God’s desire for you is your maturity
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.
1 John 2:12–14
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
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.
For some reason, I’ve often appreciated 1 John 2:12-14 since I first studied 1 John back in college. In the context of the whole book talking about being honest about our sin, but also fighting our sin and abiding in the truth, he gives us a little progress chart. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s both a challenge and an encouragement. Perhaps when I do more study I’ll find that it is more complex, but I think there is a basic meaning that is helpful for us here. He says he writes ‘to you, little children because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.’ What sweet truth this is, and how often we all must return to this fact: no matter my struggle with sin, in Christ I am forgiven. So for the child in Sunday school who wonders, ‘Do I have to ask Jesus to forgive me every time I sin or else I’ll go to hell?’ The answer is unequivocally, ‘Your faith has saved you once for all. Confess your sins, but do this because he has saved you not because your confession is saving you.’ In other words, ‘You don’t need to keep asking Jesus in your heart.’ The difficult thing is that we forget this truth as we grow up. It’s important to realize that John is talking to people according to their spiritual maturity. This is a truth especially central for a young believer (though it is always true for every believer). Unfortunately, many struggle to grow beyond this simple faith. For some, when they become Christians as adults, various habits and ways of thinking die hard. For others, indwelling sin has so taken a hold on you that it feels like you’re trapped. And still others are limited by many other things in this world. But God desires your growth to maturity. The author of Hebrews scolds the Hebrew Christians who have so neglected their spiritual life that they still need baby food. They had a (worldly) reason even! Some had lost their homes because of their faith, how could you expect them to be mature? But the author of Hebrews challenges them on that.
John then moves on to the fathers. These are the spiritually mature, and what is their great joy but that they know the eternal God. Of course, spiritual knowledge is a given for every Christian, but it becomes especially sweet to the mature. Their tastes and desires have been so shaped by God and his Word within the life of the church that worldly pleasures are bitter compared to the sweetness of knowing our eternal God. This doesn’t mean a mature man or woman Christian doesn’t struggle with temptations and sin, it is that their battles have grown to be in the intricate pruning of the heart. I just read somewhere, ‘we anticipate that the Vinedresser is going to prune [us] carefully and deliberately, not frantically, nor focusing on all [our] problems at once’ (Alasdair Groves). And so I think even as we reach points of maturity, and we’ve chopped off the ugly and egregious sins, there is forever more work the Spirit has to do even in our hearts. When you meet a person like this, it is almost as though they know their need for Christ more than you. And yet this is what we aim at as we approach the blessed life.
Then he mentions young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I think it is humbling and maybe it is troubling to you that a young man (or woman) spiritually is a person who has overcome the evil one. This is because many of us still perhaps have besetting and deep rooted sins that the devil seems to be able to trip us up with all the time. But I don’t think John is wrong here. So we might look at the sins that Paul mentions in Galatians 5 as basic areas the evil one trips us up in: ‘sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.’ It maybe goes without saying that many Christians are in chains to such sin and have not overcome the evil one. Of course, Paul mentions these things because they are things Christians struggled with back then too, so we are not alone in our struggle, but God still desires your growth to maturity. What are we to do? Walk by the spirit, don’t give a foothold for the devil. When you are tempted, fight that bitter poison. In that same article by Alasdair Groves, he mentions how easy it is to feel like we’re walking through a desert and then temptation arises, and that temptation looks like a lush oasis of water to quench our thirst. Our temptations often feel that way. But slowly but surely we begin to realize that those oases are actually full of poisonous water that kills. Sin kills. Don’t give a foothold for that stuff. And by the way, you don’t live in a desert, every good and perfect gift comes from the father of lights who doesn’t change. Your life is all a gift of God. Remember his grace.
John then rehashes the three steps of our spiritual growth with some variation. Young children know the father. Although it is a new thing, it is a wonderful thing to know the Father and to be under his good care. To older men he says the same thing, then to younger men, he adds this phrase, ‘because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you.’ You may not feel strong, but we see that the path of hope is knowing God’s word. By it we put away the lies of the evil one, and by it we stand strong.
God’s desire for you is your maturity, and James gives us this image of healthy growth in maturity. We’re going to encounter this testing. Sometimes it is temptation to sin, sometimes suffering. But let these things produce endurance. Some of you exercise a bit. So you know the first time you exercise in a while, you huff and puff and all your body hurts after that first time. Then you wake up the next day, and what do you do? Sleep in because why should you suffer? There are a few frozen chosen who don’t give up, and as they exercise more, they cultivate endurance. Eventually some of them go off to run a 5k or a marathon. This is the idea: your trials and temptations as you battle them cultivate an endurance, and this endurance, this steadfastness produces in you maturity; from a young child to a young man or woman and finally to glorious old age. Don’t give up the fight, but press on in the Spirit.