Sin is Lawlessness
John describes sin as 'breaking the law of God', and then goes on to call it 'rebellion' ('lawlessness' in this translation). Although we tend to think about sin as doing or saying things that hurt others, the essence of sin is not just breaking commandments but rebelling against God (Psalm 51:4).
Remarkably, Jesus, who never sinned, died in order to take away our sins. So those who know Jesus should be horrified about insulting Him by breaking His commandments and rebelling against His sinless nature. Those who are 'in Christ' cannot delight in such rebellion. On the other hand there are some religious people who think that going against the Sinless One in that way does not matter, but they cannot have a relationship with Him, or understand His nature or value the prospect of becoming like Him. They may be 'into religion' but they are not 'in Christ'.
But John is not saying that believers never sin. Indeed, he started his letter by saying, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8). We are all sinners by nature and by practice (Romans 3:23). However the true children of God have an innate desire to please Him, and a troubled conscience when they defy His loving wisdom. That is why they want to repent and seek His mercy, firstly as their sin bearer and secondly as their disciple-master as they start to walk with Him again.
John was helping his readers to distinguish between believers who sin, repent and are restored, and those who think that it does not matter to God what they do, as long as they are happy. The false teachers in every age despise the former and encourage the latter. They say, "God wants you to be happy", not "God wants you to be holy". That does not mean that holiness is opposed to happiness; rather, by seeking God's kingdom and His righteousness first – God will add much to enjoy (Matthew 6:33). So use these verses to sharpen your own holiness, and shape your discernment of those who encourage lawlessness as a religious virtue: do not let them deflect you from your walk with Christ.
© Dr Paul Adams