I’m not a Greek scholar.
I should probably start with that before I get too far into writing a blog about ancient Greek verb constructs. I don’t speak Greek, I can’t read Greek, and I don’t pretend to have the foggiest idea of the proper way to translate ancient Greek manuscripts into modern-day English.
But I am a Christian who reads the Bible, and I do sometimes read verses that make me think, “How can that be?” And sometimes I read verses that make me more than a little concerned about my future as a child of God. Verses like, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9), and, “If we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26-27).
I have sinned since I came up out of the water twelve years ago. Many times.
Some of those sins, I’m ashamed to say, were committed not in ignorance, but in weakness. Knowingly. Willingly.
When I look at verses like 1 John 3:9 and Hebrews 10:26-27, there’s always a part of my mind that can’t help but wonder, “Does this mean you’re not going to make it?”
I’m writing all this because I doubt I’m the only one—and if you’ve looked at those verses and thought those same thoughts, this is for you.
You’re not out of the race. Here’s why.
* * *
This is where we get into the Greek stuff, which, once again, I have to emphasize how woefully underqualified I am to be explaining. But if you take a look at an interlinear translation of those verses, you’ll find that both
verses refer to sinning in the present tense. That might not seem especially noteworthy—until you realize that the English present tense and the Greek present tense are not identical. Here’s how the Ezra Project explains the difference:
In English, we know that the present tense describes something happening right now. It informs us of the time when an action takes place.
In Greek, however, the present tense primarily tells us the type of action. The Greek present tense indicates continued action, something that happens continually or repeatedly, or something that is in the process of happening. If you say, for instance, “The sun is rising,” you are talking about a process happening over a period of time, not an instantaneous event. The Greeks use the present tense to express this kind of continued action.
A process. Not an instantaneous event.
That’s huge. That completely changes the meaning of those passages from 1 John and Hebrews—and, in fact, brings them back in line with the message of the Bible.
I should mention that the primary Bible translation I use in my studies is the New King James Version, and for the most part, I think it gets things right. Any Bible translation is going to have involved people much, much smarter than me, but even brilliant people make mistakes—and in this instance, it looks like the New King James translators failed to convey what the Bible authors were actually saying.
Here’s how the English Standard Version renders those verses:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.
(1 John 3:9, ESV)
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
In fact, it’s not just the ESV—many other translations render these
verses using similar language. And that’s important, because the message of the Bible is one of repentance—of putting your past sins behind you, seeking forgiveness, and pressing forward on your journey toward the Kingdom of God. The idea that a single sin is enough to sunder us forever from God’s plan for us doesn’t just conflict with what the Bible as a whole has to say; it conflicts with what the books of 1 John and Hebrews themselves have to say!
John wrote, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), and the author of Hebrews reminds us, “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
We can always repent. We can always come back to God. We can always wash our robes and make them “white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
* * *
I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of sin. The ability to “come back” from sin isn’t a license to go there as often as we like—or even at all.
We should be terrified of committing sin. Sin is awful. Sin separates us from God. Sin destroys relationships. Sin demands a ransom, and that ransom is the blood of the Son of God. There is nothing laughable or inconsequential about sin.
But sin is not so powerful that it strips away the hope of our salvation.
Our own mistakes and poor decisions do not move us beyond the scope of God’s intervention or His love. What sunders us from God forever is making a practice of sin. Going on sinning deliberately, refusing to turn around, refusing to repent, refusing God’s earnest plea that we return to Him and change our ways.
When we understand what these verses really mean, what we have is not a pronouncement of doom, but a reminder of how we ought to be living our lives.
No one born of God makes a practice of sin. There is no sacrifice to cover the sins of those who go on sinning deliberately.
Live like someone born of God—because you are.
Until next time,