The reader of John’s first epistle may find himself growing increasingly uncomfortable as he continues his study and meditation of this book. The apostle’s conditional statements are numerous and stark.
For example, if we say we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth (1Jn 1:6). If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1Jn 1:8). Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1Jn 2:4). Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness (1Jn 2:9).
Right about now, we may think John’s stated purpose at the end of this letter—”I write these things to you … that you may know that you have eternal life” (1Jn 5:13)—is misleading if not altogether false. His attempt to give believers assurance of salvation can have the opposite effect on many of us, and we’ve not even arrived at his passages on apostasy yet. “You can’t claim to have eternal life,” John says, “unless you believe this, do that, and never do this other thing.” If the strictest of Puritans had been alive in the first century, John would have made them proud.
Even so, we should trust the disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 21:20). He knows what he’s doing. Having personally witnessed the tragic results of false teachings, erroneous hope, and nominal Christianity within a mere fifty years of the Lord’s death, he feels he must stress the inevitable marks of a genuine believer before he, the last-living apostle, is gone forever. His life’s end is drawing near. The time for apostolic clarification is almost over.
God’s inspiration of 1 John and its inclusion in our Bible is no accident. Nearly two millennia later, the church is in desperate need of its contents.
Multitudes of people are following false christs and false prophets (Mt 24:24). On any given Sunday morning, countless teachers stand before Christian congregations and preach destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them (2Pe 2:1). Worse yet, many so-called Christians don’t even realize they are walking the easy path that leads to destruction (Mt 7:13). For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mt 7:14). They are convinced of their salvation, but upon self-examination, the evidence is severely lacking.
Their devotion to Christ and spiritual things is minimal. I have too many earthly affairs that demand my attention. Their interest in his word and commandments is hardly existent. My pastor delivers all I need to know in his brief sermon once a week, at least those weeks I manage to attend. Their intimacy with God’s people is shallow at best. I know their names, shake their hands, and I’ll see them again in passing next Sunday.
The very thought of these people breaks John’s heart, motivating him to set the record straight. On the one hand, he intends to strip some people of their confidence when it lacks any merit. On the other hand, he wants to equip sincere believers with the tests necessary to know their salvation is real. The way … that leads to life may be hard, but it’s not impossible (Mt 7:14). For all things are possible with God, including divine assurance (Mk 10:27).
Yet John is not without concern that his words may be misunderstood. Throughout this epistle, he alludes to an awareness that someone may assume he is proposing a form of legalism. “We know that we have come to know Christ,” he previously wrote, “only if we keep his commandments” (1Jn 2:3). Perhaps his readers will misinterpret his words to mean one cannot be saved without keeping the law, becoming hopelessly discouraged. Maybe some will use these tests, though designed to be self-administered, as a means of judging the eternal fate of others.
In any case, he sprinkles this letter with unmistakeable reassurance as he does here: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1Jn 2:12).
John uses four designations in this passage which can be a point of contention among Bible commentators. The matter is worth considering before we go any further. He refers to his readers as little children, that is, teknion, fathers, young men, and children, that is, paidion (1Jn 2:12-13). You’ll notice the first reference to children is different than the second.
As other authors of the New Testament do, John acknowledges the various stages of a believer’s spiritual growth. We all begin as immature children—”Infants in Christ,” Paul calls us (1Co 3:1)—before growing up to mature manhood (Eph 4:13). While we will always be the teknion or little children of God, our sanctification slowly but surely turns paidion or children into young men and, God willing, spiritually-mature fathers in the faith (1Jn 2:12-13). If we’re not growing, there’s cause for concern.
You can sense the frustration in the writer of Hebrews as he says to his readers:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)
There is no shame in being a new convert who still needs to be fed … with milk, not solid food as long as you crave pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation (1Co 3:2; 1Pe 2:2). We have to start somewhere, but we shouldn’t stay where we start forever. As Paul writes:
Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it to the goal. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way. (Philippians 3:13-15)
The Christian disciple should be able to examine his past and see progress year after year. His desire to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent should increase in fervency (Jn 17:3). His thinking and behavior should be conformed to the image of God’s Son more and more as time passes (Ro 8:29). His love for his brothers and sisters in Christ should grow as well (1Jn 3:14). If not, he has every reason to ask himself why.
Charles Spurgeon once preached:
The Christian life is very much like climbing a hill of ice. You cannot slide up. You have to cut every step with an ice axe. Only with incessant labor in cutting and chipping can you make any progress. If you want to know how to backslide, leave off going forward. Cease going upward and you will go downward of necessity. You can never stand still.
To phrase it another way, if we aren’t growing, we’re probably dying. If our maturity stalls, either our initial conversion was in vain or perhaps we’ve abandoned the love for Christ, his word, and his people we had at first (Rev 2:4). Regardless, we need to remember … from where we have fallen and repent (Rev 2:5). As Spurgeon so eloquently stated, we’re either climbing or falling. You can’t stand still on a hill of ice.
John knows the spiritual diversity of his audience and offers a reassuring word to four general groups, though some Bible commentators think he addresses only three. First, he writes to little children, a term he uses often in this epistle in reference to everyone (1Jn 2:12). Second, he writes to fathers, the spiritually mature among them (1Jn 2:13). Third, he writes to young men, those somewhere between infancy and full maturity. Finally, he writes to children, not be confused with the broader title, little children.
Whether we conclude John mentions three or four distinct groups in this passage is hardly relevant to his message. At some point or another, every last Christian can identify with every last statement he makes.
John begins his reassuring clarity with a word to all of us. He speaks of what everyone in the church from the youngest to the oldest knows well, that is, forgiveness. “I am writing to you,” he says, “because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1Jn 2:12). A sense of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ is the first notable experience of any Christian. It is where we all begin when we first hear the gospel and believe.
Following his resurrection, Jesus opened his disciples’ minds to understand the Old Testament Scriptures in a way they never could before (Lk 24:45). For the first time, they saw Christ in everything written from the Law of Moses to the Prophets to the Psalms (Lk 24:44). “Thus it is written,” Jesus declared, “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Lk 24:46-47).
The possibility of forgiveness in Christ is the very foundation of the gospel message, not to mention the church’s evangelistic efforts. Jesus was born into this world to save his people from their sins, and that is precisely what the New Testament church preaches (Mt 1:21). Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Ac 10:43). There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Ac 4:12).
The initial experience of a new Christian is one of incredible freedom. First, he learns of his depravity while an overwhelming sense of his condemnation before our holy God strikes his heart. Just when he thinks all hope is lost, he, then, hears the sweet sounds of the gospel.
He discovers Jesus our Lord, who was delivered for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Ro 4:24-25). From within, the Spirit moves him to denounce his sins and turn to Christ for his salvation, fully convinced that God is able to do what he has promised (Ro 4:21). And by believing, his faith is counted to him as righteousness (Ro 4:22). Justified by faith, he now feels peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and obtains access by faith into his grace in which every Christian stands (Ro 5:1-2).
The weight of his crimes against God is lifted, and he knows his sins are forgiven because the Son of God is the propitiation for our sins in whom he trusts (1Jn 2:12; 2).
To be clear, one’s confession of Christ does not instantaneously raise him up to heavenly places as though reciting a few words can save him (Eph 2:6). Not everyone who says … “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 7:21). The genuine Christian must be born of … the Spirit or he cannot enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:5). It is not the words which justify the sinner. It is the profound, permanent, supernatural change of his nature which God himself irresistibly executes within him that leads to his faith and justification.
We are not redeemed because we have uttered the name of Jesus, but because our sins are forgiven for his name’s sake (1Jn 2:12). The Christian’s confession is not a magical incantation forcing God to overlook our trespasses. He forgives us for Christ’s sake and his perfect sacrifice on the cross. God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him and him alone we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21). We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God himself put forward as a propitiation by his blood (Ro 3:24-25). Though Christ is to be received by faith, even our faith … is the gift of God (Eph 2:8).
In short, the converted sinner is the passive recipient of God’s sovereign grace. As Jesus taught a man by the name of Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). Every true Christian has experienced a substantial transformation, becoming an altogether new creation (2Co 5:17). Though it may seem he has made a personal decision to receive the Savior and believe in his name, he was born not of his own will … but of God (Jn 1:12-13). Furthermore, God accepts him not on the basis of himself or his confession, but in light of the finished work of Christ on his behalf (Jn 19:30).
Naturally, we can draw a couple of conclusions from these facts.
First of all, if our forgiveness is dependent upon the atoning sacrifice of Christ—for his name’s sake (1Jn 2:12)—rather than ourselves, eternal security is not only possible, but it’s also inevitable. Who is to condemn us? (Ro 8:34). Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised, proving God accepted his sacrifice—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Absolutely nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 8:39).
Second, if no one can come to the Savior unless God the Father irresistibly draws him, he’ll know his sins are forgiven (Jn 6:44; 1Jn 2:12). Quoting Isaiah, Jesus said, “‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (Jn 6:45). God’s divine initiative under the new covenant is to give his born-again people an instinctive sense of peace.
“Search your heart, little children of God,” John implies (1Jn 2:12). “You don’t have to be told again. You are a disciple of Christ today because your soul already knows your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.”
Among the little children of God, who know in their heart of hearts their sins are forgiven, are people at various stages of spiritual growth (1Jn 2:12). Some are infants or children (1Jn 2:13). Some are mature fathers capable of leading and teaching those who are younger. The rest are somewhere in between. John calls them young men, not that females are excluded, and he offers a word of encouragement to all of them.
He reminds the spiritual children in the church that they know the Father (1Jn 2:13). They have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with their spirit that they are children of God (Ro 8:15-16). Even the weakest believer feels a familial connection to God. He is no longer a distant Deity far removed from their daily life. Forgiveness in Christ brings peace between them and the heavenly Father, and peace brings intimate fellowship.
As devoted and eager as these children may be, however, they are still too young to stand on their own (1Jn 2:13). More than anyone else, they are prone to be tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph 4:14). In John’s day, they were the most likely candidates to be taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ (Col 2:8).
Perhaps John intended his bold conditions throughout this epistle primarily for them, yet he is not without empathy. “I write to you, children,” he says, “because you know the Father” (1Jn 2:13). In case his words tormented these spiritual babes with more uncertainty than certainty about their salvation, he tells them to look to God. They love the Father and know he loves them. They know him as personally and profoundly as the youngest child knows his or her parents.
If you struggle to understand the doctrines of the Bible, keep the commandments of God, or love your brothers and sisters in Christ—these are John’s tests for a true Christian—it does not mean you are necessarily excluded from the family of God. It just means that you have some growing up to do. Sanctification is a lifelong process, and you may still be near the beginning of yours.
Children, as you continually strive to better love God, his word, and his people, always remember what your soul already knows: Your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake and you know the Father (1Jn 2:12-13).
To the young men and women in the church, those who have advanced to some degree or another in their spiritual growth, John says, “I am writing to you … because you have overcome the evil one. … I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1Jn 2:13-14).
This group is characterized by two essential things. First, they have successfully defeated the devil’s temptations and those elementary struggles the new Christian often faces. Second and certainly not coincidental, they have armed themselves with a greater knowledge of Scripture than spiritual infants.
The god of this world, that is, Satan, does all he can to blind our minds and keep us from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2Co 4:4). He loves nothing more than to inject error, little by little, into the church. Rarely does he launch full-blown assaults. Instead, he chips away at the foundation until everything remaining collapses on itself. But the children of God who wear the whole armor of God are able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:11). They never leave home without the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:17).
When Satan relentlessly tempted Jesus in the wilderness for forty long days, the Son of God didn’t retaliate with divine power. Though he had the authority to send the devil away, he willingly suffered temptation after temptation, using only Scripture as his defense because that’s all he needed. As Christ said on that occasion, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).
Young men and women, examine your Christian life from the beginning (1Jn 2:13). You have more to learn and room to grow, but you’ve made significant strides already. The devil hasn’t defeated you yet. A fire burns in your bones for the word of God. Keep fanning it. The assurance of your salvation will only grow stronger.
As for the mature men and women in the church—”Fathers,” John calls them (1Jn 2:13)—you know him who is from the beginning. If you didn’t get it the first time, John repeats, “I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning” (1Jn 2:14).
The wisest people among us know biblical doctrine in a way that surpasses mere intellect. Like children, they know the Father (1Jn 2:13). Like young men … the word of God abides in them (1Jn 2:14). Yet these two attributes have seamlessly merged within their hearts and minds. They know God as never before because they know his word as never before, and vice versa. A child may love and trust his father, and a young man may respect and honor his father’s rules, but only a fully-grown, fully-developed adult can see and appreciate the harmony between his father’s character and will.
Parents often tell their natural children, “You’ll understand when you’re older,” and that’s true. Especially when a child becomes a parent himself, he shares a newfound bond with his own father and mother. He sees the mercy in their every act of discipline. He understands his parents’ motives and desires. He comes to love them with an even deeper affection than he had as a child.
Fathers, you hardly need John’s epistle, though you’ll gladly take it because your hunger and thirst for righteousness are insatiable (1Jn 2:13; Mt 5:6). After years of being transformed by the renewal of your mind in pursuit of God and a greater understanding of his word, you have come full circle only to find the second time around is even sweeter than the first (Ro 12:2).
You don’t need to be told to keep his commandments or love your brother (1Jn 2:3; 10). You do these things, though not perfectly, because you know and love him who is from the beginning (1Jn 2:14). It is the greatest joy and honor of your life to walk in the same way in which Christ walked and love as your heavenly Father has loved (1Jn 2:6; Mt 5:48).
Long gone are the days when theology was little more than a lifeless intellectual exercise to you. You study God by studying his will because it draws you closer and closer to him. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting have become privileges rather than chores you perform out of obligation. You, fathers, are well on your way to being transformed into the … image of our Lord and Savior (1Jn 2:14; 2Co 3:18).
Just hours before his arrest, Jesus prayed this prayer for all believers, saying:
“And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:19-26)
Christ longs for our continual sanctification because our spiritual growth leads us into deeper intimacy with him and his Father. It also leads to greater assurance of our salvation. After all, what is eternal life but to know … the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent? (Jn 17:3).