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.

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