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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
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 22:06
  • 2
    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
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 16:15
  • 2
    @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
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 21:32
  • this along with 3:4 are highly interpretive translations that uses "keep on sinning" - practices sin or continuing sinning. John's intention is to warn against falling in sin, rather than continuous swimming in sin. The continuous habitual rendering gives impression that John has lose or lax moral standard or lax significance where he is giving provision to flirt with sin. Such translations are based on Lutheran doctrinal bias which believe no or almost-no sin can damn the believers. @Susan
    – Michael16
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 9:45
  • @Susan this question might be sort of related to hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/47357/… Commented May 1, 2020 at 1:53

5 Answers 5

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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.

Summary

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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  • 1
    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
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 14:00
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The Disciples Literal New Testament does a good job on conveying the meaning:

Everyone abiding in Him is not sinning ("sin" would be better). Everyone sinning has not seen Him nor known Him. (DLNT)
πᾶς ὁ ἐν αὐτῷ μένων οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει πᾶς ὁ ἁμαρτάνων οὐχ ἑώρακεν αὐτὸν οὐδὲ ἔγνωκεν αὐτόν

The phrase is composed of two statements with the same form:

whoever - does something - not does something

A: whoever abides does not sin
B: whoever sins has not seen Him nor known Him

A: πᾶς ὁ [ἐν αὐτῷ] μένων     οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει 
B: πᾶς ὁ           ἁμαρτάνων οὐχ ἑώρακεν [αὐτὸν] οὐδὲ ἔγνωκεν [αὐτόν]

The writer states the two "does" actions are to be understood as "being done" in the same way, but the two "not does" are to be understood as "being done" differently:

A: abide [present-active-participle] sin [present-active-indicative] 
B: sins  [present-active-participle] seen known [perfect-active-indicative]

Therefore, however "abide" which begins the first statement is understood, determines how "sins" which begins the second statement should be understood. The DLNT understands the first as abiding. This demands the second to mean sinning. Unfortunately, the DLNT fails to convey any difference between "sinning" as it pertains to "abiding."

"Abiding" follows the understanding the believer is to abide continuously. If that is so, then "sinning" speaks to sinning continuously.

The verse is best understood as describing three conditions:

  1. When the believer abides in Christ, they are incapable of sin
  2. When the believer sins, it is a result of failing to abide in Christ
  3. Those who have not seen or known Christ, are incapable of abiding and so are always sinning.
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I believe the whole verse hinges on righteousness Not our righteousness but the righteousness God offers Through Christ. If you're questioning holiness and reference to sin of the flesh and the breaking of the lawThat would be a different subject

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The change in the New versions is an epic fail and a huge mistranslation caused by a Lutheran aka reformed doctrine that occasional sinning is permissible. See the idea of forensic-false-justification which is contrary to truth by Luther who taught that reason is devil's greatest whore. This doctrine of false-contrary-to fact i.e. wrongful-justification is wholeheartedly taught by scholars like Daniel Wallace, Dunn, Dr. Craig etc. It is to be noted that many Evangelical Protestants don't like to be called Lutherans for some unknown reasons.

The traditional translation is not peculiar to the elementary Greek student of 17th century, it is the normative and only translation from Greek, if you want to translate literally and faithfully. By twisting the simple present tense into continuous, the new versions are paraphrasing and commenting, rather than translating. Thus, the versions such as NET, ESV, NASB cannot be counted as literal (NET doesn't even claim to be literal), NIV is ignored. Compare 1John 3 ESV and WEB. World English Bible is a nice modern version from the base text of traditional ASV. The phrase "no one keeps on sinning" could also mean not sinning from the point of repentance. So, a righteous man can still interpret these translations in a obedient sense, without recognising translation bias. However the Bible editors and commentators leave no room for ambiguity when they explain it further. ESV study bible gives a note on the verse:

3:6-7 [†6-7] No one who abides... keeps on sinning. True followers of Christ do not make a practice of sinning. When they sin, they confess the sin to God. Thus they keep a strong relationship with him (see note on vv. 9–10). On “abides,” see notes on John 8:31; 15:4.
3:9-10 [†9-10] born of God. See John 3:3–8. God’s seed. Some take this to be the Word of God that causes new birth (compare James 1:18, 22; 1 Pet. 1:23, 25). Others think it refers to the Holy Spirit’s transforming presence within the believer. Both of these ideas are likely intended here. This does not mean Christians are ever completely free from sin in this life (see 1 John 1:8–10). By this it is evident. See Matt. 7:16.

Despite talking about repentance, the ESV makes it clear to the readers that complete purification, cleansing or sanctification from sin is impossible (in this life), you cannot be permanently liberated from the bondage of sin (according to them), cf. Genesis 3:4.

Read the context:

NHEB 1 John 3:3-10,22-24; 4:4; 5:2-5,15-19:

“Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure. Everyone who sins also commits lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him is no sin. Whoever remains in him does not sin. Whoever sins hasn't seen him, neither knows him. Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever is born of God does not commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever does not do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who does not love his brother. … and whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he commanded us. He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us. … You are of God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. … By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and do his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? … And if we know that he listens to us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him. If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for those who sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death. I do not say that he should make a request concerning this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. We know that whoever is born of God does not sin, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

The author couldn't be more detailed and rigorous in defining sin, clearly to the early Gentile heretics, commonly believed as Gnostics (perhaps proto-Marcionians who believed that occasional sinning is permitted, that grace of Christ means licence to sin, libertinism, and that the justice demanding God was a wrathful evil God prior to Jesus or Paul's Grace). In fact, all general epistles are directed to refute this early heresy of the Gentiles who perverted Paul (2 Peter 3:16-17). Thus, we can see John is far from allowing occasional sinning, and we don't need to know Greek to understand this.

1 John 2:1 RV

My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye may not sin. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:

And if any man sin, or if anyone would/may sin (aor subjunctive); the meaning of which is John commands and expects them to never sin at all. NET study notes on this verse:

So that you may not sin. It is clear the author is not simply exhorting the readers not to be habitual or repetitive sinners, as if to imply that occasional acts of sin would be acceptable. The purpose of the author here is that the readers not sin at all, just as Jesus told the man he healed in John 5:14 “Don’t sin any more.”

The ESV or other modern versions are also inconsistent in translating this present tense and participles ἁμαρτάνει, πᾶς ὁ ἁμαρτάνων (sins and anyone sinning or committing sin) and Πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν doing/commit-sin in 1John 3:4, 8, 9, they turn it into practising sin or keeps on sinning or makes a practice of sinning, a clear iterative habitual sinning, which implies occasional sinning is acceptable. There is no reason for the shift or twist, and imagine if we change all reference of doing sins in the whole NT based on this (Marcionian) doctrine that the authors only forbid the continual practice of sin, not an absolute prohibition of sinning. It will result in a preposterous language if all general present tense conditions, teachings or general facts are twisted into iterative continuous tense; John 5:14* “Don’t make a habit of sinning, don't get addicted to sin, Go and reduce your frequency of sinning”. 1John 3:4* "habitual sin is lawlessness". These translations are thus inconsistent in their deliberate attempt to change the John's epistle particularly. They translate many similar phrases accurately in the same epistle and elsewhere. Especially 1John 5:18, why is this verse οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει has not been translated in the same licentious way in NET, NASB?

ASV: We know that whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not; but he that was begotten of God keepeth himself, and the evil one toucheth him not.
NET: We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin, but God protects the one he has fathered, and the evil one cannot touch him.
NASB: We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.
ESV: does not keep on sinning

Also NASB on 3:6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. but on v8 the one who practices sin is of the devil.

Cf. John 8:34 Rom 7:20 2Cor 5:21 2Cor 11:7 Jas 4:17 Jas 5:15 1Pet 2:22 etc. However, there are other passages that they change or reform, outside this epistle.

[John 8:34 SBL] Ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν δοῦλός ἐστιν τῆς ἁμαρτίας·
ESV: Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.
WEB: everyone who commits sin is the bondservant of sin.

1 Cor 15:34 NHEB: Wake up righteously, and do not sin, for some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
ESV: do not go on sinning.
Heb 10:26 NHEB: For if we sin (ἁμαρτανόντων) willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more a sacrifice for sins,
ESV: For if we go on sinning deliberately
NET: For if we deliberately keep on sinning
NASB: For if we go on sinning willfully

Turning the Greek word poieo (doing, to commit) into practice which means a repeated habitual action is also wrong, as it is deliberately done to change the generic or gnomic stative, factual prohibition to sin into iterative and customary habitual sinning. Since there is a separate word for practice G4238 πράσσω prasso. The sinister agenda is conspicuous.

In spite of rightly translating 1 John 3:6 "does not sin", the NET is still shifts to "practice" elsewhere. Wallace, in NET t.notes gives a defensive reason behind the new iterative interpretation or shift, despite the particular phrase is cautiously translated:

The interpretive problem raised by the use of the present tense ἁμαρτάνει (hamartanei) in this verse (and ποιεῖ [poiei] in 3:9 as well) is that (a) it appears to teach a sinless state of perfection for the true Christian, and (b) it appears to contradict the author’s own statements in 2:1–2 where he acknowledged that Christians do indeed sin. [.. . .]

The reason to justify the traditional view is the (apparent) unimaginable & despicable idea of perfection of saints, and the verses like 1John 2:1-2. It seems Wallace sees the phrase of 2:1-2 "but if anyone may sin" as a normative, regular, casual sinning which is casually allowed in the Churches, rather than a despicable possibility, worst case scenario of a sinful act for a holy, perfect man. Nonetheless, this explanation it is quite casually normative for believers to sin contradict NET 1John 3:9 he is not able to sin because he has been fathered by God, which gives no study note to explain the contradiction which the confusion reading must be wondering about.

Wallace, in his book, on Gnomic Present p. 525, agrees that this verse is a gnomic present, talking about stative, factual, general truth in an absolute sense, rather than customary occasional sinning. However, he dismisses the command(s) by rendering it as an eschatological hyperbole. The argument of eschatological hope to reduce the unchangeable law of God as eschatological, poleptic, hyperbolic hope is quite vague & nonsensical:

How should we then take the present tenses here? The immediate context seems to be speaking in terms of a projected eschatological reality.’ The larger section of this letter addresses the bright side of the eschaton: Since Christians are in the last days, their hope of Christ’s imminent return should produce godly living (2:28-3:10). The author first articulates how such an eschatological hope should produce holiness (2:28-3:3). Then, without marking that his discussion is still in the same vein, he gives a proleptic view of sanctification (3:4-10)-that is, he gives a hyperbolic picture of believers vs. unbelievers, implying that even though believers are not yet perfect, they are moving in that direction (3:6, 9 need to be interpreted proleptically), while unbelievers are moving away from truth (3:10; cf. 2:19). Thus, the author states in an absolute manner truths that are not yet true, because he is speaking within the context of eschatological hope (2:28-3:3) and eschatological judgment (2:18-19).

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