Monday, August 12, 2013

Sinless Christians?

From the July 20101 E-Block.

Should Christians be without sin? The arguments answered below have been collected from one particular source, but we will not be identifying that source in order to avoid giving it attention, and also because most of these arguments are hardly new. Legalists and others who are interested in controlling behavior through fear are widely known for irresponsibly abusing Scripture as a bludgeon using the same arguments, so there's no need to give credit to any particular person or persons for these.

Let's get right to the arguments.

Paul said in Gal. 2:20, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." This shows that he has been delivered from all sin: "I live, yet not I" refers to his evil nature, which 
has been destroyed.

The reader is warned to get themselves accustomed to this sort of exegetical liberty -- it will be very common in the entries we see.

The critical point rests on an understanding that "I" refers to Paul's "evil nature." But why should that be assumed? Paul nowhere in Gal. 2 defines "I" in these terms. The "evil nature" is mentioned nowhere in this context. The definition is based on the assumption that the interpretation is correct.

So what does the "I" refer to? The clue is given in the broader context that goes back to v. 19 and up through 21:

For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

Let us further recall that in Galatians 2, Paul is refuting Judaizers who are trying reverse the clock and re-establish the law. Such persons effectually deny the covenant that Christ offered. They also make Christ the "minister of sin" (v. 17) because by their logic, the conditions Christ instituted end up causing people to "sin" by ignoring the law.

Thus the "I" does not mean Paul's "evil nature" but as is most plain, means simply Paul himself. Remember that in Romans Paul has spoken of death as a means to end a covenant. He has used that illustration to demonstrate his current relationship to the covenant of law, to show that the covenant with Christ has ended that earlier contractual obligation.

Now thus does Paul live under the new covenant, but the "not I" again does not refer to Paul's "evil nature" but again to Paul himself. He has used the analogy of Christ's crucifixion and Resurrection � which was not a killing (or raising) of Christ's "evil nature" but of Jesus as a whole. Paul's identification with Christ is typical of collectivist identification with an ingroup leader, so to read the analogy as anything but that precise (referring to the whole person), we need a good reason to do so. If the argument is correct, we would be forced to say that Paul thinks Christ had an "evil nature" that was killed.

All this said, Paul's identification with Christ does suggest, as Witherington puts it, an "inward conformity to the life and nature of Christ". But the extent to which we are conformed to this nature, and the extent to which we are expected to reflect it (in practical terms, not ideal terms) is not specified. It certainly means that sinlessness is an ideal, but it by no means says that it is an ideal we will be expected to constantly fulfill. If it were, then Paul would absolutely have referred to Christ's own sinlessness (and his own!) as an example to follow: As ingroup leaders, their personal example would have been a foremost subject for appeal. That is it conspicuously missing from this appeal speaks indisputably against the view that Paul is teaching absolute sinlessness for Christians. Indeed, all through the NT, while Christ is always held up as a model, the specific acts we are told to emulate are such things as taking up one's cross and emulating certain behaviors - but never, "being sinless". That by itself destroys any notion that sinless behavior is considered to be an actual possibility. (Of course, we would also not expect the opposite point to be emphasized, that we can't live up to that sinless perfection: It would hardly serve as any sort of exhortation to hold the ideal in mind!)

But there is a place where that is done! 1 John 4:17 says, "Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because, as He is, so are we in this world." So we're expected to be sinless just like Jesus was.

Really? Sinlessness isn't specified here, so why not take this as a complete likeness? "As he is" - well, then, we're also supposed to grow beards, wear sandals, miraculously multiply fishes and loaves, and go out and get crucified, then ascend to heaven and sit down at God's right hand.

No, we can't add to the context here; "so are we" must have relevance only to what John's contextual subject matter is. Notice as well that in 1 John 3:2 is says, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." An atheist would make a hash over the alleged contradiction; are we like him now (4:17) or only in the future (3:2)? So if we absolutize the likeness as this argument does, we create a contradiction. John's specific context in v. 4 pulls the teeth of such an allegation: It has to do with how love has given us boldness in the day of judgment. It's once again a statement of group identity, with Jesus as ingroup leader: We have been granted corporate identity with Christ, and that is how we are as Christ in this world.

Once again, of course, this would naturally imply that not sinning is an ideal to be striven for. But it also does not legalistically cement absolute sinlessness as a signal for who is or is not saved.

1 John 3:7-10 is the absolute proof text that shows Christians can't sin.

Yes, inevitably this is the hobby horse such arguers will come riding in on:

Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. 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. 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. 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 of course, we have written an answer to this one, and it encapsulates some of what follows in terms of exchange:

Tekton associate Eric Vestrup also notes: "A very reasonable way is to note that in 3:6 we have the verb hamartanei in the first half with the articular present participle ho hamartanon in the second half; in 3:9 we have the construction hamartian ou poiei along with the present infinitive hamartanein ; and in 5:18 we have the verb hamartanei just as in 3:6.

These are all in the present tense. Robertson's grammar, page 880, takes this present tense of hamartano in 3:6a to be iterary/customary here: "continue sinning", "sin continually". This is the rendering of the Greek which the NIV adopts.

The same Robertson in Word Pictures of the New Testament , volume VI, page 222, takes this as "does not keep on sinning". In the same discussion he draws a distinction between living a life of sin and mere occasional acts of sin from the fact that the present participle was used and not the aorist participle.

This is quite reasonable, and the NIV followed this in its rendering for 3:6: No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

This rendering of the Greek is faithful to idiom and does not at all conflict with 1:8, for Christians do have sin, but they don't continually sin or lead a life of sin.

For 3:9, the same comments apply. The verb poieo is used in the present tense in the first half and the present infinitive of hamartano is used in the second half. Again, the same comments apply: it is a quite reasonable rendering of the Greek to have the first half of the verse say (as does the NIV) No one who is born of God will continue to sin [lit: will not continue to do sin].

The second half which features the present infinitive is discussed in Word Pictures of the New Testament VI, page 223 and the Robertson grammar, page 890, and the present tense is again stated as a linear durative, so that the second half of the verse is rendered ".....he cannot go on sinning."

This solution is not universally accepted as the best solution. One should read the thorough and interesting discussion in Marshall's The Epistles of John in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series, pages 178-187. There a different exegesis is offered and the claim is made that the solution given above, while a staple of British exegesis, depends too much on grammatical subtlety and the stressing of the durativity in the present tenses offered. Marshall's opinion and objections on the matter should be read and evaluated carefully.

Not every grammar of NT Greek holds to the stressing of the durativity of the present tenses in the verbs, participles, and infinitives. Wallace's Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics , pages 524-5 offers yet another opinion which should be evaluated carefully by the student:

Many older commentaries have taken the presents as customary [durative/iterative]: does not continually sin...... Taking the presents this way seems to harmonize well with 1:8-10, for to deny one's sin is to disagree with God's assessment. But there are several arguments against this interpretation: (1) The very subtlety of this approach is against it. (2) It seems to contradict 5:16.......... (3) Gnomic presents most frequently occur with generic subjects (or objects).....

Again, the reader should evaluate such a weighty and well-informed opinion such as Wallace's. Wallace gives his most probably exegesis of the text of 3:6 and 3:9 (and by reasonable extension, 5:18):

How then should we take the present tenses here? The immediate context seems to be speaking in terms of a projected eschatological reality. [Footnote: "Sakae Kubo comes close to this when he argues for an ideal setting (S. Kubo, "I John 3:9: Absolute or Habitual?", Andrews University Seminary Studies 7 [1969] 47-56).] The larger section of this letter addresses the bright side of the eschaton: Since Christians are in the last days, their hope of Christ's imminent return should produce godly living (2:28-3:10). The author first articulates how such an eschatological hope should produce holiness (2:28-3:3). Then, without marking that his discussion is still in the same vein, he gives a proleptic view of sanctification (3:4-10) -- that is, he gives a hyperbolic picture of believers vs unbelievers, implying that even though believers are not yet perfect, they are moving in that direction (3:6,9 need to be interpreted proleptically), while unbelievers are moving away from the truth (3:10; cf 2:19). Thus, the author states in an absolute manner truths that are not yet true, because he is speaking within the context of eschatological hope (2:28-3:3) and eschatological judgement (2:18-19).)

My own finding is that socio-literary context provides a clue. 3:9 is not an anomaly, for it presents no more of an absolute than Jesus' "Be ye perfect..." or Seneca's "A wise man cannot fall."

What can the arguer for sinless perfection say of this? Not much of substance. Accusations that expert grammarians are e.g., "altering words to fit their love of sin" are simply childish nonsense and are not an answer to the points made. A better point, per Wallace, is that there is a gnomic element involved in the passage, but even this fails per the parallel examples such as in Seneca. We need to respect the linguistic forms of the culture, and we know that absolutist statements are typical presentations of this time. There remains no reason to take this as anything but an exhortation, rather than an absolutist prescription.

We now turn to some passages that offer direct indications that Christians have sinned. 1 John 1:8 is a critical verse:

If we say, "We are without sin," we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

So what arguments can be had against this verse as we interpret it?

When John says "we" he must mean more than just Christians, but also non-Christians. This is clear because verses 5 through 10 contain a message that conveys what is necessary to gain fellowship and eternal life.

This is what in logic is called a "non sequitur" - it does not follow that just because this is in a passage that "conveys what is necessary to gain eternal life," this means John's audience must include non-Christians. John's reiteration of the message to Christians has an exhortational function; such reiteration was a typical function of ancient teaching, as well as a characteristic of 1 John, which is a letter that is recognized as one that repeats the same ideas over and over in different ways (the rhetorical techniques of amplification and weightier affirmation).

Furthermore, the argument fails inasmuch as 1 John is a letter to a specific body of persons who are Christians. There is no indication that John anticipated that the recipient list of the letter would be expanded to persons outside that fellowship, much less to non-Christians. Finally, John's use of "we" throughout the epistle consistently refers to people who are Christians. There is no grounds whatsoever for any argument that John designed this passage to show an unbeliever the way of salvation. This is merely a contrivance.

But verse 7 says, "But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin." If Christians can sin this makes no sense. It says that the blood cleanses from all sin. What sin would be remaining?

To use the words of Doc Brown, we need to think fourth-dimensionally. God exists timelessly aware of Christ's atoning death. To that extent, all sin of a Christian, past, present, and future, would positionally be regarded as cleansed. If that is too hard to think about, then it could be supposed that we are cleansed from all past sins at salvation, then thereafter as they are temporally committed - which does fit well with verse 9, "If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing."

That's not what verse 9 says! It is a passage that instructs non-believers on how to be saved.

As with the above argument, this is simply nonsensical, and completely contrary to all the evidence concerning John's purposes and audience.

If we read verse 8 that way, it makes no sense! Surely there are times when we can say we haven't sinned. I haven't sinned in the last ten seconds, at least.

Congratulations. This is yet another case of taking the general language of didactic moralizing to a fundamentalist extreme. We may as well respond to Seneca by digging out some wise man who made a mistake.

Here's another nearby passage that would tend to acknowledge that Christians can sin:

1 John 2:1-2 My children, I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.

Not much point in this if Christians are sinless, is there? There are no new arguments to be had here though: The only one I have seen amounts to yet another illicit expansion of John's "we" to include non-believers, and his "anyone" to mean "anyone at all." It just doesn't wash - especially since by this logic, "anyone" doesn't include converted Christians. In other words, even by this argument, "anyone" doesn't really mean "anyone at all." The interpretation is self-refuting.

One last verse of use to show that Christians can and do sin:

James 5:16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.

This refers to church members, so what's to confess if there isn't sin?

The Greek word used is paraptroma, which isn't a word for "sin".

Actually, there's apparently some discussion, textually, over whether the right word here is paraptroma or hamartia, which all agree is "sin". But it doesn't matter, for two reasons. The first is that verse 15 says, "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him" and that's definitely a hamartia in there. Second, uses of paraptroma elsewhere show that it isn't just "faults" as in non-sinful imperfections, like having crooked teeth. Jesus speaks of paraptroma as something you must forgive in others for the Father to forgive yours (Mat. 6:15). Paul says that Jesus was delivered for these which we commit (Rom. 4:25; cf Eph. 1:7) and uses it to refer to Adam's transgression (Rom. 5:17).

So in sum: Those who want to claim Christians must be sinless have to be full of excuses and contrivances to make their case. They'd better hope that's not a sin.

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