From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sun Sep 21 1997 - 08:00:24 EDT

I hope I may be able to respond briefly (relatively), but I do need to make
a couple prefatory notes: (1) I appreciate Paul's endeavor to be clear and
to cover the implications of the alternatives with reasonable clarity and
thoroughness as he sees them; (2) on the other hand, I must say that
personally, I would prefer to understand 1 John in terms of its inner
coherence rather than in terms of its coherence with other NT documents
that presumably derive from different communities of believers during the
compositional era of the NT. I don't want to start a discussion of critical
method as such or of canonical criticism--this really is not the arena for
that, however interesting a discussion it might be--but simply to make
clear the angle at which I prefer to consider 1 John and analyze its
assertions. So, just to clarify my own approach, let me say that
personally, I'd rather not compare 1 John with Matthew or Hebrews because I
think to do so begs historical questions that are not so easily answered
about the relationships between the communities in which and for which each
document was formulated. I'd rather look at 1 John by itself first, and
leave until a later stage of interpretation the whole business of
understanding the implications of canonical interrelationships--a procedure
which I do indeed believe must ultimately be pursued. But here and now I'd
like to limit the discussion to 1 John alone. (3) I wish I could trim out
some of the verbiage, but I think Paul has been as economical as possible
in stating his view, and I don't see what can be readily cut.

At 7:42 PM -0500 9/20/97, Paul S. Dixon wrote:
>On Sat, 20 Sep 1997 06:59:22 -0500 "Carl W. Conrad"
><> writes:
>>(2) The greater worm (nibbling at my mind, at least) is the question,
>>how does this bifurcation of hAMARTIA into mortal and venial sin bear
>>our former worm (if I may speak thus affectionately of it), namely the
>>relationship of 1 Jn 3:9 and 1 Jn 1:5-10? Does 1 Jn 3:9 mean that one
>>CANNOT commit a "mortal" sin but CAN commit a venial sin?
>No, if the nuance of the present tense in 3:9 is customary, then it says
>no one who is begotten of God sins customarily, habitually or
>characteristically. What does this mean? Simply that he is not
>characterized by unrigteousness (3:10), but by obedience (2:3; cf Mt
>7:21, "not everyone who says unto Me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom
>of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven."). So,
>in 3:9 and throughout most of the epistle John is not thinking about
>particular kinds of sin, but of sin in general, a lifestyle of
>unrighteousness (if we walking in the darkness [1:6]) versus a lifestyle
>of righteousness (if we walk in the light [1:7]). It is not until we get
>to 5:16 that a particular sin, or the one time occurrence of that sin is
>envisioned, hAMARTIAN PROS TON QANATON. John, of course, does not
>elaborate, but he does suggest the possibility that the sin unto death
>can occur, and that its occurrence is noticeable to others.

I think that I should say I agree with Paul's understanding of 3:9--and
also with Dale's, which implies the same thing even though Paul understands
the present tense in 3:9 as customary while Dale understands it as
aoristic. Both understand it, I believe, as referring to a continuation,
after supposedly coming to belief, in the unrepentant and uncontrolled
lifestyle of a non-believer. Perhaps neither Paul nor Dale would
characterize it that way, but it seems to me that whether one sees such
behavior as deliberate and wilful disobedience or as thoughtless, reckless
living in one's former lifestyle without any endeavor to change, it is
evident that the "conversion" or "coming to faith" has never really taken

Where I continue to differ from Paul is regarding the understanding of 1
John 1:5-10. There, I believe, the writer is addressing his own community
in a pastoral manner, not contrasting absolutely outsiders who "walk in
darkness" with insiders who "walk in light" but rather speak about the
oscillations experienced in "ordinary" Christian living even as believers
commit themselves to the new life, yet continue to commit "venial" sins
which indicate they are still (to use Pauline language) living "in the
flesh" at the same time that they are living "in the spirit" and therefore
need again and again to confess their sins and pray for forgiveness.
Believers are warned against imagining that they "have no sin," i.e.
against the vain conceit of sudden attainment of moral perfection. So this
is how I would relate the three sections of 1 John we've been discussing:
1:5-10 are speaking of "venial" sins and a sort of rhythm of confession and
forgiveness and recommitment; 3:9 in its context speaks of a fundamental
commitment that has never really been made--and one might well say of this
persistent sinner spoken of in the 3d singular that he/she has never really
come to the light, while of persons spoken of in the first person plural in
1:5-10 it should be said that they have (WE have) come to the light but
still walk all too often in darkness and need to confess and seek
forgiveness. To me at least that seems to represent the rhythm of Christian
existence in this world and a continuation to commit "venial" sins even as
one endeavors to "walk in the light."

>The question, then, becomes, is it possible for one who is begotten of
>God, who does not and cannot sin as a lifestyle (3:9) to ever commit this
>"sin unto death," whatever that sin is? Well, now the question becomes,
>what is meant by "sin unto death?" If we answer, as some do, that this
>is a sin which results in an unforgiveable and irrevocable condemnation
>to hell, then we have one who is begotten of God being condemned to hell,
>or the possibility of a true Christian irretrievably losing his
>salvation. On the other hand, if QANATON here refers not to spiritual
>death, but to physical death, then we have the possibility that a true
>child of God, one who is not characterized by unrighteousness, suffering
>the ultimate discipline (physical death, 1 Cor 11:28ff) for some serious,
>though only once occurred, sin.
>Another option is that it is impossible for a true child of God to commit
>the "sin unto death." This would suggest, then, that the ADELFOS being
>observed in the act of committing such a sin is not really a child of
>God. This certainly has the possibility in a book where two lifestyles
>are being contrasted and where at least one purpose of the book is to
>assure believers that they do have eternal life (5:13). This parallels,
>of course, the unpardonable sin committed by the nonbelieving Pharisees
>(Mt 12:30-32). It was after this that Christ's ministry changed
>radically as He began to teach in parables, "because why seeing they do
>not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand" (Mt
>This might give us a clue as to what specifically is meant by hAMARTIAN
>PROS QANATON. Perhaps the author of Hebrews sums it up nicely, "for if
>we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth,
>there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin, but a certain terrifying
>expectation of judgment ..." (Heb 10:26-27).
>It may be that until we see the evidence of a stubborn willfulness to
>persist in sin after the truth has been given and plenty of opportunity
>given to receive it, then we ought to be in prayer for the repentance of
>the sinning individual. But, if a stubborn refusal to repent of sin
>persists after receiving the knowledge of the truth, then John's words
>may be taken to heart, OU PERI EKEINHS LEGW hINA EPWTHSH. Concerning
>this, he does not say that we should pray.

In response to what Paul has said here, let me repeat that I'd rather
interpret 1 John from within rather than from other NT documents, at least
at this point.
First let's say that the ADELFOS referred to in 5:16 as observed
hAMARTONONTA hAMARTIAN MH PROS QANATON surely ought to be understood as a
member of the same believing community as the observer of this behavior,
and the observer is also an ADELFOS--and I think that those addressed in
1:5-10 are ADELFOI (presumably in the non-sexist sense of siblings of
Christ). I'm not sure that we really need to determine the meaning of
hAMARTIA PROS QANATON to make sense of 5:16-17 and I think I'd have to
agree with Paul that 3:9 implies that the authentic believer will not be
observed hAMARTANONTA hAMARTIAN PROS QANATON. So 5:16-17 must, I think,
refer to the same sort of behavior as that referred to in 1:5-10: the sins
that believers continue to commit, not wilfully or deliberately or because
they consciously and deliberately persist in their previous lifestyle, but
because they still live, in Pauline language, BOTH "in spirit" and "in
flesh"--and I think that the prayer of one ADELFOS for another urged in
this latter passage is part of the mutual love of ADELFOI for each other
that is recurrently urged throughout the letter.

>I know this rubs against a lot of our thinking regarding evangelism.
>But, Christ told His disciples as He was sending them out, "whoever does
>not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that
>city, shake off the dust of your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be
>more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah the day of judgment,
>that for that city" (Mt 10:14-15).
>>subjects of 1 Jn 1:8 and 9 possessors and confessors respectively of
>>or of "venial" sins? Perhaps the answers to these questions are
>>evident to a keen logician and canon lawyer, but as I am neither the
>>one nor the other, I'm a bit curious about how the relationship of 1 Jn
>>5:16-17 and 3:9 and 1:5-10 is to be understood.
>I do hope my answer was clear.

As I've said earlier, I don't really think we need to make comparisons with
Matthew and Hebrews here. I think Paul has indeed been clear and I hope
that I have too; I really don't think the parts of this letter with which
we have been chiefly concerned are pastoral, that they concern a right
attitude toward one's moral life-style that should characterize a believer
(an ADELFOS) and a profound concern that ADELFOI should feel and express
for each other as they endeavor to act out their love for each other
despite their lapses into "venial" sin and their recurrent need to confess
and seek God's forgiveness.

I thank Paul for his assistance in helping me come to some clarity in my
own mind regarding how these passages in 1 John relate to each other.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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