My teachers lied to me. For years, I was told, “Practice makes perfect.” However, the more I practiced—piano, trumpet, French horn, tennis, spelling, typing—I worse I got. I discovered that practice does not make perfect. Only PERFECT practice makes perfect.
It matters greatly what you are practicing. The apostle John addresses this issue in 1 John 3:4-10 by posing the question, “Do you practice sin, or do you practice righteousness?” What you practice will determine your outcome.
The apostle John begins this section of his letter with the instruction, “Abide in him” (2:28). In 2:28-3:3, he encourages his readers to look forward to the return of Christ. “Because Christ is coming soon,” he argues, “we should avoid sin so we are ready to meet him.” In 3:4-10, John encourages his readers to look backwards to the death of Christ. “Because of what Christ did on the cross,” he says, “we should avoid sin and practice righteousness.”
John warns his readers not to be deceived about sin (7). On the one hand, some false teachers were saying you could achieve sinless perfection. On the other hand, there were those who taught sin wasn’t real. As the various options below indicate, some of those beliefs are still held today. (The list is adapted from How to Be a Christian Without Being Perfect, by Fritz Ridenour. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1986, p.119-120.)
- Option #1: Real Christians do not sin, period. (Held by perfectionists.)
- Option #2: Real Christians might commit minor sin, but nothing major like murder. (Similar to Roman Catholic doctrine.)
- Option #3: Real Christians don’t sin because God has a different standard for them than he has for unbelievers. (Gnostics held that their “secret knowledge” put them “beyond sin.”)
- Option #4: Real Christians don’t sin in their “new nature” although their old nature might slip up from time to time. (It’s the idea that the “born-again” spirit cannot sin, but the body still does.)
- Option #5: Real Christians sin in reality but have an ideal goal or standard not to sin. (Possibly fits in with 3:1-2.)
- Option #6: The real Christian does not commit habitual, consistent sin as he did before salvation. (Knowing Christ doesn’t make one perfect, but there is a definite difference. This position makes the most sense.)
The main idea John wants to communicate in this passage is that Christ followers should avoid sin and practice righteousness because Jesus died on the cross for our sins. John repeats himself twice in presenting his case. The following chart helps us understand the flow of John’s argument. (The chart is adapted from The Epistles of John, by John R. W. Stott. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960, p,121.)
|The introductory phrase||“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning” (4)||“Whoever makes a practice of sinning” (8)|
|The theme||The nature of sin is lawlessness (4)||The origin of sin is the devil (8)|
|The purpose of Christ’s appearing||“…he appeared to take away sins” (5)||“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (8)|
|The logical conclusion||“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning” (6)||“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (9)|
John’s point is that the practice or habit of sin is incompatible with the child of God. He gives four reasons to strengthen his argument: (1) Sin is not merely a mistake. Sin is a criminal act against God’s law. (2) Sin is incompatible with the Christian walk because of the nature of Christ’s person and work. (3) Sin is incompatible because of its source. Sin originates with Satan. (4) Not only is sin incompatible, it is impossible for the child of God. The habitual practice of sin should cause one to question whether their salvation is real or not.
How should a believer handle sin? Thus far, the apostle John has provided four helpful guidelines on how to deal with sin:
- Pursue holiness, but don’t expect perfection (1:8)
- Acknowledge your sin quickly (1:9)
- Remember that you have an Advocate (2:1)
- Remember that Christ died for your sins (2:2)
The only question that remains is, “What will you practice this week? Will you practice … Sin? … Righteousness?”
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Bible Church in Chicopee, MA, on March 5, 2017. It is part of a series of sermons on The Letters of John. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.