My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 1 John 2:1 NASB
May not sin – Seriously now, does anyone out there really think it is possible not to sin? My guess is that no one after Luther could ever have imagined such a ridiculous thing. Luther was quite clear about the whole mess. The life of a Christian is a life of daily repentance. We sin every day in word, thought and deed. We are saddled with a sinful nature from the moment we are born (some of us even have it before we are born). There is literally no escape. We are all doomed until God elects to save us.
This theology makes a mockery of John’s letter. As F. F. Bruce says, “Sin, indeed, is so thoroughly uncharacteristic of the Christian life that a life which is marked by sin cannot be called Christian.” If Bruce is right, if John really believes that sin is the exception to the rule, then why are we so saddled with personal and collective guilt? Why do we think that sin is so infectious it is more like measles than moral decisions? Maybe our problem starts with the wrong idea of sin.
John uses the Greek verb hamartano. It is the equivalent of hata (het’ah). Both words have the same primary meaning: to miss the mark. Whether in Greek or Hebrew, the idea must be tied to Moses’ declaration, “These things are not too difficult for you.” Everywhere the biblical record simply assumes that moral obedience is completely possible. It couldn’t be any clearer than here in John’s first letter. John doesn’t write in order that the continuous sinful actions of followers can be ignored or erased. He writes so that followers will know what to do in order not to sin. The Greek me hamartete combines the conditional “not” (me) with an aorist, active subjunctive tense of hamartano. Aorist means this is a past, completed action, not an ongoing one (“I sinned,” not “I am sinning”). Active means the action was done by the subject (I am the one who sinned). And subjunctive means this is an indefinite statement (if I might have sinned). We might expand the translation, “that, as a matter of fact, you might not ever miss the mark again.” John uses the same construction in the next part of the verse, the only difference being a change from plural (you) to singular (anyone). John can hardly be mistaken. He fully intended that his instructions would allow followers to not miss the mark any more.
So what happened? Augustine and Luther, that’s what. These men read Romans 7 as a personal report of Paul’s “conversion.” They understood the text to say that everyone does wrong even when wanting to do right, does bad even when wanting to do good and basically cannot help sinning. That picture has distorted everything the Bible teaches about possible obedience, so much so that most Christians today believe that sin is inevitable and that God functions as a perpetual forgiving machine. What is the point of trying to live a righteous life if I sin every day in word, thought and deed? It is an exercise in futility. I might as well give up the quest, recognize that I just can’t help myself and hope that God will still take me to heaven in the end.
How destructive to the Kingdom is it to have soldiers who believe they can never measure up? How debilitating is it to the purposes of God for His people to think that holiness is simply beyond human living?
Either John is right (along with Moses) and sin is the exception to the rule, or Augustine and Luther are right and we are riddled with sin. It is either completely possible and expected to live according to God’s revealed instructions or it isn’t. How you answer that question will do more to determine your outlook on life than just about any other theological inquiry. What do you say?
Topical Index: sin, hamartano, hata, miss the mark, 1 John 2:1
 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John, p. 48.