any of the meanings you indicated. The ESV and NIV, however, introduce additional wording that does make an interpretive statement. Sorry if the question wasn't clear. I'm going to avoid editing it now that there's an answer but feel free if you think you can make it clearer without changing what Jas3.1 answered. –  Susan Jun 25 '14 at 21:32

2 Answers 2

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Short Answer: The shift is not only justified, but I believe it is virtually demanded by the context.

From a grammatical standpoint either "sins" or "keeps on sinning" could work. (Technical mumbo jumbo: This is because the verb is in the Koine Greek "present tense" which is used for both ongoing action, as well as punctiliar/undefined action, in present time.)

The interpretation comes down to following the author's flow of thought, and perhaps, theology. Wallace goes with gnomic, seeing it as an eschatological reality. At the risk of playing the fool, I disagree with him, since John's entire letter is centered around real fruit in real time. I also think the immediate context demands a translation which signifies ongoing action (i.e. practicing X), if you read 3:4-10 together.

Evidence From Authorial Intent:

It is clear from reading the entire letter of 1 John that John's focus is on very practical matters in the present time -- not on theoretical, future, eschatological states that will someday be a reality. For example, consider the following quotes from his letter:

If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; -1 John 1:6, NASB

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; -1 John 2:1

3 By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; 5 but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: 6 the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. -1 John 2:3-6

9 The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. -1 John 2:9-10

(I could go on, but that should suffice for now.) John wants his readers to walk uprightly and avoid those who do not walk uprightly. He is not writing a theoretical theological treatise, but a very plain, clear exhortation and warning concerning very practical matters (i.e. loving God's people.) Thus, "continuous action" seems to be in view in 1 John, not "gnomic" eschatological technicalities.

Evidence From Immediate Context

4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. 7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. -1 John 3:4-10, NASB

Notice that "By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious". What John is doing here is giving his readers a very simple test for discerning whether a person is from God or from Satan. If they love their brothers they are from God. If they practice sin they are from Satan. A "gnomic" rendition of the function of the present tense in 1 John 3:4 would make virtually no sense in context.

Answering Wallace's Objections (pp.524-525)

  • Wallace says "The very subtlety of this approach is against it." I'm not sure what he meant by that, as he gives no further elaboration.

  • Wallace cites the use of the present tense in 5:16 as an argument against the "customary" view in 3:4, but unless I'm missing something he should know better than to use that argument. Of course the present tense can function in other ways in other contexts! That is not an argument against a particular function in a particular verse several chapters prior though. Honestly I was surprised he would even use this argument.

  • Wallace's third and final argument is that gnomic presents usually occur with generic subjects. This is not an argument against the "customary" view though... it's simply a statistical data point that allows the "gnomic" view as a viable option grammatically... but we already know it's a viable option grammatically; that is not what is in question. What we are wondering is whether it is a gnomic present in this context, and his third argument doesn't answer this.


Grammar provides us with a range of possibilities, which authorial intent can then help us narrow down. Theology sometimes must play into interpretation as well. It seems to me that Wallace has recognized grammatical range (which is his area of specialty), but then uses his theology to select "gnomic" over "customary". However, both the author's purpose of the letter as a whole, as well as the author's flow of thought in the immediate context virtually demand the "customary" view.

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It is not justified. It is translational bias. The translators who translate it this way all have one thing in common. They promote 1 John as having a "test of salvation" purpose over that of a "test of fellowship" for believers.

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Hello, and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. Here we focus on the process of interpretation, so answers are not useful unless they show their work. If you’re going to make a claim about the bias of translators, you need to either interact with the Greek text to show how this translation is incorrect and/or cite reliable scholarly literature that makes such an argument. I’d be very interested in seeing this perspective represented if you’re willing to expand this. –  Susan Feb 13 at 14:00

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