Issue #140 -------
August 14, 2004
God works by contraries so that a man
feels himself to be lost in the very moment
when he is on the point of being saved.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
One of the subscribers to Reflections recently wrote and asked if I would explain the meaning of John's teaching in 1 John 5:18. This is a powerful passage. It speaks to the very heart of a believer's blessed assurance in Christ Jesus. It has also been the source of some confusion over the centuries, and has been the basis of not a few false doctrines. Thus, it behooves us, as disciples intent upon discerning the fullness of Truth, to examine this verse in greater depth to determine its spiritual significance for the children of God.
There are several key parts to this passage that require some careful exegesis if we would avoid the theological and hermeneutical pitfalls that have claimed countless victims over the centuries. Does the aged apostle John really mean to suggest that the children of God do not sin? Ever?! We must also seek to identify the one specified in the second phrase. Can we know the identity of the one who keeps those born of God? And what does it mean to "keep" them? Who is the "evil one," and what restrictions have been placed upon him with regard to those born of God? These are all questions that require answers if we would perceive the authorial intent of this passage.
The Text in Translation
Before we begin an exegetical analysis of the text, however, it is imperative that we see how it has been dealt with in translation. This will rather quickly reveal to us the textual and interpretive difficulties that have challenged biblical scholars through the ages. Notice the following renderings of this verse in several popular versions and translations (we have already noted the wording of the New American Standard Bible above):
Although many more examples could easily be given, these eighteen are more than sufficient to illustrate the difficulty faced by biblical interpreters. There is obviously significant diversity among translators as to the exact meaning of the text, and this is very visibly reflected by the various renderings of the passage. There are essentially three areas of concern in this verse, and we shall examine each in turn.
Those Born of God SIN NOT
The aged apostle John begins his statement in this passage by stating a reality he declares we as the children of God know --- "We KNOW that no one born of God sins." Throughout this epistle John seeks to assure Christians of certain eternal realities. For example, in chapter five alone, he assures us that we may know we have eternal life (vs. 13) .... we know He hears our prayers and responds (vs. 15) .... we know that we are children of God (vs. 19) .... we know that God's Son has given us understanding (vs. 20). These are just a few of those blessed assurances of God's children. There are some things we may KNOW; about which we may be absolutely certain. "These things are fixed for us, fixed as facts. Nothing can shake them in our minds" (R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of First John, p. 538). See also: 1 John 3:2, 14 where additional great certainties of faith are given.
That about which John is absolutely certain, and which each of us born of God may KNOW, is that we SIN NOT! The text literally reads, "We know that all who have been born of God sin not!" The word that signifies our "begetting" appears in the Perfect Passive Tense in Greek, which "speaks of a past completed act of regeneration with the present result that the believing sinner is a born-one of God" (ibid). This might be more effectively translated: "...all who stand having been born of God..." In other words, our present condition, in which we stand, is the direct result of a past completed act. At a point in the past we were begotten, and thus our present state is that of children having been born to God. I am a child of my earthly father because of a past event which occurred on March 2, 1949 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I continue to this day to be a child of my earthly father (and mother) because of that past reality. The very same is true spiritually. At a point in the past (on September 17, 1960 in Gallup, New Mexico), because of an act of demonstrated faith, I became His child; I was born into His family. That reality, in which I stand, continues to this day. Such is the significance of the Perfect Passive Tense in the Greek.
Because of who I am ... and Whose I am ... John declares that I "sin not." Does John really suggest here that a child of God is sinless?! Is it true that Al Maxey NEVER sins .... ever?!! I can quickly assure you that this is not the case, to which my wife Shelly, and others who know me well, will readily attest. I am a sinner! I stumble and falter daily! In this very same epistle, John wrote, "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). He continues: "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (vs. 10). Yes, we are ALL sinners! "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).
HOW, then, am I to reconcile this teaching with the fact that John clearly declares those who are born of God "sin not"?! Is this a contradiction in Scripture? Some suggest that we are all sinners PRIOR to accepting Christ, but that we are sinless AFTER being added to Him. This, however, is in conflict with several clear statements in Scripture to the contrary. In 1 John 1:8, just by way of example (quoted above), the apostle, writing to Christians, declares them to be self-deceived if they believe they "have no sin" --- the word "have" appears in the Present Tense, thus depicting their current reality. They are children of God, but not without sin in their daily lives. Many years after accepting Christ Jesus, Paul told the young evangelist Timothy, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I AM the foremost" (1 Tim. 1:15). This phrase ("I Am") is eimi ego in the Greek, which is a very emphatic assertion of a present state! Please read Romans 7:14-24 carefully. Paul, like his fellow apostle John, is unwilling to admit that he has attained unto sinless perfection in his present walk with the Lord.
Thus, again, how are we to reconcile our present reality with the declaration found in 1 John 5:18? The solution is really quite simple, and is to be perceived in the verb form employed by John in 1 John 5:18. The word for "sin" in the text appears in the Present Tense, which usually signifies an ongoing or continuous action. We could perhaps more accurately translate this passage -- "We know that all who stand having been born of God do not sin continuously." Thus, the idea being conveyed here is not one of sinless perfection, but abstinence from a life of habitual, willful sin! Yes, we all stumble and fall ... daily ... but as children of God we do not live lives given over continuously to sin. The Hebrew writer alludes to this truth when he warns, "If we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" (Heb. 10:26). Do we frequently stumble in our walk with the Lord after accepting Him? Of course we do, and John says that we're liars if we say we don't. However, genuine disciples of Christ don't willfully continue in a life of sin. We do not make a habitual practice of sin. This is the reality stated in 1 John 5:18.
"St. John means strongly to insist, in this the solemn close of his letter, that the true ideal Christian frame is the absence of willful sin. Stumbles there may be, even such as need the prayers of friends, but intentional lawlessness there cannot be" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 493). Albert Barnes says this passage refers to one who "is not habitually and characteristically a sinner" (Barnes' Notes on the New Testament). Dr. Kenneth Wuest, perhaps one of the greatest Greek scholars in the church, observed that the word "'Sinneth' is present tense, continuous action; the one born of God does not keep on habitually sinning" (Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 2, p. 182). A child of God "does not live a life of sin. He is not disposed to sin which is both willful and continued, though he may be overtaken in a fault" (B.W. Johnson, The People's NT with Notes, p. 393). Paul concurs with this thought, saying we are to restore our brethren who are "overtaken in a fault," each one looking unto themselves lest they too be tempted and snared by sin (Gal. 6:1).
The One Born of God Keeps Him
How are the children of God enabled or empowered to conquer sin in their lives? Is the power inherent within themselves? If it was, there would be no need for a heavenly Redeemer, but merely for greater human resolve. The reality, however, is that our hope is in Him, not within ourselves! After bemoaning his own wretchedness, and his propensity to the very sin he deplored and detested, Paul cried out, "Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (Rom. 7:24). Paul then immediately gives us the glorious answer to the age-old question --- "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other hand, with my flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death" (Rom. 7:25 - 8:2).
Paul tells us the solution to sin is a Savior! John, in the text under consideration in this article, seems to suggest the same -- "We know that no one born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him..." (1 John 5:18, NASB). The basic interpretive assumption made by the NASB translators was that "the one born of God" in the second phrase was a reference to Jesus, thus they capitalized the word "He." A comparative analysis of the many versions and translations on the market, however, will quickly reveal that not all textual scholars agree with the position of the NASB translators. Scholars are split down the middle with respect to the identity of "the one born of God." There are two major views: (1) It refers to Jesus, or (2) it refers to Christians. Generally, those who embrace the latter position adopt the reading "keeps himself," rather than "keeps him," at the end of the phrase. I would refer the reader back to the list of renderings by various versions near the beginning of this article for examples of these two interpretations.
The debate is really far more than just an interpretive one; it also involves matters pertaining to textual criticism. For example, in the phrase "the one born of God keeps him/himself" one finds the ancient Greek manuscripts are about equally divided as to which word is intended (auton or heauton). For a list of the manuscripts favoring each, one may consult Dr. Bruce Metzger's A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Further, there is scholarly debate with regard to the phrase "the one born," which is the Greek -- ho gennetheis (an Aorist Passive Participle). In the first phrase of this verse, "the one born" is the Greek -- ho gegennemenos (a Perfect Passive Participle). It should be carefully noted that in the writings of the apostle John he always uses the latter grammatical form to refer to Christians, and never uses the former (Dr. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek NT, p. 718). "The ho gennetheis plainly points to another than ho gegennemenos, even to Him that was and is the Begotten One of God. He it is who watches over the new-born child of God. The aorist participle occurs nowhere else in St. John; it expresses Him who, without relation to time past or present, is the Son of God" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22). Dr. Kenneth Wuest emphasizes that ho gennetheis "is aorist tense and speaks of the Son of God; Son of God by eternal generation from God the Father in a birth that never took place because it always was" (Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 2, p. 182).
Therefore, it seems most probable to me that in 1 John 5:18 the first "one born of God" refers to Christians, whereas the second "one born of God" refers to Jesus Christ. If this is indeed the case, then the teaching of the passage is that the latter "keeps" the former! In other words, we find security and safety in the protective embrace of God's Son! Such a doctrine is certainly consistent with Scripture, and brings to mind the statement of Jesus in His great prayer -- "While I was with them, I was keeping them ... and I guarded them. ... I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one" (John 17:12, 15). "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:27-28). The word "keep" used in 1 John 5:18 is the Greek word tereo, which means "to guard; keep protective watch over; preserve; shield." It is used in the Present Tense, thus is an action performed continuously by our Lord on our behalf.
There are two very common, but very questionable, doctrines, the proponents of which often appeal to this particular verse as evidence for the validity of their theological position. I will not seek to deal with them in the context of this present Reflections (I'll reserve that for future articles), but merely mention them in passing "for the record." They are:
The Evil One Does Not Touch Him
One of the great realities of being a child of the heavenly Father is that we have the assurance of His continual watchful care; indeed, His protective care! The Lord Jesus is a Good Shepherd who carries a "big stick," and wolves only dare approach the flock at great personal risk to their very lives. If you are one of the Lord's lambs, you may rest assured that He "keeps" you, and that "the evil one," and his pack of hellish hounds, will not be able to "touch" you! The "evil one," of course, refers to none other than Satan. With the Lord on our side, the enemy will not prevail against us! "Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31). "John knows the wiles of the evil one and expects them. Nonetheless, the author has been adamant in his confidence that the evil one need not prevail. It is not the quality of strength in the life of the believer that gives him hope of prevailing, but the presence of the power of God" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 356). We have a "watchful Protector stronger than our adversary" (Dr. B.F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text with Notes, p. 193). "Though man has a great foe, he has a greater Friend" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 22).
We are assured that the evil one does not have the power to "touch" us! This the Greek word hapto, which conveys far more than merely "touching" another. It literally signifies: "to grab onto; to cling to; to hold tight." John uses this word only one other time in his writings: John 20:17, where Jesus instructs Mary, "Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father." It denotes a clutching to someone or something so as to prevent them from attaining their goal or fulfilling their purpose. Lenski translates the phrase, "And the wicked one does not fasten himself upon him" (The Interpretation of First John, p. 538). Dr. Westcott declares, "It describes 'a laying hold on,' more than a mere superficial touch" (The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text with Notes, p. 193).
What a joy it is to be a child of the Father; to be born from above! Although there are many responsibilities, obligations and expectations that come naturally with being a child of Almighty God, and though the wicked world may array itself against us, nevertheless the blessings flow over each of us daily! One of the greatest, of course, is the redemption we have through the sacrifice of His unique Son Jesus! Although He was perfect, we are far from it. We are children who stumble often as we seek to keep pace with the One who walks in perfect light, yet in spite of our frequent missteps we are loved nonetheless, and He lifts us up each time to continue the journey to our eternal home!
I saw a bumper sticker once which stated -- "I'm Not Perfect, Just Forgiven!" I am a sinner, saved by grace!! Because of that reality, such beloved hymns as Amazing Grace, written by John Newton around the year 1779, cannot help but touch each of our hearts and lives deeply as we contemplate the One who has saved us from the clutches of the evil one.
From a Baptist Pastor in Texas:
Al, In our Southern Baptist churches, hand-clapping is also an ongoing debate. One such argument occurred recently over our youth. They clapped after a baptism of a young kid who had been on drugs and just plain hell-bound. He had become involved in our fellowship and eventually came to know Jesus Christ as His Savior and wanted to be baptized. This man's baptism was seen as a wondrous, miraculous occasion, and the youth and leaders erupted into applause. We had some men, however, get up and leave the church, saying, "We've lost our church." How my heart broke at the ignorance -- not with regard to the youth applauding, but with regard to the attitude of these few at a time when another soul was entering the kingdom! Thanks again for your writings. Along with others, I relish their arrival.
From a Reader in Arizona:
Thank you for this excellent and incredibly timely issue of your Reflections! We were discussing this very thing -- expressing joy in the assembly -- in our adult Sunday school class yesterday. I agree with all that you wrote and was glad to see that you distinguished between hand-clapping in joy and praise to God and applauding a performance. I admit to feeling very disturbed when it seems the applause is for a performance of man rather than for our God, as though we are an audience at a stage show. The whole "actor - audience" format of the worship service is something I question in my heart. We need more sharing in our assemblies. You're a blessing, Al. Keep at it!
From a Reader in Alabama:
Dear Al, As you publish your articles you never know how timely they will be for many of your readers! Some have been struggling with the clapping issue in our local church. Personally, I have never been a clapper, but I do not object to such and I would never want to bind my preference on others. I do wonder, however, if those who object so strongly to clapping would also censure smiling in times of joy in our assemblies. After all, smiling is not specified as acceptable behavior, and it does "go beyond" what is specifically "authorized." Are we approving man's "performance" with our smile? What about the "slippery slope"? If we smile, might we not then chuckle aloud? And if we chuckle, might we not break into disrespectful guffaws? Just think what smiling might lead to. God encourages us to be joyful. He loves to see joy in our lives. It is a sign that His Spirit is living in us. Do we really think He sits in condemnation of our heartfelt expressions of joy? Thanks for thinking and sharing, Al.
From a Reader in North Carolina:
I'll give you a big round of applause for that last article, brother! Isn't it amazing how much time, effort, and money is wasted by some brethren who seem to live and breathe solely for the opportunity to "point a finger" at others! For most of my life I lived in east Tennessee -- a hotbed of ultra-conservative, legalistic Churches of Christ. I think they may even breed "watchdogs" up there! These brethren wouldn't drive across town to visit a person of a different culture in hopes of bringing them to church, but they would invest hundreds and even thousands of dollars, or drive three hours, to preach against all the "liberal change agents" creeping into the brotherhood. For a time, I must sadly admit, I was caught up in that mindset. But, thanks be unto God, who opened my eyes and my heart, and like Apollos I was shown the way of God more perfectly.
I can't help but shake my head when I hear brethren pray for the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and then turn right around and try to squelch that Spirit by demanding more of their members than God Himself demands. No wonder so many of the youth of the church give up and quit. Their spirit, and the Spirit who lives in them, is stamped out; doused like a camp fire. I worked in youth ministry, officially, for three years, and have worked with teens for almost 20 years at a Bible camp. They clap to songs and at baptisms. They sing and worship God during that week at camp, and are on a spiritual high. Then they return to their congregations and I see the fire in their eyes slowly fade, to be replaced by the old familiar smolder. Well, thanks for letting me ramble ... and thanks for your Reflections articles -- they are what the church needs to hear!!
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
It is very difficult to believe the examples of extreme nitpicking over applauding! I am finding it more and more difficult to attend the services of our local, legalistic congregation. In our small community there are no other choices, which leaves me with very little fellowship.
From a Reader in California:
God bless you, Al. I appreciate you more than you will ever know. I will save your information and share it with others. You and your Reflections articles are a light to my world. There is no one I have come to trust like you in providing logical and reliable information. God gave you a very special gift and a very special heart. I will pray for you every time I can. My list just keeps getting longer and my memory shorter, so to keep my promise, I will pray for you the minute I send off this email.
From a Reader in Florida:
Al, I was really excited over your last Reflections article concerning applause in the assembly. It is 3 a.m. here and I couldn't sleep, so I got on the computer and there was your article. About half way through the article I felt like walking outside and just shouting for joy -- probably the neighbors wouldn't like that! Your conclusions were right on! Yes, some of us have come a long way, but the church still has miles to go before it understands the heart part of our worship to the Father. Worship is much more than following rigid rules (which are generally just CENI traditions), total silence, bowing heads and folding hands. I'm not advocating change for the sake of change, but let us not quench the Spirit (as you have so adequately stated) for tradition's sake. May God continue to bless you in your work to help us all see the light; may your days be filled with God's grace, your cup overflowing, your family continually blessed, and the fruit of your labor continually shared with all. I am blessed to know you, and to have you as a friend and brother in Christ!
From a Reader in Texas:
Brother Maxey, This is not to argue, but is a sincere question. You say in your article about clapping hands, "The clapping of hands is never specifically mentioned in the New Covenant writings, but it is mentioned nine times within the pages of the Old Covenant documents." Question: If I point out a similar fact about instrumental music in worship, and then conclude we cannot practice it because it is not in the New Covenant, is my conclusion wrong? Thanks!
From a Minister in Tennessee:
At a recent assembly we had a baptism. As the person was being brought up from out of the water, a chorus of "Amen's" broke forth from those assembled. But, just as readily, an equal number of folks began clapping. Our elders have tried not to make a law on the subject. Basically, they believe that if the clapping is spontaneous, just as the "Amen's" are, then it is right. I read what the brother said about keeping "our hands folded in prayer." I immediately did some research and found that no such terminology exists in any English translation that I have. In fact, I would say that clapping is found, but "folding our hands in prayer" isn't. Neither is bowing our heads and closing our eyes, but we still do it! I might add that if clapping is calling attention to a preacher's performance, why isn't an "Amen"? I also did some research on David's wife Michal. I now know why she was upset with David's worship. There is not one single "book, chapter, or verse" that teaches dancing before the Lord prior to David doing it. Therefore, David had no "authority" for so doing! She was right!! -- he was a "liberal" acting without Scriptural "authority." May the Lord help us to see how denominational we have become in our conservatism. It's just another "-ism" we practice, joining us with those we condemn.
From a New Reader in Indiana:
My husband and I just found your web site and have been enjoying it and would like to subscribe to your Reflections. Thanks for the thought-provoking articles.
From a Reader in Oregon:
I enjoyed your article on applause in the assembly. I have often felt so frustrated when someone was raised from the watery grave to walk in newness of life and been unable to express praise, thankfulness, encouragement in any other way than singing the prescribed song after a period of dead silence. A few years ago a woman who had begun assembling with our congregation began applauding after a baptism. What's amusing is that several others joined in who otherwise would have never considered it (myself included). It was as if a natural response had finally been released. Within a few Sundays an article was published in the bulletin to squelch this "ungodly expression of joy." I've attached the article ... it's a fine example of an elementary attempt at the slippery slope argument. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but to demand adherence to their opinions is another matter entirely. Where is our authority for an after baptism hug line, hand shake, special song, shouting "Amen," etc.? And I don't recall any specific mention of crying as an appropriate response to a baptism. Tears of Joy, Clapping for Joy, Shouts of Joy, Hugs of Joy -- They should ALL be stopped for lack of "authority," right?! Thanks again for your work. It is refreshing to those of us who are thinking, and a curse to those who won't. We look forward to every issue.
From a Reader in New York:
Thank you so much for your article on hand-clapping. To be honest, this seems like it ought to be a subject that needs no explanation, doesn't it? How could we not applaud the accomplishments of the One True God who has changed our lives, souls, and eternity? As to those times when applause has taken a more earthly tone in services, that bothers me too, and I'm glad you addressed it. However, one man's abuse should not negate our good use of an expression of praise to the Lord.
From a Doctor in Kentucky:
The very first time I was "exposed" to hand-clapping in the assembly was several years ago when my wife and I visited the Madison Church of Christ in Tennessee. At that time, I was heavily "immersed" into the doctrines of the ultra-conservative Non-Institutional Churches of Christ. My only purpose for stopping by Madison was to see for myself what the "liberals" were doing. And, true to my legalistic spirit at the time, I found a way to confront the preacher at that service about the "liberal" hand-clapping, as well as several other things, that flew in the face of "my" doctrine. Now, several years later, I have finally found the freedom that we have in Christ over this issue and many others. I agree with you, hand-clapping has the potential for abuse. Whether it is used for good or bad resides in the hearts and motivations of the persons doing the clapping. Keep up the good work, and thank you for this issue of Reflections!
From a Reader in Hawaii:
Al, your article immediately reminded me of an incident that occurred at the church here about ten years ago while you were the preacher here and our daughter was only two. While we were all singing, she was sitting on the pew with her knees at the edge of the pew so that she could swing the lower half of her legs back and forth; she was also rocking her body somewhat. One of the men came over, sat next to us, and was observing her. After a while he leaned over to me and mentioned to me that children have no qualms about expressing themselves in different ways with music. I shot back, "It's too bad adults lose that!" He smiled, but didn't seem to care to continue the conversation.
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