Vexing Verbs–1 John 3:7-9

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.–1 John 3:7-9

I’m worried and confused. John seems to be putting me in that position pretty often. Today, I’m not sure which side of the great divide that John describes I belong on. On the one hand, I sometimes do “what is right,” so I must be righteous. On the other hand, I sometimes do “what is sinful,” so I must be of the devil. Presumably I can’t be both, so where am I?

To settle this conundrum, we have to look at the verbs and recognize the limits of effective translation. In the first verse, John warns us not to allow anyone to lead us astray. That verb, “lead,” is in the present tense and the imperfect mood. On the other hand–how many hands do I have today?–the description of someone who “does what is right” uses an present tense verb in a participle mood. Okay, that’s enough English-teacher talk. What does it all mean?

Let me illustrate the difference in a way that normal people can understand. A few weeks ago, we had a herd of teenage boys stay with us for the weekend. During that enchanted three days, I might have said, “Tom sleeps here.” Today, though, I could walk upstairs and say, “Tom sleeps here,” pointing to Thomas’ bedroom. The words are exactly the same, but they indicate something different. In the first case, I’m suggesting a one-time or temporary situation. In the second, it’s a long-term or continuing situation. Huh?

Let’s try this.

  • I go to church (today) vs. I go to church (regularly).
  • Jack eats tacos (look, he’s doing it now) vs. Jack eats tacos (it’s the only food he eats).
  • Penny eats veggies (occasionally) vs. Penny eats veggies (exclusively).

If you are a Greek scholar recognizing the gross violence I am doing to Greek grammar, then just hold your tongue. The basic idea is sound. The fact that I played some basketball with my son last week does not make me a basketball player. The fact that I did the dishes last night does not make me a dishwasher. Doing the occasional righteous or sinful thing does not make me “He who does what is right” or “He who does what is sinful.”

I’m an occasion musician and fisherman, but I’m a constant teacher and writer. Sure there are times when I’m not teaching and writing, but I am always a teacher and writer. You have your own constants, I’m sure.

The question to ask, then, is not whether we occasionally do right or do evil.  The question is what our default condition is.