For over 20 years, I took it for granted and I believed that 1 John 3:4 means what it says in the King James version when it says that: “Sin is the transgression of the law.” But sometime in 1995, I learned more about what the Apostle John really meant based on the context within the passage. It was an eye-opener for me. The Lord gave me a broader understanding of what was really meant by John.
So, according to John, is sin the transgression of God’s law in 1 John 3:4?
Well, yes and no. Let me explain. First, yes, because sin truly is a transgression of God’s law. I have no problem with that. I believe that is a correct understanding of Scripture.
What John Meant by Lawlessness
But the question is: What did the Apostle John really mean when he wrote 1 John 3:4? What was his point? What was the context when he wrote that? Was he really saying that “sin is the transgression of the law?” Well, the answer is no. That’s not what he meant.
The phrase “the transgression of the law” is only one word in Greek which is, anomia. This Greek word does not really mean “transgression of the law.” This word anomia actually means “lawlessness” and is rightly translated in modern versions like the New King James Version and the New International Version. The New Jerusalem Bible translates it as “wickedness.” In other words, what the apostle John actually said was that “sin is lawlessness.”
What he really meant to say was that sin is a lifestyle, a way of life, a habit, that is opposed to God’s law, that is opposed to God’s will—not merely the breaking of just one point of the law. John was talking about an a way of life—the bad habit of sinning.
Context: A Life Living in Sin—Lawlessness
In context then, the apostle John was saying: “how great is God’s love for us that we should be called children of God and that is what we are right now” (1 John 3:1). As children of God, we shall be like him and we shall see God as He is (1 John 3:2). We have hope of a bright future and therefore should purify ourselves (1 John 3:3). In view of such a status before God (the indicative), we ought not to live a life living in sin—or lawlessness (the imperative). We should no longer live a life going against God’s will. That’s the point being driven home by the apostle John. He was not just merely stating a fact that “sin is the transgression of the law.” (1 John 3:1-6).
Sin in 1 John 3:4 is not just a mere breaking of a point of law. Sin is not just a mere “transgression of the law.” It’s more than that. The Apostle John here is talking about a lifestyle of sinning, a lifestyle of lawlessness (anomia)—going against God’s law—going against God’s will. We should not do that according to him. That’s what the apostle John was really trying to say.
For as long as we are alive, we will always be prone to sinning. We will always sin. But thanks be to God because although we sin continually, through Christ he has already forgiven us and will continue to forgive us of our sins. Of course, this is not a license to sin. The apostle John reminds us not to make sinning a habit. He reminded us to purify ourselves! Let’s not make it a lifestyle of living in sin. Let us not turn God’s grace into a license to live a life of sinning. Since we have hope in Christ, let’s continue to live pure lives in Christ—away from sin.
“Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:3-4).