Dismembering Scarecrows
"If we say we have no sin"

By Jeff Paton

A scarecrow is not real. It is put in the way to distract or frighten away anything that threatens something we treasure. This works the same way with doctrine as it does in the corn fields of the Midwest. Upon close observation, we can see that this item that alarms us is not real. It is full of straw, and once exposed, it can no longer frighten the one that knows its true nature.

I want to introduce you to one of the biggest theological scarecrows of all time. Many attempt to justify their sinful living by hiding behind 1 John 1:8 saying, "The Bible says that we must sin, and if you deny this, you must be a legalist, a proponent of sinless perfection, and thus, you are earning your salvation, and cannot be saved." Anyone that differs with them is discounted as a heretic, and the conversation immediately turns from a dialogue to a monologue. Meaningful conversation is cut off.

To say that this verse proves that we must live hopeless lives of sin as Christians is wrong. This theory is riddled with impossibilities. I will show that this is not the meaning of the Apostle in this instance, nor in any other part of this letter.

The Audience

The misapplication this verse is greatly due to missing the point of who John is writing to. John is warning believers that some had infiltrated the Church with the false doctrine of Gnosticism. So, when we read the passages of this epistle we should be aware that at points he is addressing either genuine Christians, Gnostics, or both in this very same letter.

The Gnostics claimed that a truly enlightened man would have a superior spiritual knowledge. In fact, the word "gnosis" means "to know.' They taught that an enlightened man would realize that all matter is evil, and that man is spirit and pure because that which is spirit is not effected by sinful physical matter, the body. They argued that Jesus was a phantom (spirit), and did not die on the cross since you cannot kill a spirit. John responds in this letter saying, " That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen, with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, the Word of life." John has made it clear that Jesus was no phantom spirit. He was real, he was flesh, and he died on that cross for our sins. John did not separate the life of Jesus into compartments of the physical Jesus, and the spiritual Jesus. The flesh and spirit that was what people called Jesus was the very essence, and can not be separated.   

John then transitions into dealing with the Gnostic doctrine of sin which he combats throughout the remainder of this epistle. The Gnostics were claiming that sin could not permeate spirit, and so, they could sin with impunity since sin could not taint their spirit. One of their favorite illustrations was an image of a ring of pure gold that was imbedded in a pile of dung. They pointed out that the ring, although surrounded by dung, still remains pure. The dung does not permeate the ring in any way whatsoever. Thus they argued that sin cannot defile the spirit. 

This same heresy is prevalent in many "christian" circles today. I have inserted an example of this Gnostic influence upon Christianity. It will probably look familiar to many of you.

Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; 

for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.    

1 John 3:9:

"Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin.  Well, where doesn’t he commit sin?  In the spirit.  In the seed given from God he does not commit sin.  The spiritual seed is incorruptible.  You cannot sin in the spirit.  But, we know that we all sin.  When we sin where is the sin committed?  The sin is committed in the flesh.  The flesh is corruptible seed.  The flesh is the first birth.  The spirit is the second birth which is of incorruptible seed.

Remember when Jesus Christ was talking to Nicodemus in John chapter 3?  He said in verse 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  The two are distinctly separate one from another.  The flesh of the first birth is corruptible.  The spirit of the second birth is incorruptible.  The two cannot be mixed and neither are they interchangeable." 

This is nothing more than sugar-coated Gnosticism sweetened up with Christian language to make it more palatable. Sweet and desirable on the outside, but on the inside it is rotten to the core! It is ironic to see how these people reinterpret the Epistle of John to support the very thing that he fights so vehemently against! This is a clear example of the very people John addressed in 1 John 1:8, saying,

 “If we say we have no sin,” and “ If we say we have not sinned.” 1 John 1:8, 10.  Such statements as these are made by those who believe that they cannot sin in spirit. These verses should not, and could never be be applied to any genuine believer in Jesus Christ.  These Gnostics believe that they do not sin in “spirit” and blame any violations of God's Commandments on the “flesh.”  These people claim the name of “Christian,” while in essence, that are propagators of the very Gnostic heresy that the Scriptures so strongly condemn.  This is no different than the situation that John decried 2,000 years ago where there were those within the church that were not of the church. They were Gnostic wolves dressed up in sheep's clothing, preying on the unsuspecting. These Gnostic false teachers infiltrated the early church just as they have today. John does not divide the person from their actions, but claims that what the body does is the same as what the spirit does. “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil.” 1 John 3:7-8.  

The Gnostics that John wrote concerning saw themselves as enlightened and as possessing a superior, higher knowledge. John and other Christians were disdained by this group, just as some groups today divide those they feel are "Spirit filled" from those they feel are not. The modern "christian Gnostics" generally pity anyone that does not accept their "enlightened" view of being sinless in spirit as being deceived. Because some people do not accept that a Christian can be filthy as a barnyard in the flesh, and pure and holy in the spirit at the same time, they are pitied because they are lacking the special "knowledge" that they believe will accompany anyone who is really saved. 

"Nowhere is the tendency to Gnosticism more clearly or emphatically condemned than in 1 John.... Many claimed "I know God," "I abide in Christ," "I am in the light," even when they did not love their brethren on earth, did not obey Christ, and were destitute of love." (1)  "Gnosticism was distinguished by an unethical, loveless intellectualism."(2)

Let's view the passage again, this time in it's historical context.

V5. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all
Both Gnostics and Believers
V6. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.
Gnostic belief
V7. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.
The Remedy for Gnostic Belief
V8. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Gnostic belief
V9. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness
The Remedy for Gnostic Belief
V10. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, And his word is not in us.
Gnostic belief

In verse six, John exposes the false doctrine of the Gnostic infiltrators. They claimed that truth was that they could walk in darkness, and at the same time, they could continue to fellowship with God.

John counters the Gnostic heresy in verse seven by stating the true Christian doctrine. He says that only if they walk in the light as God is in the light, then, and only then, can the blood of Jesus Christ cleanse them from all sin.

In verse eight, John claims that these Gnostics are deceived in their thinking that they had no sin for the blood of Jesus Christ to cleanse away.

John then states the remedy to their error by telling them that if they confess their sins, God will forgive them. He also continues on to tell them about the removal of sin in their lives by asserting that along with this forgiveness, God will cleanse them from ALL unrighteousness.

Verse ten states, that if we do not feel that we have sins to be cleansed of, because we do not believe we ever sinned, then we would be calling God a liar.

John the Apostle is fighting against the error of Gnosticism, and not legalism. Nothing within this context would give us the warrant to contort the Apostles words by applying verses eight and ten to Christians.

One last word about the exegesis of this passage. We must stay consistent with our hermeneutical principles in this case.

If verse eight is applied to Christians because John uses "we", then verse ten must be applied to Christians also. Many Christians have been mislead into applying verse eight against those Christians that claim the Biblical promise of being cleansed from ALL sin. In verse seven, we are told that the Christian can be cleansed from ALL sin. To say that the Christian must still "have sin" after they have been cleansed from ALL sin, is a denial of the promise of complete cleansing as is stated in verses seven and nine. By declaring that we cannot be free from sin, they are denying what is promised in the verse that precedes and follows the very passage they use to posit the necessity of sin in the believer.

To use verse eight as an application and exhortation to Christians forces us to do the same in verse ten since John wrote, "If we say we have not sinned." What? Are we going to stand by such an absurd interpretation? Are we going to claim that one can be a Christian while they deny the necessity of the atonement in their lives? John could not write such a thing to a saved and regenerate person because it would not be possible for them to be saved in the fist place if they had never turned to Christ for the forgiveness of sin. If anyone trusted that they were flawlessly pure in spirit,  they would never appeal to Christ for forgiveness or salvation since they did not need the atonement of Christ, because they had never sinned!

We have made too much of an issue over the use of "we" in this whole passage. Any rule of interpretation that leads us to absurdity cannot be true.

The Danger

These Gnostics were apparently deceiving even the very elect. Even within the early church, many were being led astray by compelling and convincing false doctrine. Leaders within the early church were quick to jump in at the early signs of trouble. This is what John did, he made it clear that there is an undeniable change in the one that truly believes. This change is ethical, and shows that the believer has been transformed from darkness to light. D.A. Hayes wrote(3) that "Nothing could be clearer than that John puts the sinner into one category and the Christian into another. Sin distinguishes the one from the other. The man who sins is a sinner; and the Christian is cleansed from sin and kept from the power of the evil one. It is the normal experience in the Christian life to have constant and complete victory over sin...Purity was no impossibility."

The same dangerous doctrine of John's day has befallen the church of today. Not that many deny that they have sinned, but that they can walk in darkness and somehow enjoy the forgiveness and cleansing from sin at the same time, in spite of the Word of God.

"If We Say"

There is much ado over the Apostles use of the term "we." It is claimed that when John stated that "if we say we have no sin" that John included himself, and thus, all Christians. We must understand that John used "we" in a way that does not always include himself and others. Concerning the antithesis between "we" and "you" in 1 John 1:3, F.F. Bruce wrote(4) "John tells his fellow-Christians to whom he writes of what he and his contemporaries had seen and heard, because his readers had not seen and heard it. We must sometimes distinguish between the inclusive 'we' (meaning 'you and I' or 'you and we') and the exclusive 'we' (meaning we and not you.)" Bruce does not tackle the use of "we" in verse 1:8, but there are options in light of it's context. First, these hearers were mixed in with the visible Church. So, John includes himself as a matter of softening the blow as we can imagine the one called the Apostle of love would do. It is common when one talks to a group to use the third person to make a point while avoiding direct attacks long enough to have the listener hear you out. This is not an admission of sin in John anymore than it is a proof of constant sinning in any believer. In the verses preceding, and following this comment of John, he clearly states that the believer can be cleansed from ALL sin.   

It is assumed by many that these verses say that we as Christians continue to sin, and this somehow frees us from the responsibility of abstaining from sin. The point under present consideration is not whether we (as Christians) have or have not sinned heretofore; and neither of these verses asserts that we do sin or commit sin now.(5) 1 John 1:8 does not say that Christians do sin, as many suppose. But, say some of those against whom John's polemic is directed, "What is it to us if the blood of Jesus is not available to cleanse us from sin? We have no sin!"....If people claim.....to have got beyond good and evil, to have reached a stage of spiritual development where moral principles are no longer relevant, they are self-deceived.(6) John, by the use of the inclusive "we" in verse eight, was in no more danger of falling into this erroneous doctrine than any Christian would be. He was not writing this warning to Christians who were cleansed from all sin and walking in the light, but his comments were directed towards the Gnostics and their denial of the need of cleansing and Christ's atonement. It is only fair to consider that the context of this verse and that the application of "we" to believers would be an impossibility in light of the fact that no one can be a Christian and deny before God that they have not ever sinned. We must also consider that if the 'if we' in this verse is not talking about 'we' as Christians, then it would be equally wrong to suggest that the 'if we' in this verse includes John as being a participant in this sin with these heretics. It is perfectly natural to see the phrase 'if we' as referring to 'people in general', I.E., those that would make such a claim of not needing the atonement of Christ. It is clear from the context and common sense that the 'if we' is this passage does not include John himself, or any other Christian. 

The Consistency of John

Scripture never contradicts Scripture; this is the basic law of hermeneutics. This principle of non-contradiction must be even more critically applied  if we compare the self-consistency the work of one individual writer within the same letter.

The most solid proof that John is not advocating a doctrine that says that all Christians' sin, is contained within this very letter. In verse 7 John tells us that Christians are cleansed from ALL sin. If ALL SIN is cleansed, how can their be anything left? If nothing is left, then how can it be inconsistent with Christian profession to claim that you 'have no sin', in the Scriptural sense?  In Chapter 2:1, John states the purpose of his letter, "My little children, these things write I unto you, that you sin not." This is plain on its own, but the Greek says " that you may not have a sin once."  In chapter 3:8-9 , we are told plainly that "he who sins is of the devil" and "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin."  To make verse 1:8 say that John admitted or demanded the presence of sin in himself, and all Christians, while at the same time he claimed to be walking in the light and having been cleansed from all sin, is to make him the most self-contradictory writer to be found in all of secular and sacred writing!  If what some commentators say about this verse in John is true, he must have been terribly confused, and his inspiration while writing these statements must come into question. The assertion that Christians must admit we still sin if we are saved, while preaching that people who violate the commandments of Christ are not saved (2:4), seems to promote a strange dichotomy, that a Christian can be of the devil and of the Lord at the same time.... interesting, but impossible.

It is a hermeneutical and ethical tragedy to take this singular and lonely verse out of its intended context, and use it to obscure every other reference to sin that John had to say. It is clear from the writing of John concerning sin, that he is opposed to the continuance of its presence in the believer. John states emphatically that sin and the state of being a Christian is something that is not only incompatible, but impossible.  

Theological Options

What class of people does 1 John 1:8 have in mind? When he says "we" does he mean all Christians, including himself, as some expositors say, Christians just described as walking in the light, and by the blood of Christ being cleansed from all sin? In this verse, is St. John writing to persons whose sins have been forgiven? I do not think so, because when it says "If we say we have no sin", this implies that Christians have sins that we have not committed, but are only liable to commit. Verse seven already substantiates that the believer is cleansed from all sin. To say that all Christians still have sin, is to assert that the blood of Christ does not cleanse. To say that verse eight is saying that we are guilty of sins that we are only liable to commit is to accuse every angel in heaven while keeping his first probationary state, and Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, before their first sinful volition, of having sin, because they were liable to sin. It asserts a palpable contradiction, that a person cleansed from all sin still "has sin."  To "have sin" includes the idea of personal guilt, and guilt requires uncleansed sin.

"If we say we have no sin," he means not Christians walking in the light of purity and perfect love, but any unregenerate man who declares that he has no sin to be forgiven, no guilt to wash away in the blood of Christ's atonement.(7)  The passages can be applied to two types of people. It should be applied primarily to those who believe the Gnostic philosophy, whether it be pure Gnosticism, or the candied-over "christian" version of it that is still corrupting the Church today. The second class of person that this can be applied to is the self-deceived, self-righteous sinner who denies their need of Christ and His atonement. 

In order to help the reader to understand this second perspective, I enclose the following fictional dialogue:

Let us suppose a conversation between a Christian depending, as all must, on the blood of Christ for salvation, and a self-righteous sinner, who thinks he is good enough and has no sin, consequently no need of the cleansing blood.

Christian: My friend, did you know that "if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin? I have proved this to be true, and if you will come to Him as I did, you may prove it for yourself, and be cleansed from all sin.

Self-Righteous: But I have no sin to be cleansed away; I have no need for the blood of Jesus.

Christian: What? You say you have no sin? "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Surely you are wrong and self-deceived. You should repent, confess your sins, and be saved, for we read in 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Self-Righteous: But I have never sinned, and do not feel that I have anything to confess or repent of. I pay my honest debts, and treat my neighbors well, and support my family, and I believe I am just as good as anyone. I am not a sinner, and have never done anything wrong.

Christian: Surely, you are making God a liar, for in 1 John 1:10 it says: "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us."

Thus we get at the meaning of the last four verses of 1 John 1.(8)


This scarecrow can no longer frighten us, or defeat us from holy living. This scarecrow has a name, and his name is devil, the father of lies. Those who hide behind this teaching do not see the front side of the scarecrow. What they see is the backside, and it is disguised as the Bible. What could be more contradictory than to hide behind the Bible to justify sinful living?


1. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, General Editor. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1982, Vol 2:487. "Gnosticism," by W.L. Walker, D.D.

2. IBID.Vol 2:487

3. John and His Writings, D.A. Hayes, Methodist Book Concern, 1917. Pages 192-193.


5. Wesley's Works,John Wesley, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Peabody, MA. 1986. Vol.6:14, 15.

6. The Epistles of John,F.F.Bruce, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1970, Page 44

7. Half Hours with St. John, Dr. Daniel Steele, Schmul Publishers, Salem, OH. 1901 Pages 128-129.

8. Wrested Scriptures made Plain, W.E.Shepard, Evangelist, Pentecostal Publishing Company, Louisville, KY. 1900. Pages 10, 11.




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