A Biblical Explanation of 1 John 1:8
A Common Proof Text of Calvinists
Against the Possibility of Moral Perfection In This Life
By Jesse Morrell
An excerpt from the book, “The Natural Ability of Man: A Study on Free Will & Human Nature.”
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Christ Changes Our Position and Practice
The difference between the regenerate and the unregenerate are the states of their will and intentions. The unregenerate are described as having hearts that are “only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5), whose heart is “deceitful… and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9), because they “set their heart on their iniquity” (Hos. 4:8). The unregenerate cannot say “I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin” (Prov. 20:9).
On the other hand, God promised to give us “a new heart” so that we would keep His commandments (Eze. 11:19-20; 36:26-27). Those who are saved and will see God, who have been regenerated through the knowledge of Jesus Christ, are described as being “pure in heart” (Mat. 5:8), or as having “a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22) or as receiving a “clean heart” (Ps. 51:10).
Jesus contrasted the unregenerate in heart with the regenerate in heart when He said, “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matt. 12:35). The defining distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate is the moral quality or state of their heart (will, intention) and consequently the moral characteristics or conduct of their lives. The unregenerate are selfish in heart or intention and are, therefore, sinful in life, while the regenerate are benevolent in heart or intention and are, therefore, holy in life.
Jesus Christ takes unrighteous men and makes them righteous. But it is not uncommon for people to quote Romans 3:10 and try to apply it to those who are converted. When the Bible says “There is none righteous, no, not one” it is talking about all those who don’t know Jesus Christ. The context of this passage is usually ignored and that single passage is isolated. The context says, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:11), “The way of peace have they not known” (Rom. 3:17), “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18).
Can it be said that the converted do not seek God? Or that those who are converted do not know the way of peace? Or that those who are converted do not have the fear of God? Christians do seek after God, they know the way of peace, and they have the fear of God. Therefore, Paul was describing the unconverted world, not describing the converted Church. The point Paul was making was not that both saved and unsaved men were unrighteous, but that “both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9). Therefore, both Jew and Gentile needed to be saved by Jesus Christ. Paul’s point was that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), but not that those who are saved continue to live in sin.
The Bible tells us that the “unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). It also says, “And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1 Pet. 4:18) A person who is saved by Jesus Christ is called “righteous” in opposition to being an “ungodly” “sinner.”
I have known Calvinists who will defend their doctrine that says no man can live free from sin by quoting Solomon who said, “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecc. 7:20). While this was no doubt true of Solomon’s generation, or during the time that he stated this, it is not true of all generations or of all times. The Bible says that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was a “just man” (Matt. 1:19). It also says that Joseph, the counselor who buried Jesus, “was a good man, and a just” (Lk. 23:50). And it says that those who are born of God and abide in Christ “sinneth not” (1 Jn. 3:6; 5:18). It is, therefore, possible to be a just and good man that doesn’t sin. This is possible especially under the New Covenant!
Calvinists have used the following verse to teach that even those who have been saved by Jesus Christ are rebellious, sinful, wicked, evil sinners. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8) Many have used this passage to teach that Jesus Christ does not save us from all our sins. They say that the grace of God cannot set us free from all sin in this life. This passage must always be looked at in context.
The entire book of First John must be consulted for a proper understanding and interpretation of this passage. The meaning of a verse can be lost or misunderstood when Scripture isolation is practiced. The immediate surrounding context and the rest of the epistle give us much clarity into this excerpt.
Those who isolate this passage usually twist its meaning to be contrary to the rest of the epistle, which is about moral perfection. “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not…” (1 Jn. 2:1). Clearly, the inspired writer did not mean to say that you cannot live free from sin, since his stated objective is to get people to live free from sin. John would not write his epistle so that we would “deceive ourselves” and so that “the truth” would not be “in us.” Why would John write them so that they sin not, if when they believe that they sin not, they are simply deceived and are without the truth?
The immediate context of 1 Jn. 1:8 promises not merely the pardon of sin but also cleansing from sin. There is a proper distinction made between forgiveness and cleansing. It says, “…to forgive us our sins, AND to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). This passage promises freedom, not merely from some sins but freedom from all sins, to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness. If 1 Jn. 1:8 means that nobody can state that Jesus Christ has cleansed them from all sin, then saying that you have experienced 1 Jn. 1:9 makes you a liar. Their interpretation of 1 Jn. 1:8 would mean that believing in 1 Jn. 1:9 would make you deceived. Any interpretation of a passage, which contradicts another passage, cannot be a proper interpretation.
No matter what your definition of sin is, Paul clearly taught that we were “free from sin” (Rom. 6:22). And the Apostle John said, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:3-4). To interpret 1 Jn. 1:8 to say that even believers are sinful evil lawbreakers would amount to this: if a believer claims to keep God’s commandments, they are a liar and the truth is not in them (1 Jn. 1:8), but if they claim to know God but do not keep His commandments, they are a liar and the truth is not in them (1 Jn. 2:4). So the truth would not be in them if they claimed to keep God’s commandments, and the truth would not be in them if they break His commandments. If the Bible taught that everybody breaks God’s commandments and that you cannot know God if you are breaking His commandments, then logically the Bible would be saying that nobody knows God! If believers break God’s commandments and you cannot know God if you break His commandments, then believers do not know God! But believers do know God; and therefore, believers keep God’s commandments, as the Apostle said.
If 1 Jn. 1:8 means that everybody always has sin in their lives, then according to 1 Jn. 3:6, we do not “abideth in him” and have “not seen him, neither known him.” It would mean that everyone is “of the devil” according to 1 Jn. 3:8 and that we have not been born of God according to 1 Jn. 3:9.
If 1 Jn. 1:8 means that you are a liar if you state that you no longer break God’s commandments, then the Apostle John is a liar because he says “we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 Jn. 3:22). According to this interpretation of 1 Jn. 1:8, this would make the Apostle himself “deceived.” It would mean that the Apostle was without “the truth,” because he claimed to “keep his commandments.” Any interpretation of the Apostle’s writing, which makes the Apostle himself deceived and without the truth, cannot be a true interpretation.
The Apostle said in 1 Jn. 2:8-10 that the difference between the children of God and the children of the devil is that the children of God do what is righteous, but the children of the devil do what is sinful. This could not be a proper or accurate distinction between the children of God and the children of the devil if 1 Jn. 1:8 means that everyone has present disobedience and rebellion in their life. It would mean that the Apostle John and all believers are children of the devil if everybody has sin in their lives. If nobody lives a holy life or a life free from sin, then according to the Apostle, nobody is born of God.
The many problems with interpreting 1 Jn. 1:8 to mean that everybody has sin in their life is clear. If 1 Jn. 1:8 does not teach that even believers are rebellious, evil, wicked, lawbreaking sinners, then what does it mean? The phrase “have no sin” does not mean “have no sin” in your present conduct, since believers have become obedient. But it means “have no sin” in your past. The converted and the unconverted cannot say that they “have no sin” in their past, since “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). This point is repeated, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:10). None can deny that they have sinned or disobeyed in the past, but Christians can say that they presently obey God.
The man spoken of in 1 Jn. 1:8 is the man who had not yet experienced 1 Jn. 1:9. That is, the deceived man who denies having any sin is the one who has not yet confessed their sins, been forgiven of their sins, and have had their sins cleansed out of their life. Verse eight is directed to, or specifically talking about, the man who has not yet been forgiven and cleansed as described in verse nine. Verse nine is written as the solution to the sin described in verse eight. The man in verse eight is the one who denies his need for what is offered in verse nine, that is, he denies instead of confesses his sins, and therefore, says he needs no forgiveness or cleansing. Hence, he denies his need of being converted and denies his need of Jesus Christ.
If anyone claims that they have never sinned or that they “have no sin,” when they have not yet been forgiven and cleansed by Christ, then they are deceived. But if they confess that they have sinned, their sin can be both forgiven and cleansed out of their lives, so that they will walk in holiness and righteousness.
John Wesley said that this passage describes “Any child of man, before his blood has cleansed us” and that this person denies having any sin “to be cleansed from, instead of confessing our sins.”22 This passage does not describe the man who has confessed his sins, been forgiven of his sins, and has been cleansed by the blood of Christ from all sin.
Adam Clarke said, “If we say that we have no sin – This is tantamount to 1 Jn. 1:10: If we say that we have not sinned. All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; and therefore every man needs a Savior, such as Christ is. It is very likely that the heretics, against whose evil doctrines the apostle writes, denied that they had any sin, or needed any Savior.”23
Charles Finney said, “This verse is immediately preceded by the assertion that the “blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” Now it would be very remarkable, if immediately after this assertion the apostle should mean to say, (as they suppose he did,) that it does not cleanse us from all sin, and if we say it does, we deceive ourselves; for he had just asserted, that the blood of Jesus Christ does cleanse us from all sin. If this were his meaning, it involves him in as palpable a contradiction as could be expressed…. This view of the subject then represents the apostle in the conclusion of the seventh verse, as saying, the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin; and in the eighth verse, as saying, that if we suppose ourselves to be cleansed from all sin, we deceive ourselves, thus flatly contradicting what he had just said. And in the ninth verse he goes on to say, that “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness;” that is, the blood of Jesus cleanseth us from all sin; but if we say it does, we deceive ourselves. “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Now, all unrighteousness is sin. If we are cleansed from all unrighteousness, we are cleansed from sin. And now suppose a man should confess his sin, and God should in faithfulness and justice forgive his sin, and cleanse him from all unrighteousness, and then he should confess and profess that God had done this; are we to understand, that the apostle would then affirm that he deceives himself, in supposing that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin? …. This then appears to me to be the meaning of the whole passage. If we say that we are not sinners, that is, have no sin to need the blood of Christ; that we have never sinned, and consequently need no Saviour, we deceive ourselves.”24
Consider these syllogisms:
- When we are born again and God becomes our Father, we love Jesus Christ (Jn. 8:42).
- If we love Jesus Christ, we will keep His commandments (Jn. 14:23).
- Therefore, when we are born again and God becomes our Father, we will begin to keep Christ’s commandments.
- If we love Him we will keep His commandments (Jn. 14:15; 14:23), and love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10)
- Those who have been forgiven much will love much (Lk. 7:47).
- Therefore those who have been forgiven through Jesus Christ keep His commandments and fulfill His law.
Contrary to the idea that you cannot live free from sin in this life, the Bible describes the conversion or regeneration experience as liberation from sin in this life to live a righteous life in obedience to God (Rom. 6:22). Those who are born again can say “we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 Jn. 3:22).
I have met Calvinists who do not believe it is possible to overcome sin in this life by the grace of God because their lives are overcome by sin. But we are not to judge the Bible by our experience. We are to judge our experience by the Bible. If our experience does not line up with the Scriptures, it is our experience that is wrong, not the Scriptures. We should not bring the Bible down to our experience, but should bring our experience up to the Bible. The Scriptures say, “Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal. 5:24).
There can be no moral change more dramatic and radical than the reversal of purpose of life that occurs at a genuine conversion to Christ. The course of our conduct or the direction and way of our life has been completely changed. When we are truly saved by Jesus Christ, we will no longer live a sinful life because the power of the gospel has radically converted our hearts and completely changed our character.
A gospel that does not save from sin is not a gospel at all. The true gospel, when it is believed and received in our hearts, completely reverses our lives, renews our minds, and regenerates our character.
The Apostle John said “…the blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). Jesus not only saves our souls, but He changes our lives. Jesus not only makes us righteous in our position but also makes us righteous in our practice. When we are truly born again, both our standing and our state are changed. God will not only “forgive us our sins,” but He will also “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
If Jesus only made us righteous in our position (forgiveness) but did not make us righteous in our practice (bring us to repentance), then Jesus would essentially be giving us a license to sin. God is too good and too wise for that. God changes those whom He saves. Those who do not allow God to change them are not allowing God to save them.
The Apostle John came against this deception that you can be righteous in position while remaining unrighteous in your practice. “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 Jn. 3:7).
True conversion is not when a person makes some weak “decision for Christ” at an altar, which does not change or affect his life. True conversion is when a person decides to bear his cross and follow the Lord (Lk. 14:27), when he chooses to forsakes everything for Jesus Christ (Lk. 14:33). Nothing short of this radical decision is Biblical regeneration. Nothing short of this dramatic choice is true conversion.
We see in the Old Testament that sacrifices were not even acceptable to God unless the transgressor who was offering the sacrifice actually had a moral change or a change of heart and mind (Ps. 50:7-23; 51:16-19; Prov. 15:8; 16:6; 21:3; 21:27; Isa. 1:10-17; 56:6-7; 66:3-4; Jer. 7:21-26; 11:14-17; 14:10-12; Hos. 6:6-7; 8:11-14; 9:1-6; 12:9-11; 14:1-3; Joel 1:9;, 13; 2:12-14; Amos 4:4-5; 5:21-27; Jonah 1:15; 2:9; 3:5-10; Mic. 6:6-8; Zeph. 1:7-13; 3:10-11; Hag. 2:14; Zech. 14:21; Mal. 1:6-14; 2:10-14; 3:3-4; Matt. 9:13; 12:7; Heb. 10:8).
A sinner is “carnally minded” (Rom. 8:6), which means he is fleshly purposed. His plan is to live selfishly for himself and his own pleasure. Repentance is a change of mind, which is a change of purpose or a change of plans. If the transgressor of the law did not have a change of mind or a change of plans on how he was going to live, his sacrifice was an abomination to God. “The sacrifice of the wicked is abomination: how much more, when he bringeth it with a wicked mind?” (Prov. 21:27)
God wanted genuine repentance. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17). A sacrifice does save someone who continues to be wicked (Heb. 10:26-31), but the atonement process itself was meant to be a dramatic experience to have a deep and profound impact upon the heart and mind of the one the sacrifice was for.
Catherine Booth said, “It is to be feared that thousands are looking to Him to save them from the consequences of sin – that is, hell – who continue to commit sin; they utterly misunderstand the aim and work of the Christ of God. They do not see that He came not merely to bring men to heaven, but to bring them back into harmony with His Father; they look upon the atonement as a sort of make-shift plan by which they are to enter heaven, leaving their characters unchanged on earth. They forget that sin is a far greater evil in the Divine estimation than hell; they do not see that sin is the primal evil. If there were no sin, there need be no hell. God only proposes to save people from the consequences of sin by saving them from sin itself; and this is the great distinguishing work of Christ – to save His people from their sins!”25
God’s problem is not His moral law, since He gave it and it is good for all. Nor is His problem hell since He created it and it is necessary to support His law and promote the well-being of His universe. The solution to God’s problem is not to do away with His law or to do away with hell. The existence of both precepts and sanctions are good and necessary. Nor is sin God’s ultimate problem since it is the effect of a greater problem.
The ultimate problem that God has is the sinner himself. The sinner is the cause of sin. If it wasn’t for the sinner, the sin would not exist. The sinner is the reason there is a hell. If there were no sinners in the universe, there would be no hell. God’s problem is with sinners. Therefore, the solution to the problem is to change sinners.
God seeks to turn sinners into saints. God seeks to change the very hearts of men. God does not seek to merely save sinners from hell without changing their moral character. God’s solution of salvation includes a real deliverance, not only from the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin.
While preaching open air on TexasStateUniversity in San Marcos, I asked a crowd of students, “Why did Jesus Christ die on the cross?” A girl passionately responded, “So we can keep sinning!” What a terrible misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the purpose of the atonement! Nothing more devilish is conceivable than to turn the atonement into an occasion for sin!
The design or objective of the atonement, as explained in the Bible, is the exact opposite of what this girl said. Jesus died to purify us from our sins, not to give us an excuse for sin or to encourage us in rebellion. Jesus Christ died to save sinners from their sinning, to transform rebellious sinners into loyal saints. The objective of the atonement was to reconcile the enemies of God to Him (Rom. 5:10).
In reconciliation between God and man, it is not God who needs to change. God has done nothing wrong. It was man that had to be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10-11; 11:15; 2 Cor. 5:18-20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20-22). In other words, God is not reconciled to man but man is reconciled to God. “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself…” (2 Cor. 5:18).
P. P. Waldenstrom said, “God had never come into any wrong relation to men, and therefore He never needed to be brought again into a right relation to them. On the contrary, men had come into a wrong relation to God, and they therefore needed to be brought again into a right relation to Him…. If an arm be wrested out of joint, and thereby comes into a wrong relation to the body, it becomes useless for the work for which it was created, and must suffer much pain. If it is to be healed, and to be freed from pain, and fitted for its work, it must be brought again into a right relation to the body.”26 It was mankind who left God. Therefore, it is mankind who must return to God. We chose to go astray; and therefore, we must choose to come back.
W. E. Vine said, “Never is God said to be reconciled, a fact itself indicative that the enmity exists on man’s part alone, and that it is man who needs to be reconciled to God, and not God to man. God is always the same… He is Himself immutable…”27
The atonement did not change God in any way whatsoever. God was merciful and opposed to sin before the atonement, and God is merciful and opposed to sin after the atonement. Before the atonement, God had wrath for the impenitent and mercy for the repentant; and after the atonement, God has wrath for the impenitent and mercy for the repentant. The atonement did not give God mercy or make Him merciful. Neither did the atonement take away His wrath or pacify His anger. God’s character always stays the same (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; Jas 1:17).
God did not have a problem with any of His attributes, but He had a problem with man’s moral character. Therefore, the atonement is not something that changes the attributes of God, but something that changes the character of man.
In reconciliation, man must change. Men are the enemies of God because of their own sin. Therefore, the prime objective of the atonement was to make man holy and blameless. “And you, that were sometimes alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight…” (Col. 1:21-22) God can only be reconciled to His enemies if the moral character of His enemy changes. Man must cease his rebellion against God in order to be reconciled because you cannot be reconciled to God while you are still at war with Him.
A classic hymn says, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”28 Another classic hymn says, “In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see, for ‘twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me.”29
This is a repeated theme all throughout the New Testament. The atonement of Christ is designed to turn sinners into saints, to deliver us from a life of sinning (Isa. 53:5; Matt. 1:21; Jn. 1:29; Acts 3:26; Rom. 8:4; 2 Cor. 5:15; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 5:25-27; Col 1:21-23; Titus 2:11-12, 14; Heb. 9:26; 10:10; Tit. 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 Jn. 1:7; 3:5; 3:8; 4:19). “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14). “And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15). “JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:21). “Unto you first God having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (Acts 3:26). “And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins” (1 Jn. 3:5). Christ died so “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). “Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the watching of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness, by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). Christ died “to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26). “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (Heb. 10:10).
When Calvinists and others say that we cannot live free from sin and be holy in this life, or that we will never be entirely obedient to God in this world, they are essentially saying that the atonement is a failure and is ineffective. Since the objective of the atonement was to make men holy, they are making “the cross of Christ… of none effect” (1 Cor. 1:17).
Dr. P. F. Bresee said, “There is one fact that stands out before and above every other in the Word of God: the blood of Jesus Christ is shed to make an end of sin, and to fulfill God’s own will and answer Jesus’ own prayer in the sanctification of the people”30
The Scriptures say that Christians are saved unto obedience (1 Pet. 1:2) and unto good works (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14). This is because the atonement breaks and subdues our hearts, so that the cross brings us to repentance unto obedience (Rom. 2:4; 1 Jn. 4:19). The atonement so impacts our hearts and minds that we turn from our disobedience in humble, sincere, and deep repentance.
The at-one-ment is meant to make us at-one instead of at war with God. It does this by allowing God to set aside our punishment or suspend our penalty while also bringing us to a place of complete submission and total surrender to Him.
Moral character is determined by free will choices and moral change can only be brought about by moral influence. Therefore, since the objective of the atonement is to produce a moral change in man, the nature of the atonement must be that of a moral influence over man. In order for the atonement to change the moral character of man, it must be designed to be an influence upon man’s will.
If the end is going to be accomplished by the means, the means must be fit to accomplish the end. If the means have no tendency to bring about the end, the end will not be accomplished by those means. The end determines the necessary means. The nature of the end determines the nature of the means, which are necessary to secure that end. These truths are self-evident. The objective of the atonement determines what the nature of the atonement must be. Since the objective of the atonement is to change and transform men, the nature of the atonement must be such as to accomplish this purpose.
None can deny that the atonement is a moral influence upon man, unless they deny that the atonement was meant to change the moral character of man. It cannot be denied Scripturally that the atonement was meant to change the moral character of men; and therefore, it cannot be denied Scripturally that the atonement is a moral influence over men.
All saints are conscious of the atonement having a deep impact and profound impression upon their hearts and minds, so much so that their lives have been radically changed. Therefore, it cannot be denied that the atonement is a moral influence over man without the consciousness and experience of all the Saints being denied. If the truths of the gospel, when presented to the mind of man, were not a moral influence upon the will of man, then there would be absolutely no tendency in the gospel to convert man; and consequently, there would be no connection at all between the gospel and man’s conversion. Preaching the gospel to sinners would have no tendency to save them. It would have no connection with their salvation, unless the gospel was the influence that God used to convert and save them.
An excerpt from the book, “The Natural Ability of Man: A Study on Free Will & Human Nature.”
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