‘I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one. I write to you, little children, because you have known the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one’ (1 John 2: 12-14).
At first sight, it would appear that John is addressing three different groups within the churches to whom he is writing. He is talking to children, to fathers and to young men. But, if you think about it, that cannot be what he is doing.
If you look back at the beginning of chapter 2, you see he speaks to all his readers as ‘little children’. He says: ‘My little children, these things I write to you so that you might not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous … the propitiation for our sins’.
Now this is true for all believers, and it is quite clear that, at the beginning of chapter 2, he is not addressing ‘little children’ at all. He is addressing the whole church in affectionate and intimate terms as if they were small children.
Again, in verses 12-14, things are said of one group or another which are also true of all believers: ‘I write to you little children because your sins are forgiven’. Now, if anything is true of a Christian, it is that his sins have been forgiven and are being continually forgiven as he walks in fellowship with his Lord. So that cannot just apply to one section of the church.
I want to suggest that John is not here writing to three different groups within the church, but to the whole church as having the characteristics displayed respectively by children, parents and young men.
In other words, each of these categories applies to every believer. Those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ are like children, they are like fathers, and they are also like young men. This is, perhaps, a more satisfying way to understand this passage because it brings out the characteristics of the true Christian.
There is that about the true believer that is childlike. There is that about the true believer that is mature. And there is that about the true believer that exhibits all the virility and vigour of youth.
In any case, whether this interpretation is right or wrong, I believe we can apply it in an effective and biblical way. It militates especially against any tendency to stratify the church into different age-groups on the basis of this text.
So let us first of all consider the idea that those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ are like children.
Why, and in what respect, are believers like little children? John tells us. It is, firstly, because their sins are forgiven. True believers are people whose sins have been forgiven and whose innocence consequently mirrors that of very small children.
The idea of sin is not popular today. You will not read the word ‘sin’ in a daily newspaper. You will read about ‘crime’, the breakdown in ethics, and all manner of offences against society and humanity. But you will seldom read the word ‘sin’. The whole concept of sin has disappeared from our present-day mentality.
Yet we have to understand sin if we are to understand the message of the Bible and why Jesus Christ came. He did not come to set a good example, nor even just to teach us things about God and heaven. He came ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’.
We have to understand that we are sinners in the sight of a holy God if we are to understand why Jesus Christ came, or what the gospel itself is all about.
What is sin? Sin, says Paul in Romans 3:23, is coming short of the glory of God. All have sinned, he says, and that includes every single member of the human race. He then amplifies his assertion by adding that all ‘have come short of the glory of God’.
Sin is a failure to reach the standard God has set for mankind. What is that standard? It is the standard lived out, demonstrated and portrayed in the person of Jesus Christ. He is God’s standard; he is the perfect man; he is the rule against which all our conduct, thinking and motivation is to be measured.
Of course, when we measure ourselves against the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, we fall short. We do not match up to the demands that he made upon men. Not only did he demand that we should keep God’s commandments, but he insisted that we must not break them in thought or in heart.
You shall not murder. We all understand that, and recognise it as a good and necessary rule for human conduct. But the Lord Jesus Christ added that you murder if you hate, you murder if you despise, and you murder if you think another human being less worthy in the eyes of God than yourself (Matthew 5:21-22).
You shall not commit adultery. But, according to Christ, sexual impurity is condemned by God, not only in the outward act but in the thought life (Matthew 5:27-29).
No one can live up to the standards he has set. It is very tempting to say: ‘I am better than the next person. I am closer to meeting God’s requirement than someone who is in prison, or the terrorist who causes horrendous loss of life. God surely cannot put him and me in the same category’.
But that is exactly what the Bible does. It puts respectable people in the same category as the criminal, the terrorist, or the abuser. This is what is so difficult for people to understand that, in God’s eyes, they all come short.
Unless we achieve the perfection that God demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, we are sinners. Unless we are Christlike in our thinking, in our actions and in our lives, then we are falling short of the glorious standard that God established in his incarnate Son.
What distinguishes the true Christian from all other men is not that his nature is less sinful than others, but that he has received forgiveness for his sins. ‘If we say we have no sin’, says John in chapter 1 of this epistle, ‘we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’. If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar.
What is the difference then, if we are just as sinful by nature as the next person? The difference is that we have had our sins forgiven by God. That must be one of the most fundamental and precious things available to men.
It means a new start. We are like newborn children who have made a new start in this world. ‘If anyone is in Christ’, we read, ‘he is a new creation. Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). There is a transformation, a new beginning, for those whose sins have been forgiven.
The next point is that these sins are not forgiven for our sakes. ‘I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake’. John is referring to the Lord Jesus Christ and we must understand that the forgiveness of sins is not dependent upon something we do. It does not flow from our repentance, sorrow or religion. It is not dependent in any way upon our good works.
This forgiveness has to be free forgiveness, merited not by us, but by the Lord Jesus Christ. It is for his sake that God forgives our sins.
What does it mean that sins are forgiven for his sake? It means that Jesus Christ bore our sins in his own body on the cross, taking upon himself the just and righteous punishment that our sins deserve. He bore the wrath of God as he hung upon the cross, that we might be ‘made the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
He took our sins that we might wear his righteousness. This is the glory and mystery of the gospel, that our sin, which deserves only judgment and condemnation from a holy God, was transferred to Christ.
At the same time, his righteousness, his perfection, is ‘imputed’ to us. That is the word theologians use; it means ‘put to our account’. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, just as our sins are imputed to him.
Now you say, how can that come about? Frankly, I cannot answer that question. I do not know how God lays my sins on Christ and puts Christ’s righteousness, like a perfect robe, around my shoulders; how, from that moment, I am accepted by God as if I were as holy and pure as his own Son. All I know is that God has achieved this very thing.
What do I have to do for this to come about? I have to believe. I have to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. I have to trust that when he died upon the cross he was bearing my sin; that he was delivered to death for my offences and raised again for my justification (Romans 4:25). I have to believe on his name because it is for the sake of that name that my sins are forgiven.
Finding a Father
Another thing about young children is that they have a father. They have parents who brought them into this world. John says: ‘I write to you little children, because you have known the Father’.
As he reverts to the subject of ‘little children’ at the end of verse 13, it is to say that they have ‘known the Father’. The believer’s relationship to God is that of a child to its parent.
A little child is utterly dependent upon its parents. A child looks to its parents and understands that it has a relationship with those parents. It is a tragedy if a child is taken from its parents or orphaned at an early age. Normality requires that a child knows its father and its mother.
Believers are like little children because they have, if I can put it this way, acquired a Father. This new relationship between the child of God and God himself is expressed in terms of one of the great Bible words, namely ‘adoption’.
In adoption, a child whose parents have died or given it up, acquires a family. It acquires a father and a mother, and becomes part of a new family. This is one of the great Bible pictures of what it means to become a Christian.
Cause of assurance
When God lays his hand upon us and draws us to himself we become children of the Most High. We have a heavenly Father and this is one of the great causes of assurance for the believer.
We read about this in Galatians 4:4-7 and Romans 8:15-17. The Spirit of God takes up residence in the heart and mind of the believer, and cries ‘Abba, Father!’ in a joyful recognition and confirmation of this new relationship.
Believers are like children, then, in that their sins are forgiven; they have a new start in life; and they have acquired, through the process of divine adoption, a Father and a family of fellow believers.
It is one of the things that we rejoice about in salvation, that we have a relationship with our fellow believers which is a family relationship. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are related to Christ, adopted by the Father, and have the same Spirit in our hearts.
Edgar Andrews is Emeritus Professor of Materials at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former editor of Evangelical Times. This article was first published in ET in July 2001.