1 John 2:12-14 gives us one of the most wonderful prose-like theological structures in Scripture. The Apostle, writing about the benefits that believers have in Christ casts it under the figure of little children, young men and fathers. His intention was to explain the benefits that believers possess in Christ by means of the Scriptures–i.e. the forgiveness of sins, knowing Christ and overcoming the evil one. In turn, he will call them to live in light of these privileges. On the surface, it appears that John may simply have been seeking to address the children, young men and older men in the congregations to whom he is writing; but, a consideration of what he says–namely, that all the saving benefits belong to all believers who are united to Christ–leads to a very different conclusion. John wrote:
I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
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.
Many years ago I happened across the idea that John was using these titles as shorthand for the different spiritual stages in which believers are at different times in their Christian life. In his experientially rich little book The Path of True Godliness, William Teellinck unpacked each of the three designations from the “spiritual stages” angle when he wrote the following:
“The Defining Characteristics of Little Children in Christ
God’s children who pursue the true purpose of the Christian life belong in one of three categories. The apostle tells us they are little children, young men, or fathers in spiritual life (1 John 2:12–14). We will now examine these three categories in relation to their true purpose in life and explain their attitude toward it. We will first speak about the condition of little children in Christ.
Little children in Christ have been born again. In accordance with the nature of spiritual rebirth, they have experienced forgiveness of their sins (1 John 2:12). They have also, to some extent, received the gift of knowing the Father—that he is their Father and they may thus address him, saying, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). Since they have experienced the goodness of the Father, they desire to behave like obedient children of such a good Father and very earnestly seek to pursue their true purpose in life. However, they have little insight into the special nature and demands of the Christian life. They are either very exceedingly comforted by God or intensely sorrowful before him, depending on if they see their most recent conduct toward God as either right or wrong. Their particular spiritual condition generally expresses itself in these three ways.
1. They know little about what’s expected of them. Because they have little insight into the mystery of the kingdoms of grace and of darkness and sometimes fail to distinguish between them, these little children fail to understand God’s special ways with his children. They do not understand what he normally expects from them. They do not know what the duties of the godly life are or what is required of them in order to walk righteously in everything. They do not know how to serve the Lord God to please him. They are not yet aware of how much it will profit them by constantly following the Lord, nor do they realize what it may cost them. They do not know which lusts and desires they need to deny, which habits to forsake, which difficulties to endure, and which obligations and activities to undertake and maintain. They have so little knowledge and insight into these things that they really do not know how to perform godly duties.
More particularly, they are not aware of how to practice and carry out religious duties. They lack understanding of the depths of Satan and his methods and schemes to deceive, ensnare, and tempt the simple. In short, because they are still little children, they have not had enough experience in discerning both good and evil (Heb. 5:14) to make progress in true godliness.
2. They are hungry and thirsty to know more. These little children in Christ have very good intentions. They sincerely want to walk uprightly in everything and be pleasing to God. There is no deceit, fraud, or pretense found in them, even though they are ignorant and unsophisticated in the things of their heavenly Father. They mean to do well. We know that little children who are beginning to know their parents are usually well inclined toward them because they expect many good things from them. So also are these little children disposed toward their loving, heavenly Father. Although they often stumble in many things, just like little children who are learning to walk but often fall, they nevertheless want to continue trying to walk well in every respect. They are eager to be instructed in the ways of the Lord so that, having come to know and understand them, they will also walk in them. They desire to learn and understand these ways. Just like newborn babes, they eagerly seek the sincere milk of God’s Word so that they may grow (1 Peter 2:2). That is how the apostle Peter describes them. These little children in Christ want to learn more and more in order to live better and better. And so they hang on to every word of the godly; they are constantly in church, in catechism, at Bible study, or in discussion of the pastor’s sermons after the church service.
They ask many questions because everything is so new to them. They thirstily drink in the words of those who instruct them. They listen intently to those who teach them well. They do this because they sincerely want to pursue the true purpose of life. They want to keep this goal continuously before their eyes because it concerns them the most. They want to direct everything toward that purpose.
3. They are easily discouraged. Little children in Christ can quickly shift from joy to sorrow. When they notice that they have been enabled to manage their affairs fairly well and to walk righteously in the ways of the Lord, they become wonderfully encouraged. They find precious joy in the Spirit and have great confidence in God. They are like little children who joyfully and exuberantly look at their parents when they think they have behaved well. Conversely, they are extremely disturbed when they have behaved badly or realize that they have fallen far short in some spiritual gifts that other children of God possess. When that happens, these children in the faith may even doubt whether they really are God’s children and whether God is their merciful Father. This especially happens when the Lord God hides his loving face from them. When that happens, these children often fall into despair. They call out in great distress as if they were completely forsaken by God and were lost for all eternity.
As we know, little ones can lose all courage when they realize that they have done something wrong. They may also despair when they are unable to get from their parents what their own sisters and brothers or other children get from their parents. They become despondent, particularly when their parents seem to be somewhat strict and a little brusque with them. So little children in Christ are also easily disturbed in their hearts. They begin to ask whether they are truly God’s children. When they notice that they have fallen short in something and do not feel the grace of God flowing through their hearts as before, they say with Zion, “The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me” (Isa. 49:14).
The Defining Characteristics of Young Men in Christ
Young men in Christ are those who, through their study and profitable times spent in the Word of God, understand reasonably well the situation regarding the kingdoms of grace and of darkness and the ways in which God leads his children. They understand what is required of them and how to perform their duties. They also know more about Satan’s intentions toward the godly.
They have greater insight into these things than little children in Christ do, but they also have stronger and more stubborn lusts within them than these little ones. To combat this, they have more power to overcome the devil. They are strong, and the Word of God abides in them, says the apostle (1 John 2:14). The following three things in particular characterize the spiritual condition of young men in Christ.
1. They are more knowledgeable about what’s expected of them. Young men in Christ are more mature than little children when it comes to being able to distinguish between good and evil (Heb. 5:14). They are more attentive, not only to what the Lord demands of them but also to what they fall short in and how the devil lies in wait for them. These are things that little children in Christ hardly seem to notice. They often assume that they have done their duty well when it is really only superficially done. They feel great satisfaction in having done their task even when that work was childish. When young men with their greater insight see what they lack and how great the power of darkness is that sets itself against them and seeks to hide the true purpose of life from them, they grow increasingly concerned. With their years these young men grow in discernment and increasingly notice these concerns.
2. They struggle harder against ungodliness. Young men in Christ have more inner conflicts when they practice godliness than little children or fathers in Christ tend to have. That is why the apostle calls them overcomers who take off their gloves and use their bare hands to fight the devil (1 John 2:13). That is not the case with younger children, who are not so aware of what is lacking in them. They have so recently gone through the anxieties of conversion that their fleshly lusts are temporarily somewhat deadened and numbed. They will soon regain life, however, and become like the young men who have had time to grow and now encounter more difficulties and conflicts.
Young men see that many things are wrong that they did not recognize as wrong before. Compared to when they were babes in Christ, they have much better knowledge. They thus experience more trouble and conflict than little children. Fathers in Christ are less troubled than young men because they have subdued their lusts more and have better learned to control their feelings to practice their holy duties as best they can. We will explain this more as we go on.
3. They have great courage. Young men in Christ are bolder and have more courage than little children or even the fathers in their struggles. They have the youthful confidence that the kingdom of grace will help them in all circumstances and in all their struggles against the efforts of the kingdom of darkness. The apostle says these young men are “strong” (1 John 2:14), compared to how weak they were before as children in grace. Because these young men do not easily give up or become discouraged, as little children in Christ do, they generally do not lose the assurance of their salvation in their spiritual battle. They are not often surprised and deceived by Satan either, as little children are, although they may still feel defeated at times. John declares that they thus have overcome the wicked one (1 John 2:14). These young men pursue the true purpose of life, although this does not happen without great conflict and difficulty and sometimes means that they will be severely wounded or maimed.
The Defining Characteristics of Fathers in Christ
Fathers in Christ are well informed about the characteristics of the kingdom of grace and the realm of darkness. They are not ignorant, as little children, and have even better understanding than young men about their sinful lusts and their godly duties. Generally, they do not have as much conflict, difficulty, or trouble with their lusts as others do in their efforts to live a godly life. They are more steadfast and faithful in all holy duties, although they have not yet reached perfection and are deficient at times in some aspects. Their specific condition reveals itself predominantly in these three things:
1. They have a mature understanding of the ways of godliness. Fathers in Christ have thoroughly learned to exercise their senses to discern between good and evil (Heb. 5:14). One result of this is that they have greatly increased in grace and in the knowledge of our Savior, Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:17). The apostle John acknowledges this when he says that they have known him who was from the beginning (1 John 2:13). These fathers in Christ have entered into the deep mysteries of the kingdom and understand the works of God. They see not only the end of his works, as in conversion and salvation, which are elementary principles (Heb. 6:1–2), but also the principles in which God began them, such as his eternal love and election, which he exercised on our behalf from the beginning, even from before the foundation of the world (Rom. 8:28–30; Eph. 1:4). They also understand and observe how God deals with them and has dealt with his children since the beginning of creation. They have gained much spiritual experience from this. It has helped them greatly increase in steadfastness in their daily practice of godly living (1 John 2:14).
2. They are more equipped to practice godliness. Fathers in Christ practice godliness more successfully, experience fewer conflicts and difficulties, and succeed more in the Christian life than little ones or young men in Christ. Because of their long experience, they have become wise and careful. They are therefore better able to guard against and avoid those attacks and temptations that often fiercely attack the hearts of the young men or little children in Christ. They have progressed so much that they now exercise great control over themselves and their own hearts (1 Cor. 6:12). They have learned to mortify and subdue their passions and lusts. By long experience and diligent practice of the Christian life, they have obtained the grace that enables them to practice godliness in a more orderly, better guided, and more faithful and steadfast way. Fathers in Christ do not have as much trouble and difficulty as young men do in controlling their desires and in carrying out Christian duties to their own assurance. Unlike young men, fathers in Christ have made the control of their lusts and the practice of the Christian life easier for themselves, thanks to the experience of controlling their desires and their lengthy practice of godliness (1 Cor. 9:25–27; Phil. 3:12f.).
3. They press on toward perfection. Although fathers in Christ have come a long way, they have not yet reached perfection. Even the godly lives of the fathers in this present world are not so perfect that we can say they have completely attained the status of a perfect man, measuring up to “the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). That perfection will be achieved only in the world to come. In comparison with little children and young men in Christ, who are far short of this assured and secure state, the fathers are called and esteemed as “perfect” (Phil. 3:15). However, we may be sure that even the godly life of the most excellent father in God’s church is still imperfect and deficient with regard to God’s demands, as revealed in his Word and when compared to what God’s children will be in heavenly glory (Phil. 3:13). Indeed, we cannot deny that in some cases, the best of the most excellent fathers among God’s people seem to be as weak as the frailest babes in Christ. They are attacked just as fiercely by their lusts as young men are, and sometimes these overwhelm them completely. Sometimes they are even sorely wounded by moral disasters, which is what happened to David (2 Samuel 11; Psalm 51), who was a father in Israel (Zech. 12:8).
The Lord God lets such things happen not only to humble every Christian but also to encourage many a weak and feeble child. Some believers would find it difficult to think that they were true children of God if such excellent men of God, who are presented to us as examples of godliness, no longer struggled with such faults.
We cannot deny that even the best and most godly life of the most experienced Christian in the world lacks something. Nevertheless, it is also certain that all who are true believers, even though they are little children in Christ, do not conduct themselves so badly in their Christian life that there is no longer a great difference between them and worldly people who do not have this Christian life within them. We can easily deduce this from our discussion in book 1, particularly where we dealt with the practice of godliness and especially with those failings of the godly wherein they become completely like worldly people.
We have already said much about the true purpose of life and the special state of true Christians who pursue that purpose. We need to move on now to show you briefly which devices the kingdom of darkness uses to lead many Christians astray so that they might fail to achieve the true purpose of their lives.”