"Sin is lawlessness"? Est-il vrai?

The epistle for Easter 3B (1 John 3:1-7) bothers me a bit -- especially after the epistolary reading from earlier in 1 John for the Octave last week. From encouraging admission of sin by the promise of God's faithful forgiveness, to talking about sin and righteousness as markers of belonging, respectively, to the Devil and God. And there's one bit in the middle of the reading from Sunday that bothers me more than the rest: the NRSV translates it as "sin is lawlessness."

Now, I get where that translation comes from -- and the churches of the Reformation have every reason to uphold it, on its face, out of a law-gospel dialectic. We have long translated nomos through the Latin lex as "law" -- even though the Vulgate interprets anomia here as iniquitas rather than illegitimacy. And Luther interprets anomia as Unrecht, which brings the German confusion of law with justice and righteousness, combining nomos with dikaios just as the Latins strongly associated lex with iustitia. Justice and legislation.

And yet nomos doesn't have anything directly to do with legislation. It may -- but legislation is a wholly optional feature. Legislation merely codifies nomos. Nomos is not "lawful" -- it is customary because it relates to common custom. It is usual because it relates to common usage.

And if we're going to reset the gloss for nomos, we had as well correct hamartia as well. Here, the Latins are more reliable. The standard gloss for hamartano is pecco, and both have to do with mistake, failure, and fault -- and by extension, guilt. So if "sin is lawlessness," John may simply be saying that failure is failure of custom -- that sin is sin against culture. Or he may be saying something else entirely -- only the text will tell.

With that in mind, let's turn to the text:
ἴδετε ποταπὴν ἀγάπην δέδωκεν ἡμῖν ὁ πατὴρ ἵνα τέκνα θεοῦ κληθῶμεν, καὶ ἐσμέν. διὰ τοῦτο ὁ κόσμος οὐ γινώσκει ἡμᾶς ὅτι οὐκ ἔγνω αὐτόν.

Observe: the Father has given us such love that we should be called offspring of God -- and we are. For this reason the world does not recognize us: it did not recognize the Father.
Here is the first key to the passage as a whole: offspring are like their father. In love, God has adopted us as children, the Father's own offspring. And so we are not recognized and understood by the world, just as our Father is not. The world acts etsi ecclesiam non daretur just as it acts etsi Deus non daretur.

From here on, because it is the subject, I will be using "the Father" as the primary referent of otherwise unattributed pronouns. My hunch is that referring to God as the covenant "Father" is already a circumlocution, but too direct, and so John shies reverently away from it. And yet it is the governing concept of God here. God is the Father -- note that "God" only appears throughout in the parental genitive following a child-term, and is never a subject. The subject is ho pater. Beyond speaking of God as a father and of us (and the messianic Son) as children, the remaining referents to God are entirely pronomial.
ἀγαπητοί, νῦν τέκνα θεοῦ ἐσμεν, καὶ οὔπω ἐφανερώθη τί ἐσόμεθα. οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἐὰν φανερωθῇ ὅμοιοι αὐτῷ ἐσόμεθα, ὅτι ὀψόμεθα αὐτὸν καθώς ἐστιν. καὶ πᾶς ὁ ἔχων τὴν ἐλπίδα ταύτην ἐπʼ αὐτῷ ἁγνίζει ἑαυτὸν καθὼς ἐκεῖνος ἁγνός ἐστιν.

Beloved, we are presently the offspring of God, and it has not yet been made clear how we will be. We know that when it is made clear, we will be like the Father, and that we will see Him just as He is. And all those who have this expectation of the Father wash themselves clean as the Father is clean.
So now John sets up a declaration of fact from what we have just observed: God loves us enough to adopt us; God calls us offspring of God; the world recognizes our adoption (by failing to understand us) -- therefore we in fact are presently offspring of God.

And yet the claim of present fact carries us along to a question about the future. We are presently children of the Father; we do not yet know what kind, what sort of offspring, how we will be as offspring. We have the status -- but we do not have the results yet. We are not yet like our Father. We are not yet fully children of God in perfection, following the basic trope that children are like their father. The shape of our perfection has not yet been shown to us. And yet we know, from the trope, that when it is revealed, it will not be other than as the Father is. So we know this, and we also know that we will see the Father -- these two hoti clauses tell of what we will know in the eschatological future, which will be our perfection into God, the revelation of God in fullness as our Father and of us in fullness as God's children.

And because we know that we can expect this from the fact of our adoption, even though we are not yet perfected into the true shape that we will take, we emulate the Father in the present. And we do so in baptism -- John does not use that other purification verb, katharizo, which is cleansing by fire. This verb that John uses, agnizo, is purification by washing. And as we are washed, we take on the baptismal garments that show our cleanliness, a purity proper to children of the Father.

Ah, but now we come to the troublesome piece. What is this doing here:
πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν καὶ τὴν ἀνομίαν ποιεῖ, καὶ ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐστὶν ἡ ἀνομία.

All those who do wrong also do anomie, and failure is anomie.
That's a bit better than "sin is lawlessness." Anomie is more clearly a transcription of anomia, rather than a gloss -- but in English it carries its own baggage, and the contents are useful. As Emile Durkheim uses the term, anomie is a result of the conflict of social codes. It is a condition of unstable personal ethos, a liminal state in which the individual has come unmoored from their group and social context. It is a feeling of unbelonging, and may happen as Durkheim saw on the margins of social normativity -- or in the liminal spaces between social normativities. In spaces such as the transition between the norms of pagan society -- which is nomos that aligns with a particular pistis -- and a life that accords with new pistis.

There is a corresponding change of society and normative behaviors that comes with belonging to a new god. Even if the nomos involved is not Torah, as a particular form of nomos that aligns with trust in this god YHVH, it is still a form of life peculiar to the community of Christic faith in YHVH. And so we sin because we are not perfectly children of the Father -- which places the constant forgiveness of 1 John 1:1-2:2 in context as part of the purification and perfection of us as children of God, offspring by adoption. It belongs to the transition that is our life between baptism and the eschatological revelation.
καὶ οἴδατε ὅτι ἐκεῖνος ἐφανερώθη ἵνα τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἄρῃ, καὶ ἁμαρτία ἐν αὐτῷ οὐκ ἔστιν. πᾶς ὁ ἐν αὐτῷ μένων οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει· πᾶς ὁ ἁμαρτάνων οὐχ ἑώρακεν αὐτὸν οὐδὲ ἔγνωκεν αὐτόν.

And we know that that One has been revealed to take away/bear the burden of failures, and there is no fault in Him. All those who remain in Him do not fail; all those who are failing have not known Him, nor did they recognize Him.
Now, who is the referent of ekeinos here? I've been assuming that "the Father" is the referent of third-person personal pronouns, but this seems to point outside of the basic pronomial context here. That one. Which one? Well, Jesus Christ -- who has been revealed to bear up our burden of failures and faults on the cross. Who has been shown in fact doing just that. In whom there is no sin, no fault, no failure. Who does no wrong. Whom John refers to earlier as "Jesus Christ the Just." And we'll have that adjective with ekeinos in the next chunk of text, connected directly to the Son of God who was revealed.

So here "Him" is not a referent to God as the Father, but to Jesus as the Son. And John takes advantage of the fact that Jesus, too, was not recognized by the world, just as the Father is not. This reinforces the trope of fatherhood/childhood and the justification for our existence in the pagan world that does not understand us. We are not failing, even though we fail, because we remain in Christ by our baptism, and therefore remain within God's forgiving love and perfection of us as children. All those who are failing -- the outside world that does not recognize Jesus Christ, as it does not recognize the Father -- stand outside the community. And John is about to make that dichotomy between inside and outside painfully clear.
τεκνία, μηδεὶς πλανάτω ὑμᾶς· ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην δίκαιός ἐστιν, καθὼς ἐκεῖνος δίκαιός ἐστιν· ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν ἐκ τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστίν, ὅτι ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς ὁ διάβολος ἁμαρτάνει. εἰς τοῦτο ἐφανερώθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἵνα λύσῃ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ διαβόλου.

Offspring, let no one mislead you: the one who does justice is just, just as that One is just; the one who does wrong is from the Accuser -- the Accuser does wrong from the very beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this: to undo the deeds of the Accuser.
And so now we have the conflict between Jesus Christ, the Just, our advocate who mollifies the Father, and the Accuser, the Slanderer, the one who lies. And we have an antithesis between ho poion ten hamartian, which had already been introduced above, and ho poion ten dikaiosunen here. As groups, those who are doing sin, and those who are doing justice. The one who is doing what is just, is just, just as Jesus Christ is just. The one who is doing what is wrong, is wrong, just as the Accuser is wrong. But this antithesis has its undoing in Christ, who undoes the deeds of the Accuser. The Father has revealed the Son for precisely this purpose; Jesus is the undoing of wrongdoing, all the way back to the very beginning. Jesus is the undoing of the very principle of wrongdoing.
πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἁμαρτίαν οὐ ποιεῖ, ὅτι σπέρμα αὐτοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ μένει, καὶ οὐ δύναται ἁμαρτάνειν, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται.

All those who are born of God do not fail; the Father's seed remains in them, and they are not able to fail. This is because they are born of God.
And now, a little truism on what it means to be a child of God, to be born of God just as we have become offspring of God. And this is part of why John uses the term teknon rather than huios, because a teknon is a child of birth, a reference to the fact of having been born. We have not merely been adopted in Christ; we have been born of God, just as in John Nicodemus is told that he must be. We are born of God just as Christ is born of God. And the potency of God by which we were formed in the womb remains in us, shaping us to our end just as the potency of the acorn shapes the oak to its end. We cannot fail, not utterly, though if we attempt to deny that we do actually fail in life we make a liar of the God who shapes us toward divine ends. We say that, rather than being the failures of children, our sins are the successes of adults, and that we are our perfect ends. This is the lie -- this is what the Accuser, the Slanderer, would have us believe. This is what the pagan world believes, because it has been misled. This is why the pagan world does not recognize us, just as it did not recognize Jesus, just as it does not recognize the Father.

And this is the justification for what John tells us as his audience, as children born of God by love -- and as always, the gospel shapes the law because paraenesis is drawn from the nature of who we are in Christ:
ἐν τούτῳ φανερά ἐστιν τὰ τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὰ τέκνα τοῦ διαβόλου· πᾶς ὁ μὴ ποιῶν δικαιοσύνην οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ ὁ μὴ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ.

By this the offspring of God and the offspring of the Accuser are clear; all those who do not do justice are not from God, and also those who do not love their siblings.
We do not only purify ourselves in baptism in ways that befit our birth as children of God. As we are children, we are also taught, and the teaching is to do justice. To confess our failures and be forgiven, which is God's Fatherly justice to His children, and to love our brother or sister. Which is John in a nutshell.

So when you read that "sin is lawlessness," and you go on to read that sin has its origin in the deception of the Accuser, and not in Christ, do not let it startle you. Your sins do not make you evil -- God intends to remove every sin from you, because they have been undone in Christ. There is no power over you but God alone, and God's pure Fatherly goodness is expressed in shaping you through forgiveness of your failures and misdeeds to your perfect end. And we don't know what that will look like for each of us, though we have seen in Christ one form that it may take in human life.


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