“Whoever is born of God does not commit sin” -- I John 3:9
It is frequently supposed that justification and new birth are different expressions of the same thing. It is true that both gifts are given to every believer in the same moment, and yet they must be distinguished as different gifts. Justification implies something that God does “for” us. New birth is something that God does “in” us. Justification changes our formal and outward relationship with God, from enemies to children. New Birth, or regeneration, changes our innermost souls, from sinners to saints. The one restores us to the blessing of God, the other renews the image of God within us and changes our innermost souls. The first blessing takes away guilt, the other takes away the power of sin. Although these gifts are joined together, making this distinction is important for our own understanding and growth.
Making this distinction is important in our attempt to explain the great privilege of being children of God and being free from sin. In order to see this clearly, we will consider what is the proper meaning of the verse, “Whoever is born of God does not commit sin.”
First, to be born of God does not imply merely being baptized, or any outward commitments whatsoever. It implies a “vast inward change by the operation of the Holy Spirit.” We can compare it to a child being born. Before birth, the child has ears but hears little, if at all. The child has eyes but sees nothing, surrounded in darkness. There may be some faint beginnings of life but no context of the world in which he or she will grow. But as soon as the child is born into the world, then everything changes. The child now feels the air, and breathes in the breath of life. Senses are awakened and a continual increase of strength, motion, and sensation begins.
So it is with those who are born of God. Before this great transformation, we subsist in the one who gives life, but we have no inward consciousness of God’s presence. The eyes of understanding are closed. We hear only the noise of the world. But when we are born of the Spirit, spiritual eyes and ears are opened. We sense God’s presences, and most especially, know God’s love. Darkness passes away. Peace, Joy, and Love fill our hearts. We know the voice of our Shepherd and have a desire to obey.
So, what does it mean to say that those born of the Spirit do not commit sin? To continually receive the breath of life from God, the gracious influence of the Spirit, and to grow in the unceasing love of Christ, removes us from sin. As long as this seed remains, we cannot sin, in terms of a voluntary transgression of the law.
But here a difficulty occurs, one that appears insurmountable. It is clear, in fact, that those whom we cannot deny having been truly born of God, not only could, but do, commit sin – even gross outward sin. They do transgress the plain, known laws of God.
Take David, for example. He was unquestionably born of God as an anointed king over Israel. “He was strong in faith, giving glory to God.” He wrote with such faith, “the Lord is my Shepherd[MR1] .” He was filled with love, prayer and praise. And yet, such a child of God, could and did commit sin – even the horrid sins of adultery and murder.
In the New Testament, we see Barnabas become so angry with Paul that he forsakes his calling, took John and sailed the other way. We also see Peter, the great apostle, give into the Jewish Christians about demanding that Gentiles follow the laws of Moses, even after the Holy Spirit had told him that Gentiles were free from the law in Christ.
So, here we have plain, undeniable accounts of those born of God committing sin. How can this be reconciled with the assertion of St. John, if taken in the obvious literal meaning, that “whosoever is born of God does not commit sin?”
A part of the answer is found in I John 5:18. The One born of God will protect or “keep” those also born of God. Or, to put it another way, the Spirit within will protect us or “keep” us from the evil one. And yet, at the same time, there remains a seed of corruption within. If we stray from steadfastness, devotion and watchful prayer, we can also stray, step by step, first into inward sin – anger, greed, lust, gluttony, envy, and the like. We can then stray from active faith and lose sight of our life-giving God. In the weakness of this state, we are capable of committing even outward sin.
Take King David, for example. He was born of God. He loved God. But there remained that seed of corruption within him. He was walking upon the roof of his house (2 Sam 11:2), probably praising God, when he looked down and saw Bathsheba. Temptation came. He doubtless heard the warning voice, but he yielded to the thought, and the temptation began to prevail. He still saw God, but more dimly than before. He still loved God, but not with the same strength and affection. His gaze turned away from God to another, and soon nature dimmed the light of grace and kindled lust in his soul. For a time, love for God vanished from his sight. He rushed into outward sin.
Here we see a model of the progression from grace to sin. 1. The divine seed of loving, conquering faith comes to those born of God. This blessing protects us from sin and guide us into life-giving love. 2. A temptation comes, whether from the world, the flesh, or the devil, it does not matter. 3. The Spirit of God gives warning and calls us back into prayer. 4. We give way, in some degree, to temptation, which, in our narrow, short-sighted, and natural vision becomes pleasing to us. 5. The Holy Spirit is grieved; faith is weakened; and love of God grows cold. 6. The Spirit reprimands us more sharply and calls us to the way of life. 7. We turn away from the painful voice of God, and listen to the pleasing voice of temptation. 8. Evil desires spread in our soul, until faith and love vanish from our sight. At this point we are capable of committing outward sin.
All along God’s protecting, pardoning, guiding Spirit is there, but it is not forced. God is there in true relationship, never to coercion or overthrow our wills. As long as we stay in relationship, we are protected. We are able to overcome temptation. As free beings, we are able to participate in this relationship and, by the grace within, to keep ourselves in God’s will and grow in the way of life. This is the great privilege of those who are born of God.
This great privilege can be described in terms of relationship. God breathes inspiration into our souls and our souls breathe back what is first received from God. We receive love, forgiveness, guidance, inspiration, and return praise and prayer, offering up all the thoughts of our hearts, all the words of our tongues, all our body, soul, and spirit, as a holy and living sacrifice, acceptable to God through Christ our Lord.
Our response is necessary to the continuance of the divine life within us. God does not continue to act upon the soul, unless the soul “re-acts.” God first loves us and makes manifold blessings known. But, true to any good relationship, if we turn away from this love, God, in patience and steadfast love, will honor our decisions. God will leave us to the darkness of our own hearts. God will cease to breathe gifts into our soul, while still inviting us to breathe toward him again, with love, prayer, and thanksgiving, a sacrifice pleasing to God because it is what is good for us.
Examine your own heart and see if this isn’t so. Temptation still comes. If the eye of our soul is fixed on God, the temptation will soon vanish away. But if we are “drawn out” of God by our own desire, and “caught by the bait” of present or promised pleasure; then that desire, conceived in us, brings forth sin. Therefore, keep watch. Listen to the continuing voice of God. Pray without ceasing, at all times, and in all places, pouring out your heart before God. This will keep you in love and keep you from making “a shipwreck of your faith and your life.” Stay true to the great privilege of living and growing as a child of God. Amen.