The “for his name’s sake” is certainly a reference to Jesus Christ, harking back to v. 2 of this same chapter.
There has been no mention of the Devil to this point in the letter, but there will be subsequently (3:12; 4:4; 5:18-19) including the statement in 5:19 that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” But not these Christian people!
English translations typically obscure the fact that in the second address to the three groups of people John uses the past tense. The first time he “writes” to the little children, the fathers, and the young men. The second time he “wrote” to them. Much ink has been spilt in an attempt to explain the change of tense and no fully satisfactory explanation has been found. One commentator ingeniously suggests that just as John finished the first set of three comments he was interrupted – perhaps Mrs. John called him to dinner – and when he came back to his letter later he picked up where he left off by repeating what he had just said. But since he said the first set of remarks some time before he speaks of them in the past tense. “I wrote to you children…” It’s obviously complete conjecture. The translators of our NIV and ESV Bibles took the past tense in the second section as simply a literary convention, meaning that there is no difference between the thought of the first set in the present and the second set in the past. They took the past tense to be what is called in Greek grammar the “epistolary aorist” and rendered it as a present tense. It simply accentuates the fact that the second triad amounts to a restatement of the first.
Another such change without any obvious significance is that the word for children in 13c is not the same as the word John used in v. 12. But both are typical words for child in the NT and it would be hard to prove that any distinction of meaning remains between them.
Each group is addressed twice. You will have noticed that the same thing is said to the “fathers” in each case and there is some repetition in the address to the young men. The repetition of thought in this short section is no doubt for emphasis.
In this day and age it is necessary to comment on the fact that John addresses “fathers” not “fathers and mothers” or “parents,” and “young men” not “young men and women” or “young people.” This is typical of the Bible which employs the generic masculine as a rule when speaking of human beings. For example, in the New Testament all Christians, male and female, are “brothers.” In the book of Proverbs it is almost all about fathers and sons, not mothers and daughters. But in Holy Scripture it is clear that the women are included as a matter of course in such an address, in the same way that until very recently it was universally understood that in normal English style the generic masculine referred to men and women together. In fact, it is fascinating that, in the teeth of a generation of feminist propaganda, it remains the case still. “You guys” is now our typical form of address to a group that includes both males and females. We understand that the gals are included even if they are not specifically addressed according to their sex. We have discovered over the last few years that it makes for oppressively pedantic speech always to use two terms instead of one, and, like it or not, in most languages the single term employed has always been and is today masculine in gender.
You know how when you are speaking to someone you realize that something you have said or something you are about to say is very likely to be misunderstood. You stop your thought and interject some clarification. “Now, I don’t mean…” or “Now, don’t get the wrong impression…” or “Now, don’t take this wrong, but…” You know enough of human nature to recognize what those who are hearing you or reading you are likely to think and you take pains to correct the likely misunderstanding before it occurs. We find this human touch in the Bible often enough. Paul in his letters often anticipates misunderstandings and heads them off. And we have another such instance of this thoughtfulness in the few verses we have read this morning from 1 John 2.
John has minced no words in setting before his readers his first two of three tests of Christian faith. “If you do not keep God’s commandments, don’t tell me that you are a Christian. And if you do not love your brothers and sisters in the church, you are only deceiving yourself if you claim to love God.” You know very well how those remarks have often sat with you. They have created consternation and doubt. You know how poorly you obey the law of God and you know how tepid your love for the brethren often is. Reading John so far, you can’t help but wonder if perhaps you are one of those self-deceived Christians, one who claims to possess something that in fact he or she does not possess. John would certainly have realized that at least some of his readers might draw the conclusion that he was – intentionally or not – reading them out of the Christian church. So he pauses in his argument to make sure that he is not misunderstood and that they don’t draw the wrong conclusion from what he has said. In fact he harbors no doubts about these believers. Far from writing to increase their doubts, he is writing to put them to rest. He wants them to know that they have eternal life as he will put it later. And to that end he interrupts his argument to tell them what he knows about them. Their sins really have been forgiven through Christ. They really do know God; theirs is not the bogus claim of the false teachers of whom we read in the previous verses of chapter 1 and 2; theirs is the true knowledge of the living God and of the real Christian.
But in assuring them of his confidence in them, he said something else along the way. He provided them and provides us with some important insight into the pattern of Christian experience. Almost all commentators on 1 John, all the way back to the early church, agree that by children, young men, and fathers John is not referring to people according to their chronological age. He is not referring to different age groups in the church. Instead he is referring to people in the church according to their spiritual age or maturity. That everyone agrees is John’s point. What they don’t agree about is whether John is referring to two groups or three. Many have argued through the ages that “little children” in v. 12 and again at the end of v. 13, the first group in each triad, refers to all the Christians to whom John writes. They think that because in 2:1 “little children” obviously is John’s way of addressing his entire readership; the people to whom he is writing his letter are his “little children.” This address is used the same way again in 2:18 and 2:28 and in the very last line of the letter. So, it is argued, the first group in each triad is the church as a whole, which is then divided between the fathers – that is, the mature Christians – and the young men – that is the new believers.
But I’m not persuaded. Many others, indeed many of the church fathers, Augustine among them, have argued that there are three groups mentioned, not two: infant Christians or brand new Christians; young men or Christians who have advanced beyond the state of infancy; and, the last group, the mature believers. The reason this makes more sense to me is that in a list like this one would assume that each term refers to a separate group especially when “little children” is so obviously a distinct but similar category in comparison to “young men” and “fathers.” Wouldn’t anyone assume that an order was meant, a ranking according to maturity: first little ones, then young men, and finally fathers? All of them are John’s “little children” in one sense, but in that sense so are the fathers. It is doubtful to me that John would address the fathers as little children in a list that obviously is intended to distinguish the fathers from those less mature; children, young adults, and fathers, spiritually speaking, sounds like three groups, not two. What do you think?
It is a relatively small point as the difference is only that between two degrees of Christian maturity or three. But that is the question that is always asked about these verses. The fathers of the early church debated this same question. To encourage his readers, then, John breaks them up into groups according to their spiritual maturity and affirms the integrity and reality of their Christian life, each group according to its particular situation.
Now it is an observation of almost all Christians that the Christian life is something that one grows up into. There are steps and stages through which a young Christian must pass before and until he gains spiritual maturity, in much the same way that in physical life we all must pass through the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood before we gain the status and the appearance of adults. In the Bible we are taught that the Christian life is a continuum from infancy to maturity, but, to be sure, only in a very general way. It is, in fact, a generality. While in Christian experience we find that there are very definite seasons or stages of spiritual development, they are hardly easily defined and distinguished. The steps and stages of spiritual maturation are hardly uniform, nor do they follow one another in the same way or at the same pace in every Christian life. We know some younger Christians who are more mature than some of the older Christians we know. Some new Christians mature far more rapidly than others. But very often, and ideally, in congregations such as John was writing to – including at least three generations of Christians – or, for that matter, in a congregation like ours, older men and women will have advanced in spiritual maturity, in devotion and wisdom and practice, well beyond that of younger or newer Christians. Nor should this surprise us. The Christian life is not a science but an art. It takes time to grasp its true nature. It takes time to figure out the progress and practice of godliness. Lessons must be learned and habits formed. All of this takes time and experience.
And, of course, it is to be admitted that these are not clearly defined borders that one crosses from spiritual childhood into young adulthood or from spiritual young adulthood to maturity. No doubt almost every genuine Christian father feels that there is far too much childishness in his faith and obviously some Christians advance quickly in some areas and not so quickly in others. I’ve know some ardent servants of the Lord and perhaps you do as well, impressive in the maturity of their Christian life in some respects, who still do not demonstrate Christian maturity in their marriages or their parenthood or their finances or their response to criticism or other things.
I have some sterling memories, I’m sure you do as well, of encountering Christians who greatly impressed me with their maturity. There are such Christians in this congregation but it would not be wise for me to draw attention to them. But still an example would be useful. I’ve told you before of Professor van der Linde whom I met and interviewed when I was studying in Holland in 1984. I have told you of the great love this man had for his wife and how inspiring his affection for her was to me – even eight years after her death which was when I met him. He told me, a wet-behind the ears American pastor, and with tears in his eyes that he never went to bed without thanking God for her. That was certainly the sort of thing one would want to find in a spiritually mature Christian married man or widower. A man whose devotion to his wife was so pure and so constant and so passionate that it survived as a great power in his heart and life long after the Lord took her to heaven.
But there were other things about Prof. van der Linde that so impressed me as a Christian, such as the kindness and respect with which he spoke of others, including other scholars with whom he disagreed. And his speech was full of God’s grace and goodness and his concern for the spread of the gospel. He was a man of refined tastes and was concerned about the right things and spoke of them with reverence and appreciation and gratitude. Is that not a perfect picture of Christian maturity?
But there is more. Shortly before I met Prof. van der Linde he had donated a huge part of his library to the University of Utrecht. All his adult life he had been a collector of books from the period of what the Dutch call the Nadere Reformatie, but which we know as the Puritan period. Just as our men collect Owen and Goodwin and Baxter and Rutherford and the other English and Scottish Puritan writers, so this Dutch professor collected their contemporaries in Holland: Jean Taffin, Willem Teelinck, Gisbertus Voetius, and the other preachers and theologians of the Second Reformation. He loved these men and he loved their books because he loved what they taught. He believed it was the Bible rightly understood and powerfully presented and it led to a marvelous new beginning in the life of the church in Holland in those years. Fortunately, Prof. van der Linde began collecting those works – in used books shops and from auctions and estate sales – when almost no one else was interested in them, during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He got volumes for pennies that would cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars today. The result was that he had an almost complete collection of the literature of the Dutch second reformation, every work in every edition, thousands of volumes, a treasure that no one else in the world nor any university library in the world could match. He himself told me that it would be impossible for anyone to amass such a collection nowadays because of the soaring cost and the declining availability of these hundreds and thousands of titles. Prof. van der Linde had recently retired from his professorship at the University of Utrecht, where, interestingly, Voetius, the greatest of the Dutch second reformation men, had also taught.
It was not difficult to tell that he was a lover of old theology books. The walls of his lovely home with its narrow hallways and high ceilings were lined with the rarest and most beautiful of leather bound quartos and folios. His remaining stock of old masters would no doubt make the collections of many university and divinity school libraries seem modest in comparison. And he spoke of his books, as bibliophiles always do, with real affection because he loved what was in them and what they represented in the history of the gospel and of the Dutch church . But his great collection of Dutch second Reformation literature he had recently donated to the University of Utrecht library, because he felt it was fitting that they should rest where Voetius had taught, given his immense importance to that time of theological and spiritual renewal in the Dutch church.
He told me that he had not wanted to keep them until his death and have the university receive them from his estate because, he said, he didn’t feel that was the manly thing for a Christian to do. If he was to give the gift of his heart he should do it himself. You would have to love old books and one’s library as I do mine to know what a lifetime of walking with God and growing in faith and godliness is required to make a decision like that for the reasons this good and godly man made it. Now that is a Christian father. And there is a great difference between such a Christian and some man or woman younger, less practiced, less experienced in the faith. One does not attain to that measure of spiritual maturity and the beauty of life in a single leap, in a year or two, or merely by reading the Bible and praying for growth in God’s grace. Much experience of life, of walking with God, of absorbing his Word, and of observing the world is required.
John Newton was the letter writer par excellence of the Great Awakening in the 18th century. Indeed, Marcus Loane, a 20th century evangelical Anglican, remarks that writing these letters was Newton’s distinctive contribution to the great revival of evangelical Christianity in the 18th century. He had a remarkable gift for applying the truths of the gospel to the questions of everyday Christian life and, once people discovered that, he was besieged with requests for advice. And so he wrote a great many letters both to people he knew and to those he had never met. He wrote out of his own experience. He refers to his correspondents as those to whom “when I can get leisure I send my heart by turns.” Everyone wrote letters in those days, but Newton’s soon became famous for their sage wisdom as well as for their beautiful language. Alexander Whyte said of them that they were a volume “of the purest apostolical and evangelical truth, written in a strong, clear, level and idiomatic English style.” [Introduction to Select Letters of John Newton, 9, 12] They began to be published in his lifetime and they still today make wonderful reading. They are published in a book that bore then and sometimes still today the title Cardiphonia, which is Latin for “The Utterance of the Heart.” I mention all of that because in that great collection of Christian letters is a set of three, written to the same correspondent, about the stages of the Christian life and the believer’s growth in grace.
Newton based his three letters not on 1 John 2:12-14, as he might well have done, but on Mark 4:28 and the Lord’s remark there about the kingdom of God being like a seed, which when planted produces grain: first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head, or, as the ESV has it, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
The three letters are rich with insight into the way God grows up his children from spiritual infancy to maturity. I encourage you to read them. Take his description of spiritual childhood, John’s first stage here.
“A tree is most valuable when laden with ripe fruit, but it has a peculiar beauty when [it is] in blossom. It is spring-time with [this new or young Christian]. His faith is weak, but his heart is warm. His knowledge is small, but it is growing every day.”
Is this not right? We admire the zeal and the enthusiasm of the new believer. We sometimes envy him or her for it, we who have been Christians for many years. But we also detect a lack of discernment and spiritual realism. Such new Christians can easily be forgiven for thinking that the Christian faith and life are plain and simple and that all the complications people find must be the result of older Christians having muddled things up unnecessarily. How many times have we heard them say that they have no interest in being a Presbyterian or a Methodist or a Baptist? They are going to be Christians pure and simple. We understand that. We can appreciate it and sympathize with it.
But as they live and face the questions of life, as they think through the Bible’s teaching, as they observe the world and as they speak to others, they come to realize that all is not as plain and simple as they had imagined. Different interpretations of the Bible’s teaching must be sorted through; different approaches to life’s problems must be faced and examined. Godly men and women think differently even about some important matters. The Christian life proves over time to be more difficult and complicated than they imagined at first. Sin does not let go as quickly as they had expected it would.
More than one of you has complained to me that your faith does not have the warmth and the simplicity that it once did and that you don’t have the same zeal you had when first you began to walk with the Lord. And perhaps there is some truth in that. But if you take time to consider you may remember also, perhaps even to your embarrassment, what rough edges there were to your new-found faith, how quickly you passed judgment on other believers who didn’t see things the way you did, and how little, you now know, you really understood of the deep and searching teaching of Holy Scripture.
Of the second stage, what Newton calls, “Grace in the ear,” he says this.
“I think the characteristic of the state of spiritual infancy is desire, and the characteristic of the state of [spiritual young adulthood] is conflict.”
You’ve had this experience, I imagine; as I have. You have observed brand new Christians and noticed how gently the Lord often seems to deal with them. Their prayers seem always to be answered directly, they share their faith and people are converted, they stop smoking or conquer some other habit. No wonder they come to think that the Christian life will always be this way. But then problems of temperament, troubles in personal relationships, nagging temptations reappear and, in some cases, are intensified. Circumstances don’t get easier; in some cases they worsen. People near them, people they prayed for and witnessed to, not only do not become Christians but make their Christian life more difficult. In the first joy-filled weeks and months of their Christian life it appeared that all their troubles were or would soon be over. All the hills and valleys were being made smooth before them as they now walked with the Lord in this world. But now it is clear that this is not so. Things that got them down before they became Christians are threatening to get them down again. [Packer, Knowing God, 245-246]
Conflict, struggle, battle becomes the character of their lives. They must learn to fight and how to fight. They must accept the difficulty and challenge of the life to which they have been called. They have moved from the uncomplicated life of a child to the hard life of a soldier in the field. They have much to learn of spiritual combat, of the enemy and his strategies, and of the weapons of their warfare. As John puts it in v. 14 they must take the Word of God within themselves until by it they overcome the evil one as the Lord Jesus overcame him by wielding the truth of Holy Scripture.
Conflict! Newton was right. Did you notice; I’m sure you did, that the young men are put last in each triad? We would expect the order: childhood, young adulthood, maturity. Instead in both cases we get children, fathers, and young men. Why? That seems an odd order. But in the biblical languages what come last is getting the emphasis. It is here in the time of conflict that the battle for spiritual maturity is won or lost. It is here that the future of the church is secured or lost. It is through this time and this stage that Christians must come with faith intact and growing in the knowledge of the Lord if ever true maturity is to be obtained. You cannot jump this stage and go directly from infancy to maturity. You young adult Christians in the time of your spiritual conflict, of the establishment of the habits and the ways of your spiritual life, you hold the key to the church’s future as you do to your own.
What are we to carry away from this kind and thoughtful encouragement that John was quick to add lest his readers be overburdened by what he had written so far? Surely we are to accept that there are stages of spiritual development and that it should be, therefore, for every one of us our deepest aspiration to be moving on to higher deeper things. Time’s a wasting! A few weeks ago Florence and I went to a movie. I qualified, for the first time in my life, for the senior discount. I would rather have paid full price! But I am not too old to apply this teaching to myself and none of you is too young. We are to want, no! we are to crave to be fathers, not children, not even young men and women, but spiritual mothers and fathers in the life of faith and godliness.
Of the third stage, that of Christian maturity, Newton says first that such a Christian’s knowledge is more comprehensive; (I was amazed by how much Prof. van der Linde knew); his appreciation of the grace of God and the work of Christ is much deeper. His life is more consistent because his or her faith is firmer.
“Thus though his sensible feelings may not be so warm as when he was in the state of [spiritual infancy], his judgment is more solid, his mind more fixed, his thoughts more habitually exercised upon the things within the veil.”
You find in such a Christian, Newton says, a deeper humility, a readier submission to the will of God, a more tender spirit toward fellow Christians, a great deal more willingness to accept the mystery of God’s ways because they are so far above us, a more refined spiritual taste, less attachment to the world and the things of the world, and more comprehensive views of God and his glory. And then he goes on to say:
“The sun, in his daily course, beholds nothing so excellent and honorable on earth as [such a mature Christian], though perhaps he may be confined to a cottage, and is little known or noticed by men.”
When you meet such people, as I have and as I know many of you have, you cannot help think, “What a beautiful life the grace of God produces when the heart is willing and eager to grow up into higher things. And what power and influence the Christian church would wield, must wield, in the world if only every older and experienced Christian were like that?”