1 John 3:6, 9—Are Believers Characterized by Sin?

by A. Philip Brown II


I was interested to find James Erwin's article, “Perfection and Sinlessness: A Survey of Approaches to 1 John 3:6, 9” on Bible.org's website recently.[1] In this arti­cle Erwin surveys various interpretive approaches to the present tense forms of  a`marta,nw in 1 John 3:6, 9. In the course of his article, Erwin claims that arguments by C. H. Dodd, Buist Fanning, and I. Howard Marshall have clearly demonstrated the error of interpreting John’s present tenses as customary/habitual presents. In other words, 1 John 3:6, 9 do not teach that anyone who is characterized by sin has not been born of God and is not a believer.[2]


Despite the fact that the habitual/customary view of John’s present tenses in 1 John 3:6, 9 has the support of such stalwarts as Westcott, Robertson, Turner, Plummer, and Zerwick, Erwin argues that there are two reasons why they must be incorrect.[3] First, this view is based upon “a subtle matter of grammar” (the use of the present tense). The very “subtlety” of this view undermines the credibility of the view:

Basing this entire theological [interpretation] on such a subtle matter of grammar certainly seems risky. The reader would need to have a firm understanding of the distinction of tenses. Anyone not well versed in grammar would miss the author’s point and instead see a contradiction. Dodd asks whether the reader could be ex­pected to grasp so “subtle a doctrine simply upon the basis of a precise distinction of tenses without further guidance” (Dodd, Epistles, 79). If, in fact, the author was making such an important argument, would he not make this much more explicit? Fanning agrees with Dodd by saying that it is indeed a subtle way of presenting the argument. The subtlety seems to be a strong indicator that the habitual present is not intended.[4]

The second argument Erwin presents, in his view, “places the nail into the coffin of the habitual view.”[5] Following I. H. Marshall’s lead, he notes that John uses the present tense form of a`marta,nw in 1 John 5:16: VEa,n tij i;dh| to.n avdelfo.n auvtou/ a`marta,nonta a`marti,an mh. pro.j qa,naton( aivth,sei kai. dw,sei auvtw/| zwh,n( toi/j a`marta,nousin mh. pro.j qa,natonÅ


“If anyone should see his brother sinning a sin that is not to death…” As Erwin states, the context clearly “refers to a believer … engaged in a specific act of sin.” This means the “present tense is used to describe this particular sin and is not used to describe habitual transgression.” Yet, Erwin argues, “If the distinction of tenses is followed in the earlier chapters of Epistle, it must also be similarly followed here. Why would the author, who made his argument through grammatical tense in 2:1 and 3:6, 9, change his practice here? This is not consistent. Thus, the habitual view [of the present tense] may seem to resolve the contradiction of sinlessness, but in so doing only creates another contradiction, namely an inconsis­tency in the author’s grammar.”[6]


There are three reasons why Erwin, along with Dodd, Fanning, and Wallace,[7] have missed the mark in understanding the significance of the present tense of a`marta,nw in this passage: (1) the standard use of the present tense in indirect dis­course constructions with o`ra,w, (2) the nature of the Greek verbal system, and (3) the presence of contextual intrusion on verbal aspect in 1 John 5:16.


A search for forms of o`ra,w\followed by an anarthrous accusative participle, turns up at least 55 clear examples of present tense indirect discourse participles and only five potential examples with an aorist participle.[8] The present tense is, in fact, the tense one would expect in this construction given the nature of the commu­nication—indirect discourse with o`ra,w is normally used to express the perception of an action that is either in progress at the time of viewing or whose results are still in effect (perfect tense participle). This means that a present tense participle is the expected tense in indirect discourse constructions with o`ra,w. This expectation, by narrowing the tense options, minimizes the significance of John’s “choice” of the present tense in 1 John 5:16. At the very least, it is certainly not out of the ordinary.


Second, it is unwarranted to propose that a distinction between tenses is overly subtle when tense interchanges and distinctions are the heart and soul of the Greek verbal system and are particularly common in 1 John. For example, the essential communication of 1 John 5:1 hangs upon the implications of John’s tense progression: “Whoever believes [present] that Jesus is [present] the Christ is born [perfect] of God, and whoever loves [present] the Father [aorist; to.n gennh,santa] loves [present] the child born [perfect] of Him” (nasb).[9] All major Greek grammars, including Wallace, acknowledge that outside of the indicative the primary function of the tenses is aspectual, and that the present tense normally “focuses on [an event’s] development or progress and sees the occurrence in regard to internal make-up, without beginning or end in view.”[10] One is certainly not being overly subtle to interpret these present tense forms as communicating a customary or habitual aktionsart. In addition, the use of participles automatically constrains John’s tense choices basically to three aspectual options: ongoing, undefined, or perfective. Therefore, unless lexemic or contextual factors signal otherwise, John’s choice of present tense participles at least suggests his intention to present the verbal actions as ongoing.[11]


Finally, as Wallace says, in determining the aktionsart of a given verb, one must consider lexical, contextual, and grammatical factors.[12] In regard to grammar, we have already seen that NT grammar normally uses a present tense participle in indirect discourse with o`ra,w. Lexically, there is nothing about the verb a`marta,nw that prohibits a customary or habitual aktionsart. Contextually, 1 John 5:16 refers to a brother who is being seen in the act of sinning. The context, therefore, as well as the grammar, expects the use of the present tense. In addition, the contextual setting (seeing a brother in the act of committing a specific sin) limits the signifi­cance of the present tense to a “narrow band” progressive present.[13] The aktionsart being expressed by the present tense participle in 1 John 5:16 is, therefore, an action of limited duration which is in progress at the time it is observed.


In conclusion, Erwin did not adequately consider the grammatical and con­textual constraints placed upon the present tense in 1 John 5:16. Since these same constraints are not present in 1 John 3:6, 9, it is illegitimate to argue that the use of the present tense in 1 John 5:16 renders the habitual or customary view of 1 John 3:6, 9 impossible, contradictory, or even improbable. The real issue is not grammar; it is, as Erwin admits, experience: “Each of us interprets this passage on the basis of our experience and understands the tension. We know that sinlessness is not the normal pattern of our behavior. All too often, we find ourselves sinning.”[14] On the contrary, obedience to God’s word is the normal pattern of the believer’s behavior. That is precisely John’s point! If doing righteousness is not one’s normal pattern, in John’s words, “The one who says, ‘I know Him,’ and is not keeping his command­ments, is a liar and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). And 1 John 2:4 is not eschatological in focus.


[1] James Erwin is an assistant to Daniel Wallace at DTS. His article may be accessed at http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/perfectionsinless.htm. Accessed 4/25/03.

[2] C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles. MNTC (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946); Buist Fanning, Verbal Aspects in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990); I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978). Erwin states explicitly, “due to the arguments by Dodd, Fanning and Marshall, this view [the habitual/customary view] has been shown to be wrong.”

[3] Brooke Westcott, The Epistles of St. John (reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 104; A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 4th edition (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 880, 890, 1081; Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1965), 151; Alfred Plummer, The Epistles of St. John (Cambridge: University Press, 1894), 125; Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963), 82.

[4] Erwin, “Perfection and Sinlessness.”

[5] Erwin, “Perfection and Sinlessness.”

[6] Erwin, “Perfection and Sinlessness.”

[7] For Wallace’s statement of his view that 1 John 3:4-10 teaches a “proleptic view of sanctification,” see http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/1john-intr.htm, or Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 524-25.

[8] Around 15 instances could be found with perfect participles, however, 7 of them were from i[sthmi which communicates continuous action in the perfect tense. This would raise the count of continuous action participles in indirect discourse with o`ra,w up to at least 62 instances. Of the five potential instances of an aorist participle in an indirect discourse construction with o`ra,w, the participles in Acts 9:12, 10:3, and 26:13 could be taken as attributive since they modify anarthrous accusative nouns. Luke 18:24 and Acts 11:13, if one accepts the bracketed textual variants, do seem to be indirect discourse constructions. Even if one were to accept all five as indirect discourse constructions, the statistics clearly demonstrate that the present tense is the more common tense in this construction with o`ra,w.

[9] Other examples of tense interchanges within a single verse in 1 John that are not stylistic in nature (as some regard the present-aorist interchange in 1 John 2:12-14) include 1:1; 1:2; 3:1; 3:2; 5:4; 5:18.

[10] Fanning, Verbal Aspect, 103; quoted in Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 514.

[11] Six present tense participles are used in this passage: o` me,nwn (3:6) o` a`marta,nwn (3:6), o` poiw/n th.n dikaiosu,nhn (3:7), o` poiw/n th.n a`marti,an (3:8), pa/j o` mh. poiw/n dikaiosu,nhn. (3:10), and o` mh. avgapw/n to.n avdelfo.n auvtou/ (3:10). One might well argue that John’s interchange between present participles and present indicative verbs in 3:6 and 3:8 further supports the contention that John’s indicative verbs reflect the same aktionsart as do the participles. [Searches done with BibleWorks 5.0]

[12] Wallace, 499-504, esp. 556.

[13]  The “narrow band” progressive present “represents a somewhat broader time frame than the instantaneous present, though it is still narrow when compared to a customary or gnomic present” (Wallace, 516, 518).

[14] Erwin, “Perfection and Sinlessness.”