After I cited First John that a person born of God does not practice sin, someone replied that God’s child never commits a single sinful act. He explained: “John uses the Greek word poieo (referring to a single deed), not prasso (referring to a regular practice).” My respondent should know. “I have had three-and-a-half years of Koine Greek,” he said, “and if John had meant ‘practice,’ he would have used prasso.”
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GracEmails usually avoid detailed talk about Greek words, but this particular assertion and the mindset behind it require an exception to the general rule. Beginning in 1962, I plowed through about eight years of undergraduate and graduate school classes in Koine, Hellenistic and Patristic Greek, and the main thing I discovered was how little I still knew. The more I studied, the more hesitant I grew of making sweeping generalizations based on the Greek.
In this case, my correspondent is certain but he is certainly mistaken. John himself sometimes use poieo to describe a regular practice or repeated act (John 5:27; 7:19; 1 John 3:22; 3 John 5, 10). On the other hand, New Testament writers sometimes use prasso to speak of a one-time deed (Lk. 22:23; 23:15; Acts 3:17; 5:35; 16:28; 19:36; 25:11, 25). John simply prefers the word poieo (153 of its 576 New Testament occurrences appear in John’s writings). He uses prasso only twice (John 3:20; 5:29), and he never uses four other words formed off the same root.
At least once, both John (John 5:29) and Paul (Rom. 7:15) use poieo and prasso side by side to mean exactly the same thing. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature (Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich) begins its discussion of prasso with the statement that there is often no distinction between it and poieo. To know whether a passage refers to one-time action or repeated practice, we must consider context, verb tenses and other details. A vocabulary word alone does not usually justify a dogmatic conclusion. And now, grammar aside, let us not practice sin!