Q. John writes in his first epistle, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” Does this imply that if I fail to be perfect in every way after having passed through the waters of baptism, I am therefore fooling myself about my salvation? Does that mean I have not really been born of God? I understand that we are called to “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect,” but where does one draw the line insofar as recognizing that, once saved, my propensity to sin has transformed into a propensity to actively, daily, turning from my sin nature and identifying with Christ’s righteousness?
I think it’s important to recognize the context of John’s statement. His first epistle was written to counteract the influence of false teachers who were causing divisions within the community of Jesus’ followers. As I explain in the introduction I drafted for the Messiah volume of the Immerse Bible (a new edition that presents the New Living Translation in a reading format without chapters and verses):
These false teachers were denying that “Jesus Christ came in a real body.” Like many people in New Testament times who were influenced by Greek philosophy, they thought that spiritual things were good but physical things were bad. And so if Jesus really had been the Son of God, they felt, he wouldn’t have come to earth in a physical body. But John offers eyewitness testimony that Jesus was both genuinely human and the Savior that God sent into the world: “We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning . . . We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. . . . He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us.”
In addition to this compelling testimony against their claims about Jesus, John adds, the people who are leaving the community are also discredited by the way they live. For one thing, they are living impure lives. (This was probably in the belief that what they did in their physical bodies didn’t affect their spiritual condition.) “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did,” John insists. “If someone claims, ‘I know God,’ but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar.”
So what John is saying, in essence, is that we shouldn’t live as if what we did in our bodies didn’t matter. We will not continue to live that way if we have been truly born of God.
And so I think your summary is quite accurate: The idea is that our propensity to sin is transformed into a propensity to turning away from sin and leading a Christ-like life of holiness. Many English translations now reflect the understanding that John is talking about a process, not an instant result. For example: “No one who is born of God will continue to sin” (New International Version); “God’s children cannot keep on being sinful” (Contemporary English Version); “Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning” (New Living Translation).
So, you are not fooling yourself about truly being a Christian if you’re not perfect in every way. Look at the trajectory: Are you moving steadily forward into “living your life as Jesus did,” by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit within you? If so, rejoice, and set your mind at ease.