John’s use of ‘anomos’ in 1 John 3

Introduction

Various ‘agendas’ make some want 1 John 3 vs 4 to read as the KJV and other translations have it:

“Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.”

The trouble is that the original Greek does not have the words ‘transgress’, ‘transgression’ – these were added by the translators, and place a specific interpretation upon the text. The ESV is the preferred translation:

“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” (vs 4)

Literally, John says:

“Everyone who is doing the sin is also doing the lawlessness and the sin is the lawlessness”

I have argued that this is indicating precisely the adverse – ‘transgression’ requires the law to be present, whilst ‘lawlessness’ indicates that there is no law in play. That said, some will still insist on arguing that ‘anomia’, the root word for ‘lawlessness’ means the breaking of law rather than the lack of it – and it can! So the matter must be decided upon other grounds, and, as always, context is prime.

John’s Argument

The issue, then, is not what we would like it to say in order to support some over-riding doctrinal persuasion from elsewhere. What is John’s point?

Lawlessness vs righteousness

Prominent and obvious is his use of a parallel expression by contrast:

“Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” (vs 7)

Or literally,

“Whoever is doing the righteousness is righteous.”

We can see that the sentence structure is identical. The point being that it is the ‘doers doing’ that indicates the nature of the ‘doer’. Plain and simple.

The Argument

Following John’s line or argument from the beginning of the chapter, we can see him saying:

1. That we are called the children of God demonstrates His great love for us

2. Thus as with Him, so with us – the world does not know us

3. We are His children now, and what we will be ‘has not appeared’ yet

4. But when He ‘appears’ (same word) we will be like Him

5. This hope means we purify ourselves as he is pure (so that we are like Him

Now, this point:

6. Those whose lifestyle is ‘sinning’ are also doing ‘anomian’; sinning is ‘anomia’

7. (But)   Christ appeared to remove our sins – in Him is no sin

8. No-one who is in Him (therefore) can carry on sinning – to do so demonstrates that they are nothing to do with him

The line of logic plainly indicates that John is not making a statement about ‘law’ at all. He is elaborating “by their fruits you will know them”. The nature of the children of God cannot result in a perpetually sinning lifestyle. Where we see that lifestyle, we are to conclude that those are not God’s children.

The Common Use of ‘Anomia’

We must allow common usage of language in and around the time that the various New Testament documents are written and circulated to inform how we read them. What did the original recipients understand by what is said? For that will be our basic meaning too. Davison has this to say:

“In sum, anomos and its cognates almost always mean evil, wicked, or sinful in Jewish literature before 70CE, and the vast majority of examples refer to Jews or to the wicked in general and not to gentiles.”

So we see that even Jews – who had the Law – can be ‘lawless’.

 From “The Encyclopaedia of Identity”:

“Anomia re-emerged in the Greek Old Testament around the 3rd century BCE as a translation for about 20 different Hebrew words that corresponded to English terms such as wickedness, evil, sin and iniquity. Anomia was seen as a general moral term and the polar opposite of moral law. In the New Testament, the meaning of the term was extended to include unbelief and the rejection of Christ as the son of God”

‘A general moral term’, then, for wickedness, evil, sin, iniquity.

From Gutbrod:

“In Judaism ho anomos or hoi anomoi is a common term for gentiles. Here it is hard to distinguish a mere affirmation that they do not have the law and a judgement that they are sinners. In general the latter view seems to predominate.”

So, predominantly, a derogatory – or, at least, contrasting – term meaning ‘sinners’.

One more – from “A Commentary on the Letters of John: An Intra-Jewish Approach” by Birger Olsson:

“… the letter does not support viewing the reference as an offense against the Law of Moses. … In apocalyptic texts the word anomia most readily carries the sense of lawlessness, godlessness, rebellion against God. The evidence for such an apocalyptic content is manifold … the sense of transgression against the Law of Moses is not attested in the NT.”

Conclusion

Thus it would seem the consensus agrees that ‘anomia’ generally is synonymous with ‘wicked’ and ‘anomos’ means ‘wickedness’ – moral deficit. It is not a specific reference to the law of God being broken … UNLESS the context, as in Romans 2, indicates specifically that that is what is being spoken of.

To impose that meaning on the text contorts it and makes it say what it does not say.

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About David White

Until recently David White served as a leader and preacher at a small village church in Lavendon, Buckinghamshire, England. At the present time he resides in Barton On Sea in the UK. He has been a Bible-soaked Christian for half a century, trained at London Bible College (now London School of Theology), but more importantly in God’s school of life.