Summary: 1) Sin is incompatible with the law of God (1 John 3:4), 2) it is incompatible with the work of Christ (1 John 3:5–8), and 3) it is incompatible with the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 John 3:9–10).
One of the first questions we ask when we hear of the birth of a baby is, “Who does she look like?” Features such as physical appearance, including the color of hair and eyes, facial characteristics, the shape of the mouth or nose, height and build, are given at birth. Later on, as the child grows and begins to reflect its parents’ habits of action, speech or attitude, we may speak of a child as “a chip off the old block.” Although not all children are simply smaller versions of their parents, it is unusual if there is not something in the physical, emotional or moral makeup of the child that reflects its birth or upbringing.
In 1 John 3, the Apostle John develops at greater length the responsibility that falls on the children of God. Quite clearly he expects that the children of God will bear an undeniable resemblance to one whom they claim as their spiritual parent. That resemblance comes to the fore primarily in the sphere of conduct, in the way the child lives out the responsibility described that he or she does what is right (3:7) (Thompson, M. M. (1992). 1–3 John (1 Jn 3:4). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.).
For someone to claim to be a part of the family of God, John has outlined family tests upon which salvation can be verified or rejected. In chapter one, John refutes the claim of the false teachers to have advanced beyond any struggle with sin (1:8–10). He goes on in chapter two to make it clear that no matter what anyone might claim to believe, if they do not obey Christ’s commands (2:3) and live righteously (e.g., demonstrate love [2:9–10]), such a person is not a believer. In this passage, the apostle John reinforces the tests of faith he has already established. In so doing he further refutes the false teachers who minimized or denied the significance of sin. He gives three reasons that trinitarian Christians do not habitually practice sin: 1) Sin is incompatible with the law of God (1 John 3:4), 2) it is incompatible with the work of Christ (1 John 3:5–8), and 3) it is incompatible with the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 John 3:9–10).
1) Sin Is Incompatible with the Law of God (1 John 3:4)
1 John 3:4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness (ESV)
John uses the all-inclusive pas (“Everyone”) to accentuate that there is no elite group that is above God’s moral standards. While those who had left the church thought themselves to be above accountability, John emphasizes that no one is excluded from the following rule: literally, “Everyone doing [poiōn, a present tense participle] sin [tēn hamartian] also does [poiei, present tense indicative] lawlessness [anomian].” This truth is universal. There are no exceptions. In this verse John explicitly equates sin with an attitude of lawlessness and rebelliousness against God (Rom. 8:7; cf. John 3:20; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 4:18; Col. 1:21). In classical Greek the word for sin (hamartia) means to “miss the mark.” It was used of a warrior who missed striking his opponent or of a traveler who missed the right path. In the New Testament, however, hamartia is more active in nature. It is “missing God’s mark” (Rom 3:23); It is a willful rebellion arising from the deliberate choice of the individual, a direct violation of God’s laws.In other words, sin is an intentional breaking of God’s moral standard. John’s description allows for no exceptions or dual standards. The phrase of: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning” is expressed with PRESENT TENSE VERBS which emphasize habitual, ongoing, lifestyle action (Utley, R. J. (1999). The Beloved Disciple’s Memoirs and Letters: The Gospel of John, I, II, and III John (Vol. Volume 4, p. 219). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.)
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning is living in an ongoing condition of lawlessness (anomian) (James 2:10–11; cf. Rom. 4:15), which marks all who are outside the kingdom of God (cf. Rom. 1:32; Gal. 5:19–21; Rev. 21:8). It is a willful rejection and an active disobedience against God’s moral standard, which is a characteristic of the child of the devil (Akin, D. L. (2001). 1, 2, 3 John (Vol. 38, p. 139). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.).
Apparently the false teachers and John agreed that “lawlessness” was incompatible with being born of God. What they did not agree on was that sin, defined as transgression of the moral law, was “lawlessness.” Indeed, as those “born of God” they claimed themselves “morally” to be sinless, or guiltless. Either they believed that they were by nature incapable of violating the law or that sinful deeds done in the flesh were of no concern to God, and they were therefore “sinless” in his sight. John decries such a dichotomy. That his opponents hate their brothers (2:11) shows that their claim to sinlessness is a lie, which along with their failure to love stems from one source, their lawlessness. And their lawlessness shows that they do not belong to God but to the devil (3:10). They are part of the evil soon to be revealed (2:18). (Barker, G. W. (1981). 1 John. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 331). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.).