“I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write to you, fathers, because ye have known him [that is] from [the] beginning; I write to you, young men, because ye have overcome the wick one; I write7 to you, little children, because ye have known the Father.”
Here we have an evident departure from the course of the tests applied to the question of spiritual reality as to life eternal, and fellowship with the Father and the Son. For it is evident that an analogous line is resumed in another form from the 28th verse of this chapter. There we have a strain substantially akin to that which was before us from 1 John 2:3 to ver. 11 in discussion of the two grand principles that distinguish a real Christian from everybody else. The first, as already seen, is obedience, and the second, love — both of them capital and indispensable. They are not wisely comparable for a moment one with another, except that obedience properly takes the first place; because it means obeying God and He must and ought to have the pre-eminence. The love, on the other hand, that is looked for here is not love to God, but love of our brethren. Though this is a cardinal principle of Christianity, and its absence fatal to anyone’s Christian profession, nevertheless obeying God has a necessarily prior claim to loving our brethren, and in certain circumstances may seriously affect its claims. In point of fact they both begin at the same moment, when the soul receives life eternal through faith in our Lord Jesus. From that beginning it is no longer the old “I” that lives, but Christ who lives in me, which is true of every Christian without exception.
But here we turn, after the introductory ver. 12, to the spiritual gradation between Christians; and this is pursued from ver. 13 down to the end of ver. 27. First of all he carefully prepares the way by setting all on a common platform by saying “I write to you, dear children.” Thus he addresses them altogether, and purposely brings in their universal privilege as introductory to the different classes among believers, because of their varying development spiritually. For although the word of God is now complete, and there can be no development in Christ who is absolutely perfect, there may and ought to be growth in the Christian by the knowledge of God. But in the spirit of grace, before entering on these special differences among Christians, we are shown the necessary foundation on which the faith of the gospel puts us, where we are all alike, and this too from the very threshold of our confession of Christ. Surely it is helpful and interesting to see what is laid down as the first step that the believer takes after he has received life, and has had the principles of obedience and of love implanted in his soul, along with life and in fact of essence inseparably involved in it. Who that knows the Lord Christ can doubt that He was always obedient, and always walked in love? Now the Christian cannot in principle be separated from Christ, being one spirit with the Lord. He owes everything to Him, and Christ is his all, and in all (Col. 3:11).
Now there is a privilege of the greatest moment which ought to be known and enjoyed from the earliest days. This may not always be from various causes, though the gospel proclaims present and complete forgiveness to the believer through faith in Christ and His work. Yet many saints fail herein, as we too well know; and so it has been for very many years, one might say ever since the apostles left the earth. The grace of God in salvation soon yielded here to human reasoning, and so to legal conditions; thus to impair even the plenary forgiveness of sins, and gradually make it the end for the Christian instead of his starting-point. In short the Galatian error, in spite of the Epistle that denounces and refutes it, overspread the Christian profession; and the gospel fell under law, which always presents life as something for which we must work in order to earn or keep the blessing. On that ground one retrogrades to Judaism, having abandoned the distinctive grace of the gospel. For it is God’s glad-tidings that a Christian starts with divine grace, giving to faith both life in Christ and also His propitiation for our sins. If the life cannot be extinguished, the exercise and enjoyment of it may be much hindered by the error which puts off or hides the forgiveness of sins by making people labour for it, and groan because they have not got it, and are troubled with natural doubts and fears.
“Am I His? or am I not?” is unworthy of Christ and deplorable for the Christian. Yet, singular to say, it is held by earnest Christians. And it is surprising that not merely Arminians cherish this hesitation about it, but the highest Calvinists also. There are those who go as far as to say, “If you do not doubt about yourself, I doubt about you.” Can there be a narrower or more extreme school? One hardly conceives of a Roman Catholic darker in his thoughts than that. Yet some of these are hyper-Calvinists, pre-occupied with self-inspection and judging every one save themselves. But the fact really is that, if they did judge themselves, they would be forced to fall back on the grace of the Lord Jesus, and forget themselves in the riches of God’s goodness in Him.
His grace does strengthen as nothing else can under the Spirit’s teaching of the soul. The forgiveness of our sins Christ has secured to us by His blood which cleanses us from every sin. This is what the gospel proclaims to every creature that he may believe. The worst sinners on the earth can be truly and righteously, earnestly, lovingly, and perseveringly addressed with a call to believe on Christ and His precious blood for the remission of their sins. Scripture declares this to be through Christ’s work, not God’s grace only but His righteousness. Yet as a matter of fact there are very many Christians who do believe in the Lord Jesus, but do not apprehend that His work on the cross entitles them to present and full forgiveness. Believing in Him they put their sins between Christ and themselves. Besides and in particular they are troubled by the sense of indwelling sin. The latter one readily understands: sin in the flesh is a great difficulty to believers at and after the start. They find that, though truly converted, their experience is of a deeper evil within than they ever suspected before. They are surprised that then should be the time when they realise it with grief. Yet it is the light of life in their soul, which makes them conscious of that self which inheres intimately in their old nature.
The soul by grace comes to the knowledge then, as he is led on, that there is not only the new man which he expected to be alone in him, but the old too, and lively. For it constantly seeks to break out, and needs therefore to be kept by faith in the place of death to it, the cross of Christ, wherein God condemned it. Nothing else could completely settle the account of the old man; only Christ’s death. When His blood is spoken of, it is rather applied to our sins or our guilt; but Christ’s sacrificial death covers far more than acts of sin. There the mind of the flesh was judicially dealt with. There sin in the flesh had God executing sentence on it by sacrifice for sin; not for sins only but sin indwelling. This is learnt not only by faith but experimentally also.
For many, when they are converted, perhaps almost all more or less, are shocked to find indwelling sin after they believe in Christ. Full of joy at having received a perfect Saviour, they do not apprehend that their sins are completely blotted out, and they have to experience an evil within which never so troubled them before. But if it is not met by the death of Christ, what is there to add for it? What more fully dealt with sin? There is a powerful examination of Christ’s work in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the gist of which is that, as there is but one divine Saviour, so there is only one efficacious sacrifice; if more be required, He must suffer often. But this seem to subvert and deny the truth of Christ’s cross; it annuls His work who died once for all. “Death hath no more dominion over Him;” as sin never had. But sin, that dwells in us, even after we believe by grace, had to be and was condemned in His cross. What is needed for sin indwelling is God’s condemnation of it; and this we have in Christ’s death on the cross. The fire of judgment in the sacrifice for sin must consume sin before God according to the well-known figure. The New Testament gives us the full truth of what the Old Testament gave partially in the type. All these figures, with a great deal more that no figure could set forth, centre in Christ and His work.
The apostle alleges a blessed issue in plenary forgiveness as his reason for writing the Epistle, on which he builds much more. He does not call it his only reason, but it is his reason for writing to them; and we may add, that his reason for writing to them remains in all its profit to us. All Christian doctrine, all teaching of the saints, is grounded on this basis: that we have by grace the forgiveness of sins. We are not on proper Christian ground till we accept from God that in virtue of Christ our sins are forgiven. “I write to you, dear children” (thereby embracing the entire family of God, of which there is a good deal to say presently), “because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake.” Can anything be more simple? In order to be fully blest there is nothing, to begin with, more necessary to know personally. It is for the Christian to begin the day with it, and with it to go through each day, and to retain its comfortable certainty as our last waking thought. For indeed our sins are forgiven for His name’s sake. There is no miserable fear that something remains in the dark or uncertainty to cloud: the glad tidings which we received in our ungodly state declared on God’s part our sins remitted on our faith. Hence it is a great slight to the gospel, and a very great dishonour to the Lord Jesus, to doubt it. Clearly such a feeling sets aside the plain words of God; for what can be clearer than what is before us? Does not this ground abide? Are we under temporal and conditional promises like Israel of old in the law?
Peter proclaimed the forgiveness of sins in early days. “To him bear all the prophets witness that every one that believeth on him shall receive through his name remission of sins’; and the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to all that believed among the Gentiles, as before on Jews. There is indeed no reception of that divine seal without the known forgiveness of sins (compare Acts 11:17). Somewhat later and in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia Paul preached just the same. “Be it known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man is preached to you remission of sins, and from all things from which ye could not be justified in the law of Moses by (or in) him every one that believeth is justified.” Thus the two great apostles, of circumcision no less than of uncircumcision, thoroughly corroborate what the last surviving apostle propounds at the close to counteract the seducers growingly at their evil work. It is not even that he announces the privilege for them to learn it, that their sins were forgiven for the sake of Christ’s name; he writes the Epistle to them, because their sins are forgiven them. If they were not forgiven, the ground presupposed and essential for the Christian is taken away. Without its known certainty there could be no peace with God, nor fitness of soul to receive or profit by further divine communications.
There is no “if” brought in here. The “ifs” in Scripture are important, and not to be explained away where they occur. But here there is no “if;” because an “if” in the gospel would bring entire ruin on its nature, character and aim. For the blessing of redemption (whatever the grace it brings, and the new responsibility it creates) depends not on the redeemed but on the Redeemer. Nothing can be simpler than this truth, which seems its essence in a few words; and faith receives what God declares about it. He has taken the greatest pains, not only by the two great apostles Peter and Paul, one of the circumcision and the other of the uncircumcision, but here also by John, the last of all. The truth of the gospel remains “in the last hour,” as fresh to the end as at the beginning. In scripture it is entirely unimpaired by the practical ruin of the church and by the awful intimation which the apostle Paul gave comparatively early, that there is to be “the falling away” before the day of the Lord in judgment. This was made known in one of his earliest Epistles, the second to the Thessalonians, the first to them being the earliest of all his Epistles. The second was written not long after, perhaps within the same year; and there is predicted the awful climax of lawlessness, apostasy from the truth, and this not for Jews nor for heathen, but sad to say for Christendom. If reunion come, this will be its character.
The Jews had already apostatised when they gave up the Lord God of their fathers for idols, and crowned it with the rejection of their Messiah, the Lord Jesus. This we may call their apostasy, though they will proceed to greater enormity before the end. The heathen had been always in a state of apostasy from God from the time that they set up false gods. But the awful end disclosed in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians is, that the apostasy is to fall on Christendom before the day of the Lord comes. And you have only to look at the daily papers, or the monthlies or the quarterlies of our time, and you will find evidence in the religious organs as much as in the worldly journals, that the apostasy is impending. They cannot hide but betray the preparation for it.
“Higher criticism,” falsely so called, is the devil’s device to throw dust in people’s eyes about scripture. Where is the word of God left for faith? If scripture be denied to be the word of God, where is the church, the believer, or the lost sinner? Where is Christ the Lord, or God’s testimony to His grace and truth? No ground at all abides for faith. Make it an uncertain thing, the word of man (Elohists and Jehovists senior and junior, with redactors too!) really rather than the word of God, and you lose God’s saying love, grace, and controlling power which kept infirm and erring man from a single error, that there should not be a flaw in all Scripture as originally given of Him. This is what God intended;. as it is what the apostle Paul pronounces authoritatively in his latest Epistle (2 Tim.). That too was the proper time for it. He says that not merely all Scripture in a general way is given by inspiration of God, but “every scripture,” every part of the Bible, each part of the Old Testament, and each of the New Testament, every bit of it is God-breathed. Blessed be God that so it is. Can God lie? Has God any need to repent, or alter His mind?
Oh the wickedness of man, and in particular of Christendom! For it is most distressing to see this scepticism unjudged in all the denominations, great and small. Not one of them escapes its withering influence more or less, and especially in their leading or energetic men.
Here then, in ver. 12, we have the commonplace or initial privilege which every Christian is supposed to possess. It is not merely to have life, for all the Old Testament saints had life; but none of these, though having life, could say, “Our sins have been forgiven for His name’s sake.” Christ had not yet come, and still less had He yet suffered. The atoning work was not yet done; the full proclamation of grace could not yet be made. Now all things are ready, even for Him to judge living and dead; and “I write to you, dear children, because your sins are (have been and are) forgiven you for His name’s sake.” It could not be before He came. The words “His name’s sake” are all-important. It was not necessary to express more fully who “He” was; every Christian understands it at once. They particularly apply when He is not here. The revelation of His grace and truth is come and abides. “His name” means what God has revealed of Him and His work. It takes in not only what the Lord was when here, but what He suffered and accomplished before leaving the world for the Father. And the Spirit of God came down at His request, and also on the Father’s part, not only for rich blessing of the saints but to His glory, that the proclamation of the gospel might go forth to every creature in His power. Nobody was shut out from its blessed sound. Many individuals, through their hostility or their carelessness, might refuse to bear. This is their sad affair, for which they must give account. But it goes out to all: Jew or Greek, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free; not one is excluded from God’s word of reconciliation. It is His righteousness and not grace only; whereas conscience work, if we stray, is a question of holiness in the soul’s state and practice. One needs to have the fellowship restored which sin interrupted. Nevertheless none derive effectual blessing from the reconciliation except they believe on Christ by divine grace; and this requires the action of the Spirit of God in conscience and heart. Yet it is by the faith of God’s word that the Holy Spirit thus works livingly.
But among the saints in the church of God, wherever it may be, it is ever assumed that all within knew their sins forgiven. How else could there be happiness individually before God? How else singleness of eye to discern His will and courage to do it in the face of all the snares from the world, the flesh, and the devil’? How could there be real fellowship in worship? How fitness to take their part in the assembly’s obligation to deal with evil, and in the last resort to purge it out? They could not otherwise bear to know, and firmly act on it, that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” For the lack of enjoyed forgiveness implies not merely a bad conscience, but one never in fact purged from dead works to worship a living God, so that spiritual power falls and uncertainty cannot but darken and enfeeble the soul. When the grace that gives the cleansing by Christ’s blood is seized by faith, the Holy Spirit makes it known as a primary corporate duty to “purge out the old leaven that ye may be a new lump, according as ye are unleavened.” Practice must be ruled by divine principle: else the assembly becomes an offence to the Name, and exists only to deny and disgrace it. “For also our passover, Christ, hath been sacrificed. Wherefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with leaven of malice and wickedness, but with unleavened [bread] of sincerity and truth.” There might be sad failure where, as among the Corinthians, there was no question that all Christians have, through the faith of the gospel, their sins forgiven; but without that forgiveness the Epistles in general fail to apply. The unforgiven are not addressed in them. They are not on the ground of Christianity, still less of the church.
Where is even this now insisted on? The Reformation did not require it for the assembly (if we can speak of “the assembly” then); for it did not in the least set things in church order. It did what was a far more needed and important work; for it gave people the Bible, which had been taken away, particularly by the proudest of those religious corporations which call themselves churches without the right to it. Scripture had long been hidden away. A priest might give leave, but he rarely cared to give leave; and people could not get it otherwise.
A person in London was extremely anxious to read the New Testament. Being a Romanist and what is called “a good Catholic,” he would not break the law of “the church,” which as the rule forbade it. But it did not forbid reading the Greek Testament; and so he in a roundabout way attained his end. Although foreman in a factory (and you know what such a post implies, what a responsibility rests on his shoulders and how his time is taken up), the man learnt Greek for the express purpose of enjoying God’s word direct in the New Testament. The fact was told me by the master, who was a well-known and respected Christian and had all confidence in his zealous and conscientious servant. It was Christian feeling in a Romanist struggling against the impious and tyrannous zeal of its misbegotten authority. If he had not light to judge the wickedness, it is evident that he had a conscientious desire after God’s latest word; and he took no little trouble to get it; and we may hope it was blessed to his soul. No more can I say than was told me, except that in all his workmen none was more reliable than the poor Romanist who learned Greek in order to enjoy the New Testament as it came from God. Who can wonder that he feared God and loved His word?
At length we come to the different grades, after being shown what is common to them all. The first is, “I write to you, fathers,” that is, the most mature in spiritual power and knowledge. Is it not worthy of our grave attention? What saith the Scripture? Notions of government or of doctrine have nothing to do with this. It is depth of spiritual entrance into the mind of God about Christ. It is a higher measure of apprehending the Lord Jesus which constitutes a father spiritually, the first of the three classes in God’s family distinguished by the apostle. First there were “fathers”; secondly “young men”; and thirdly “little children.” As “dear children” correctly rendered includes all the three, it is necessary to use some such word as “little children,” or “babes” definitely for those least mature. For it must be remembered that quite different words are employed and kept up throughout. In the 12th verse the term “dear children” (tekniva), as is invariable, means all the family; and as this word introduces the parenthetic portion, so in the 28th verse the selfsame word introduces the resumption of what follows all these various classes. For, this done, he again turns to the ordinary course which was interrupted in order to show that, on the same ground-work of grace, differences there are among the children of God in spiritual maturity, the only kind of difference that is recognised. But within the parenthesis (viz. the last part of verse 13), “I write to you, little children” (
παιδία), it is a different word.8 This occurs nowhere else in the Epistle except here, and a second time at the beginning of ver. 18, where its repetition commences. There are just these two occasions. Our Lord in a general way used both these terms, as given in John’s Gospel; but we do not enter into that now, as it seems to have no bearing on the special usage of the First Epistle, of which the importance is made perfectly plain. No man is asked to give an opinion when God has told us the truth with all clearness. There need therefore be no doubt about it. Nor can one allow the validity of, or room for, difference of judgment; because God in His word is, and ought to be, the end of all controversy.
Here then in verse 13, as in 18 only, the “little children mean the babes of the family. After the “fathers” and “young men” come the “little children,” if one may so render, this being the triple division of the “dear children” or God’s family in general. It is necessary in some way to distinguish them; and all the more, because the lack of it has exposed excellent and learned men to error here. It must ever be so where erudition is not subject to the revealed truth, and consequently does not enjoy the guidance of the Holy Ghost according to the word. Where this is unhappily the case, learning instead of being useful may do a great deal of harm, and can do no good. For where is the good spiritually of anything into which the Spirit of God does not enter and guide? But if the Spirit of God speaks in words taught of Himself, we must be submissive to the word. Then we have the blessed certainty of revelation, but not otherwise.
It is obvious how far reaching this verse is, and like the one preceding in the simplest and clearest form. Here the three distinct classes stand out with remarkable brevity. But the Spirit of God goes over the ground again, when He enlarges, with one marked exception, in a truly instructive manner, which will come before us in its own place.
Now let us be content to take the few words which the Spirit of God gives on their distinctive differences.
The “fathers” are so designated here “because ye have known him that is from the beginning.” Who can mistake Him? It is Christ, and none other. But He is not here called by His usual name. He was the Word and Son, before the time described as “from the beginning.” He was Only-begotten of the Father through all eternity. The Eternal Son of the Eternal Father no human mind can fathom; and the incarnation necessarily adds to its inscrutability. But this is not the least ground for not believing what is infinitely above and beyond us; it is revealed without a doubt. And the reason why men break down upon it all is that they reason from man up to God, which is always false. You must reason down from God to man, if you are to be in the truth; for who knows the truth but God? And who can reveal the truth but God, as He has done in Christ? In the Gospel John is most careful to say that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It matters not how far one essays back in thought into the depths of eternity. Imagine millions of years! These are not the beginning, though of course one cannot with propriety talk of “years” before the measures of time apply. But go back in imagination into these unmeasured depths, there He subsisted. No beginning had He who is eternal, and in His own personality also He was “with God.”
Again, not only was He with God as a distinct person from the Father and the Spirit; but He was God. Nor is there any property of God more distinctive than His being eternal; if not eternal, not God.
But quite a different thing is referred to here. It is not knowing Him that was in the beginning with God, but knowing “Him that is from the beginning.” It is the beginning of His taking flesh, the incarnate Word, in this world Such is the absolutely new fact. From the beginning is reckoned from His manifesting Himself as Emmanuel, the God-Man. This was He whom the “fathers” knew. What can you know about the Son in eternity except that He was the Only-begotten Son in the Father’s bosom, the object of His everlasting delight as even Prov. 8 tells us? Such He was when not a creature existed above or below, neither angel nor man nor lower being. There was only the blessed God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as we know now; and there were divine counsels which were afterwards to be divulged to us who now believe. What do we know more than this? But if we look at “Him that is from the beginning” there is, one may say, almost everything to learn and know.
And where do we find this illimitable subject? In the New Testament generally, in the Gospels particularly. There we have Him on earth, there shown as man, not a mere human being, but God and man in one person, truly a divine person. There was He born of the Virgin, not only Messiah but God’s Son, Elohim and Jehovah (Matt. 1:21, 23). Oh what a deal there is to learn even at His birth! For we here only touch the fact of His person when He became incarnate. If we are told a good deal about Him as a babe, we have even more about Him when He was a child twelve years old. And what significant silence is kept over all the years thence to thirty! There were no trumpets blown, no beating of drums, no pomp or ceremony, no such thing as the birthday remembered by a single soul except His real mother and His legal father, and perhaps their acquaintance; nothing of further recognition now; just as at the inn there was no room for Him at His birth. Who takes a shrewder worldly measure of a person of consequence than a waiter at an hotel? He soon appraises the person that appears; he guesses well who is good pay for the house. No; the manger will do very well enough for such folk. The stable is at hand, but “no room for them in the inn.”
One wonder is the entire obscurity in which He moved who was the Father’s delight, when simply working at the carpenter’s bench with His legal father. But there and then He was doing the will of God. “Must I not be in my Father’s things?” And here He was in the temple, hearing the teachers, and asking them questions. He did not mount a chair to preach, like some of the foolish boys put forward by more foolish men and women. But there He was, in the most lowly and lovely manner, hearing them and asking them questions, with far more knowledge than all His teachers. And was it not a testimony to their consciences, to learn how this could be? For there was no pretension: become man He remained as yet simply a boy, but this boy the Lord God, the Creator of the world. Such was the One on whom the Father looked down to find what met all His mind and His affections, not merely as a divine person but peculiarly a divine person become man. Become man! The Word become flesh! What? Entered the family of man! Yet man as he is and has long been is the most wicked, the vainest, the proudest of all creatures in God’s creation. Other animals stick to their habits from the time that man’s sin wrought havoc even with them. But man only goes out of one wickedness into another, always getting worse and worse as time went on; and the more light they received outwardly, the more they perverted it really.
After much, when the world as a whole was at the worst point at which it had ever arrived, the Lord was born in the fulness of time. And when He entered upon His public service, what did every day disclose to Him! What lessons fell from His lips and His life! With men, women and children, He was familiarly conversant; with elders and lawyers, with Scribes and Pharisees, and with Herodians and Sadducees, with hypocrites and with the self-righteous, with wicked women and wicked men, and habitually with pious men and pious women. For the Lord had to do with every class. Never was any one brought more variously into contact, never one taking such loving pains with everybody, none showing divine grace and truth as He to everyone that came. Nothing is here said about His miracles, wonderful as they were, and signs of yet deeper things. Nor need one now enlarge on His words; though He spoke as never man did. He could say, when asked who He was, “Absolutely (
ἀρχὴν) that which I also speak to you” (John 8:25). He was what He said. He is the truth, as no other man. And who are those that relish all this, who enjoy it, who appreciate Him thus presented and know how to apply it? The “fathers.” “No one hath seen God at any time: the Only-begotten Son that is in the bosom of the Father — He declared [Him].” He too showed the Father. Their hearts were filled with Christ.
As you know well, this is not what generally satisfies even real Christians, nor can it be expected as things have been since primitive days. Without a total breach with man and the world it can never be for the Christian, who must have personally and in the Spirit gone through all kinds of difficulty in himself and all outside him. How often the Lord’s work becomes all-absorbing to some devoted souls; as the church becomes to others, though by no means so frequently. But Christ, known as He was, detects and disperses all that is undue, and abides better known and with deepening sense of the fulness that dwelt in Him bodily.
Of course the “father” had once been “a babe,” and “a young man,” before he could be a “father.” He had fully tasted the early joys in all their freshness; he had taken part in the conflicts which demand spiritual energy and courage. But after passing through every kind of experience as a man of faith and love, the result of it all is this: nothing but Christ, and Christ all. But, let it be repeated, it was knowing “Him that was from the beginning.” It was not merely the Son in heaven throughout eternity, however owning the eternity of His person, but He, man on earth among men. What particularly characterises the fathers is knowing the Son incarnate, the Christ as He was seen and heard every day of His public service in Galilee, Judea, or Samaria. It was Himself, God and man, God in man, the Son revealing the Father in all He said and did. This is what won and fixed and filled their hearts. It is what delighted God’s heart. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I found my delight” or “my complacency.” It was here in His grace (Matt. 3) and in the witness of the coming glory (Matt. 17) that the Father’s voice was thus heard; and it is in Him manifested here that a “father” enjoys fellowship with Him. For they had truly fellowship with the Father and the Son, and in the most profound and practical way. Those are the “fathers.”
One might have a great gift, and not at all be a “father.” One might be not only a great preacher of the gospel but also a powerful teacher, yet not a “father.” It depends not on gift in any way, but on that spirituality which has learned the valuelessness of everything but Christ. Profit there had been by other things; profit even by what humbled and inflicted the keenest pain. One might have entered with wonder, joy, and gratitude into our blessing in Christ in the heavenly places, members of His body who is the Head at God’s right hand; into union also with all the saints which flows from our union with Him. But the issue of all that mystery, and of all profitable experience is to find that the all is in Christ Himself; in the Christ that our Father loves and honours. The same is He who occupies and delights our hearts too; and this, as He was manifested in the world. This is to know “Him that is from the beginning,” the last and the best portion of the “fathers.”
The apostle turns to the second class. He says, “I write to you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one.” They are characterised by energy, energy that went out in faith and love. They had thoroughly discerned and judged sin, to which they knew they died with Christ. They knew that they were also risen with Him, to set their mind on Him and His things above, and to mortify their members on the earth. They had got beyond occupation with self. They had learned the power of Satan, and they faced it. They resisted the devil, and he fled from them. Thus they overcame the wicked one. But they were in the midst of that kind of conflict, and they were strong. They too had profited by the first place. Everyone of course begins as a “babe,” and goes on perhaps to be a “young man;” but very few reach the place of a “father.” Perhaps it may be allowed me to say that, knowing a great many Christians, I have known few “fathers” in my pilgrimage, nor have I even heard of them except very rarely. But “young men” happily it is not so uncommon to find. But it is very little if at all found in the religious world. Indeed even the full and proper character cannot be developed where the world necessarily exercises the influence it does there. Hence it is, as it remains to be shown that not even babes have the proper stamp of “little child” as affixed by the apostle. How sad not even to possess or recognise distinctly the signature that God gives the “little child!”
But we have had the second class sufficiently defined, we may hope, for every Christian to appreciate and understand, even if he can hardly claim it himself. It is vigorous Christianity, upright and decided, and knowing well that contention with flesh and blood, with which most are familiar, is short of what Satan’s power is. They need the whole armour of God, and they put it on as essential to such warfare. They know both how to withstand, and, having done all, to stand. They have overcome the wicked one. Their conflict is clear enough in a general way. They are not ignorant of the enemy’s devices, but resist him resolutely and are enabled to overcome. It is a vigorous Christianity with power in faith and in practice. Here too gifts are not in question. It is purely spiritual attainment. The forgiveness of sins has nothing to do with attainment, any more than the possession of life and light in Christ. It is a matter simply of faith in the gospel. But the world and man being what they are, the believer, when he receives the privileges of grace, cannot be without the experience of self and the world, and of Satan also put to the proof and silenced. They are not deceived by the secrecy or the silence of the great enemy. But they set themselves firmly by grace on the ground of His unaided victory who is their Saviour and Lord, and thank God who gives us the victory by our Lord Jesus Christ. We thus prove that in all the things which seem against us we more than conquer through Him that loved us. Thus have the young men overcome the wicked one.
Thence we come to the very interesting and far more numerous third class — the “little children.” “I write to you, little children,” that is, the least ones of the “dear children” (in ver. 12, as in 1 and 28), “because ye have known (or, have the knowledge of) the Father.” Have you ever tested how far this character belongs to the children of God whom you have known? It is to be supposed that many of us have met not a few children of God in the course of the Christian life. But if you had made it a point to ask, “Have you known the Father,” what answer would be most frequent? Is one going too far to anticipate that most would feel it too much to claim? “Know the Father! Alas! I could not presume to say such a thing of myself.” Most Christians evidently think that this would be a really wonderful attainment on earth — to have the knowledge of the Father! Who can have such knowledge in this life and world? For it means that they do know themselves to be His children now; that they have no hesitation about it; that it is a truth received from God, settled and sure in their souls, not because of dreams, feelings, or ideas; and as far as possible from any merit on their own part. This they have been taught of God, and they gratefully believe it for their own souls. They already knew their sins forgiven, as we have seen. They could not know the Father without resting on redemption in Christ. But how few saints thus rest always in peace on His redemption!
Holding the soundest doctrine on redemption is in no way your soul at God’s word resting on Christ’s redemption. It is very possible to receive the truth of redemption abstractly, and to say “I have no hold of it before God for my sins. Sometimes I have a humble hope; but at other times I am utterly cast down as to my soul.” Clearly this is not real peace; still less, settled peace. Settled peace is that which, being founded upon the blood of His cross, never changes, because its ground never changes. There is also the known relationship to the Father, which is by the Holy Spirit given because we are sons. Even the babe is characterised by more than known forgiveness of sins. This is a vital truth of Christianity. Plenary remission of sins through the blood, no matter how assuredly realised by faith, does not constitute what the “babe” in God’s family is expected to know. Were this all, he is without the essential blessing of relationship, and of known relationship, to the Father.
Hence another apostle (Gal. 3:26) insists to the Galatians, “Ye are all God’s sons by faith in Christ Jesus;” as here our apostle says, “I write to you, babes, because ye have known the Father.” This they could only know. because they were sons, and God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into their hearts, crying, Abba, Father (Gal. 4:6). None can so feel and utter it to God, unless they have received, not a spirit of bondage unto fear, but a Spirit of adoption. Then as divine power works the sense and affections in us as in that intimate relationship, so the duties flow out of it toward our Father and according to His will. Thus is this blessed privilege given and stated with all simplicity. Many in our day have faith in Christ Jesus, who are afraid to believe that they are sons of God, and that they abide so. The Holy Spirit is grieved at such unbelief, and can but reprove it while it lasts, instead of giving them the joyful liberty proper to such a relationship.
But here you have the youngest portion of the family of God in known relationship with the Father. Never can any one have this constant sense of being a son of God unless he have the Holy Ghost sealing him. There He dwells, because our sins have been forgiven us for Christ’s name sake, and thereby the babes know the Father. So the apostle says to the Ephesian saints (Eph. 1:13), “in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” These were not then advanced Christians. They had not as yet made progress in the truth. They had only just received the truth of the gospel as God sent it to them. They believed. in the efficacy of Christ’s death, and accepted the fulness of His grace; and that fulness included both their sins blotted out, and themselves made sons of God, and receiving the Holy Spirit, so as at all times to cry, Abba, Father. And Christian blessing is not conditional or temporary like a Jew’s. Legal thoughts swamp Christ’s work for us under the Spirit’s in us, and thus shake the peace made through the blood of His cross.
Assuredly that is a wondrous place for one to enter by faith who had been, perhaps a short time before, nothing but a lost sinner. Now by virtue of Christ’s redemption the believer has the knowledge of the Father. This changes all to him, and leads him to the confiding intercourse of a son with his Father. If a father after the flesh is dear to his children, particularly if he is an affectionate and faithful father, there is near and bright intercourse. There can be no doubt about the Father. There all is blessed and considerate; for He is as tender as He is true and faithful. There follows then loving intercourse between the sons and the Father. And who is sufficient for these things? Our sufficiency is of God. It is not merely crying, Abba, Father; but as many as are led by God’s Spirit, they are sons of God. And the Spirit bears witness with their spirit that they are children of God. Thereby too they taste the comfort and the certainty that their Father loves and blesses them day by day, though if need be chastising for profit, that they may partake of His holiness, called to His everlasting glory in Christ Jesus. Thus then we see the babes of His family; and in this way they are characterised, “They have known and knew the Father.”
It is not merely that you look in vain through Christendom for “fathers” in Christ, and that very few “young men” appear with the true stamp of God; but where can we find the “little children” or “babes” thus according to revealed truth? Is it not most saddening? For when were men more self-satisfied? How one would hail “little children” such as the apostle describes, and seek to cheer them on their way, to become valiant against the foe, and to learn more and more of Him who suffered unspeakably for our sakes! But it is hard to find them. From the first century, if we may judge from the earliest Fathers, things got sadly wrong; and one plain proof of the departure is the want of fully appropriating even the truths that “Your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake,” and “I write to you, little children, because ye have known the Father.”
Take the prevalent idea of a frequent recourse to the blood of Christ to restore from failures. How could men speak thus if they believed that Christ obtained everlasting redemption? or that the worshippers once purged have no longer conscience of sins? They cannot have the truth of the gospel in their soul, else they never would think after such a fashion. Christ bore our sins in His body on the tree, not merely those before we believed; His blood cleanses from every sin, not from some only. The saints ought to know that there is the washing of water by the word to meet any defilement in the Christian by the way, but no annulling of redemption through Christ’s blood. “For by one offering He (Christ) hath perfected” not only for ever but continuously (
εἰς τὸ διηνεκές) the sanctified. There is no such thought in God’s gospel as our needing a fresh propitiation through His blood after the first; for it was plenary and all-sufficient. But we need to have our defiled feet cleansed by Christ’s word and advocacy. And we confess any sin wherever we act inconsistently with Him; we confess our sin in that particular to God, and judge in ourselves that which exposed us so to fail. That is quite true and right; but not to shake the ground of His one sacrifice and of redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our offences.
If our sins were not all effaced, what would be the value of any? If only one were not forgiven, it would be fatal. But to the believer, forgiveness or remission of our sins means a complete clearance of the sad burden. Only if one should sin, conscience acts under the Spirit’s dealing, and there follows a real humbling of ourselves due on any failure; for every such thing is a shame to us and a grief to the Holy Spirit of God whereby we were sealed unto the day of redemption. This however cannot touch the accepted work of our Lord Jesus. Author as He is of everlasting salvation. So also the knowledge of the Father and of our relationship as His children are quite unshaken. For “we have an Advocate with the Father” who is on high expressly to meet effectually all these difficulties, otherwise insuperable. We are thus ever indebted to Christ; but His advocacy is not His bloodshedding, nor is His blood again His advocacy. Risen and in heaven with the Father, He lives to intercede for us. His blood had quite a different aim and effect. His sacrifice has done its own work perfectly; and His advocacy has its proper place for our need afterwards; and woe to all those that ignorantly unsettle the truth, and insinuate what undermines the gospel of Christ, even though they believe in His person!
7 There is preponderant witness for “I wrote” here, as there is occasionally for as evident blunders of early date in copyists. So it is here, where the context utterly forbids it, and its introduction brings in nothing but confusion, as is abundantly clear from the commentary of Dean Alford swayed by it.
8 It is extraordinary that any Christian of the least intelligence should blunder, as Dean Alford did here. In the third edition of his last volume p. 440, he still talks of “three classes of readers, denoted the first time by
τεκνία, πατέρες, νεανίσκοι, and the second time by
παιδία, πατέρες, νεανίσκοι. But this is mere oversight of the common portion of the
τεκνία, followed by the three divisions into
πατέρες, νεανίσκοι, παιδία, which is repeated with greater detail (except for the
πατέρες) in verses 14 to 17 for the
νεανίσκοι, and in verses 18 to 27 for the
τεκνία is the address to all from verse 28, as he addressed all in verse 12. What misled Alford was one of those mistakes (too often in the oldest uncials, A B C L P, etc.) which give
ἔγραφα in the last clause of verse 13, from the scribe’s confusion with what follows. It is not even true in fact; for the apostle had not written yet to the
παιδία. The true reading, though not so well supported, is
γράφω, for all three on the first mention,
ἔγραφα, for all three on the second. Muddle is the result for the exposition founded on an evident misreading. To say that
παιδία is here “addressed to all the readers” is to ignore words, context and sense.