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What does it mean that sin is lawlessness?

First John 3:4 says, "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness." How is sin lawlessness? In the original Greek, the phrase "sin is lawlessness" would actually read more like "breaking the law is sin." This particular phrase is translated much better in the King James Version of the Bible which reads, "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law."

The Greek word being used for "lawlessness" or "transgression of the law" is ἀνομία (anomia). The word means transgression or violation of the law or the condition of being without law either through ignorance or violation of the law. In short, sin is a transgression of the law. To sin is to violate the law. Those who violate the law sin. If a person makes a practice of sinning, then that person is making a practice of lawlessness, or of transgressing the law. Another way to look at this is that those who regularly go against God's ways (sin) are living as if there is no standard of righteousness (lawless). John further describes such people as "children of the devil" (1 John 3:10).

The same word for lawlessness is used by Jesus in one of the most terrifying passages in Scripture: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'" (Matthew 7:21–23). These are people who clearly think they are Christians because of their good works, but Jesus says to them that they are actually workers of lawlessness (anomia). He does not know them, meaning they do not have a saving relationship with Him.

Jesus uses the same term in one of His many "woes" to the Pharisees, saying: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:27–28).

He is literally saying that the group of religious leaders who make what appears to be the greatest effort to keep the Mosaic law are actually hypocrites who break the Law; they are full of lawlessness (anomia). This passage helps us to formulate a better understanding of lawlessness. After all, if the keepers of the Law, the Pharisees, are accused of being transgressors of the Law by the One who gave the Law, namely Jesus, then clearly there is more to following the Law than simply obeying the rules.

The "Law" being referred to in Matthew 23 is what we call the "Mosaic law". That is the 600+ rules and regulations that God commanded of the Israelites after rescuing them from Egypt. The most well known among these are the Ten Commandments. As Christians, we know that we are not under the Law, but under grace (Romans 6:14–15; Galatians 3) because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. However, this doesn't mean that we are free from sin; and sin, as we have seen, is transgression of the law. So, in what way are we transgressing the law if we are not bound under the Mosaic law?

The answer can be found in Matthew 22. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment He replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37–39; cf. Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–37). Out of all of the 600+ rules and regulations within the Mosaic law, why would Jesus point to only these two? The reason is found in the next verse; "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:40). In other words, every law, and everything that the prophets wrote about, depends on loving God and loving mankind. This is "the Law"—to love.

This concept is reflected in Galatians 5:14 where Paul writes, "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" Paul goes on to explain that believers are not under the Mosaic law. Rather, they are led by the Spirit. The Spirit produces fruit that is actually in keeping with the intention of the Mosaic law (Galatians 5:16–24). Righteousness does not come from following the Mosaic law. Rather, it is by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1–10; Galatians 3). Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic law perfectly. Because of His death and resurrection, all who trust in Him are forgiven of their sins (Colossians 2:6–15; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21). We are made new and given the indwelling Holy Spirit. We are called to keep in step with the Spirit and follow the commands of Christ (John 15:1–17; Ephesians 4:17–32; Philippians 2:12–13).

Jesus said, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:29). He also said His commandment is "that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). Those who know Jesus learn to put sin to death. They are not under the Mosaic law and neither do they practice lawlessness. Rather, they aim to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12–13). When they do sin, they confess, knowing that God will cleanse them (1 John 1:6–10).

John explains his point further: "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother" (1 John 3:4–10).

John is not saying that believers do not sin; in fact, he has already affirmed that they do (1 John 1:8–10; 2:1–6). Rather, he is drawing a distinction between true followers of Christ who make it their aim to please Him and those who have no regard for the things of God. Those who claim to know God and yet do not follow His ways do not actually know God. They practice lawlessness rather than fulfill the law of Christ.

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