RPM, Volume 15, Number 10, March 3 to March 9, 2013

The Stages of a Christian's Life

1 John 2:1-14
(Series on First John: No. 6)

By Robert Rayburn

In setting forth his first two tests of genuine Christian faith and experience, John has spoken quite bluntly. If you do not keep the commandments of God, don't tell me that you are a Christian. And if you do not love your brothers and sisters in the church, you are only deceiving yourself if you claim that you love God.

But John does not want his readers to think, he does not want these Christians to whom he is writing, to get the impression that he thinks they are not really Christians; that they are counterfeit believers whose false assurance needs to be exposed for what it is. He wants as much to confirm the assurance of the real believers as to undermine the false assurance of those who are deluded about their relationship to God through Jesus Christ. And, the fact is, that John thinks most of those to whom he is writing his letter are genuine believers in and followers of the Lord Christ.

And so, in what amounts to a digression, in vv. 12-14 John speaks directly to his Christian friends some words of encouragement and recognition. But, in so doing, he provides them and us with a most important insight into the pattern of Christian experience.

There has never been a fully satisfactory explanation offered for the duplicate tri-fold pattern of vv. 12-14. John addresses the children, the fathers, and the young men, twice over in that order. And, though this is obscured in the NIV, the verb 'write' is in the present tense in the first triplet, and in the past tense in the second, though this is probably nothing more than a literary device on John's part. In all likelihood the repetition is for emphasis and enlargement. Only to the fathers does he say the same thing both times; to the children and the young men he says related but different things.

In any case, commentators are universally agreed that John is referring to three groups of people in the church according to their spiritual maturity not according to their chronological age. And that, as we all know, is not the same thing. Sometimes younger Christians have advanced far beyond some older Christians in the life of faith and love. But, of course, often and ideally in a third-generation church such as John is writing to, older men and women will, by long experience of walking with God and trusting in Christ, have advanced far beyond younger people who are, by reason of their age, also newer and younger Christians.

Paul, you remember, also describes the church as composed of Christians of different age and maturity and experience. He refers to infants in Christ--indeed, in 1 Corinthians 3:1 accuses Christians who should be far advanced in the spiritual life as being still infants in Christ. And in Ephesians 4:13 he speaks of growing up into maturity in Christ, the Greek has literally 'a mature man.' And the author of Hebrews speaks of the need to leave the elementary teachings of Christ to go on to maturity.

So when John speaks of some Christians as little children, others as young men, and still others as fathers--and, of course, we could just as well substitute young women and mothers--he is referring to a phenomenon well known in the Bible.

Wise and observant Christians have long noticed that God characteristically builds Christ's character in his children gradually, by steps and stages--steps and stages that are often seen less well by the Christian individuals themselves than by those observing their progress in the Christian life. It is therefore possible, it is even quite important and useful to speak of believers as either children, or young adults, or fathers and mothers. To speak this way is to recognize the way God works in us and with us and the way holiness is cultivated and grown in us by the Holy Spirit.

I don't mean to suggest, of course, that there is some absolute and exact pattern of Christian progress. John speaks in generalities and so must we. Each of us, the Scripture says, is the unique creation of God, and we are all different in many ways and will be all our Christian lives long.

Further there are no clearly defined borders one crosses from spiritual childhood into young adulthood and then into full maturity. No doubt the most mature believer feels himself or herself to be still a spiritual child in some ways. There are many degrees of progress and much overlap. Still, John here and the rest of the Bible with him gives us leave to take note of the stages of the spiritual life and taking note of those stages, to examine and instruct and exhort and encourage ourselves thereby. This, of course, is self-examination for the Christian. It is not to help us know whether we are Christians or no, so much as it is to help us discern how far along the road of faith, hope, and love we have traveled and how far and in what direction we have yet to go.

So let us take John's classifications, one by one, and see what we may discern of Christians in each of those three classes.

I. First, the young or juvenile believer in Christ is marked by the enjoyment of the first and most basic promises and gifts of God's grace.

You will notice what John says of them in verse 12 and then in v. 13c: that their sins have been forgiven and that they have, reading literally, 'come to know' the Father. Well, these are the first conscious experiences of a newborn Christian--the sense that the great burden of sin and guilt has been lifted and that God--the great and terrible Judge of such threatening holiness and wrath--is now his loving heavenly Father, his Abba, to whom he can always turn with absolute confidence that he will be received with tenderness and compassion.

Now, John does not elaborate the characteristics of this young believer, except by implication--that is by choosing to mention in connection with the young Christian what could be called the ABCs of the faith. But more can be said.

John Newton, the famous slaveship captain turned Anglican minister and hymn writer, was also the letter-writer of the Great Awakening. Many of his letters written to individuals were intended to be circulated and many of them were later collected and published in book form with the title: Cardiphonia, this is, the utterance of the heart.

Newton wrote a series of three letters, now found in Cardiphonia, in response to an inquirer who had asked him about the stages of a believer's experience. He based the three letters, and the three stages of experience, not, as it happened, on 1 John 2:12-14--though he might just as well have--but on Mark 4:28, and the Lord's remark there about the kingdom of God being like a seed, which when planted, produces grain: first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head, which Newton took to represent three stages of Christian experience.

Newton's three letters are rich with insight into the way God grows up a Christian from infancy to full maturity. And some of his comments on spiritual infancy, on John's first stage of spiritual childhood bear repeating here:

'A tree is most valuable when laden with ripe fruit, but it has a peculiar beauty when in blossom. It is spring-time with [this new or young Christian]. His faith is weak, but his heart is warm. His knowledge is but small, but it is growing every day.'

And is it not so even in your own observations. The new Christian is often notable for zeal, though often it is a zeal which lacks discernment and knowledge. The Christian faith and life seems quite plain and simple to the new Christian and he or she can be forgiven for thinking that Christians of longer standing have muddled things unnecessarily. He or she cares not for theological distinctions or denominations and is quite sure that all of this can be surmounted if only people would follow the Lord with the simplicity of his or her own brand new faith.

There is one of you who often complains to me that his faith hasn't the warmth and the vitality and the zeal that it had when first he began to walk with the Lord. And perhaps there is some truth in that. But, I also remember what rough edges that newborn faith had, how quickly it passed judgment on the faith and behavior of other Christians, for example, and how unschooled in the deeper parts of God's truth.

There is something very good and lovely about this young Christian life--the Lord must love it, because he creates it often enough and usually leaves his children in this stage for some time before taking them on. But it is clearly enough, not a final resting place for any true follower and servant of the Lord.

II. The second stage, that which we might call Christian young adulthood, is marked by the growing toughness and courage of the Christian warrior.

In both references to the young men, that in v. 13 and again in v. 14, John calls attention to the spiritual warfare and the strength they have displayed and the victories they have won in contest with the evil one.

This characterization of the second stage of Christian growth is also in agreement both with the general teaching of the Bible and with the observation of godly folk through the ages.

Have you not yourselves, those of you who have been Christians for some time, noticed how God seems to deal so gently, as a rule, with brand new believers. It sometimes seems to us that every prayer they pray is immediately answered in the affirmative, every person they share their faith with becomes a Christian, every battle they set out to fight ends in victory--whether it is a bad habit they are seeking to change or a cause they are taking up in the Lord's name. And, often, as a result, new believers can come to think that the Christian life will always be this way. But gradually, as any wise parent will who wishes to bring a child to maturity and strength of character, the Lord begins exposing his child to the realities of life; and the young Christian begins to discover--sometimes to his great consternation and confusion--that it is not to be so easy after all.

Long-standing problems of temperament, of personal relations, of deep but unfulfilled desires, of nagging temptations, of weaknesses--which he or she may have thought were buried never to be seen again, come back--are still there--and, in some cases, have returned stronger than before. God does not make their lives easier; quite the contrary, they find that their lives in some very significant ways have become more difficult, more painful, more complicated than before. The same God who deals so gently with his young children --as a shepherd with lambs, as a mother with her infant--now is beginning to exercise them in a tougher school. Having established them in the life of faith, now he goes about testing them by exposing them to pressures, within and without, and by testing strengthens them, builds their faith and character, awakens hope, deepens love and, in every way, makes them more useful to others.

John Newton, in his insightful letters, puts it this way concerning this second stage of Christian life:

'I think the characteristic of the state of spiritual infancy is desire, and the characteristic of the state of [spiritual young adulthood] is conflict.'

And it is this stage of the Christian life, the entrance upon the pains and sorrows of the spiritual warfare with one's own flesh, the world, and the devil that Newton had in view in his immortal poem which often goes by the name 'These inward Trials':

I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.

I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He'd answer my request,
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

'Lord, why is this?' I trembling cried,
'Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?'
''Tis in this way,' the Lord replied,
'I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may'st seek thy all in me.'

And so young Christians grow up to be soldiers of the Lord and as they grow strong through the exercise and education of their faith, these young adult believers form 'the flower of the army of the Lord.'

They become sharp-eyed both to the deceitfulness of their own hearts and the mine-fields which Satan lays in their path; they learn the lessons of the spiritual warfare and gain a self-discipline and a self-denial far beyond anything the infant Christian had any knowledge of. And, if it seems to them that there is not as much of the joy and the thrill in their salvation that they knew when first they came to know God as their Father and had their sins forgiven, yet, now with a much deeper knowledge of the exceeding sinfulness of sin--sinning as they see themselves do against so much light and so much love--they have come to a far deeper understanding and appreciation of the grace of God and the triumph of the cross than any unschooled new Christian could ever have. As John puts it, the Word of God in its great and deep themes is taking hold of their hearts.

III. The third and last stage of Christian experience, that of fatherhood and motherhood in the faith, is marked by the depth of communion with God and the soul's calm, clear, sight of the Eternal and Almighty God.

In each case, John says of the fathers that they have known 'him who is from the beginning [the eternal God].' For these, the first flush of ecstasy in their forgiveness and their fellowship with the Father in heaven is a thing of the distant past. Even the battles of their spiritual young adulthood are now largely past. As spiritual children they knew God as their Father and Christ as their Savior, and as young warriors they knew him as their Captain, but now in addition to this they have entered upon that sight of God in his eternity, his immutability, his infinity, which is the fullest and deepest knowledge of God and a knowledge which one comes to only as the fruit of long and ripening spiritual experience.

Listen to John Newton once again describe this mature saint, this aged and experienced Christian:

But [a fully mature Christian's] happiness and superiority to [the young adult in the things of God] lies chiefly in this, that by the Lord's blessing on the use of means, such as prayer, reading and hearing of the word, and by a sanctified improvement of what he has seen of the Lord, and of his own heart, in the course of his experience, he has attained clearer, deeper, and more comprehensive views of the mystery of redeeming love; of the glorious excellency of the Lord Jesus, in his person, offices, grace, and faithfulness; of the harmony and glory of all the divine perfections manifested in and by him to the church; of the stability, beauty, fulness, and certainty of the Holy Scriptures, and of the heights, depths, lengths, and breadths of the love of God in Christ. Thus though his sensible feelings may not be so warm as when he was in the state of [spiritual infancy], his judgement is more solid, his mind more fixed, his thoughts more habitually exercised upon the things within the veil. His great business is to behold the glory of God in Christ; and by beholding, he is changed into the same image, and brings forth in an eminent and uniform manner the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God. His contemplations are not barren speculations, but have areal influence, and enable him to exemplify the Christian character to more advantage, and with more consistence, than can in the present state of things be expected either from [spiritual babies] or [young adults].

Newton goes on then to describe the superiority of this father or mother of the faith in humility, in spirituality, and in a hunger and thirst for the glory of God.

I know some people like that; though, I am afraid that they are far too rare in contemporary Christianity. I remember as though it were yesterday, my meeting with a Dutch professor of theology in Utrecht in June of 1984. Prof van de Linde, though by then in his retirement, was still regarded as the expert in a particular field of study which had caught my interest and I had made an appointment to see him. I was in his home for the afternoon and what a sacred afternoon it was for me! What an impression he made upon me and that, chiefly, for his spirituality and the grace and piety of his character.

I have told you before of how tenderly he spoke of and how powerfully he bore witness to the love he had for his wife who had died some seven years before. I learned more about her that afternoon than I did about him; and, though I was a stranger--albeit a Christian stranger--he told me, with tears in his eyes that he never went to bed at night without looking at her picture; and then in some detail described her Christian character and what a godly woman she was.

But here was godliness in its ripest form. His speech--and he spoke English better than I do--was so full of God and of grace; his spiritual tastes were so obviously refined to a high degree; his interests so dominated by the kingdom of God and the Word of God, concerning which he spoke with such obvious reverence!

Let me tell you something that may not make such an impression on you, but made a tremendous impression on me, because I share his love for the old reformed theology and for the books which contain it. He had spent his life collecting the books of a certain movement and period in Dutch reformed history, called the Nadere Reformatie, or the second reformation. In Scotland it was the period of Samuel Rutherford, in Holland of like men with like interests, the greatest of them Gisbert Voetius, who, interestingly, as van der Linde centuries later, had been a professor at the University of Utrecht. The reformation of theology under Luther and Calvin had been accomplished, but now that theology had to be brought down into the hearts and lives of common Christians, to transform their lives into genuine Christian faith and love. That was the burden of the spiritual men of the Nadere Reformatie. Well, Prof van der Linde had begun collecting the materials of that time and movement in the church when they were still widely available at reasonable prices and had, by the time of his retirement, what was regarded as virtually a complete set of the literature of that important period in Dutch reformed history. He himself acknowledged to me that it would be impossible to gather such a collection today--the books are still more rare and much more expensive if they can be found.

It was not difficult to tell that this man was a lover of old theology books; the walls of his lovely home with its narrow stairways and high ceilings were lined with the rarest and most beautiful leather folios and quartos; his personal library of 16th, 17th, and 18th century volumes would no doubt make the collections of many University and Seminary libraries here seem very modest by comparison. And he spoke of his books with a real affection. But he told me that his great collection of the books of the Nadere Reformatie he had recently given to the Library of the University of Utrecht, which he felt should have them because of Voetius' immense importance to the second reformation and his connection with that ancient university.

He did not want, he told me, to keep them until his death and have the university receive them from his estate, because, he said, he didn't feel that that was the manly thing for a Christian to do. You would have to love books and to have seen his library to know what a lifetime of walking with God and growing up in faith and coming to live almost naturally with one foot in the world to come and with a sight of the eternal God always before one's mind's eye went in to such a decision as that. I still shudder to think of it, and wonder if I will ever be so mature, so grown up in Christ--that I would have such an eye to the will of God and the glory of God, as to be cheerfully willing to part with the treasures of my lifetime simply so that I might do the right thing and glorify God thereby. And, it all seemed so effortless with this splendid Christian gentleman! He wore so lightly the burdens of his waning years and had come so cheerfully to receive whatever Divine providence ordered for him.

Many of us in this congregation are relatively young; but we are all getting older fast. I received an invitation by form letter this past week, an invitation to apply for the Army Reserve Chaplaincy; and I discovered from this letter that in one more year I will be too old to apply. I have never been too old to apply for anything in my life! But time is marching on. And, this is the great point: It must march on in our spiritual lives as surely as our chronological lives, and it is as imperative that we grow old in faith and love as it is certain that we will grow old in years.

My longing for this congregation is just this: that we will always have scores of infant Christians who have only recently begun to walk the way of faith in Christ, scores of spiritual young adults growing strong in the spiritual warfare, but, above all, that many of you will have grown up into fathers and mothers in Israel whose devotion to the Lord, whose preoccupation with the Eternal Triune God, whose sturdy faith, calm submission to the Divine will, and whose spiritual wisdom is a constant wonder, marvel, and inspiration to the spiritual babes and young adults who will look up to you and long to be like you.

And, above all, you and I must set before ourselves the image and the picture of that father or mother of the faith, that mature and practiced and experienced and deeply spiritual man or woman... and determine that before God and with His aid, we will not finish our days in this world until we are such ourselves.

And to awaken that hope and longing, hear John Newton one last time on the aged Christian, the mature man or woman in Christ:

The sun, in his daily course, beholds nothing so excellent and honourable upon earth as [this Christian father or mother of faith], though perhaps he may be confined to a cottage, and is little known or noticed by men. But he is the object and residence of divine love, the charge of angels, and ripening for everlasting glory. Happy [old man or woman in Christ]! his toils, sufferings, and exercises, will be soon at an end; soon his desires will be accomplished; and he who has loved him, and redeemed him with his own blood, will receive him to himself, with a "Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of the Lord."

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