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Tuesday, June 24, 2014 | Comments (8)

by John MacArthur

Everyone sins, and everyone knows it. While it is true that fallen human nature minimizes or redefines sin, everyone knows they don’t meet the standard of perfection. Whether they call them “sins” or “mistakes,” everyone will admit to having lied, lusted, or lashed out in anger at some point in their lives—if not regularly.

That being the case, what is the difference between the sins of believers and unbelievers? When a believer sins, is it the same as when an unbeliever sins?

The Nature of Sin

The two primary biblical definitions of sin are “missing the mark” (hamartia) and “without righteousness” (adikia). At its core, sin is a transgression of God’s law; it is to think and behave as if there were no law. The apostle John emphasizes that lawless characteristic when he writes, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).

John wrote his epistle to help believers test the authenticity of their faith (1 John 5:13). Unlike many today, John does not test saving faith on the basis of a signed card, a walk down the aisle, or even a prayer made in a moment of contrition. In the passage we’re considering in this series, he’s focused on the incompatibility of sin with saving faith, and he’s making three arguments for the holiness of believers.

John’s first argument is that sin is incompatible with the law of God. As we saw in 1 John 3:4, he explicitly equates sin with an attitude of lawlessness and rebellion against God (cf. Romans 8:7; Colossians 1:21).

Diagnosing Unbelievers’ Sin

John’s description of sin allows for no exceptions or double standards. Everyone who habitually practices sin is living in an ongoing condition of lawlessness. That’s not to say that they’re sinning to the full extent of their depravity. The lawlessness John refers to is more of an attitude than an action. It’s not merely transgressing God’s law—it’s living with an indifference to the law, as if there was no law-Giver at all.

We must not underestimate the severity of the unrepentant sin that flows from unbelief. We can’t define sin in bits and pieces as individual acts alone. Of course each individual sin is a serious offense to God, but we also need to be able to recognize and biblically diagnose the profound lawlessness of the unredeemed heart.

Diagnosing Believers’ Sin

If you’re a Christian, you no longer have that dominant attitude of lawlessness. The truly penitent heart resolves to obey God’s law (Psalm 19:7-11), deny fleshly lusts (Romans 13:14), resist the world’s allurements (Titus 2:12), and willingly submits to the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ in all things. Those whom God has saved and transformed have traded slavery to sin for slavery to God, as Paul wrote:

Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:16-18)

That’s not to say believers never sin—no honest Christian would make that claim. But when we do give in to temptation, we experience godly sorrow, not an attitude that is cavalier and rebellious. The believer’s sin is not the product of a heart bent in defiant lawlessness.

Instead we’re heartbroken over transgressing God’s law. It’s the attitude David displays in Psalm 32 and 51, where he pleads for God’s mercy in the aftermath of grievous sin. We share the frustration with lingering sin that Paul expresses in Romans:

For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. . . . For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (Romans 7:15, 18-20)

That penitent heartbreak comes from our love of God and His law. At salvation, each believer bows his knee to the lordship of Christ. It’s a commitment to obey Him, follow Him, and fulfill His law. The believer’s life is marked by willful, loving submission to God’s law in the pursuit of holiness. We understand that the law isn’t a system of works righteousness, or a legalistic set of outdated rules. It’s an expression of God’s holy character, and we join the refrain of Psalm 119, confessing “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97).

Therefore, how could authentic believers live in open, unrepentant lawlessness? John says they can’t.

But the lawless nature of sin is only the first of three reasons John gives for his conclusion. Next time we’ll look at how sin is also incompatible with the work of Christ.

(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John.)


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#1  Posted by Cynthia Loftis  |  Tuesday, June 24, 2014at 1:55 PM

I needed to read this today, as I've been struggling with something for a few months and this has helped me a lot.

#3  Posted by John McNulty Jr.  |  Wednesday, June 25, 2014at 9:58 AM

Thanks for posting this, Dr. Mac.

#4  Posted by Patrick Driscoll  |  Wednesday, June 25, 2014at 11:16 AM

Many thanks to GTY and other ministries for proclaiming the truth and exposing the false doctrines.

This is so helpful and encouraging. I thank the Lord for those who stand for the truth, knowing they will be

accused of being unloving, judgmental and legalistic.

#5  Posted by Greg Flowers  |  Wednesday, June 25, 2014at 2:32 PM

True, Patrick, and we as believer's know that the most loving thing we can do is proclaim the truth of God's word, and call on people to examine their faith as to whether it's genuine. (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:13).

Many people name the name of Christ our Lord, profess to be Christians, but are deceived about their spiritual condition. They are still on the broad road that leads to destruction. (cf. Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23).

God inspired the Apostle John to write 1 John 3:7-10 to serve as a loving warning to us on this subject. Pastor John affirmed the same via his outstanding article. Verse 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."

#6  Posted by John Sanders  |  Thursday, June 26, 2014at 6:57 AM

As always Pastor, God delivers right on time. I am so thankful for this blog and the wonderful message you've provided. Like others who have commented, I truly needed this word of truth. I thank God that you are obedient to His will and are a loving shepherd to the body of Christ and more than just your congregation in California.

#7  Posted by Woei Shyong Kek  |  Thursday, June 26, 2014at 8:47 AM

Thanks, looking forward to the next reason.

#8  Posted by Derek Brown  |  Thursday, July 10, 2014at 12:58 AM

I want to say thank you to everyone at gty! I cant begin to tell you how much your ministry means to me!

Please pray for me as I seek Gods will for my life.

#9  Posted by Greg Flowers  |  Thursday, July 10, 2014at 10:48 AM

Derek, I prayed for you, that God, by His grace, would use you in some way to accomplish His will today. I'm also sharing a sermon excerpt by Pastor John. You may find this helpful in regard to this subject. It's a response to someone if they manifest they have a wrong understanding on this topic. You may run into a new Christian in particular, with a wrong understanding on this subject and be in position to help them.

Pastor John: "I've been speaking at the college for the last couple of weeks, pretty much, and I was saying to the students that there was someone speaking with me and saying, "You know, I just want to be used by the Lord.... I just want to be useful to the Lord, I want to be useful to the Lord." And my response was, "Well, you know…, I don't really think like that… because I don't have anything to offer... the Lord. So my prayer isn't, Lord, I want to be useful to You.' My prayer is, 'Lord, I hope I'm somehow able... to be used by You...' I hope... I don't want to do something for… the Lord..., I just hope the Lord... can do something through… me..." You know the difference? I'm not offering myself, "Lord, I'm going to give my life to do something for You." Forget that! You know, I'm not a self-propelled machine..., I'm only a tool. And somebody else has to pick me up, and the somebody who has to pick me up is God… But if I'm a tool that You can use, that's enough for me, that You could use this unworthy vessel, this clay pot, as Paul, you know, this garbage bucket, as Paul identifies us in 2 Corinthians, then that's bliss..., that's blessedness... http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/42-121