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Q: #511. What does it mean to "practice" sin (1 Jn 3:9)? How do I know if I am practicing sin?

     A: I want to begin by showing not only (1 Jn 3:9), but also several other verses around it, as I believe they are important to this discussion too. In addition, I am going to do something I rarely do, and that is to show these verses in both the KJV and NASB Bibles. Let’s begin with the KJV.

(1 Jn 3:4-10) Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
(5) And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.
(6) Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.
(7) Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.
(8) He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.
(9) Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
(10) In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.

     Now, the NASB.

(1 Jn 3:4-10) 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;
(8) 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.
(10) 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.

     Why have I posted both versions? Because I first want you to understand why the word “practice or practices” is used in the NASB version of the Bible (and others like the ESV, NLT, Berean, and more). When we look at the verses in the KJV, we see things like (paraphrasing) “if you abide in God, you do not sin,” “if you sin, you have not seen God,” “if you committeth sin, you are of the devil,” “whoever is born of God does not sin.” So, doesn’t it seem clear that if you sin, you cannot be a Christian? Yet Christians DO sin. Even John said so just a few chapters before this: (1 Jn 1:8) “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” and (1 Jn 1:10) “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (Also see: Rom 3:10,23, Rom 5:12).

     So, how do we reconcile this apparent contradiction. We look at the Greek word used for “committeth (v4 & 8), doeth (v7), commit (v9)” in the KJV or “practices/practice (v4,7,9,10)” in the NASB. This Greek word is “poieo.” Poieo is used over 500 times in the New Testament, and is translated using many different words. By far, the widest usage is simply “to do.” In addition, most of these uses point to a one-time or occasional act. These would seem to fit with how the KJV Bible translates the word “poieo” in the verses above, right? Yes…, but again, translating it as the KJV does give us the apparent contradiction.

     However, when John uses poieo in 1st John, it is a “present tense verb,” and this points to a continuous action. This allows for the possibility that John is speaking of more than a one-time or occasional act. This same “present tense verb” can be found in other verses as well, which show us that poieo can be a continuous action. For example, we can see this in: (Mt 7:24 – “doeth them”) (Jn 4:1 – “Jesus made”) (Jn 11:47 – “this man doeth”) (3 Jn 1:10 – “he doeth”) (Rev 13:12 – “He exerciseth”) (Rev 13:13 – “He doeth”).

     What this means is that the word “practices,” (as a continuous action) can be used in these verses in 1st John. In addition, if we use “practices,” rather than “do” or “commit,” it eliminates the apparent contradiction we talked about above. Yes, all Christians sin, and are sinners, but Christians do not “PRACTICE” sin!

     What do we mean when we say “practice” sin? If we look at a dictionary, there are a number of definitions for “practice,” but the one that works for here is: “(to) carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly.” Thus, in relation to (1 Jn 3:9) and the other verses above, a Christian cannot sin “habitually” or “regularly.” Yes, we sin, but we do not make it a “habit.” It will not be a pattern for our lives.

     Now, you may be saying, “I believe I am a Christian, but I have a sin that I commit over and over and I just can’t seem to stop.” Aren’t I “practicing sin?” In addition, you may wonder “how much of the same sin do I have to keep doing to be “practicing it?” First, we must understand that John is not talking about Christians in (1 Jn 3:9), but “non-Christians.” Only a non-Christian can “practice” sin, Christians cannot.

     Therefore, if a person believes he is a Christian, but he keeps “struggling” with the same sin over and over, doesn’t this mean he isn’t actually a Christian? I don’t believe this is what John is talking about. The word “struggling” is the key. Keeping this in mind, let’s look at some reasons why it is “impossible for a Christian to “practice” sin.

1. The first reason is found in (1 Jn 3:9) itself. He cannot “practice” sin because: “His (God’s) seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” It is interesting to note that the Greek word “sperma” is used for “seed” here. This is where we get our word “sperm” from today. Contained within sperm is the DNA of the father. Therefore, if we carry this out to this verse, we could say that because Christians are “born of God,” this means that “God’s seed” is in them, and this gives them the DNA of God the Father. As such, we share similar traits with our Father. One of these traits is a “hatred” for sin. As humans, we will sin, but as Christians we will “hate” our sin, just as our Father hates sin (Prov 6:16-19)(Deut 12:31)(Deut 16:22)(Ps 5:4-6)(Zech 8:17)(Rev 2:6). If one can “practice” sin without a “hatred” for his sin, he does not have the DNA of the Father.

2. When we are “born of God” (born again), we become a new creation. (2 Cor 5:17) says, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” What this means is that our old sinful nature (called the “old man” in the KJV) has died, and it no longer controls us. (Rom 6:6) tells us this most clearly, “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” (Rom 6:14) continues, saying, “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.” (Also see: Eph 4:22, Col 3:1-11, 2 Pet 1:4)

     Before a person becomes a Christian, sin controls him. However, once we are born again, sin can no longer control us. Our old lives have been “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20). (Also see: Gal 5:24, Gal 6:14) What this means is that while a Christian can “struggle” with sin, he cannot be controlled by it. Those who are controlled by sin have not been “crucified with Christ.”

3. When we are “born of God” (born again), we receive the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14)(Titus 3:5-6)(Rom 8:9)(Acts 2:38). One of the jobs of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of sin (Jn 16:8). A Christian will be convicted when committing sin. If they are not “convicted,” they cannot have the Holy Spirit in them, and therefore they are not saved.

4. Satan is the embodiment of sin. It characterizes him. He “practices” it. (1 Jn 3:8) says he has “sinned from the beginning,” and the one who “practices sin is of the devil.” A Christian is one who “who practices righteousness” (1 Jn 3:7)(1 Jn 2:29). And, (1 Jn 3:10) says, “anyone who does not practice (prasso – see below) righteousness is not of God.” A Christian “habitually or regularly” practices righteousness, not sin. Again, yes Christians sin, but we are “convicted” of our sin by the Holy Spirit, and sorry for it. We want to turn from it.

5. The Bible describes God as “light” (1 Jn 1:5)(Jn 1:7-9)(Jn 8:12)(Lk 2:32)(Jn 12:35-36), and Satan as “darkness” (Acts 26:18)(Eph 6:12).

(1 Jn 1:6)(NASB) says, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice (prasso – see below) the truth.”

(Jn 3:20) says, “For every one that doeth ([NKJV} “practices” = prasson – see below) evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.”

(Jn 8:9) says, “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (Also see: Jn 12:46)

     As Christians, we are called “children of light” (Jn 12:36)(1 Th 5:5), and as such we are “light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8)(Mt 5:14-16)(1 Pet 2:9). Therefore, we cannot “walk in darkness.” It is impossible for light and darkness to co-exist together (2 Cor 6:14).

6. All humans are called “flesh” in the Bible (Gal 2:16,20)(Mt 24:22)(Isa 40:5)(Rom 3:20)(Deut 5:26), and as “flesh,” we are all considered sinful (Rom 8:3)(Rom 7:18). Our flesh has “lusts” (Rom 13:14)(Eph 2:3)(2 Pet 2:10,18)(1 Jn 2:16) and “sinful passions” (Rom 7:5). Our flesh is “hostile towards God (Rom 8:7), and those “in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8). However, as Christians who have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit in us is “at war” with the “lusts” and “sinful passions” of our flesh (Gal 5:16-18)(Gal 6:8)(Rom 8:4-7,9,12-13) (Rom 7:5-6)(Jn 6:63). If a Christian is not having “a war” with his sinful “flesh,” he cannot have the Holy Spirit. In other words, if a Christian is not experiencing a “war” when they sin, they are not a Christian. A Christian will work: to not “make provision for the flesh” (Rom 13:14), to “crucify the flesh” (Gal 5:24), and to “cleanse (themselves) from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit” (2 Cor 7:1).

     Notice a common theme amongst these 6 reasons? They are NOT the characteristics of a non-Christian, they are the characteristics of a Christian! This is why it is impossible for a Christian to “practice sin,” because all of these 6 things apply to him. Yes, the Christian may “struggle” with doing the same sin over and over, BUT, he will: “hate” his sin, “be convicted” of his sin, ” and be “at war” with his “flesh” and sin. He “cannot walk in darkness,” and he will “practice righteousness,” all because “God’s seed abides in him.”

     NOW, on the other hand, none of these 6 traits belong to the non-Christian. Therefore, the non-Christian can “practice sin,” and again, the non-Christian is who I believe John is clearly speaking of in these verses in 1st John. The non-Christian is not going to care if he is “sinning.” Yes, a non-Christian may feel remorse and sorrow over doing something over and over that the Bible calls sin, but they are not going to care if they “sinning,” as in disobeying God’s law. They are not going to care if their sin brings sorrow to God. They are not going to care if their sin breaks their fellowship with God (1 Pet 3:12)(Jn 9:31)(Isa 59:2)(Prov 15:29)(Isa 1:15). And, they are not going to confess their sin, repent, and ask for forgiveness from God.

     What kind of person are we talking about here? Have you ever heard a person call themselves a Christian, but they are clearly “practicing” a life of unrepentant sin? For example, the person who says:

Yes, I am a Christian, and I am also a practicing homosexual.

Yes, I am a Christian, and I live with my “significant other,” and we have sex regularly.

Yes, I am a Christian, and I hate black people, white people, Jews, the President, or anyone. (See: 1 Jn 2:9-11)

Yes, I am a Christian, and I will defend a woman’s right to have an abortion until the day I die.

Yes, I am a Christian, and I do like to look at porn, but God understands because He gave me these urges.

Yes, I am a Christian psychic.

Yes, I enjoy getting drunk/high, but it’s ok because I am a Christian and God forgives me.

     There are dozens more of these examples. These people are “practicing sin.” They do not hate their sin, they are not convicted of their sin, they are not at war with their sin, and they are not sorry for their sin. And, sadly, because they are “practicing” these sins, they are not “born of God.” They are “children of the devil” (1 Jn 3:10)(Jn 8:44)(1 Jn 3:8)(Mt 13:38).

     There is another Greek word in the Bible which is “prasso.” (I used it in a few verses in #5. above.) Its primary meaning actually is “to practice” (“i.e. perform repeatedly or habitually” – Strong’s) rather than “to do.” Its most clear usage in relation to this is found in (Gal 5:16-25), when the “works of the flesh” are contrasted with the “fruit of the spirit.” In (Gal 5:19-21), it says, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, (20) idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, (21) envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who PRACTICE such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (caps emphasis mine).

     In other words, when a person says, “Yes I am a Christian, and I (practice = prasso) adultery, fornication, idolatry, jealousy, drunkenness, etc…,” they are believing a lie. They “cannot” be a Christian, and they will not “inherit the kingdom of God.” Yes, a Christian may commit any of these sins, but they are not going to so “habitually.” It is not a continual pattern. And, if they commit these sins, they are going to be at “war” with their sin, they are going to “hate” their sin, they are going to be convicted by the Holy Spirit of their sin, and they are going to confess their sin, repent, and ask for forgiveness.. They will not defiantly prasso sin.

     Let me post one more set of verses using the word prasso to make my point here. (Mt 7:21-24)(NASB) “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. (22) Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ (23) And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who PRACTICE lawlessness.’ “(caps emphasis mine) Notice, these people believed they were Christians, and they even did some things that a Christian might do, but Jesus said He did not know them because they “practiced lawlessness.”

     For some other uses of prasso as “practice,” see: (Rom 1:32)(Eph 4:19)(Phil 4:9)(1 Jn 1:6 and 1 Jn 3:10 from above).

     If you call yourself a Christian, and you are habitually practicing anything the Bible calls sin, I urge you to ask yourself the following about your sin: “Am I excusing it, justifying it, rationalizing it, blaming it on something or someone else, or believing that it is ok to do it since God forgives?” If so, I believe you should be worried. However, I cannot know your heart, or if you truly are a Christian. Only God can know this. I do urge you to keep these three verses in mind:

(2 Cor 13:5) Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?

(Rom 6:1-2) What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? (2) God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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Eric TY

I enjoyed your analysis of scripture….May God continue to bless and keep you.