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Can you not sin? — (Monday with Mounce 8)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Passage: 1 John 3:6

What is the difference between saying, “I studied” and, “I was studying”? Both are in the past time, but there is another difference. You may not be able to describe it, but if you are a native English speaker you can feel it.

The difference is what we call “aspect.” “I studied” is indefinite. It does not tell you anything about the nature of your studying. It doesn’t specify if you were studying over a period of time. It doesn’t specify if you studied regularly or repeatedly. It simply states a fact. “I studied.”

On the contrary, what does “I was studying” tell you? It describes the action as continuous, as an ongoing action (in past time). It tells the hearer or reader what you were involved in doing.

Some of the Greek tenses are quite specific. If you want to describe an action that occurs in the past and you do not want to say anything about its aspect, you use the aorist tense. But if you want to describe a past action and want to be explicit that it was a process (“I was studying” rather than “I studied”), then you use the imperfect aspect. This distinction takes some of the guesswork out of the translation process.

However, if you want to describe an action that happens in the present, there are not two Greek tenses. Only one. In other words, if you were to say manthano, it could be translated as either “I study” or “I am studying.” The translator has to make a decision with present tense verbs. Because English distinguishes between an undefined and a continuous action in the present tense, you have to use one or the other in translating a Greek present tense verb. Which one will it be?

For example, what about the possibility of sin?

1 John 3:6 is translated by the NRSV as, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Wow. If you commit more than one sin, it means you do not know God? There are people who twisted John Wesley’s doctrine of perfection to say precisely that. They believed in a second work of grace whereby God removes your ability to sin. (It was interesting to read Wesley’s two sermons against that position, a position often attributed to Wesley by many Calvinists.)

The fact of the matter is that “sins” is a present tense verb, and you can translate it either as “sins” (indefinite) or in some way that makes it clear the sinning is an ongoing process. If it takes an extra word or two in English to make the continuous aspect explicit, it is not adding to Scripture; it is being accurate.

The rule of the ESV was to keep the translation as simple and transparent to the Greek as possible unless it would lead to a serious misunderstanding (i.e., we preferred not to make the continuous aspect explicit as a general rule). I suspect the same rule was in place in other translations. The ESV and TNIV say, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.” The NASB leaves it indefinite; “No one who abides in Him sins.” Surprisingly, the NET also uses the simple present tense; “Everyone who resides in him does not sin.”

The NLT translates both halves of the verse rather elegantly; “Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is.”

A translation decision here is determined not by the translators’ specific understanding of the verse but by their translation philosophy. I am sure the NASB translators do not believe in perfection.

And yet there is another way to look at this. John has already made it clear that all followers of Christ sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). But sometimes a goal can be stated absolutely as a means of encouragement. A coach may tell his beleaguered team, “We do not lose!” A mother may discipline her daughter, “Good girls do not do that.” Really? A team never loses? Good girls never fail? Of course not. Sometimes the goal stated in absolute terms becomes the motivation for achieving that goal, no matter how imperfectly.

John was writing to people who believed it was okay for followers of Jesus to live in ongoing sin. As their apostle, their coach, their spiritual parent, John takes a deep breath and proclaims for all sinners to hear: “We do not sin.” “It is not in our character to walk in darkness.” “We have been made better than that by Christ.”

I think if I had to do it over again, I would change my vote on 1 John 3:6.

Mounce
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Visit www.billmounce.com for more info or read his blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.supportministry.com.

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