“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” (1 John 3:9)
Although justification and the new birth occur simultaneously, they are distinguished, as things of a completely different nature. God, in justifying us, does something for us; in giving birth to us again, He does a work in us. The one restores us to the favor of God, the other to the image of God. The one takes away the guilt, the other takes away the power of sin. So although they occur in the same moment, they are distinguishable.
Not understanding the difference between being justified and being born again has caused confusion for many, especially when they have tried to explain this great privilege of the children of God; when trying to explain how “whosoever is born of God does not commit sin.”
In order to understand this, let us, first, consider the meaning of the expression, “Whosoever is born of God;” and second, consider in what sense he “does not commit sin.”
First, let us consider the meaning of the expression, “Whosoever is born of God.” In general, from the passages of Scripture where this expression, “the being born of God,” occurs, we may learn that it does not imply baptism, or any outward change. Instead, it is a vast inward change, a change made in the soul by the work of the Holy Spirit, which results in our living in a very different manner than we did before. We are, it seems, in another world.
The reason for the expression is easy to understand. When we go through this great change, we may properly be said to be born again, because there is a close resemblance between the natural and the spiritual birth; so that to consider the circumstances of the natural birth is the easiest way to understand the spiritual.
The child’s ignorance of the natural world that he lives in before his birth could be compared to the state of one not yet born again spiritually. Before the spiritual birth, although one is sustained by Him in whom all “live, and move, and have their being,” he does not feel; he has no inward consciousness of God’s presence. He does not perceive that divine breath of life, without which he cannot live a moment. God is continually calling to him, but he does not hear; his ears are shut. It is true that he may have some faint dawnings of life, some small beginnings of spiritual motion, yet he has no spiritual senses capable of discerning spiritual objects; consequently, he “discerns not the things of the Spirit of God; he cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Therefore he has hardly any knowledge of the invisible world, just as he has hardly any interaction with it. Not that it is far off. No, the other world, as we usually call it, is not far from every one of us. It is above, and beneath, and on every side. But the natural man does not discern it; partly because he has no spiritual senses, by which he could discern the things of God, and partly because a veil hangs between that is so thick he does not know how to penetrate it.
But when he is born of God, born of the Spirit, his manner of existence is greatly changed! His whole soul is now conscious of God, and he can say, “Thou art about my bed, and about my path;” I feel You in all my ways. The Spirit or breath of God is breathed into the newborn soul; and the same breath which comes from God is returned to God. As it is continually received by faith, so it is continually returned by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving; for these make up the breath of every soul that is truly born of God. By this spiritual respiration, spiritual life is sustained and increased day by day, all the senses of the soul being awake, and capable of discerning spiritual good and evil.
“The eyes of his understanding” are now “open,” and he “sees Him that is invisible.” He sees “the exceeding greatness of His power” and of His love towards those who believe. He sees that God is merciful to him, a sinner, and that he is reconciled through the Son. He clearly perceives both the pardoning love of God, and His “great and precious promises.” “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in his heart,” to enlighten him with “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” All the darkness is gone, and he lives in the light of God’s favor.
Having considered the meaning of the expression, “Whosoever is born of God,” we now consider in what sense he “does not commit sin.” As long as one who is born of God continually receives into his soul the breath of life from God, continually breathing it back in unceasing love, praise, and prayer, he not only does not commit sin while he keeps himself in this way, but as long as this “seed remains in him, he cannot sin.”
By sin, I refer here to outward sin, according to the common use of the word: a voluntary transgression of the revealed, written law of God; of any commandment of God, known to be such at the time that it is transgressed. “Whoever is born of God,” while he lives in faith and love, and in the spirit of prayer and thanksgiving, not only does not, but cannot, commit sin in this way. As long as he believes in God through Christ, and loves Him, and is pouring out his heart before Him, he cannot voluntarily transgress any command of God, either by saying or doing what he knows God has forbidden. That seed which remains in him, that loving, praying, thankful faith, compels him to avoid anything he knows to be offensive to God.
But here a difficulty arises, one that has appeared unsolvable to many, and has caused them to deny the clear statement of the Apostle, and give up the privilege of the children of God. The difficulty is that some of those who have been truly born of God (the Spirit of God having given us this testimony of them in His Word), did commit extreme, outward sin. They violated the clearly-stated, known laws of God, saying or doing what they knew He had forbidden.
I answer, what has been long observed is this: so long as “he that is born of God keepeth himself,” (which he is able to do by the grace of God) “the wicked one touches him not:” But if he does not keep himself, if he does not stay in the faith, he may commit sin as any other man. Therefore, it is easy to understand how any child of God might waver in his own steadfastness, while the great truth of God, declared by the Apostle, remains uncontradicted. He did not “keep himself” by that grace of God which was sufficient for him. He fell step by step: first, into negative inward sin, by not “stirring up the gift of God which was in him,” by not “watching unto prayer,” by not “pressing on to the mark of the prize of his high calling;” then he fell into positive inward sin, by inclining to the wickedness in his heart, by yielding to some evil desire or attitude; next he lost his faith, his sight of a pardoning God, and, consequently, his love for God; and, being weak, he was then capable of committing even outward sin.
You see the definite progress from grace to sin. So it goes, from step to step:
- At first the divine seed of loving, conquering faith remains in him that is born of God. “He keeps himself,” by the grace of God, and “cannot commit sin.”
- A temptation arises; whether from the world, the flesh, or the devil, it does not matter.
- The Spirit of God warns him that sin is near, and directs him to watch in prayer.
- He turns his attention to the temptation, which now becomes pleasing to him.
- The Holy Spirit is grieved; his faith is weakened; and his love for God grows cold.
- The Spirit corrects him more sharply, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
- He turns away from the painful voice of God, and listens to the pleasing voice of the tempter.
- Evil desire begins and spreads in his soul until faith and love vanish. He is then capable of committing outward sin, the power of the Lord having left him.
From the preceding considerations we may learn, first, to give a clear answer to a question which has perplexed many, “Does sin precede or follow the loss of faith? Does a child of God first commit sin, and, as a result, lose his faith? Or does he lose his faith first, before he can commit sin?”
I answer that some inward sin, at least some sin of omission, must precede the loss of faith. But the loss of faith must precede the committing of outward sin. The more any believer examines his own heart, the more he will be convinced of this. Faith working by love prevents both inward and outward sin from a soul watching in prayer; however, even then we are liable to temptation, especially when it pertains to the sin that previously defeated us. If the loving eye of the soul is focused on God, the temptation soon vanishes. If not, if we are (as in James 1:14) drawn out of God by our own desire, and caught by the bait of desired pleasures; then that desire, which is conceived in us, gives birth to sin; and, having destroyed our faith by that inward sin, we are then able to commit any outward sin.
We also see that the life of God in the soul of a believer implies the continual inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit; God’s breathing into the soul, and the soul’s breathing back what it receives from God; a continual action of God on the soul, and a reaction of the soul toward God; an unceasing presence of God, the loving, pardoning God, shown to the heart, and perceived by faith; and an unceasing return of love, praise, and prayer, offering up all our thoughts, words, and works, all our body, soul, and spirit, to be a holy sacrifice, acceptable to God in Christ Jesus.
Therefore we can see the absolute necessity of this response of the soul, in order for divine life to continue there. For God does not continue to act on the soul unless the soul responds to Him. He first gives us the blessings of His goodness. He first loves us, and shows himself to us. But if we do not then love Him who first loved us; if we will not listen to His voice; if we turn our eyes away from Him, and will not give attention to the light He pours in on us; His Spirit will not always remain: He will gradually withdraw, and leave us to the darkness of our own hearts. He will not continue to breathe into our soul, unless our soul breathes toward Him again; unless our love and prayers and thanksgiving return to Him, a sacrifice with which He is pleased.
Finally, let us learn to follow the direction of the great Apostle, “Be not high-minded, but fear.” “Let him that standeth take heed lest he fall.” Even he who now stands firmly in the grace of God, in the faith that overcomes the world, may fall into inward sin, and “make shipwreck of his faith.” How easily then will outward sin regain its rule over him! Therefore, man of God, always watch; that you may always hear the voice of God! Watch, that you may pray without ceasing, at all times, and in all places, pouring out your heart before Him! Then you will always believe, and always love, and never commit sin.
This sermon by John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.