John was confronting false philosophies and erroneous teachings in the church in 85 AD when he wrote his letter from Ephesus to Gentile churches in Asia. The false teachers were leading the people astray by combining pagan philosophy with the apostolic message recorded in the writings of the New Testament that included, at this time, three of the gospels, Acts, all of Paul's and Peter's letters, and the writing of James and Hebrews.
The attack of the false teachers came in the form of corrupt instruction concerning the truth and the application of the truth. John says that those who are positionally righteous will do what is right in their behavior just like the one who saved them is righteous and does righteous deeds. The person who is sinning is not righteous, but is instead like the devil who is always unrighteous in his nature and in his deeds. So, we who are believers in Jesus should understand that "the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work" of sin and unrighteousness in our lives.
Satan's work is to morally lead us into sin, to physically inflict our bodies with disease, and to intellectually bring us into philosophical and doctrinal error. These are the things Jesus came to destroy in our lives, so why would anyone teach that these moral, physical and intellectual perversions do not matter? On this side of eternity we will always have to deal with sin, sickness and doctrinal error, but none of them are part of the righteousness of God.
The phrase "continue to sin" used above is hamartanei in the Greek and is in the present tense which indicates a settled character not an isolated act of sinning. This is saying that the born again believer does not have the core character of Satan that lives in rebellion to God's righteousness in every way at all times. But, this phrase and tense in the Greek does allow the reality that there are times where we may act in a way that is out of line with our new nature. This is confirmed by John earlier in this same letter when he says:
- "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (1:8)
- "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us." (1:10)
- "I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate."(2:1)
The two doctrinal errors John is confronting in this letter written around 85 AD are these: First, some believed that their possession of certain secret "knowledge" (gnosis) made them perfect and, thus, sinless. John explains that we still live in this age with a sin nature that is subject to sin, disease and doctrinal error. Second, some believed that since they were "born again" sin and unrighteous living were no longer an issue that could affect them. They taught that they could sin and still be righteous. John tells them that sin is incompatible with the righteous nature of Christ. Jesus and God the Father are not just righteous by position, but righteous in word and deed also. The first error of the heretics denied the existence of the sin nature in believers and the second error denied the seriousness of sin.