Dr Despoina M. Kalogeraki

B.Th, M.Th, Ph.D.


" The concept of Sinlessness and Sinfulness in the First Letter of John:

With reference to the paradox encountered

in 1: 6-10 and 3: 6-10 "





So, there is indeed a paradox here in 1John. But this antinomy is, I would say, a part of Christianity and its message. For, is not Christianity itself a paradox? Is it not the encounter of the Divine with humanity a paradox? Isn’t the encounter of the Infinite with the finite, the Perfect with the imperfect a paradox? Is it not the encounter of the Sinless with the sinful a paradox? In John however, the sinless One wishes to draw to Himself humanity not by using magic and making them automatically sinless, but by their own consent. What John says, it seems to me, is that Christians are given the opportunity to become sinless as long as they are striving for sinlessness; for such a gift is offered to those who maintain their fellowship with God who is the only one who will grant sinlessness to them at the eschaton, when evil ceases to exist. As I see it, perfection for John is the striving of the imperfect for perfection.




The purpose of this thesis is to investigate the meaning and function of an apparently paradoxical statement encountered in the first letter of John. The method chosen for this investigation is an exegetical study of two passages namely 1Jn 1:6-10 and 3:6-10, which are supposed to be in juxtaposition. The argument, reduced to its bare minimum, will move as follows.
Firstly, the first chapter sets the context for this study by addressing the issue of sin and its parameters in contemporary Jewish literature. Jewish writers of the time were much occupied with such themes as sin, sinfulness and sinlessness, need of cleansing, forgiveness, the reward of the righteous and punishment of the wicked. The Jewish world of thought of the time provides us with the ideological framework in which John is to be better understood. We are to witness the coexistence of apparently contradictory modes of thought concerning eschatology and by extension anthropology; for instance, statements supporting the exercise of free will on man's part and God's predestination or references to the idea of demonic powers being accountable for sin and man's own responsibility for sin, ‘like those of a railway, run side by side, crisscross, or overlap in various ways', even in the same piece of work.
Bearing in mind the result of the study of this background, chapter two undertakes an examination of the history of the community whose products the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles were. According to our findings, the Johannine community never became a sect alienated from the rest of Christianity, in spite of the presence of sectarian traits such as perfectionist ideas and ethical rigorism, the exaggeration of which led finally to an inner schism. Next, chapter three investigates the identity of those in combat in 1John, the so-called opponents of John, concluding that having being former members of the Johannine community, they misinterpreted the Johannine tradition conveyed by the Fourth Gospel, drawing radical conclusions about their sinlessness/perfection from its realised eschatology.
The following two chapters concentrate on the exegetical approach of the two passages referred above. Referring to scholars' opinions from Westcott to today's scholars, I express my opinion on the issues brought up by the epistolary author. In the exegesis it becomes obvious, to an extent at least, where the inconsistency lies and how the author conceives it.
Lastly, in the light of my research in the preceding chapters, I draw conclusions on the meaning and function of this paradox in the first letter of John; a paradox which finally is of vital importance to our understanding of Christian life and experience. Briefly, the two passages represent two sides of the same coin. Both are essential to our perception of the sinfulness and sinlessness of the believer; for it is in the believer's life that present and future meet and cooperate.
Moreover, John does not seem willing to give up either point. On the contrary, scandalous though it sounds, in 1:6:10 the epistolary author stresses the continual presence of sin in the believer's life. That the believer is sinful is what every day experience demonstrates but the claim is supported also and above all, by God's provision of means of cleansing from sin. Still, in 3:6-10 the author stresses the fact that having fellowship with God, the believer, being God's child, is sinless. This gift however, is going to be fully experienced only in the age to come. Thus, despite his sinfulness, the believer has to bear in mind that he is a child of God already, but what he is going to be has not be revealed yet: ‘Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed' (1Jn 3:2).
This tension between the already (realised eschatology) achieved but not yet (future eschatology) realised, is, in my opinion, the framework in which the paradox under consideration is to be better understood.
Let us explain it, in detail, in the chapters to follow.




At the outset of this study I said that I would attempt a wandering in the corridors of the labyrinth called Johannine scholarship concerning my subject matter. At the end of this wandering, having being largely helped by the scholars' opinions on Johannine issues, I am in a position to summarize my conclusions.
Firstly, having discussed the concept of sin and its parameters in contemporary Jewish literature we gathered that the origin of evil and by implication sin and its parameters was the subject of much speculation and debate in Judaism from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D.. In these writings sin is basically conceived as the infringement of God's commandments and it is attributed to external factors, evil angelic powers, to the weakness of human nature or to an evil inclination planted in human heart. In all cases, whether human beings help God's work by being obedient to His law or by fighting against evil powers, sin is to find its cure in divine intervention. God is the only one who, on the one hand has the power to defeat the angelic powers and on the other, to cure human weakness and root out any evil inclination planted in humans. It is noteworthy that even in the same document, elements of what we have called cosmological eschatology (evil attributed to angelic powers) overlap with elements of forensic eschatology (evil is rooted in the weakness of the human nature). It seems however that eventually, forensic eschatology overtook and displaced cosmological eschatology largely after the catastrophe of 70 A.D..
Both belief in God's determinism and men's freedom to choose are witnessed to in contemporary Jewish literature. To be a member of the Qumran community or of Israel, though it is thanks to God's grace, also requires one's free will for, to maintain this membership depends on every member's will. And this is so because sin exists even in the sectarian's/Israelite's life. Sin is an issue for the sectarian/Israelite as well. Moreover, repentance is always met by God's forgiveness and means of cleansing are offered to those who repent and ask for forgiveness. In the final analysis, what differentiates the righteous from the wicked is the stance they take regarding sin. Though both sin, the former deals effectively with sin and does not reject God, while the latter, insisting on sinning, ‘walks in the stubbornness of his heart'.
Eschatologically, however, at the end time, righteousness/God triumphs over against wickedness/Evil. Thus, sinlessness is placed at the age to come when the sources of sin, whether human weakness or evil angelic powers, cease to exist forever. In a way evilessness, so to speak, which is going to be achieved by God's intervention, is the precondition of sinlessness.
As we are going to talk about the paradoxical statements in 1John, it is worth remarking that in contemporary Jewish literature paradoxes such as the two modes of thought concerning the origin of evil, the presence of sin even in the devotees' life, the amalgamation of free will and God's election, are not missing. They rather seem to underline the religious thought of that time. As I have already mentioned however, those so-called paradoxes were neither contradictory nor problematic in the minds of those who composed the relevant writings. There is a point that the human mind is unable to go beyond and then the writers speak of the ‘mysterious ways' of God.
Yet, what if, as in the Odes of Solomon, the eschaton is already thought of as realised? Undoubtedly, by raising this question we approach even more the Johannine world of thought. We have, I suppose to point out at this stage that in the Odes as well as in GJohn elements of realised eschatology and of futuristic eschatology coexist. Undeniably, if perfection is entirely placed in the future then perfectionist claims have no place among Christians, who are going to be sinless only at the eschaton. However, what if the eschaton moves into the present in a radical way? It follows that the fruits of the age to come-e.g. sinlessness-are offered in the present as well. In this case the assertion of sinlessness seems to be justified. As we have already seen in the detailed exegesis of a comparison of 1John 1:6-10 and 3:6-10, eschatology plays a significant role in our better understanding of the text.
Against such a background, we attempted an approach to John's conception of sin and sinlessness, having in mind principally the passages 1Jn 1:6-10 and 3:6-10, which to me contain the gist of John's conception of these notions.
Before getting into hermeneutical details in the third chapter of this thesis, we tried to picture the character of the community, which gave birth to the Johannine literature, shedding light on its assumed distinctive character. Having accepted Jesus as the Messiah, the members of the Johannine community were excommunicated and even persecuted for their faith in Jesus. Having been born out of a conflict with the synagogue, the Johannine community cultivated a dualistic understanding of the world. They were the ones who possessed the truth, over against the parent body, the synagogue as a representative of Judaism. Being ethically confident, the Johannine Christians held a rather idealised view of their community. As we have concluded, the book of the community in question, the Fourth Gospel, offers grounds for such perfectionist beliefs more specifically for belief in the actual achievement of sinlessness of the members of the community. Presumably, the Fourth Gospel led itself to be read in a rather perfectionist way which influenced radically the self-understanding of the Johannine community. Such a self-understanding led to the marginalization of the community and in turn, their being marginalized enforced their perfectionism.
However, it is worth mentioning that there is no indication that the community was in conflict with the rest of Christians or other Christian communities. Thus, I esteem, that the Johannine community never became a sect in the proper sense. It was a sect in a rather rhetorical sense. The distinctiveness of the Johannine community lies in its conception of Jesus Christ and His salvific mission. Christianity as a movement, occupied a marginal position in the wider society and Johannine community was a part of this movement; a fact which is verified by the fact that after the schism those of its members who remained faithful became members of the Great Church. As I have argued, 1John actually redefines that sense of sectarianism that is left from the Gospel of John. After the experience of an inner schism, redefinition of the community's boundaries seems to be necessitated, for it becomes clear that the acceptance of Jesus is not enough as it used to be, to separate those who belong to the dominion of God from those who do not. Christ is the boundary between those who walk in the light and those who walk in the darkness, no matter where they come from. This walking however, has to be demonstrated in praxis.
Afterwards, we proceeded attempting to unveil the identity of those combated by 1John. Though both the secessionists and the epistolary author claimed that they were the heirs of what ‘was from the beginning', it seems that the former have misunderstood certain elements of this tradition. As the text itself informs us, the opponents of John were former members of the Johannine community who I esteem, having misconceived the message of GJohn and probably be influenced by contemporary gnostic ideas, asserted sinlessness.
Thus, a schism occurs in the very ranks of that charismatic community; a division that functions as a blow to the idealised image of the community its members held. The definition of sin as primarily meaning the rejection of Christ, now proves itself inadequate. It becomes clear that there are many ways of rejecting Him, such as not walking in the light, doing the works of darkness while walking in the light, not doing the truth. This is occasioned by the shift that takes place between the Gospel and the Epistle. While the former focuses on Jesus and His personal relationship with the believer, the latter is written after the experience of church life and also after the emergence of heretical tendencies among those who have accepted Jesus.
In the first passage 1:6-10, John points out what ‘having fellowship with God' entails. One is in κοινωνία with God when he walks in the light where God is. Thus, he has κοινωνία with the rest of the believers. Moreover, what enables him to maintain this fellowship, despite his sinful nature, is the cleansing power of the blood of Christ.
Undeniably, sin is incompatible with God's realm. Both the secessionists and John agree on this. However, while the former assert sinlessness to avoid this antinomy of the presence of sin in God's world, the latter introduces the means God offers to cure sin. The epistolary author also stresses that in asserting sinlessness, the heretics, on the one hand challenge the very nature of God who is πιστός καί δίκαιος forgiving sins, and on the other, they prove Jesus' mission empty.
However, though the believers in 1:6-10 are exhorted not to assert sinlessness, in 3:6-10 the author claims that the children of God cannot sin. The author seems not to give up either thesis. Both are valid in the believer's life. How is this antinomy to be understood? If we say that there is no antinomy here, we deceive ourselves; we even miss the point, I would say, the author wishes to make. John expresses this theme of sin and sinlessness in dialectical fashion, looking at it from different optical angles. While in the first instance the author examines the issue of sin and sinlessness through the prism of the present reality and every day experience, in the second he sees it through the prism of the eschaton, the age to come. As I understand this antinomy, the author states that under the earthly circumstances of life, being sinless is equated with striving for sinlessness using God's means of cleansing; for, on the one hand sin is a stubborn fact in the believer's life and on the other the only way to achieve sinlessness is to remain in God's realm.
It seems to me that the emphasis in the Epistle is on futuristic rather than realised eschatology. In doing so, it also places sinlessness in the future, when it is to be fully realised by the believers. This does not mean that the believers in the present are not children of God who cannot sin. On the contrary, they are children of God and that is why they are offered the blood of His Son to be cleansed by their sins. The believers are potentially (δυνάμει) sinless but actually (θέσει) sinful. The very existence of sin in the believer's life necessitates such a distinction. Besides, salvation is not an act of magic, it is an act of decision to follow Christ, a decision which has to be concretised in life and this life itself speaks of the stubborn presence of sin.
Further, I think that the emphasis that 1John puts on futuristic eschatology is to be attributed to the very experience of an inner schism. In a sense the Epistle invites the community to take some steps back, abandoning the enthusiastic and rather charismatic view of Christian life and adopting a more down to earth view of itself. The assertion of sinlessness is a part of that enthusiastic view they used to hold of themselves. Yet now sin has occurred in the form of a schism making itself more than real. Sin is a real fact in the believer's life. But, at the same time the believer has to know that the children of God cannot sin.
So, there is indeed a paradox here in 1John. But this antinomy is, I would say, a part of Christianity and its message. For, is not Christianity itself a paradox? Is it not a paradox the encounter of the Divine with humanity, the Infinite with the finite, the Perfect with the imperfect? Is it not paradox the encounter of the Sinless with the sinful? In John however, the sinless One wishes to draw to Himself humanity not by using magic and making them automatically sinless, but by their own consent. What John says, it seems to me, is that Christians are given the opportunity to become sinless as long as they are striving for sinlessness; for such a gift is offered to those who maintain their fellowship with God who is the only one who will grant sinlessness to them at the eschaton, when evil ceases to exist. As I see it, perfection for John is the striving of the imperfect for perfection.
This dialectic between present and future, already and not yet is the framework in which Christian experience is to be understood, and this is true especially of John's theology. For the Christian, the tension between these two realities constitutes the dialectic character of his existence. The present is not to be ignored as it is the arena where the battle to win the future is held. Futuristic eschatology goes hand in hand with present eschatology. Occasionally, one of them may be emphasized by the writings of the New Testament but this, I think, is to be attributed to where the interest of the writer lies. Jesus Himself grants eternal life to those who believe in Him (Jn 5:24); yet, He offers His blood as atonement for their sins (1Jn 1:7). The believers have the σπέρμα of God abiding in them (3:9) but their own effort is also required to shield themselves from sin.
It is a fact that christology, and particularly the atoning significance of Christ's death, eschatology and pneumatology (which has an impact on anthropology) have been pointed out by scholars as three ways of differentiation between GJohn and 1John . At the end of my work however, I have been persuaded that in the final analysis, the way according to which aspects of the issues mentioned above are presented in Fourth Gospel and in 1John suggests their being mutually complementary. As Westcott notes affirming GJohn's and 1John's common authorship, ‘no imitator of the Gospel could have combined elements of likeness and unlikeness in such a manner'. I do realize that this is a wide and contested field in Johannine scholarship. I would like though to refer to it as I suppose it may represent my small contribution to the understanding of the Johannine world of thought, or the piece of the puzzle I promised that I will put in its place at the outset of this thesis.
Summing up, the Johannine ‘the hour is coming and is now here' (Jn 4:23; cf. Jn 5:25; 16:32), may have been experienced by the early Church in a greater extent but underlines Christian life till the eschaton. I suppose that this cooperation of present and future may constitute another paradox; for the time being however, let us confine our research to one paradox: the coexistence of sinfulness and sinlessness in the Christian's life.




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