May 8 – Is Perfection Possible?

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.

1 John 1:8

The false doctrine of perfectionism teaches that there is some point following conversion when the believer’s sin nature is eradicated. But according to today’s verse and especially in the apostle Paul’s treatment of the subject in Philippians 3:12–16, perfection in this life is only a goal, not an achievement. We must pursue it, but we’ll never attain it while on earth.

Paul denied perfectionism by calling us to pursue a prize that can be fully obtained only in heaven. He confessed that he himself had not reached perfection—and he wrote to the Philippians nearly thirty years after his conversion! He was perhaps the most committed Christian who ever lived. If after thirty years he wasn’t perfect, certainly none of us should claim to be.[1]

Those in Deception

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. (1:8)

A second group of false professors claimed to have no sin. This position was prouder than the stance of those in the first category who ignored their sin (cf. Jer. 17:9). Any so-called Christians who claim to have reached a higher spiritual plane, where sin no longer exists in their lives, completely misunderstand their condition and the Spirit’s work of progressive sanctification.

Again, any who ignore the existence of sin give clear evidence that the truth is not in them. The Bible plainly teaches the principle of human depravity. In Romans 3:10–23 Paul wrote:

“There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (cf. Gen. 8:21; 2 Chron. 6:36; Ps. 51:5; Jer. 13:23; Rom. 8:7–8; 1 Cor. 2:14; Titus 3:3)

Jesus Christ was the only human being who could ever claim to be without sin (Heb. 4:15). All who make such an outlandish claim are only fooling themselves. It is not until believers are glorified in heaven that their sanctification process will be complete (Rom. 8:19, 23), and then they will be without sin.[2]

1:8 Then again, fellowship with God requires that we acknowledge the truth concerning ourselves. For instance, to deny that we have a sinful nature means self-deception and untruthfulness. Notice that John makes a distinction between sin (v. 8) and sins (v. 9). Sin refers to our corrupt, evil nature. Sins refers to evils that we have done. Actually what we are is a lot worse than anything we have ever done. But, praise the Lord, Christ died for our sin and our sins.

Conversion does not mean the eradication of the sin nature. Rather it means the implanting of the new, divine nature, with power to live victoriously over indwelling sin.[3]

1:8 Not only did the false teachers walk in darkness (i.e., sin; v. 6) but went so far as to deny totally the existence of a sin nature in their lives. If someone never admits to being a sinner, salvation cannot result (see Mt 19:16–22 for the account of the young man who refused to recognize his sin). Not only did the false teachers make false claims to fellowship and disregard sin (v. 6), they are also characterized by deceit regarding sinlessness (Ecc 7:20; Ro 3:23).[4]

1:8 have no sin. See note on 3:9–10. we deceive ourselves. The devil (3:8) or the world (2:15) may contribute to human straying, but in the end each individual bears responsibility for his or her own sin. Some sin remains in every Christian’s life (“have,” present tense), even that of the elderly apostle John (“we”).[5]

1:8 we do not have sin Every person should admit to themselves and God that they are sinful (compare Rom 3:23). John’s opponents apparently claimed that they did not sin and therefore did not need to be cleansed.

For John, the position of his opponents is the ultimate form of self-deception, since it prevents a person from accepting the truth of their sinful nature (see 1 John 2:10–14). By contrast, true believers are defined in terms of their admission of sinfulness and need for Christ’s sacrifice (see v. 9).[6]

1:8 The second false claim (v. 6) is that we have no sin. The idea would be that our sin nature is completely gone. To say this is to deceive ourselves (2 Chr. 6:36; John 9:41). The fact that we are not conscious of sin does not mean we are without it. It is so easy to cover over sin (Prov. 28:13). We will not deceive others; they usually see us clearly. Our problem is not seeing ourselves for who we really are. Every Christian can identify with David because he is a prime example of the believer who committed great sin but failed to see his sinfulness. He tried to carry on as the Lord’s anointed one without the Lord’s blessing. When Nathan the prophet confronted him, he was indignant at the man who took and killed the other man’s sheep, yet could not see himself in Nathan’s story (2 Sam. 11; 12). The truth is God’s revelation, which says just the opposite. To have no sin is to have no need of a Savior, which would make the coming of Jesus unnecessary.[7]

1:8. But when a believer is experiencing true fellowship with God he may then be tempted to think or say that he is, at that moment at least, free from sin. John warned against this self-deluding conception. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (cf. v. 6; 2:4). If Christians understand the truth that God’s Word teaches about the depravity of the human heart, they know that just because they are not conscious of failure does not mean that they are free from it. If the truth is “in” them as a controlling, motivating influence, this kind of self-deception will not take place. Whether someone claims to be “without sin” for a brief period of time or claims it as a permanent attainment, the claim is false.[8]

8. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Once more John states the negative and the positive in two successive verses that express conditions. Also the last verse (v. 10) is a conditional statement, which John puts in the form of a negative conclusion.

(a) Denial Another claim made by opponents of the Christian faith, perhaps the so-called Gnostics, is that they have advanced to a stage beyond sinfulness. They say that they have achieved their goal: perfection.

John listens to these people who assert that they are without sin. But when he quotes their claim, he includes himself and the readers. He puts the assertion in a conditional sentence and says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Anyone who has no need to pray the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“Forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4)—because he thinks that he has no sin deceives himself. King Solomon wisely observed (Prov. 28:13):

He who conceals his sins does not prosper,

but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

The choice of words is significant: John says, “we have no sin.” He does not write, “we do not sin.” The noun sin describes the cause and the consequence of an act of disobedience; as a verb, the word describes the act itself.

In the days of the apostle John, Greek philosophers taught a separation between body and spirit. The spirit is free, they said, but the body is matter that eventually dies. That is, if the body sinned, the spirit would be blameless. Sin, then, cannot affect the spirit. The First Epistle of John provides insufficient information to conclude that John was actively opposing Greek thinking. Scripture, however, teaches the universality of sin by saying that in the human race “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:3; 53:3; Rom. 3:12; also see Eccl. 7:20).

If we say that we have no sin, we are misleading ourselves. Moreover, the truth of God’s Word is not in us. In our spiritual blindness, we go contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. And God judges us by the words we have spoken, for our own words condemn us.[9]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 145). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 29–30). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2310). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (1 Jn 1:8). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[5] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2430). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[6] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (1 Jn 1:8). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[7] Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1706). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

[8] Walvoord, J. F., & Zuck, R. B., Dallas Theological Seminary. (1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 885). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[9] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 245–246). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

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