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Sermon Message

"Ceasing from Sin"

1 John 3:4-9
Theme: John gives four arguments for why someone who truly abides in Christ will cease from living a continual lifestyle of sin.

(Delivered Sunday, February 24, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church.  All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)  


This morning, we take up the subject of sin. We certainly don't take up this particular subject because we like it. On a human level, if it were up to us, we'd never take it up at all. We would simply ignore it and pretend that it's not really an issue. Many, in fact, have taken that very approach to the subject of sin. Many people say that it's not an appropriate subject to bring up in polite company. It's not politically correct to talk about. It insults people's intelligence to suggest that sin is the cause of our problems. It's a concept that smacks of authoritarianism. It's as out-of-date and as out-of-place in modern cultural thought as the use of leaches would be in a modern medical clinic. It's simplistic. It's judgmental. It hurts people's feelings. A quick way to end the party is to suggest that the party involves sin. You won't be invited back.

And yet, this unwelcome subject still has a way of forcing its way in on us. A story was told by the famous psychologist Karl Menninger about a man who stood on a street corner in downtown Chicago in September 1972. He was a stern-faced, plainly dressed man who stood frozen in position as busy pedestrians hurried on their way to lunches and meetings. Occasionally, as people stood on the corner waiting to cross the street, the man would solemnly lift his right arm, point it at the person standing closest to him, and loudly and clearly utter the single word "GUILTY!" Then, without any change of expression, the man would lower his arm and resume his stern posture. When another group of people had the misfortune of standing next to him, he would once again, point his finger at the person standing closest to him, and once again loudly utter the same solemn word, "GUILTY!" The effect this grim man was having on people was profound; and was revealing that - in spite of his apparent oddity - his single, condemning word was hitting target. His shocked victims would hesitate, look at each other in confusion, look at the man who had pronounced this condemnation, and then hurry away like a spanked puppy. One of the man's victims was apparently overheard saying to another pedestrian, "But how did he know?"1

I wonder how people would have responded to that man in our own time. I question that people would, today, say, "But how did he know?" Instead, I think people would tend to shoot back with statements like, "How can you know? How can you even know that there's such thing as 'right' or 'wrong'? What gives you the right to judge me? How dare you be so intolerant?" Some bold soul might hear the verdict "GUILTY!" and respond with (to paraphrase the popular bumper sticker for church use), "Phooey on Guilt!"

Yet even today, in a culture that has done about as much as a culture can do to insulate itself from the whole idea of "sin", God has made it impossible to do so avoid its condemnation. He has, as it were, built us with a portable, stern-faced man to stand on the busy street-corner of our souls - a man called "the conscience" - to point at the sin in our lives and utter God's own verdict, "GUILTY!"

How we praise God that this verdict of "GUILTY!" is finally changed to "RIGHTEOUS!" through faith in Jesus Christ! The apostle John writes,

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 1:8-2:2).

What good news that is! The guilt of our sin separated us from God; but Jesus took the guilt of our sins on Himself and died in our place. He paid the full price for our sins; so that, having placed our trust in His sacrifice for us on the cross, God no longer declares us "GUILTY!", but "RIGHTEOUS!" in Him.

But now that we have trusted Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, and now that God has declared us to be righteous, we still can't treat sin as if it were a non-issue. John has expressed his concern in his letter when he says, "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin" (2:1). God releases us from the condemnation of sin; but His intention in doing so is that we cease from sin thereafter. John elaborates on this in today's passage:

Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. 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 (1 John 3:4-9).

As we have been stressing in our study, the whole thrust of John's letter is "fellowship with God". It was his earnest desire that we, his readers, would enter into and enjoy the fullest possible depths of fellowship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus came, and gave His own life on the cross for us, in order to take away the barrier of sin and make that fellowship possible. And now, John shows us that one of the sure evidences that we have, indeed, entered into that fellowship is that we have ceased from sin.

* * * * * * * * * *

But an important point needs to be clarified. Just what does John mean when he uses such seemingly "all-or-nothing" statements as "Whoever abides in Him does not sin"; or, "Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him"; or, "He who sins is of the devil"; or "Whoever has been born of God does not sin" and "cannot sin"? Does he mean that we can only be sure that we are saved if we no longer commit sin? Doesn't that pretty much eliminate all of us from any hope of salvation? How could anyone enter into fellowship with Jesus at all if the criterion for that fellowship is that we "do not sin"?

To be clear on what John means by these phrases, it's very important to understand the intention of his words as they're found in the original language. The Greek verb John uses has, in this context, the meaning "to do" or "to practice" something; and the particular form of this Greek verb is one that conveys the idea of continuous, progressive action.

John is not saying that anyone who abides in Jesus must have stopped sinning for good, never, ever to sin again - and that, if he our she ever sins again, he or she will have ceased to abide in Jesus. You'll remember, after all, that John said, "I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father ..." Even John recognizes the fact that we who abide in Jesus will never reach sinless perfection until we are with Him in heaven. Sinless perfection is not what John is writing about. Instead, what he indicates by the kind of word he uses is an ongoing, continuous, progressive life-style practice of sin. The NIV translates some of these phrases this way: "No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him" (v. 6). "No one who is born of God will continue in sin ... he cannot go on sinning ..." (v. 9) The NASB translates some of these phrases this way: "Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness ..." (v. 4). "... The one who practices righteousness is righteous ... the one who practices sin is of the devil ..." (vv. 7-8). "No one who is born of God practices sin ..." (v. 9).

I like to think of what John is speaking of in this way: The apostle Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God" (vv. 9-10). Paul, here, mentions sins that are what we might call "life-identifying" sins. The sinner's life-style is so characterized by the continual, ongoing practice of some particular sin, that they become identified by it: they become an "adulterer", or a "drunkard" or a "thief". If someone lives in such a way as to become characteristically identified by this sin, then they cannot inherit the kingdom of God. And yet, Paul then goes on to say, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (v. 11). The forgiven sinner is no longer characterized by that "life-identifying sin" because he or she has been saved from it and has repented of it. Paul can now say, "Such were some of you."

But what happens when a former "drunkard" - who has placed his faith in Christ and has repented of the sin of drunkenness, and who has lived a long time without a drink - gets in with the wrong crowd, stumbles under the pressure, and gets drunk again? Does he lose his salvation? No, of course not. As John reminds us, such a believer has an Advocate with the Father. He will be forgiven when he admits his failure, confesses it to God, and sincerely turns from it in repentance. But in all of this, if he is truly in fellowship with Christ - and listen to me very carefully! - he won't go back to a lifestyle pattern of living in such a way as to become identified as a "drunkard" again. The Holy Spirit will convict him of his failure; he will be horribly sorry for how he has disobeyed His Lord and Master; he will cut himself off from those negative friends; he will thank God for Jesus' ongoing ministry of pleading His own blood for the man's failures; and he will not slip back into his old pattern again. The same is true for the former "adulterer", or the former "homosexual", or the former "thief", or any other sinner who had formerly been identified with an ongoing "life-identifying" sin. Such a professing believer will not become that thing again that he or she once was. This is what John means when he says, "Whoever abides in Christ does not sin." He means that whoever abides in Him does not keep on living the kind of life-style patterns of sin that had formerly characterized them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now stop for a moment. As I have been explaining all this to you, do you find that there is an area of sin in your life that the Holy Spirit is pointing to right now? When John says that someone abiding in Christ does not "keep on practicing a sin", does a particular sin come to your mind in your own life? Is there an area of sin in your life that you have been regularly "dismissing" - that is, that you have been regularly ignoring, or even accepting - because you believe that Jesus has paid the debt of your sin and it doesn't matter whether you have conquered that sinful practice in your life or not?

If so - that is, if there is no sense of sorrow in your heart over that area of sin; and if there is no struggle on your part to be freed from it - then this morning's passage is an urgent warning to you. You may have been kidding yourself in thinking that you're abiding in Christ in the first place. Proof that we truly abide in Christ is not found in our becoming "sinless"; but neither is it found in our mere profession to have been forgiven either. It is found in the fact that, having been forgiven, we no longer continue in a lifestyle practice of sin.

If you find that what I have just said rings true with you, then I urge you to let the Holy Spirit speak to you through this passage. Or, if you are someone who - by God's grace - has been truly set free from life-dominating, life-identifying sin, then let the Holy Spirit use this passage to keep you on the alert from slipping back into old patterns and sinful habits.

* * * * * * * * * *

In this passage, John gives us four arguments showing why someone who is truly abiding in Christ will cease from a life-style practice of sin. His first argument is from ...

1. THE NATURE OF SIN (v. 4).

John writes, "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (v. 4).

I enjoy reading the English Puritans; and as you might expect, they had much to say about sin. Thomas Watson said that sin is something that has "the devil for its father, shame for its companion, and death for its wages." John Bunyan said that sin is something that "is the dare of God's justice, the rape of His mercy, the jeer of His patience, the slight of His power, and the contempt of His love."

These are interesting ways of describing sin. But how does one "define" sin? The 14th question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism - also written by the Puritans - probably gives us the best definition of sin ever penned by man: "What is sin? Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." But even as good as this definition is, the Holy Spirit gives us an even more concise definition through the apostle John, when John simply writes: "Sin is lawlessness."

The Bible teaches us that God is the great Lawgiver. "There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy", James 4:12 says. God, our Creator and Savior, has graciously given us the perfect expression of His moral law in the Ten Commandments; and He begins them by saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:1). The Law and the Lawgiver go inseparably together. The commandments and the Commander cannot be viewed apart from one another. Jesus Himself said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). Someone cannot say that they love and reverence the Lawgiver, and yet disregard the Lawgiver's Law at the same time.

And helps us to appreciate the significance of that simple phrase, "Sin is lawlessness". To sin is to seek to live outside of the Law of God. "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness". Sin, by its very nature, is more than simply a matter of disobeying a Law. It's a matter of rebelling against the Lawgiver. When the devil tempted Eve in the Garden to disobey God's command not to eat the fruit, Satan didn't merely attack the command. Instead, he attacked the One who gave it: "You will not surely die [which was to say, "God lied to you, Eve"]. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" [which was to say, "God is holding out on you, Eve"] (Gen. 3:4-5). Sin is "lawlessness" in that, ultimately, it is an act of rebellion against the Lawgiver. That's why another Puritan, Thomas Brooks, wrote that sin is something that "strikes at the holiness of God, the glory of God, the nature of God, the being of God, and the law of God."

And so, one of the first arguments John gives us for ceasing from sin is because "sin is lawlessness"; and that by its very nature, it's an attack against God Himself. No one who seeks to live outside the Lawgiver's Law can say that they love the Lawgiver. The nature of sin - that is, that it is an act of rebellion against the Lawgiver - is one of the reasons why someone who abides in Christ must cease from a lifestyle of sin.

* * * * * * * * * *

Another argument John gives is based on ...

2. The character of Jesus (vv. 5-6).

John writes, "And you know that He [that is, Jesus] was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin" (v. 5).

First notice why Jesus came. Do you remember what John the Baptist said about Jesus when he first identified Him to the crowds gathered at the Jordan River? John pointed to Him and said, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" John was declaring that Jesus - the Lamb of God - has been manifested. And he was saying that Jesus was manifested specifically to take away our sins. Paul, likewise, wrote,

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).

The reason Jesus was manifested to the world, then, was so that He might take away our sins. This is why John says that He came.

The first point John makes concerning the character of Jesus, then, is that He came specifically to take away our sins. That's what He came to do. The second point that John concerns what Jesus Himself is like. He writes that "in Him there is no sin". He not only came to take away our sins, but in Himself was no sin. Jesus took our sins away by the Holy Spirit joining us in spiritual union to Him in whom was no sin. Jesus become one of us, took our sins upon Himself and died in our place for them. The Holy Spirit joins us to Him in such a way that our sin not only became His debt, but also that His righteousness becomes transferred to our account. The Bible tells us that God "made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21). In other words, when we are joined to Jesus, we are joined to one in whom there is no sin, and who came to take our sins away.

The question, then, logically follows: Can anyone believe that they can be joined to such a one as Jesus and continue in sin? The very character of Jesus Himself, and the nature of His work for us, makes this impossible.

John makes the case for this in two ways. First, he says, "Whoever abides in Him does not sin." In other words, whoever rests his or her faith in this One who came to take away our sins - and who is Himself sinless - does not then seek to do trust in Him while continuing to practice sin at the same time. John says, "This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth" (1 John 1:5-6). We can't have a walk of fellowship with Jesus in moral darkness. It's impossible to do so; because He is sinless, and doesn't walk in moral darkness!

And second, he makes this case by saying, "Whoever sins" - and presumably, John means whoever sins while, at the same time, claiming to "abide" in Christ and walk in fellowship with Him - has, in fact, neither seen Him nor known Him". Such a person has not been truly enlightened to Jesus - the sinless Savior from sins.

When someone has truly encountered Jesus, they are deeply impacted first by who He is; and then, they're deeply impacted by how sinful they themselves are. The fisherman Peter experienced this. He heard Jesus teaching from his own boat; and when He was through teaching, Jesus performed the miracle of directing Peter to a huge catch of fish as a reward. Only the Son of God can order fish around like that! Peter encountered Jesus; and suddenly came to the shocking realization of who Jesus truly was. The Bible tells us that Peter fell down at Jesus' knees, saying "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Luke 5:8). Jesus forgave Peter, and put him to work fishing for men from then on. But the point is that Peter couldn't remain in his old sinful ways any longer - not after truly "seeing" Jesus and "knowing" Him for who He truly is.

If anyone makes the claim to have fellowship with Jesus, and yet continues without remorse in the same old sins that Jesus came to deliver us from, that person is a liar. Such a person hasn't truly "seen" Jesus or come to "know" Him as He really is. They remain completely unenlightened concerning Jesus. The very character of Jesus demands that anyone who abides in Him must cease from sin.

* * * * * * * * * *

A third argument that John uses comes from ...

3. The source of OUR DEEDS (vv. 7-8).

Perhaps you remember the following quote from the Lord Jesus. He once said,

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them" (Matt. 7:15-20).

With that in mind, consider what John says next: "Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning" (vv. 7-8a).

John is letting us know, in these words, that our deeds come from a source that is beyond ourselves. It's true that, before the throne of God, everyone must give an account of his or her own deeds (2 Cor. 5:10). But those deeds have an ultimate source that extends beyond the one performing them. You know who someone is connected to by looking at their deeds. "By their fruits you will know them." Apples come from apple trees; pairs come from pair trees; oranges come from orange trees. Similarly, righteous deeds are ultimately traced back to God - the Righteous One - as their source; and unrighteous deeds are ultimately traced back to the devil - the original sinner - as their source.

God created the first man and the first woman in a perfect world. They were sinless at the time of their creation. But sin entered the human race when Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command not to eat of the fruit that had been forbidden to them. As a result, sin and death has spread throughout the whole human race. Adam and Eve - and all their offspring - are responsible for their sin; but their - and our - sin has it's ultimate source in the devil, who tempted our first parents in the Garden.

Sin has its ultimate entry into the universe, then, through Satan. The Bible seems to suggest to us that Satan was the most beautiful of God's angels - a creature of matchless beauty and glory. But he apparently became prideful, and rebelled against God. It says, in the prophet Isaiah, "How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations! For you have said in your heart; 'I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the furthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.' Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit" (Isaiah 14:12-15).

What a dreadful story! How sin came to be Lucifer in the first place is something we're not told. But we are told enough to know that sin has its ultimate source in him. The devil has, as John says, "sinned from the beginning."

And so, those who sin are performing deeds that have their origin in the devil. Think of that! Every time we sin, we are performing a work that has its ultimate source in the one who is God's great enemy - in one who sought to overthrow God in the heavenlies and set himself up in God's place. Jesus once told the Pharisees, "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it" (John 8:44).

And please notice that John adds, "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil" (v. 8a). Satan introduced sin into the human family by tempting Eve; and thus, he caused all of humankind to suffer immeasurable loss. He brought humanity under the dreadful curse of sin and death. And yet, even when issuing the curse for sin, God told Satan this: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel" (Genesis 3:15). That's a promise that Jesus, the Son of God, would eventually be born into the human family, and would destroy the works of the devil. The devil would inflict a bruise to Jesus' heal; but Jesus would inflict a crushing, fatal blow to the devil's head.

And so, the point John is making is this: how can anyone live a life-style characterized by continual deeds that have their source in the devil; and still make the claim to be in fellowship with the One who came to destroy the works of the devil? People who claim to do so are simply fooling themselves; and are falling for the devil's lies.

That's why John gave that warning at the very beginning: "Little children, let no one deceive you." No one who abides in Christ - whatever anyone may say - can continue to perform the deeds of the devil.

* * * * * * * * * *

This leads us to John's final argument for why no one who abides in Christ can continue to live in sin. This argument comes from ...

4. The principle of generation (v. 9).

The principle of generation is one that we all know very well and live with all the time. It's simply that we are like the one from whom we're born. I didn't know my paternal grandfather, because he died when my father was just a boy. But I've studied photos I have of him; and I'm amazed at how much I ended up looking like him. I also possess many of the characteristics of my own father. My two sons look and act a lot like me. (I was driving around with my teenage son not long ago; and as we were talking, he said something that I pointed out sounded just like something I would have said. He responded gloomily, "Yeah, ... I know, Dad. People are always saying that I'm just like you. They say I look like you; that I talk like you; that I act like you ..." And then - he shuddered!! Apparently, not everyone is so excited about the principle of generation! But it exists, nevertheless.)

John is speaking of a spiritual dimension of this principle when he says, "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" (v. 9).

First, notice the nature of the relationship as John describes it. We are "born" of God. Our salvation isn't simply a matter of our old selves becoming "reformed" or "remodeled". We are a brand-new creations in Christ (1 Cor. 5:17). God actually causes us to become "born again". In his nighttime interview with Jesus, our Lord told Nicodemus, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). "... You must be born again" He said (v. 7). Peter said that we have been "born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever" (1 Peter 1:23).

Second, notice that being "born of God", John says that we have His "seed" in us. The Greek word John uses has the basic meaning of "the source from which something is propagated"; but in this case, it speaks of a "principle of character" - that principle a father passes on to his son through generation, which makes that son look, speak and act just like his father. Those who have been truly born of God have the principle in them that makes them manifest the traits of their Father.

Third, notice that if someone has truly been born of God, and because that someone therefore has the "seed" of God remaining in them, then he or she does not live a life-style characterized by ongoing, continuing sin. He or she, instead, lives like his or her heavenly Father and matches the behavior of his or her heavenly Brother Jesus. "In this," John writes, "the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God ..." (v. 10). Those who are not born of God cannot practice righteousness. They don't have it in them to do so, because they are not God's children and do not have His seed abiding in them. Likewise, those who are truly God's children cannot help but be characterized by the life-style of righteousness that shows they are born of Him.

In fact, notice finally that, as John puts it, such a person "cannot sin" - that is, they cannot live in an ongoing lifestyle practice of sin - "because he has been born of God." Just as it is not in someone who has not been born of God to live righteously; so it's also not in the true child of God to live sinfully. They may stumble into sin occasionally; but they cannot continue in that sin for long. "We know," John later writes, "that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself and the wicked one does not touch him." (5:18).

Someone who is born of God and abides in Christ cannot continue in sin; because His seed abides in them. They cannot help but live like their Father.

* * * * * * * * * *

How about you? Is your faith in the cross of Jesus? Do you believe that God has cancelled out the charge of "GUILTY" and now declares you to be "RIGHTEOUS"? If so, understand that this doesn't mean you can now treat sin as a non-issue. God's gracious gift of salvation demands from us a transformation of life. We cannot stay the same.

How then, do you measure up to these arguments? The true nature of sin means that we cannot say we love the Lawgiver and still rebel against His law. The character of our sinless Savior means that we cannot say we walk in fellowship with Him and still embrace the very sins He came to take from us. The source of our deeds means that we cannot say we walk in fellowship with God and yet embrace the works that spring forth from the devil. And the principle of generation means that we cannot say that we're born of God and yet still behave like someone else's child.

May God help us to examine ourselves against these arguments. May God use them to teach us to repent of sin and seek after a lifestyle of ever increasing holiness. And may God get the glory.


1 Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1973), pp. 1-2.

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