5:18 “We know that everyone who has been born out of God is not sinning, but rather, he who was born out of God guards himself, and the evil one doesn’t mess with him.”
John ends his letter with three “we know’s.” This is fitting for a letter, the purpose of which is to assure people in faith. The whole of verses 17-21 is a chiasm starting and ending with not sinning, stepping in to highlight who Christ is, then touching on the evil one, and finally focusing on the central point: “We are of God.”
This is the main point John is trying to get across. He has previously stated some things which we know:
“When He appears, we shall be like Him” (3:2)
“We have moved from death into life” (3:14)
Now he says, “No one who is born of God sins.”
Westcott (193) notes that, “the power of intercession to overcome the consequences of sin might seem to encourage a certain indifference to sin,” so in this and the previous verse, John reminds his readers that “all unrighteousness is [still] sin” and that Christians don’t practice sin. (The Greek Present tense of “sin” indicates a continuing practice rather than a one-time act.)
This is almost the exact same wording as 3:9, and also echoes 1:6, 2:4, 2:29, and 3:6. John is summing up one of his main points that he has touched on many times in his letter: “we know that everyone who has been born of God is not sinning/practicing sin.”
Then he gives the reason we don’t sin: “he who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him” (NASV). The word “keeps/guards” is in the Present tense, indicating a continual vigilance, and the word “touch/mess with” could be translated “contact, meddle” (Pershbacher). Westcott (194) writes that this word indicates more than just a superficial touch. The evil one has been overcome (2:13), and we are under guard so he doesn’t mess with us.
Now the question comes, “who is it that does the guarding? Jesus or us?” Authorities are divided on the issue. While the Greek texts agree on a distinction in tense between the Perfect “everyone who has been born” and the Aorist “He who was born,” they don’t agree on the objective pronoun. Some say “keeps him” and others say “keeps himself.”
In one camp, we have the NASV, the Living Bible, and Westcott who say that it is Jesus who keeps us from the evil one, and that the parallel Perfect and Aorist participles about being born of God refer first to us and secondly to Christ, “emphasizing our kinship with Jesus, yet His unique sonship” (Westcott 194). This would fit John’s grammar throughout the rest of the book in which he always refers to Christians with the Perfect participle “has been born of God” and not with the Aorist form anywhere else.
However, counters Clark (166), there is “considerable manuscript evidence” that the object of “touch” is “himself,” as the KJV puts it. This would fit the strong adversive better (“but rather”) and could be rendered, “he who was begotten of God keeps himself so well that satan cannot touch him.”
John Calvin goes for this interpretation, saying that the child of God “keeps himself in the fear of God,” but he concedes that it is really the power of God that He “transfers to us” that keeps us, and not our own strength that keeps us. So we end up this controversy in much the same way as 5:16: the text can be translated two ways, one emphasizing Christ’s work and the other emphasizing our work, but in the end, the source of our power is God, so whether we emphasize our immediate work or not, we must ultimately give the honor to God, who gives life and guards that life.
By Nate Wilson.