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8. Are We Sinless After Regeneration?


– Chapter 8 –

Are We Sinless After Regeneration?

The acute problem of post-regeneration sin requires careful study: Why do Christians sin after they have been born anew? This question must have crossed your mind from time to time. You may know of someone who has been baptized and says that he has been born of God. You don’t doubt the sincerity of his profession, yet you see glaring imperfections in his life, even things that are clearly wrong according to the Bible. You may see this situation even in your own life, and then you ask yourself, “If I am born again, why am I doing the things that are displeasing to God? Why am I sinning even though I have been born anew?”

I would like to examine this matter in the light of 1 John 3:9:

No one 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 3:9, NIV)

This verse is crucial for our discussion on perfection (or holiness) in the Christian life (see chapter 5, the fifth mark of regeneration). We cannot talk about renewal and perfection without coming to grips with this import­ant verse. Incorrect expos­ition could result in dangerous error.

This verse has been interpreted by some Chris­tians to mean the total eradication of sin. When we read statements such as, “no one born of God commits sin,” or “he cannot sin because he is born of God,” we would have to admit that these statements prima facie (on the surface, on first impressions) do say that you are absolutely sinless. If you do commit any sin, it logically means that you have never been born of God in the first place. This is the basis of the “eradicationist” theology which teaches that your sinful nature has been eradicated and replaced by the divine nature, making you incapable of sinning.

The juridical view of salvation

Let us backtrack to a more basic question: What happens to us at salvation? There are two extreme opinions. One position, accepted by most Christians today, is that salvation is a purely juridical or legal matter. Christ died for us and we die in him in some legal sense. And having died in him in this sense, we are justified, and thus freed from the guilt of sin. This definition of justification, which is the one most widely held today, places justification wholly in the domain of law.

On this understanding, it doesn’t matter whether the justified sinner has in reality stopped living as a sinner. It doesn’t matter whether an iota of change in his life has taken place, for justification is seen to be a purely legal matter.

You are familiar with this teach­ing, and it goes some­thing like this: When I first believed in Jesus, a judicial process came into force by which I was forgiven and acquitted of sin. In reality nothing has happened to me, or in me, beyond the fact that I now believe in Jesus. The only difference is that because I now believe, I stand in a new legal position before God. But in real life, I am still the sinner I was before. Hopefully with time and before I die, I might see some moral improve­ment.

As to why Christians continue to sin, the explanation is simply: “I sin because nothing in my character has changed since I became a Christian.” If you ask them whether holiness is essential, the answer will be a re­sounding “no,” because salvation is a purely judicial matter. In their view, it doesn’t really matter for salvation whether I become more spiritual or more Christ-like in daily life, though this would be desirable.

In this view, spiritual and moral improvement would still be desir­able, but it has nothing to do with my justification, forgiveness, or sal­vat­ion. It doesn’t matter whether you are holy or not. Some even maintain that pursuing holiness is danger­ous because it may lead to human effort and salvation by good works; it is safer to refrain from good works, and entrust yourself to the security of a legal position.

The other extreme: eradicationism

The other extreme position is that the Chris­tian cannot sin at all, for he is perfectly and absolutely sinless. This teaching is popular in the Holiness Movements. They would say, “1 John 3:9 says that no one born of God commits sin. He is abso­lutely incapable of sinning. You mustn’t water down these words.”

Other Christians try to tone down the state­ment with this explan­ation: John is using the present continuous tense (“no one born of God will contin­ue to sin,” NIV), hence the statement should be under­stood as, “No one born of God habitually commits sin.” He might sin from time to time, but not habitually.

This position, though toned down, is still of a much higher standard than the popular teaching of juridical justification, because a Christian who does not sin habitually must evidently be living in holiness most of the time. This higher standard flies in the face of the standard teaching which removes holiness from salva­tion.

In this view, the Chris­tian doesn’t sin habitually be­cause God’s nature (“seed”) abides in him. But this runs into a problem: How is it to be reconciled with the second part of John’s statement (“he cannot sin”)? The first half (“no one born of God commits sin”) can be explained by adding the word “habitually,” but the second half seems to say that Christians are incapable of sinning.

Many people find 1John 3:9 problematic. You have probably never heard this verse being expounded in any church. How do we handle this verse? If we say that a Christian doesn’t sin habitually, we run into a problem because the same verse says that he “cannot” sin. This seems to short-circuit the “present continuous tense” argument.

We must tread carefully because we could go to one extreme or the other. Some in the early Methodist movements were zealous to pro­mote a doctrine of sinless holiness on the basis of this verse (which John Wesley quoted frequently). The danger is that we could easily shift to an eradica­tionist doctrine which says that no one who is born of God can ever sin. But how can that be possible unless one is per­fectly sinless? There are some with more zeal than knowledge who claim that they them­selves are absolutely perfect, and cannot sin at all.

Salvation is not merely legal

Is it possible for a Christian to sin? As we said, a more basic question is: What happens to us when we become Christians? Are we legally for­given and justified even if we have not been changed in reality? Can we claim to have the Holy Spirit, yet in practice live defeated lives, disgracing God every day? Do we admit that spirit­ual improvement is good, yet presume it is op­tional and suitable mainly for ambitious Christ­ians? Do we suppose that ordinary Christians don’t have to pursue holiness unless they aspire to?

For the majority, being a Christian involves mainly a change of labels: We were once non-Christians but now we have a new label. We have taken down the store sign and have put up a new one that says, “Christian”. But inwardly we have not changed. Every­thing remains in the same old way as it was before.

This is a pathetic picture of Christianity. So, is salvation merely a judicial procedure? When you become a Christ­ian, does God simply say, “Good, you now believe in Jesus. Here is a list of your past sins; I strike a line across them and cancel them”?

Colossians 2:14 does say, “He canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us”. Without a doubt, salvation does have a legal aspect, involving a legal procedure and legal transaction. In just­ificat­ion we are legally acquitted by the Judge and declared forgiven. We were guilty of a multitude of sins, but because Jesus died for us, God the Father declares us acquitted of our sins.

All this is true. The problem begins when we stop there and say that justification is exclusively legal and doesn’t require a change from our sinful character. John Wesley avoided this error.

Any church that teaches a purely legal justifi­cation is open to the danger of hypocrisy. Without genuine holiness, the church will be powerless. In this teaching, you can go through a legal transaction and remain the same person as before. Your ongoing sins will be covered by Jesus’ bank account because he will continue to service your debt (debt symbolizes sin in the Bible; cf. Mt.6:12, “forgive us our debts”). Christians think they can go on sinning because Jesus will continue to pay their debts in the future as he did in the past.

It is true that Jesus paid our debts, but is that the whole story? If we have nothing more than a judicial status, how can the church be the light of the world? Is the church today the light of the world (Mt.5:14)? Can we still speak of the glory of the church (Eph.3:21; 5:27)? Would Paul still speak of God’s glory in the church if he were to look at our churches today? The church is called to reflect Christ’s glory, power and holiness.

Acquittal without transformation

Let me use an analogy to illustrate the gravity of the matter. Let’s imagine that you are a drug addict, and one day the police raid your home and finds a cache of drugs. You are hailed before a court of law. Let’s imagine that you are fined an enormous sum of money, to the tune of a million dollars, and that the failure to pay it would result in a long jail term. In this highly fictitious scenario, let’s imagine that a wealthy bene­factor steps in and pays the fine on your behalf. You are now acquitted and forgiven as far as the law is concerned, and are released because someone has paid the penalty on your behalf. That’s wonderful! That is the judicial part.

But will the acquittal do you any good if you do not kick your drug addiction? You will be driven back to drugs. And where does that leave you? Won’t the sad story repeat itself again and again? Won’t you go back to drugs, only to get arrested once more, hoping that your friend will bail you out again? This becomes an unending cycle.

Is that the sorry picture of the Christian life? Will you keep on saying for the rest of your life, “Lord, I’m sorry I sinned again. Some­thing is compelling me to sin.” Jesus pays the fine, yet you sin again. Is that the abundant Christian life to which Jesus has called us?

If a drug addict has been acquitted through a third-party bailout, has his benefactor really done him a favor? What is the point of being acquitted if I am still in bondage to sin? If salvation is a purely judi­cial matter, how could we speak of a glorious salvation? If a Christian is still enslaved to sin, he is no better off than a drug addict who is controlled by drugs.

The danger of a purely judicial doctrine of salvation should, there­fore, be plainly evident for everyone to see. It leaves the Christian still under the con­trol of sin. He still sins by the compul­sion of his old nature, and does the evil he doesn’t want to do (Rom.7:19). Like the drug addict, he cannot help but sin because he is being compelled by the addictive power of sin residing in his flesh. “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom.7:24). Mere judicial forgiveness (acquittal) does not solve his root problem. I may thank Jesus for paying my fine, but the root problem is still there. What has been controlling me in the past will continue to control me in the future. I remain a slave of sin.

Free from the power of sin

But Scripture gives a totally different picture of salvation. From God’s word I affirm that salvation, as John Wesley rightly saw, is a salvation not just from the guilt of sin, but also from the power of sin. If I haven’t been saved from the power of sin, I am not truly saved from sin at all.

We loudly proclaim freedom from the guilt of sin, but that only solves one part of the problem. Freedom from guilt is wonderful in­deed, but I am not truly saved from sin unless the Lord also frees me from the power of sin within me. To put it bluntly, if the Lord does not or cannot release me from addiction to sin, what kind of Savior is he? How then can the word “Savior” be properly applied to him? Does he save us only from one aspect of sin — its guilt — only to leave us at the mercy of its power? Can this be called “salvation”?

If Christ does not, or cannot, break the power of sin within me, he would be forever paying my debts. This so-called salvation leaves me more wretched than before. I am condemned to a life of misery under the bondage to sin, and I will always be grieving the Lord whom I love. I will always be lamenting like Paul in his days before Romans 8 became a reality in his life: “Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24).

Many have been brought up in the doctrine of a purely judicial salvation. Many have been living the defeated Christian life, always asking for forgive­ness because of being powerless to live victoriously. They go from one failure to another, failing in such basic daily mat­ters as interpersonal relation­ships, which break down at home, in the family, and among friends, leading to frustration and despair.

To put it bluntly, unless salvation frees us from the power of sin in our lives, we would have no use for this kind of “salvation,” any more than a drug addict has use for a forgive­ness that doesn’t break his addiction.

But Paul has good news for us: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2). The whole of Romans 8 elaborates on this point. If the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus operates in us, we will overcome sin. Too many Christians have lost sight of the good news in that chapter, which gives us the key to spiritual victory.

Scripture does not teach the erad­ication of sin but a doctrine of victory. Victory implies the presence of an enemy, and that enemy is sin. Although sin remains in our flesh, we can triumph over it because God’s Spirit and God’s nature abide in us.

If salvation is purely judicial, we wouldn’t need to talk about life or growth or victory in daily life because these concepts are alien to the judicial concept of salvation, which reduces salvation to forgive­ness.

But life has to do with the reality of power — God’s power — that imparts a fresh dynamism to us. That new life begins with being born anew (regeneration), which enters into a process of growth (renewal), and proceeds on to maturity (perfection, Christ-likeness).

God’s Word promotes a salvation that is far more than forgiveness, wonder­ful though forgiveness may be. Moreover, forgiveness is not yet regenerat­ion, but opens the door to a new life in Christ and to the whole wondrous process that follows it. If we equate salvation merely with forgive­ness, we are excluding regeneration from salvation, and fall into serious error. God’s salvation involves much more than being forgiven; it is the bringing into being of a whole new person in Christ. Salvation is much more than a legal act; it is a creative act which brings a “new creation” into being (2Cor.5:17; Gal.6:15). It is not primarily a matter of law but of life.

The dangers of spiritual infancy

Even if we have been born again, don’t we find ourselves failing from time to time? It may happen more often than we wish. Why do we sin even though we have the new nature in us?

We have already discussed the danger of remain­ing in spiritual infancy. Although everyone has to go through the stage of infancy, we wouldn’t want to stay there longer than necessary. Let us consider three main dangers which lurk in spiritual infancy.

The first danger: Ignorance

The first danger is ignorance. Children are ignorant of many things in life, and for that reason are said to be naive. They think simplistically even when the situation is compli­cated. Ignorance leads to sins of ignorance or the unwit­ting committing of sins.

Paul does not address the Corinthians as “spiritual men” but as “men of flesh” and “babes in Christ” (1Cor.3:1). Three chapters later, the question “Do you not know?” is reiterated a total of six times in one chapter alone (1Cor.6:2,3,9,15,16,19). Their spiritual ignorance is a cause for deep concern to Paul. He points out six things that they ought to know but do not: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (v.2); or that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (v.9); or that “your bodies are members of Christ?” (v.15); and so on. The Corinthians haven’t grasped these basic spirituals truths because they are “babes in Christ”. Carnal and imma­ture, they don’t understand important truths concerning the spiritual life.

Ignorance in spiritual infancy is seen above all in the ignorance of God’s Word. John says, “I am writing this to you so that you may not sin” (1Jn.2:1). How could John’s letter stop people from sinning? By teaching vital spiritual truths to those who don’t know God’s word — truths that can change our lives.

Second danger: Old carnal habits

The second danger in spiritual infancy is that our thinking has not been renewed. Children are carnal and self-centered by nature. Their thinking is centered on me and mine. Their words and actions revolve around themselves. They are almost incapable of talking about any­thing but themselves and their own interests.

When you first become a Christian, your old self-centered way of life still has a strong influence on your new life. In your old life, you were the center of your own thoughts and deeds. Your thoughts revolved around yourself: your studies, your future, your career, your family, your this and that. These habits of the mind are hard to break, and will lead to sin in the new life. That is why the mind must be renewed (Rom.12:2; Eph.4:23).

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I still had the habit of speaking Mandarin Chinese to everyone. Almost everyone in China understands Mandarin, and most of them speak it, even if often with a local accent. I therefore assumed that everyone in Hong Kong spoke Mandarin. But when I spoke in Mandarin, to my sur­prise many didn’t under­stand what I was saying. I thought to myself, “Am I in a foreign place? These people look Chinese but they don’t speak Chinese (Mandarin)!” It was hard for me to break the habit of speaking in Mandarin.

There was another habit. In China at that time, you addressed everyone as tongzhi (comrade). Predictably enough, when I got to Hong Kong, I was calling everyone tongzhi. When I got on the bus, I would say to the conductor, “Tongzhi, I would like to …” and he would give me a strange look. I was wondering if I had said some­thing wrong. The habit was so entrenched that it became second nature to me, and I used the term even in Hong Kong where it is not used.

Likewise, we bring many old habits into the new life in Christ. We do things that offend people, even hurting them unintent­ionally. We need to be “renewed in the spirit of your (our) mind” (Eph.4:23). We need to discard the old person we used to be, and live as the new person God has created us to be (Eph.4:22-24; cf. Col.3:1-17).

Third danger: Not abiding in the Lord

The third danger in spiritual infancy is that young Christians have not learned to abide in Christ (live in Christ). At times we abide, at times we do not. We are spiritually up and down, here and there, happy and sad, better and worse. We constantly run into problems because we have not learned the lesson of steadfast abiding, that is, of continuous fellowship with the Lord. We still don’t know how to communicate with him.

Friendship takes time to develop. In our spiritual infancy, we still regard the Lord as an unfamiliar friend. We don’t know him well, and cannot converse with him as with a close friend. We talk to him with a sense of formality.

“Little children”

We are now in a better position to under­stand today’s passage: “No one born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9).

If this is taken to mean that it is impos­sible to sin, then we are in flat contradic­tion with some other statements such as 1John 2:1, “My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the right­eous.” It is precisely because little children can and do sin that John is writing to them to alert them to the danger of being ensnared in sin. 1John 3:9 must not be taken in isolation, but in the context of John’s letter.

The verse we just quoted has the interest­ing term “little children”. It comes from the Greek word teknion (plural, teknia), which is the diminutive form of teknon, and which occurs seven times in 1John (2:1,12,28; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21).[1]

Interestingly, John’s letter is addressed mainly to “little child­ren,” that is, young Christians. (Jesus also calls his disciples “little children” in John 13:33, using the same Greek word.) Hence John is writing mainly to spiritual infants. When we examine the seven occurrences of “little children” in his letter, we see that John is mainly giving them warnings, exhortations, and reminders, out of a concern for their spirit­ual safety.

Though writing mainly to “little children,” John also addresses three other types of Christians. In 1John 2:12-14 he distinguishes four main types of Christians:

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I am writing to you, fa­thers, because you know him who has been from the begin­ning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

In this passage John addresses four groups of people: little child­ren, children,[2] young men, and fathers. These do not refer to children, etc., in the literal, physical sense, but to different levels of spiritual maturity.

John is mainly concerned about the “little children,” whom he addresses more often than he does the other Christians.

The “fathers,” the spiritually mature, are obviously the church leaders. They have been walking with God at a deeper level. Church leaders are not necessarily older in terms of physical age. Timothy, for example, was a church leader and therefore a “father” in this sense, yet he was relatively young in terms of physical age (1Tim.4:12).

The fathers are those who “know Him who is from the begin­ning,” and walk in an in­timate relationship with Him. The fathers know God personally, not merely intellectually. They are mature, and walk with God moment by moment.

The “young men” are more mature than the “children,” but are probably not church leaders. John describes them as “strong” because they have “overcome the evil one”. Unlike the children, the young men have spiritual strength. The word of God “abides” in them, that is, it is living and active in them. As a result, they triumph over the attacks and temptations from the evil one.

Seven vital truths for the “little children”

The “little children” are repeatedly reminded of basic truths and the need to apply them. An important part of learning is inculcation and reminder. Let us go through the occurrences of “little children” to see this general pattern.

(1) John addresses the little children for the first time in 1 John 2:1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. But if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the right­eous.” Committing sin will give Satan, “the accuser of our brethren” (Rev.12:10), an opportunity to accuse us. The children are reminded that in their position against Satan — who is the relent­less and merciless accuser “who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev.12:10) — their one hope is Jesus our Advocate.

(2) Verse 12 says, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.” They are reminded of God’s grace and kindness to them for Jesus’ sake.

(3) In verse 28, John writes, “Little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” They are reminded of the judgment at the Lord’s coming.

(4) 1John 3:7: “Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as he is righteous”. Child­ren are vulnerable to deception, so they are reminded to practice right­eousness. This is hardly a new teaching to them. Notice, too, that the statement rejects the purely judicial view of salvation when it says that the righteous person is the one who “practices righteous­ness”. The next verse declares that “the one who practices sin is of the devil.” Anyone who insists on the exclusively judicial view of salvation (which denies the need to “practice righteousness”) and continues to “practice evil” should take careful note of these words.

(5) 1John 3:18: “Little children, let us not love with words or with tongue, but in deed and in truth”. Love is a central element of prac­ticing righteousness. Notice the emphasis on action rather than talk.

(6) 1John 4:4: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” They are reminded that they have overcome the spirits of the false prophets (v.1) and the spirit of the antichrist, which is now active in the world (v.3). This was possible because of the Spirit of God who now dwells in them (“He who is in you”).

(7) The final verse of John’s letter is again addressed to the “little children”. They are lovingly but sternly reminded about the deadly danger of idols. Idols sever our relationship with God. Children are very vulnerable to temptation in the form of attractive idols, whether material possessions, or false teachings that appeal to the flesh, or anything else that may distract them from the Lord. It is a matter of spiritual life and death that little children are warned to “guard yourselves from idols” (1John 5:21).

Abide in the Lord

We are now in a better position to return to our question: In the light of 1 John 3:9, is the Christian capable or incapable of sinning? We have partially answered the question. As we have seen, little children in Christ can sin (2:1) and can be attracted to all kinds of idols (5:21). The warning about idols implies that little children are vulnerable to the great danger of idolatry. If Christians are incapable of sinning, this warning would be irrelevant. Neither would there be any point in saying, “I am writing this to you so that you may not sin” (1Jn.2:1).

From the wider context of John’s letter, it is clear that 1John 3:9 does not support the eradicationist view. John does not teach that whoever is born of God is by that very fact incapable of sinning.

How then do we understand the statement, “He cannot sin”? The key lies in the word “abide” (cf., 1John 3:6, “no one who abides in him sins”). This word is of paramount importance in John’s writing. The word “abide” (Greek menō, μένω) occurs 40 times in John’s gospel, and 24 times in 1John, a short letter of five chapters. By comparison, “abide” occurs only 17 times in all of Paul’s letters combined.

Let us summarize the main points on abiding:

(1) To abide means to live with, to be at home with, and to be in constant fellowship with (1Jn.1:3). To say that God abides in us (1Jn.4:12) is to say that He lives in us in a real and dynamic sense, not in some legal sense that is devoid of meaning. Abiding is a deep and reciprocal fellowship: We abide in him, and he in us (Jn.15:5).

(2) Abiding is effected through the Holy Spirit. 1John 3:24 says, “By this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” God lives in us and fellowships with us by His Holy Spirit (cf. “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” in 2Cor.13:14).

(3) Our abiding in Christ is not automatic but conditional. Note the conditional “if” in 1John 2:24‑25: “If what you heard from the begin­ning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise which He made to us: eternal life.”

(4) Abiding has to do with eternal life. We have eternal life if we abide in the Father and in the Son, and if God’s word is living in us dynam­ically and not merely intellectually.

(5) Abiding cannot be separated from obeying God’s word. 1John 3:24 says, “The one who keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him.” The greatest commandment is love, hence it is not surpris­ing that love and abiding are linked: “If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).

If we abide in him, we cannot sin

Let us conclude. What is John teaching us? The vital principle is this: If we abide in the Lord and he abides in us, we cannot sin. This is seen in 1John 3:6: “No one who abides in him sins”. It’s that simple. If we abide in him, we will not sin. If we live in him, we will be unable at the same time to continue living in sin. It is not possible to live simultan­eously in God and in sin. Sadly, Christians don’t always consistently abide in God, especially during spiritual infancy, so they slide into sin from time to time.

John clearly does not teach the total eradication of our sinful nature. Yet he also affirms that it is possible not to sin, if we abide in God, and He in us. If God abides in us, if His Holy Spirit abides in us, if His nature abides in us, we cannot sin. The word “abide” occurs even in the key statement, verse 9: “God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (Here “seed,” sperma, refers to the beginning of a new life that God implanted in us at our regenerat­ion).

Freedom from sin comes from abid­ing in God. We cannot sin if we abide in Him and live in fellowship with Him. But if we don’t abide in Him, we will sin. This is a matter of experience, not of theory. Apply this principle and you will see that it is true.

The fact that abide occurs 24 times in this one letter should alert us to the fact that this matter is of life-and-death importance. The failure to abide in Christ, periodically wandering away from him, could result in the going “out from us” (that is, from the fellowship of God’s people) all together (1Jn.2:19), thus ending up as being one of the antichrists. Abiding is therefore not just a desirable option but a vital necessity.

[1]It is intriguing that many things occur seven times in John’s writings, whether seven times in his gospel, or seven times in his letters, or seven times in Revelat­ion. Many have seen God’s amazing inspiration in this numerical pattern of seven. When John wrote this letter, he could hardly have sat down to count how many times he had used certain words.

[2] “Children” in 2:13 translates a different Greek word, paidia, so it cannot simply be assumed that it still refers to the “little children” (teknia) of v.12.


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