1 John 3:4 Sin is the transgression of which law?

Articles Studies Research

One of the verses that is most uncomfortable for our critics is found in the first epistle of John chapter 3, which reads:

1 John 3:4
(4) Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.

Rather then taking the verse as it reads, some have tried to make it mean something else. There are three ways in which this verse is attacked. They say that:

1) The intended law of verse 4 is not the 10 Commandments.
2) The Greek word “entole” is never referred to the 10 Commandments by John.
3) Breaking the 10 Commandments is not the only definition for sin.

Let us examine each one of these arguments and see if whether they are valid or no. The first argument is when they say that…

The intended law of verse 4 is not the 10 Commandments.

With this argument our opponents share with us verse 11, which reads:

1 John 3:11
(11) For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

And so they argue that in context, the law intended in verse 4 is the law to “love one another.” But let us continue in this context. Notice the very next verse:

1 John 3:12
(12) Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.

In other words, truly loving “one another” means not killing each other, as Cain who showed “evil” by killing his brother Abel. Does this perhaps remind you of one of the 10 Commandments? It does to us:

Exodus 20:13
(13) Thou shalt not kill.

So what is our critic trying to tell us? Isn’t true love for our neighbor a love that will motivate us to keep the commandments, because those same commandments prevent us from showing them hate?

Notice verse 17:

1 John 3:17
(17) But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?

Note carefully that the context continues from verse 12. Cain hated his brother for no reason. He was angry with him without a cause, and that resulted in his evil deed. Verse 15 says that “whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” John is now demonstrating the “broadness” of the law of God, which is something clearly taught in the bible:

Psalms 119:96
(96) I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad (Hebrew: wide, roomy).

Jesus also showed the broadness of the law, when he said:

Matthew 5:21-22
(21) Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
(22) But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment

His teaching on the broadness of the law was prophesied by the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 42:21
(21) The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable.

So when we understand that the law is “exceeding broad,” we will learn that killing your brother is the equivalent of hating him without a cause. This is where verse 17 enters the context:

1 John 3:16-17
(16) Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
(17) But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?

We see from these verses that love goes beyond a set of rules which forbid killing and stealing. When we have true love in our hearts, the broadness of the law “Thou shalt not kill” is manifested through the acts of the believer, in a way that he will feed the hungry, because he knows that if he does not, he will contribute to his dieing of starvation and need, and will thereby violate the law. What’s the difference between physically killing a man, as Cain did to his brother, and not helping one who is in need? Will not the former also result the same way the latter will? And if it doesn’t, hasn’t your heart still shown the act of hate, which is equivalent to killing? We disagree that 1 John 3:4 is not talking about the 10 Commandments. Rather, the context shows the uplifting of the law of God by digging deep into it and showing us how broad it actually is. David also desired to behold wondrous things out of God’s law:

Psalms 119:18
(18) Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.

Our critics then show us the following verse which essentially says the same thing:

1 John 3:23
(23) And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.

Of course, when we truly believe in Jesus Christ, we will love one another, because the life of Jesus is an example of just that. Yet this verse is really no different then verse 11, and it reads the same. John does not leave the reader with having to guess as to what love really means. In verse 12 he showed us that love is something that will not show evil towards his neighbor. If we kill or steal from our neighbor, is this not showing him evil? True love motivates us not to violate the laws that protect our relationship with our neighbors. Paul clarified this better when he explained true love:

Romans 13:8-10
(8) Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
(9) For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended (literally: summed up) in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
(10) Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Observe that Paul gives us an example of what set of laws he is here speaking about, namely, the 10 Commandments. He says that “love” is the 10 Commandments “summed up.” The summery of the 10 Commandments is therefore: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” In other words, if you truly love your neighbour as yourself, your love will be “the fulfill-ing of the law” –verse 10. The suffix “ing” turns the word “fulfill” into a continual process. What is love? The fulfill-ing of the law. But notice the greek word translated “fulfilling” in verse 10:

Thayer Definition:

1) that which is (has been) filled
1a) a ship inasmuch as it is filled (i.e. manned) with sailors, rowers, and soldiers
1b) in the NT, the body of believers, as that which is filled with the presence, power, agency, riches of God and of Christ
2) that which fills or with which a thing is filled
2a) of those things which a ship is filled, freight and merchandise, sailors, oarsmen, soldiers
2b) completeness or fulness of time
3) fulness, abundance
4) a fulfilling, keeping

That which is, or has been, filled. Have you been filled with love? If so, you will be living a continues life of love… one that continually obeys the law of God. Otherwise, your love is not “true love,” because love if the summery of the 10 commandments.

Therefore when John says we are to love one another; it is a call to become filled with true love, and to continually live out that love by not breaking the law that protects you from showing hate towards your neighbour.

The second way in which this verse is attacked is in saying that…

The Greek word translated law is never used by John to describe the 10 Commandments.

The only way to hold on to such an argument is if one believes that only John was inspired by the Holy Spirit. But, we don’t believe that John was the only one inspired by God. In fact, we believe that all the bible writers were inspired by the same author… God Almighty:

2 Timothy 3:16
(16) All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

The word translated “given by inspiration of God” is the Greek word “theopneustos” and it literally means “God breathed.” Ultimately it was God himself who spoke “through” the prophets of the Holy Bible. This is exactly why Christians are allowed to interpret scripture with scripture, as Isaiah instructs us to do (Isaiah 28:10-13) because all of it was “God breathed.” So we wouldn’t suggest one interprets the bible in this manner. Rather, we should let the entire bible speak for itself.

We find in other equally inspired writings that the greek word “entole” translated by John as “commandments” in his gospel and epistles, can also refer to the 10 Commandments:

Matthew 19:17-19
(17) And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments (entole).
(18) He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
(19) Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Notice that in the gospel of Luke it can also be used to refer to the Sabbath commandment:

Luke 23:56
(56) And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment (entole).

It can also refer to the various laws of Moses called “ordinances” (see Eph. 2:15). It’s much like the Greek word “nomos” usually translated “law.” It too can refer to any law of the bible. So this is not really a valid argument to use against 1 John 3:4. Yet, you would be interested to know that neither one of these Greek words is used in 1 John 3:4. A different word is used:

From G459; illegality, that is, violation of law or (generally) wickedness: – iniquity, X transgress (-ion of) the law, unrighteousness.

This Greek word literally means “violation of law.” But which law? The context has the answer. We learned above in the first argument that the context of 1 John 3:4 is on the law of love, and that love is the summery of the 10 Commandments! Therefore the way to break the law of love is by breaking any one of the 10 Commandments that relate to your relationship with your neighbour or God.

The third is by saying that…

This is not the only definition of Sin.

This argument admits that at least one of the definitions of sin according to 1 John 3:4 is the transgression of God’s law. So our opponents who hold to this view have to face the fact that when they break any one of the 10 Commandments, even the Sabbath, the fourth commandment, they are indeed sinning. But some of the verses that they bring to our attention are as follows:

First Verse:
1 John 5:17
(17) All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.

Second Verse:
James 4:17
(17) Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

Third Verse:
Romans 14:23
(23) And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

Let us examine each one individually:

1 John 5:17
(17) All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.

We agree! Note that the law IS righteousness

Psalms 119:172
(172) My tongue shall speak of thy word: for all thy commandments are righteousness.

Yes, all unrighteousness is sin, because unrighteousness is the opposite of righteousness, which is what the law of God is. And is it not true that to be unrighteous is to not obey the truth (Romans 2:8)? Indeed, for it is not possible biblically to be both disobedient to God’s truth and yet be righteous at the same time.

Now, what is truth? Here it is:

Psalm 119:142
(142) Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and thy law is the truth.
(see also Psalms 119:151).

Notice also that the bible tells us that Jesus is righteousness:

1 Corinthians 1:30
(30) But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:

If therefore the bible tells us that the law is righteousness, and that Jesus is righteousness, this means that Jesus is the law of righteousness alive!

Now the only way to have eternal life is to have Jesus, who is righteousness, living in you, because eternal life is in him:

1 John 4:4
(4) Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.

1 John 5:11
(11) And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.

Now if Jesus, who is the law alive, lives within us, then his life of righteousness (commandment keeping) will be manifested through us:

2 Corinthians 4:10-11
(10) Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.
(11) For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.

Unrighteousness (or unlawfullness) therefore, is all that Jesus is not. And when 1 John 5:17 says that all unrighteousness is sin, it is saying that all law breaking is sin, and against the very life of Jesus Christ.

James 4:17
(17) Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

Compare this with the following verse:

Romans 7:12
(12) Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.

Since the law is “good,” therefore, to him that does not do that which is good, keeping the law, he is sinning (breaking the law – 1 John 3:4).

Romans 14:23
(23) And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.


Romans 3:31
(31) Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.

In other words, although “whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” we don’t make void the law through faith. Why? Because faith and law work hand an hand:

Galatians 5:6
(6) For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.

Note that faith works only through love, and true love (as we learned above) is one that will obey the 10 Commandments. Notice also that one who has faith, rather then dismissing the law of God, will “establishes” the law. The Greek word translated “establish” is a verb which means to “make stand.” Does your faith “make stand” the law of God? Or do you rather lay his law flat on the ground beside you? Faith has everything to do with the law of God, especially the fourth commandment, for it takes faith to believe that God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh:

Hebrews 11:3
(3) Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. (compare with Exodus 20:11 and Genesis 1, 2:1-3)

We have seen that no matter what our critics try to tell us about 1 John 3:4, even their very own attacks, when examined closely, show that the law intended here is God’s law of 10 Commandments.

For further study, see:

2 Corinthians 3:7-11: The glory of the law abolished?
Romans 10:4: Christ is the end of the law?
No seperation between law?


Impact peoples life in the most vital way


Training and materials for successful outreach

About The Author

Edwin Cotto

With years of experience in evangelism and youth directing, Edwin has worked with various ministries including Our Higher Calling and Spanish ministry El Ministerio Internacional Jesús es la Solución where he had the opportunity to travel conducting evangelistic meetings. Edwin has also appeared on 3ABN, worked as the main apologist at the Adventist Defense League, and is trained and certified with the Amazing Facts Center of Evangelism. He is also a Bible Worker for the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Related Articles

Chat on Messenger

Start Chat