The Three Stages of Spiritual Maturity: Introduction
Published May 1, 2023
In my estimation, one of the most pastoral passages in the entire New Testament is 1 John 2:12-14, when the apostle John stops his flow of argument – where he has been giving tests of salvation – and he speaks to his readers from his heart. We can see John taking a moment to speak directly to his brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing his own heart with them about their common salvation.
Bible scholars and students have often puzzled over the purpose of this passage, especially as it finds itself situated in 1 John 2 – after a number of tests of salvation and before the first imperative in the letter in verse 15 (do not love the world). The passage seems quite repetitive, where John addresses children, fathers, and young men – and then he addresses all three groups again. Why does he call out these three groups? Are there three groups, or are these all designations for every believer, looking at Christianity from various angles and lenses? And how does this detour apply to us today?
As we begin to unpack what John is writing in these verses, we see that he is not giving a theological treatise or an academic description of salvation. Instead, John is speaking pastorally, addressing his readers by anticipating their concerns, questions, confusion, and their spiritual need at this point in the letter. For that reason, it seems clear that John is addressing all believers in the church but speaking to them in three distinct groups. Each group has reached some level of spiritual maturity. There are spiritual children, spiritual young men, and spiritual fathers in the church (which applies equally to the women in the church, too).
The repetition John employs does two important things in this passage. First, it highlights the significance of this passage for the readers to understand. Repetition in Scripture almost always occurs for emphasis. Second, this makes the passage more memorable. No one hearing this for the first time had their own personal copy of 1 John to read at home. The repetition thus makes this material stand out and stick in the minds of the hearers of this letter.
So why is this passage here?
First, because John wants to affirm that his readers are those who have eternal life. John is not writing to them because he is uncertain of their salvation – a point explicitly made in 1 John 2:21. Rather, the problem is that they aren’t sure if they have eternal life because of those who have tried to deceive them with false doctrine. They are looking at an apostate group that claims to be following Christ, and it is causing them to question their own salvation instead of the salvation of those who have departed from the truth.
In this passage, John critically distinguishes between spiritual maturity and salvation. One problem that spiritually immature believers can battle is a lack of assurance because they are immature. And so here, John is reminding his readers that their salvation is not dependent on their level of spiritual maturity. Just because you are less mature than another Christian does not mean you are less saved than that other Christian. Everyone is in a different place in their spiritual growth, and we must be clear that spiritual immaturity does not mean there is no spiritual life.
The second thing John does, which highlights the wisdom the Spirit gave to him, is to direct all his readers, regardless of their spiritual maturity, to greater spiritual growth. It is as if John comes along and says, “If you are spiritually immature, don’t let that shake you from your confidence in salvation,” but then moves on to exhort, “But also don’t become complacent or comfortable in spiritual immaturity.” ALL believers should desire to grow! Spiritual growth is vital to the life of a true follower of Christ, which is what Peter tells us in 2 Peter 3:18. This is perfect pastoral encouragement from the Apostle John, the beloved disciple.
Now, as we examine this passage, we see there are really two reasons John highlights why believers stagnate in their spiritual growth. First, sometimes we struggle to grow because we don’t know where we are spiritually. Second, we struggle to grow because we don’t know how to determine where we should be going or what growth would look like in our lives.
To help us with this, then, John gives us three groups by which we can evaluate where we are spiritually, where we need to go, and how we get there. Those groups are Spiritual Children, Young Men, and Fathers. Over the next three posts, I will dissect each group and elaborate on the evaluation that the apostle so succinctly provides. I hope you, the reader, will use this series to find what group you are in today and determine what steps you will take to increase in spiritual maturity as you grow closer to your reward in heaven with our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.