“I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. 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, dear children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning…” (1 John 2: 12-14 NIV)
An interesting topic that John, the beloved disciple, brings up in his epistle is Christian maturity. He shows us that to grow in Christ we need to attend to the most fundamental area of Christian life – relationships, with God and one another. His message to us is: “This is really very easy; only learn to love, and everything else will fall in place”. The wisdom which he offers, while stark in its simplicity, is also profound and refreshing as it engages with the issues at the heart of Christian living.
The root of all sin is self-love, we are taught. What we love, and how our love is apportioned, will determine how much light we receive from above, and how rooted we become in Christ. The way to grow, as a Christian, is therefore to learn to love the things in the world, and ourselves a little less, and to love God, and our brothers and sisters, a little more. As our love for one decreases, and our love for the other increases, we will enjoy freedom, light, and growth.
With love as the gauge, John suggests that there are differences between Christians in terms of spiritual maturity; and he shows us what distinguishes mature believers from immature ones. While motivating us to grow beyond our present level of maturity, John also points out steps to achieve growth.
“I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name… because you know the Father…”
He directs his attention first to the ‘children’ who constitute the most vulnerable group in the church. They differ from people in the world with regards to their standing before God, rather than in their character traits. They know the Father, and this makes all the difference in their lives. As children of God, who have put their faith in Jesus, they will inherit eternal life if they do not fall away. Theirs is the treasure of great price – the salvation of their souls – without which, all earthly blessings, whether wealth or talents or success, can mean nothing. However, they do not reflect in their character, the qualities which one might expect in a Christian. Much of John’s epistle is directed to them, because the whole edifice of the church depends on the quality of the material used in its construction.
Children have a special place in the family, but it is necessary that they grow. By nature, children are self-centred, and cannot be entrusted with major responsibilities. They are easily swayed by their moods and outward circumstances, quarrelsome, forgetful, inconsistent and unreliable. They need to be watched and protected from harm, nudged to pray, study and obey. They have inherent weaknesses that limit their effectiveness for the Kingdom. The things they build are like sand castles on the beach, soon washed away by the waves, and of little practical value.
For many believers in the church, their Christian faith barely affects their behaviour or lifestyle. The necessity of building their lives on the unshakeable foundations of God’s truth is lost to them. Their efforts are focussed on immediate gratification, and they fail to see the consequences of their actions in the light of eternity. All parents hope that their children will grow up to become responsible and productive adults. So God longs to see His children grow to their full potential stature. If they live only for this world, and remain unfruitful for the kingdom, then the church structure remains weak and unsteady.
Steps to Maturity
‘Knowing the Father’ is therefore the essential foundation, but the building work needs to advance. John reminds them that the seed of overcoming faith has been planted in them (1 John 5:4), but they must water and tend to it, in order to achieve growth and fruitfulness. They are to ‘put childish ways behind them’, as Paul writes. John and the other apostles, in their writings show how this is done, and specific areas in their lives that they needed to work on. The keys to maturity are –
- Studying the Word
- Dealing with Sin
- Walking in the Light
Studying the Word – The spiritually mature ones, John points out have the word of God living in them; and this makes them strong (1 John 2:14).
Every believer should set aside time for the Scripture study, to understand God’s character and His ways. The word is our divine light and sustenance, and we must read it with an attitude of reverence, determined to be transformed by its teaching. Like a chisel, it chips away at the raw edges of our character, strengthens our faith and keeps us on the right track.
Psalm 119 describes how the word of God sustains a believer. The word teaches us to distinguish right from wrong, and equips us for acts of service (1 Timothy 3:16-17). It strengthens our faith (Romans 10:17). God taught Joshua that the key to success lay in absorbing, internalising and living according to His word (Joshua 1:8).
In contrast, those who do not feed on the word, become fragile Christians, driven by their emotions and worldly concerns, easily swayed by false teaching, and powerless to fight the enemy. They need constant propping up by stronger believers to keep them from falling away. A church where a majority of members are ‘infantile’ in their outlook is unlikely to achieve much for Kingdom.
Obedience – Obedience to the word builds our spiritual muscles, and helps us withstand the inevitable storms and enemy onslaughts in Christian life. “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4 NIV).
Obedience is the foundation for education. To grow as a Christian, we must make up our minds and adjust our wills to obey God. Choosing to obey God in everything is a major milestone in spiritual development, and for many, a struggle to achieve. Obedient children have advantages over their disobedient peers. They are in a position to achieve their goals more quickly, and with less strain. Likewise, for believers, obedience is liberating and empowering; it is the position from which spiritual heights are achieved.
Dealing with Sin – “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6 NIV). “…Because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (1 John 3:9 NIV).
Sin is a spiritual disease which prevents our flourishing in God’s vineyard. Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander (1 Peter 2:1-3), as well as pride, anger, rage, a quarrelsome nature, and sexual immorality stunt Christian growth. To get rid of these sins, we ought to go to the Great Physician with the prayer of David – “O God, let the secrets of my heart be uncovered, and let my wandering thoughts be tested. See if there is any way of sorrow [wicked way or offensive tendency, in some other versions] in me, and be my guide in the eternal way” (Psalm 139:23-24 BBE). Christ imparts grace and strength to keep us from yielding to sin; without His help, we can make no progress.
Walking in the Light – Walking in the light suggests openness and transparency before God and with one another. As we learn to walk with God, there will be the inevitable stumbles and falls, because our eyes are not yet accustomed to the light. When that happens we should neither deny our sin, nor give in to discouragement.
“But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9 NKJV).
Adam hid from God. The proper response to sin is to confess it to God, the righteous Judge and allow Him to shine His light, often through His word, on the enormity of our sin. If we confess our sin, He promises to forgive us. Furthermore “the blood of Jesus his Son [which] cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7 ESV); the argument of the blood is so effective that we need no longer live in fear of wrath and condemnation.
“He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him” (1 John 2:10 NKJV). We are called to serve one another and overcome evil with good. For love and light are linked – if we love, we shall walk in the light of heaven, able to perceive the things of the Spirit. In contrast, if we hate our neighbour, we lose our spiritual vision and our hearts will harden, closed to the promptings of the Spirit (1 John 2:9-11). Fellowship with God is linked to fellowship with our neighbour. We should be quick to forgive those who sin against us, be careful never to deceive anyone, and guard against all selfish ambition.
To summarise, just as a healthful diet, exercise, hygienic habits, and prompt medical care are necessary for physical fitness, so our spiritual health is reliant on our feeding on the word, walking in obedience, dealing with sin, and living in the light. By paying proper attention to these things, a Christian grows out of spiritual childishness, able to take our place as co-workers with Christ.
To be continued
Father, thank You for Your word which nourishes and builds us. Help us to build our lives on this word, and grow in strength and maturity. Teach us to overcome the evil one. In Jesus’ name.