The following article is based on talks given by prominent RCI leadership a number of years ago. Due to the authority of those that preached this message, one may see it as one of those unofficially 'official' doctrines that significantly impacts peoples lives. At present I am unaware if the current prevailing thought on this topic has, or is, changing within the RCI.
"I Don't Sin"
An examination of 1 John and sin
By Drew Dixon
The above statement, made by several notable pastors within the RCI oversight, has proven to be one of the more damaging of all the claims presented to the people. It has resulted in a large number of Revivalists experiencing considerable condemnation, and has led to them questioning principle aspects of their personal experiences with God. Pastor Lloyd Longfield has been very direct in his affirming that he does not (present tense) sin. Indeed, it is sometimes preached "he that is born of God DOES NOT commit sin".
This aspect of RCI thought came under heavy criticism during the time of the morals split in 1995. During this period, other RCI oversight members dug-in, and openly affirmed their 'sinlessness' as well. A natural, and understandable outcome being, that many average RCI members may have simply denied their own sinfulness, so as to conform to the view maintained by the oversight. Some may have felt the pressing need to conform, as they often hear preached, "the church is NOT for sinners but saints". This concept is also linked to the generally held RCI understanding that if you don't have it together you will "miss the bus". In short, the RCI has been preaching a form of 'perfectionism'.
It must be accepted that should any individual wish to maintain that he or she does not sin, then they are free to do so. However, ultimately they will be called upon to give account to God. Unfortunately, one of the significant impacts this statement makes when declared from the platform, is that it is accompanied by a reinterpretation of Scripture in an effort to suit a personal belief and conviction. In doing this, the claimants convince their own people that there is no room for a Christian to sin. This essentially closes the door on one of the underpinning or foundational Christian principles, even, dare I say it, preventing both the flock (and perhaps themselves) from truly "walking in the light".
It would be unrealistic to assume that all oversight members within the RCI outrightly deny sin in their lives, but many seem to experience considerable difficulty in preaching concerning it, or of candidly admitting that saints do sin and will continue to do so until the parousia (the return of Christ). I personally cannot recall a single talk, which openly spoke of sin and the forgiveness of sins committed after conversion, and this taking place over a ten year period.
Shortly after the 1995 morals spilt, a talk was presented in the Brisbane assembly, the intent being the explaining of the First Epistle of John so that it conformed to the RCI 'I don't sin' concept. This was undertaken due to a number of people viewing First John as contradicting the RCI's position at the time.
The RCI explanation
1 John 1:6-10
If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
This passage seems to be directly contradicting the RCI belief that a Christian is without sin.
In the talk, it is claimed that the first two chapters of John were the first division, while the next three were the second. The first two chapters therefore, dealt with our state before salvation, the second three dealt with our position post salvation. This then reconciled the above scriptures to the RCI position claimed by some that, "I don't sin". The argument follows that before salvation we had to confess our sins and we were forgiven. After salvation we are not sinners, and essentially do not sin, thus affirming the RCI's difficulty with the open admission, confession and repentance from sin post conversion. In reviewing a range of Pastor Lloyd's recorded messages, it is plain that he too holds to the belief that the early verses in First John are pre-salvation in their focus.
From the tapes that both myself and Ian have listened to, the following reasons are offered in support of this 'two-stage' belief:
1 John 1:5 starts off with "This is the message". This is explained as the message that was preached to us at the beginning, and which enabled us to come to the Lord. The message is that we were sinners and could be forgiven our sin. The next series of verses are, therefore, held to be pre-salvation, notably verses 8,9,10.
It is then maintained that from chapter three onwards, the subject presents a Christian's post salvation situation. 1 John 3:2 reads "Beloved NOW are we the sons of God". We should, according to this view, view chapter 3 and verses 6-9 as fitting our current Christian situation. The pastor concerned highlighted the fact that John stated: "NOW are we the sons of God" and that the phrase appears in the present tense. Whilst the expression is in the 'perfect-aspect' (indicating that the results are ongoing into the future), it is unlikely that the pastor in question would find most of the points that we raise further in this essay to be agreeable with his own understanding of what it is that John sought to present.
The upshot of the RCI position is that the forgiveness of sins committed after salvation remains a very very cloudy issue for many within the RCI. Indeed with the very brief mention of sin that the pastor makes, (with respect to 1 John 5:16) he says:
"...what if we find ourselves in that unpleasant situation of having contravened."
Now precisely how this could happen is not fully developed, seeing the speaker had already stated that "...he that is born of God cannot sin(?)". Ultimately, should this occur, then the failing Christian abrogates all of his or her rights, has nothing left to stand upon, and, just 'maybe' there is some way in which he or she can be restored. However, as the pastor made plain, there are no guarantees. It would prove enlightening to see precisely how the pastor defines sin, besides the all encompassing "transgression of the law" that he referred to.
Many view First John as being written against a background of 'gnostic' attitudes that were being touted by certain individuals within the Church (the RCI talk also makes appeal to the same background context). Of course we would not wish to appear dogmatic about these things as Gnosticism, as a structured belief system, was never a perfectly definable movement within early Christianity. What is referred to by scholars as proto-gnosticism seems to have been developing within the Christian Church during the time in which John wrote his letters. This was, basically, an amalgam of Greek philosophical speculation, Jewish mysticism, and Christian theology, and took many forms. For this reason, a single summary of 'gnostic' beliefs would not be achievable. However, if we review the difficulties that John addresses, as well as considering some of the general historical background relating to these groups (of which there is quite a bit in the early church writings), we can glean a workable overview of the situation experienced by the Apostle in Asia Minor as follows:
First John seems to have been written in response to false teachers, those who had left the fellowship previously, and were attempting to seduce the faithful into joining with them. These teaches comprised a group who believed they had superior knowledge to ordinary Christians, and seemed to show remarkably little love toward the latter. They were probably early followers of the heretic Cerinthus, a former Christian teacher, and arch-adversary of the Apostle John at Ephesus. Cerinthian teaching became one stream which fed into the river referred to in the late 2nd century by the 'catch-all' of Gnosticism - the principle of knowledge. Through this 'knowledge', or so they believed, was salvation achieved. Commentators speak of the "Gnostic" focus as not only being towards the acquisition of a special 'gnosis' (knowledge), but also on the possession of a divine spark ('pneuma'/spirit). Irenaeus, an early Church leader, and the writer of one of the first Christian books to address heresies within the Christian Church, makes mention of a link between John and Cerinthus. Some of the "Christian" strands of this Gnostic thinking claimed that sinlessness was attainable through a pure knowledge of God, that indeed sin was a result of the want for this knowledge. When a person attained this 'gnosis', he or she ceased to sin. The second century heretic, Valentinus, developed this theme even further, and was the second major 'stream' feeding the Gnostic 'river' which threatened to overwhelm or 'flood' the early Church.
As has already been mentioned, the RCI talk delivered in Brisbane highlights this gnostic background. But in doing so, the speaker errs by claiming that the Gnostic thinking of the time was that no-one really sinned, even the unredeemed. So the message on sin (1 John 1) was intended as a corrective to the misunderstanding of 'sin' as it relates to the unredeemed/pre-salvation state of man only. It was they who were the ones that needed forgiveness of sins (not post salvation man). However, nascent 'gnostic-Christianity' did not teach this at all. Quite to the contrary, gnostic thought was that unredeemed mankind generally wallowed in sin. It was only the enlightened, with their 'special knowledge', who were sinless. Therefore, First John seeks to address the issue of sin as it relates to the believer. It is difficult to see why John would have to attempt to convince 'Christians' of the sinful state of mankind, given that in order for one to become a Christian in the first place, one really needs to be able acknowledge their own sinful state and their personal need for the redemption that is available in Christ.
This is a very broad subject, and one that is worthwhile finding the time to engage in detailed reading upon.
Grammar and Text
The RCI talk emphasises the "present tense" nature of 1 John 3:2 in their defence of the supposed pre to post sin position. In view of this, we believe it proper to briefly commit some time to exegetically explaining the texts in light of the rules of Greek grammar. For further detail on some grammatical aspects, please consult the notes at the end, or the two essays on grammar that appear elsewhere at this website.1
1 John 6 & 7
In 1 John 1:6 we read "If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:"
The Greek aspectual construction underlying this passage is conjugated, and referred to, as being 'present, indicative, active'. This identifies that the nature of the verbal action is in operation at the time the speaker (John) is making the statement (of course only for those that walk in darkness). This continuous 'present/current state' is easily confirmed if we now look at verse 7. There, John refers to "...walking in the light as he is in the light", if we do this then the outcome is that we "...have fellowship one with another". The same construction is used ( the 'present, indicative, active') when John speaks of "...having fellowship one with another". We can see that from both the aspect of the verbal action, and the context of the verse, that John is speaking about his own present reality (fellowship one with another), a reality that is brought about by the nature of the underlying action (that is, "...walking in the light"). It is obvious that verse 7 cannot possibly refer to the state that existed prior to salvation, as no one can "...walk in the light..." whilst they yet remain in the pre-saved state of darkness. One must be born again in order to even comprehend the light.
1 John 8 & 9
As can be readily viewed, John uses verse 6 & 7 in tandem, as a 'couplet', if you will. He presents the negative 'action' in verse 6 (walking in darkness), and what results (that we lie and do not the truth). He then counters this with the positive 'action' in verse 7 (walking in the light), noting the positive results of this (having fellowship one with another...). Turning our attention to verse 8 & 9 we can see the same use of dualism. In verse 8 John presents the negative 'action' (saying we have no sin), and its meaning (self deception and lack of truth). He then counters in verse 9 with the positive 'action' (confession of sins), and its results (forgiveness and cleansing from all unrighteousness).
John is clearly, and intentionally, encouraging his readers to take hold of the positive aspects of these verses, given that these 'positives' can only be claimed by the Christian.
As verse 6 & 7 do not, but more importantly, cannot refer to a pre-salvation time, neither does verses 8 & 9. In verse 8, when John says "...If we say that we have no sin...", the grammatical construction is the same as the RCI's quoted 'presence tense' of 1 John 3:2. More specifically, it is the 'present, indicative, active', not a past state, but a current ongoing reality. John uses is the 'first-person, plural' voice, indicating that he is including himself with those to whom he is writing, and that he is discussing a current reality.
In verse 9, it is also important to realise the structure underpinning the word 'confess'. Some in the RCI would have us (and their people) believe this is referring to the initial point of conversion, and not to an ongoing matter within the Christian's life and walk. Grammatically, we note the aspect being the 'present, subjunctive, active'. This, therefore, is not a 'once-off' or a limited confession, but one that is repeated and ongoing.
It may seem strange to many, but while in the RCI I don't think I ever really confessed my sin before the Lord (except for my entrance). I, like others, believed I did not sin, and, therefore, had no need for confession. Obviously I now understand that my view and comprehension of sin was distorted. Looking a little closer now at John, it would seem that this ongoing confession of sin is an important (dare I say integral) part of how John was instructing the church to "...walk in the light". In its context, one may even see it as part of the 'commandments' that John speaks of (1 John 2:3, 4, 5).
In summary, all the above verses, when speaking of the statements or declarations being made, are written in the 'present, indicative/present, subjunctive' aspect, and so represent continuous ongoing actions. The 'present, indicative' demonstrates the action was contemporary with the time of writing, and so was relevant to the authors current situation. It was not, therefore, something that was relegated to the past.
The message of 1 John 1:8 is particularly important for any who wish to maintain their 'sinless' state.
It is also important to keep in mind that the grammatical structure of the verses above is not discussing the nature of the actual 'sin', but rather our attitude, understanding, recognition, and the ongoing reality of sin in our lives. John is showing us how to deal with it, not how to pretend it isn't there.
1 John 2:1 & 2
As mentioned above, it would seem that John is showing us how to deal with current sin, and not with our state before we were redeemed. This is even more evident in chapter 2:1 & 2 (remembering that there are no chapter divisions in the original, chapter 2 is a straight flow on from chapter 1). Regarding the issue of 'case' and 'person', John openly identifies himself as party to the statements that he makes. John is speaking of himself in 1 John 2:1-2, where he claims Jesus Christ as his current and ongoing Advocate before the Father for him, and not just for him only (this current ongoing action is supported by the text). In this verse, when John refers to 'our sins', he is speaking in the 'first person, plural' (again, this indicates he is referring both to himself and to those whom he is writing), it is also given in the 'genitive case' (demonstrating possession). Verse 1 makes it very clear that the sin John is addressing is not some past sin, but the sin of a believer (any believer). Verse 2 then addresses how our current sins continue to be dealt with. To try and present these verses any other way, robs both the gospel and the death of Christ of it's substance and significance.
Other points of conflict with 'pre-salvation' context
The first two chapters of 1 John provide a number of practical ways of assessing the reality and strength of the individual's relationship with God. This would seem to be a fairly moot point relating to people 'pre-salvation', with a number of the examples simply being inapplicable to people 'pre-salvation' in any case.
Finally, in 1 John 1:3-4, John states that he is writing these things so that we may have fellowship now, with the Father and with Jesus, and so our joy may be full (in the present). The way of achieving this fellowship and joy is then directly addressed in the verses that follow. This fact goes some way to explaining the lack of joy that certain individuals sometimes experience.
It is far more scriptural (and sensible), to see that John is writing to Christians, in order to warn them about the dangers of seeing themselves as being 'without sin'. He then gives them the 'commandments' they require in order to deal with personal sin as it arises in their lives. To maintain balance, John points out the very real and serious dangers of sin in these verses as well.
A conflict in sin?
The following scriptures may raise some 'apparent' conflicts with the above explanations for some.
1 John 3:6
Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.
1 John 3:9
Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
1 John 5:18
We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.
The above passages would seem to indicate we do not sin and cannot sin if truly born of God. These are the basis for that sometimes preached and maintained stand by some within the RCI.
These apparently conflicting comments regarding sin can be easily resolved when the underlying Greek text is consulted. In 1 John 3:6, 9 and 1 John 5:18, the aspect concerning such 'sin' is representative of a continuous repeated action in the present context ('present, indicative, active'), hence the words 'sinneth, committeth sin and sinneth' are used. In 1 John 1, as already discussed, John is addressing the fact that sin still abides in us. He is not, as the RCI believes, addressing the nature of the sin (the grammar of text supports this as John uses the noun for sin). When he does address the 'act' of the sin in 1 John 2:1 (the verb, 'sin not' and 'any man sin'), it denotes the idea of sin as a single action ('aorist, subjunctive, active') rather than that reflecting a continual, habitual type situation (as in chapter 3). When referring to the aorist aspect, it is important to appreciate that English does not have a verbal structure of this sort. However, in the Koine Greek it relates to a completed action, albeit of a simple and undefined sort, as opposed to a continuous or repeated action.
What we understand from this, is that it is the nature of the individual that has changed, but that the individual remains capable of continuing to sin. The general thrust is along the lines that there will be cases of sin in a believer's life, but a believer's life will not be characterised by sin as a lifestyle. The true believer does not habitually and deliberately sin.
For the Christian, 1 John 1:5-10 provides the key to keeping personal sin under control (and not under 'wraps'). To ignore this as a current reality, is to walk a very dangerous line. John shows us how to keep the sin from becoming a habitual one, given that sin, whether of the mind or the body, is condemned by Scripture (1 John 1:10 does not describe 'ongoing habitual sin').
Convincing oneself that one doesn't sin, thereby expecting 'perfection', places one a very perilously position. Instead of acknowledging the existence of sin, and so dealing with it in the manner 1 John prescribes, an individual, with no obvious recourse for forgiveness, is likely to trivialise or redefine their personal understanding of what sin 'is' (especially the sin they are subject to), and then convince him/herself that it does not exist.
We offer that this may be the case for more than one of those RCI pastors who have publicly stated: "...I do not sin!"
John's statement in 1 John 3:8-10, and other places, makes it difficult to see how someone truly born of God could habitually remain in the unrepentant sin state these verse's describe. Sadly, however, there are many people who 'speak in tongues', and yet who fit the categories mentioned throughout this book. Indeed some have even moved to the point of denying the very Christ they once 'professed'. According to John, by his definitions, 'tongues' of themselves mean nothing if the fruit that he speaks of is not present. If one 'speaks in tongues', but the works of the flesh are habitually and unrepentantly manifested in the persons life, then there would be grounds for serious doubt that such a person was every really born again. Biblically, 'tongues' are no sure proof of regeneration. They are, at best, simply a tentative indication, and one that would require the further confirmation of the existence of spiritual fruit of righteousness that Scripture records is the one witness to the true believer (this definition of a sign as simply an indication also seems to fit the general biblical usage).
Scripture makes it quite clear that saints are simply redeemed (apolytrosis) sinners. The 'holiness' aspect that we possess is imputed righteousness, and relates to our new spiritual condition and standing before God. It is not an absence of (ongoing) sin. I think this is one area where some people can take God's 'imputed' righteousness, which is granted to us through Christ, and confuse it with their own perceived 'intrinsic' self-righteousness, which they determine and judge as theirs by their adherence to the 'law'. Hence the focus towards exhaustive rules and regulations in some of these Revivalist groups. If people don't cross the line, then they think they don't sin, and so they can feel justified in judging themselves to be righteousness.
1 John 3:2
As already mentioned, the RCI talk points to two distinctives in attempting to separate the first two chapters in 1 John from the second three.
They offer that the statement of the 'message' in 1 John 1:5 is referring to the message to bring us to God.
Conversely, they offer that the statement in 1 John 3:2, when John says beloved 'now' is referring to one's 'post-saved' state, in contradistinction to one's 'pre-saved' state.
With regard to the first point, we believe this issue has been sufficiently addressed in the earlier part of this essay. We would also stress that the RCI explanation of John dealing with a 'pre-saved' attitude is somewhat odd. The letters of John were written to Christians, people who must have, at some point in the past, had an understanding and reality of sin in their life. If this was not so, then they would not now be Christians. This is particularly relevant from an RCI perspective, for if they had not truly 'repented', then they would never have 'spoken in tongues', and so would not be in the church. Secondly, the fact that John states "...this is the message..." has little relevance to holding it to a 'pre-salvation' context, for we read in the 'post-salvation' chapters of 1 John 3:11, "...this is the message you heard from the beginning". John then goes on to describe Cain's sin, and how we are to love one another. Interestingly, this follows some of the similar themes to the supposedly 'pre-salvation' chapters as well (1 John 2:7-9).
Finally, with regard to the second point, the RCI speaker seems to have misread the context and intent of 1 John 3:2. When John says "...beloved now are we the sons of God..." he is not referring to 'now' in relation to what we were in the past (as the RCI imply to make the neat chapter division). John is making this statement of the present situation in relation to what we are going to become in the future, as the rest of the verse goes on to say "...and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." John is looking forward, not backwards!
Sin is a reality in the life of a Christian, even one that speaks in tongues (at least for these two authors it is). No one should dance around it, keep it quiet, or pretend that it doesn't exist. In the church of John's day, certain people had crept into the church, and had tried to seduce it. A cornerstone of such seduction would seem to be the 'no-sin' doctrine.
We all make mistakes, we still do sin, but we may yet seek forgiveness. The principles in 1 John are part of our wonderful freedom in Christ, and for some strange reason, it is a principle that pushes Christians even further from the desire to sin. After all, as John states: "...if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)
The RCI talk that was delivered in Brisbane, and the explanation that has been referred to in the discussion of First 1 John, is not only incorrect, it is very, very dangerous, especially if worked through to its final conclusion. This ultimate conclusion would have to leave no room for a single sin. Dividing First John into 'pre' and 'post-salvation' shows a lack of understanding of the text itself, and is simply wresting the Scriptures.
It apparent that we can let our natural faith take over from the Holy Spirit faith. If someone believes they do not sin, then we are not convinced that it is the Holy Spirit giving this confirmation. This Spirit, we should remember, confirms Scripture. He does not contradict it. In the RCI if any individual is in fear of 'missing the bus' because of the realisation of sin in one's life, such a person is not left with too many options. You either get out, or deny the reality of the sin, and then confess "...I don't sin". When sin is viewed in the manner that it is by some in the RCI (and by other similar groups), it then opens the gate to a denial of 'actual sins', and a denial of the sinful nature of man. The focus then shifts to presenting the appearance of 'good', and to holding to the precepts of the Law. It is obvious to most that our sin was not 'surgically' removed at conversion. Were this so, then every Christian over the previous 2000 years would have a led a perfect life, in total obedience to Christ, the only one in whom was found no sin. Even the most optimistic in the RCI would openly acknowledge this has not been the case, even if they limited Christians to 'tongue speakers' alone. If sin was not 'cut-out', then it must yet remain, and so we need a way to deal with it. This is what John provides.
We would like to close this article with a thought from Dr Bruce Milne in his book "Know the Truth". In dealing with a similar subject he states:
"Some claim to have attained a state in which they no longer commit sin, and urge that this is possible for all Christians as they look continuously to Christ. Besides the difficulty of squaring such claims with the plain teaching of 1 John 1:8, 10, proponents of such views are found on examination to define sin in a rather limited sense: deliberate disobedience of God's will or something similar. Scripture, however, must define sin, and it is concerned about thoughts and attitudes as well as words and deeds, duties omitted as well as misdeeds committed. Sinlessness in biblical terms means to love God and every human being in every conscious moment with our whole heart, mind, will and strength, ie.complete identity of character with Jesus Christ. In fact, those who have conformed most clearly to Christ in their character exhibit a common sense of personal unworthiness and weakness (Is. 6:5f.; Dn. 9:4-19; Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:15). Not only is it unbiblical and impossible; it can induce pride and mislead and disturb the faith of others."
For John, the confession of sin was part of the daily Christian walk "...in the light". If 1 John 1 does not apply to a Christian's ongoing walk, then I think we are all in trouble.
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
'Present, indicative, active': The 'present, indicative' aspect asserts something as being a statement of fact, particularly from the speaker's perspective. It represents something which is occurring while the speaker is making the statement. The active voice indicates that the action is being accomplished by the subject of the verb.
'Present, subjunctive, active': The 'present, subjunctive' refers to continuous or repeated action, regardless of when the action took place. The subjunctive mood suggests the action is subject to some condition. The active voice indicates that the action is being accomplished by the subject of the verb.
'First person': The 'first person' identifies the speaker, or the writer, or the group with whom that same individual associates. It is often translated, for example, as "I," or "we."
'Plural': Plural simply designates more than one of the things or persons being specified. It is the opposite of 'singular'.