1 John, a book written to established Christian churches, says that if we, meaning Christians, not unbelievers, say we are without sin then we are deceived.
We must not wrest this verse out of the context of the book and the chapter in which it is written if we want to understand John. 1John was written to counteract the heresy which was affecting the church (and still is) and was a treatise for Christians in general as there is no mention of a specific church.
Quote: (unknown source)
The Latin version said "Epistle to the Pathians, adopted by Ancient Fathers defended by Grotius" but not in Greek, but at least the Syriac language of the Parthian Empire was understood by Christians unaquainted with Greek. Whoton conjectures on Greek superscription (to virgins) because the epistle is addressed to 'uncorrupted' Christians. Frequent usage of light and darkness occurs in Persian philosophy so John is correcting the abuses of it. That John really designed his epistle as a warning to those Christians who were in danger of being affected by Zoroastrian principles is very probable though the language of the epistle will not permit us to place John's readers in a country to the East of Euphrates.
The apostle is declaring to the whole world, his disapprobation of the doctrines maintained by Cerinthus and the Gnostics. Cerinthus taught that Jesus was by birth a mere man but that 'the Christ' descended on Him at His baptism. In order to understand the epistle we must ask ourselves the following questions, Why did John give these admonitions? Why did he repeat them frequently? Why has he admonished if he thought admonition necessary, merely in general terms and brotherly love? Why has he not sometimes descended into particulars as other apostles have done?
The Gnostics, who taught that man could be righteous in spirit and still sin in the flesh, (which is nowadays recognised by 'imputed righteousness' contended that the apostles had added commandments not given by Christ concerning the doctrine of sanctification. John devotes the greatest part of his epistle to the confirmation and enforcement of his doctrine.
The basis of this error i.e. that a believer can still be in Christ and sin was made popular and spread through the church by Augustine. Augustine has spread his heresies throughout the Protestant and Catholic Church since.
If we look at verses 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 in chapter 1,
6, If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness we lie and do not the truth.
7, But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from ALL sin
8, If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us
9, If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.
10, If we say that we have not sinned we make Him a liar and His Word is not in us
We can see that John is comparing walking in the light to walking in darkness ie walking in the flesh compared to walking in the Spirit. He is describing two different opposing state which corresponds perfectly with the teaching of the Apostle Paul when he talks about 'carnal' or fleshy believers against those who were walking in the Spirit.. In verses 7 and 9, John says that the benefit of walking in the light are:-
1)We have fellowship with one another in the unity of the Spirit (agreement)
2)By confessing our sins we will be forgiven
3)We will then be cleansed by the blood of Jesus from all unrighteousness and sin.
Whereas if we walk in the flesh:-
1)We are deceived and remain in our sin
2)There is no truth in us
3)We make God a liar by denying our need for cleansing.
So John is saying that it is only when we are walking in the darkness that we are blind to our need of coming to Christ for His cleansing from ALL sin. The letter is to believers and not un-believers as stated previously. And believers can fall into the error of walking in the flesh as Paul demonstrated to the Galatians who thought that they could go on to maturity or perfection through the works of the law and not through faith.
Those who were being misled by the Gnosticism and today by the preachers of 'positional righteousness' were walking in darkness because they were still sinning and did not see their need of the complete cleansing which can be provided by Christ alone. So they thought that their sin nature had already been dealt with and were acceptable as they were, but John says that they walk in darkness. But if we see our need for cleansing from ALL sin and come to Christ (again) for forgiveness, then He will be able to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness (not just the sin in question please note) So it is these ones who are saying wrongly that they have no sin, that is that they are in an unsaved state, not the ones who have come to Christ and HAVE been cleansed from ALL unrighteousness.
John goes on in the rest of his epistle to show that those who do carry on in sin (but say they have no further need of cleansing) are NOT in CHRIST. He stresses his point against the Gnostic heresy - Little children let no man deceive you, he that doeth righteousness is righteous even as He is righteous 3:7 and this is the test i.e. as He is righteous so must we be not just in position or as a hope for the future but as a present reality that we must be as Christ, without sin if we are walking in the light.
But whoso keepth His word, in him verily is the love of God perfected 2:5
My little children these things I write unto you that ye sin not 2:1
Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not whosoever sinneth not hath not seen Him neither known Him 3:6
He that commiteth sin is of the devil 3:8
Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin 3:9
Let me end my discussion of 1 John 3:9 with this:
That the word sin in the Greek is the present tense indicative is beyond
dispute. Anybody can check this fact with Bible Works or another such program.
The Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament says, "The present tense
indicates continual, habitual action." The Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in
the New Testament, by Ernest Burton, says, "The present indicative is used of
action in progress in present time." And the Orthodox Study Bible, representing
Greek Orthodox theology says that 1 John 3:9 is literally, "does not keep on
What John is saying, throughout his epistle, is that Jesus came to save you
from sin and sinning, and if you have not made a break with the habit of
sinning, you are not even at the beginning. You are not even saved. If you are
genuinely saved, then you no longer do wrong all the time. That is
the beginning point on the highway of holiness.