Does the first part of 1 John chapter 3 verse 8 teach us that a Christian will never sin?
In responding to the above question it may help to quote what the verse actually says and then to contrast that with what it does not say. The opening clause of the verse reads ‘He that committeth sin is of the devil’. What John did not write was ‘He that committeth a sin is of the devil’. The difference between these two statements in actual wording is very small; it is merely the inclusion of the indefinite article ‘a’ in the second quotation. However, the difference in meaning between the two statements is vast.
If the second quotation was what John wrote or meant, then there would be no one who could claim to be saved, for the sad reality is that all of us sin from time to time. In the fifth verse of his hymn At even when the sun was set, Henry Twells wrote:
‘And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would serve Thee best,
Are conscious most of wrong within’.
Whilst we read in 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 15, ‘But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation’, the scriptures never anticipate that we shall achieve a status of impeccability whilst we are ‘at home in the body’, 2 Cor. 5. 6.
The opening verse of 1 John chapter 2 is very relevant to the matter now being considered. There we read, ‘My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’. The expectation is that we should not sin but, thankfully, there is provision made for when we do, for we have ‘an advocate with the Father’. In his commentary on 1 John, A. M. S. Gooding states that John’s ‘word is clear and unambiguous “that ye sin not” or “that ye may not sin” (Revised Version). His words were to preserve them from sinning; they were both preventative and prohibitive. Believers are not expected to sin, it should be an exceptional, unusual occurrence’.
Whilst sinning ought not to be the habitual practice of Christians, when we do fail we have an Advocate. The aforementioned commentary adds, ‘This Advocate does not excuse sin, explain it away, try to justify our actions, or argue extenuating circumstances. He is righteous, He deals righteously, and He has a sacrifice as a righteous basis for His advocacy’.
The verse referred to in the question stands in contrast to the verse that precedes it, for verse 7 of chapter 3 reads, ‘Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous’. John is teaching that people either belong to God or to the devil and one way of determining to whom they belong is by observing their life-style. Those who are the children of God will be characterized by righteous living; they will seek to live purely, for God is pure. The norm of their daily life is to live a holy life. In contrast, those who habitually sin manifest the fact that they do not know God. John sums all this up in verse 10, ‘In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God’.
The King James Version translation of verse 9 would also seem to show that a Christian will never sin, but all verses must be viewed contextually. The point that John is driving at in this section of chapter 3 is one of life style, of the continual repetitive behaviour of a person, their habitual practice. A child of God will not, as a rule of life, sin. Darby’s translation of the verse gives help, as does the ESV, ‘Whoever has been begotten of God does not practise sin’, JND; ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning’, ESV.
Philip Paul Bliss died when only 38 years old through a tragic accident, but in that short life he wrote a number of hymns. It is fitting to close this answer with a verse from one of them,
‘More purity give me,
More strength to o’ercome;
More freedom from earth-stains,
More longings for home;
More fit for the kingdom,
More used would I be;
More blessèd and holy,
More, Saviour, like Thee’.