The Three Stages of Spiritual Maturity: Spiritual Children
Published May 8, 2023
As we covered last time, 1 John 2:12-14 is, in my opinion, one of the most pastoral passages in the entire New Testament. John affirms that his readers are those who have eternal life, distinguishing between spiritual maturity and salvation, and directing all believers to grow spiritually. John tenderly comes alongside those who are younger in the faith – those who are less mature, comforting them by reassuring them that their lack of maturity is not a sign of a lack of salvation.
John gave us three groups by which we can evaluate where we are spiritually, where we need to go, and how we get there – Spiritual Children, Young Men, and Fathers. Today, we will look at the first group, spiritual children.
We all begin the Christian life as spiritual children, as John notes in verses 12 and 13. Spiritual children are typically those who are newly converted. This phrase has no reference to your physical age. If you were converted at 5 or 50 years old, then you were a spiritual child at that point.
We can also say that spiritual childhood has nothing to do with the duration of time that you have been saved. Certainly, newer believers will find themselves in this category, but spiritual growth does not occur necessarily with the passing of time. Someone can be a believer for a while but still be a spiritual child, growing very slowly. Not everyone grows at the same rate. Even within any individual Christian, we will experience seasons of greater growth than other seasons, and we might move ahead in our sanctification quicker sometimes than others. The key thing we all want to see in our lives is ongoing growth, but the pace of that varies from person to person – and even from season to season in our lives.
John uses this passage to highlight specific marks of those who are spiritual children – the first being that the spiritual child’s sins have been forgiven for the sake of Christ’s name.
The most basic reality for every Christian, whether you’ve been saved five decades or five seconds, is that your sins are forgiven. This is the starting point for every believer. If you are saved, it does not matter how long you’ve been saved; your sins, all of them – past, present, and future – are forgiven because of Christ. You do not earn forgiveness as you grow, nor do you earn your standing before God through your sanctification.
This statement by John is so critical because it means that you are fully and freely forgiven – and in a right standing before God – before any sanctification happens. That means your spiritual growth has absolutely nothing to do with your forgiveness, your justification, or your acceptance with God.
This is the gospel at its most basic level; and what John is saying is that if you are a spiritual child, you know the gospel. You know that God has forgiven your sins because of Christ’s name, not because of you. You contributed nothing to your forgiveness except the sin that needed to be forgiven. And the person who is newly saved – the person who hears the gospel and believes in Christ – they understand this basic reality: they are now forgiven of their sins, which is such a glorious thought and a marvelous reality – because of what Christ has done!
Spiritual life begins with God forgiving our sins because of Christ and what He has done – so that He gets all the glory, and we get the joy of salvation.
A second mark of those who are spiritual children is that they know the Father. The Father is specifically named here because of the parent-child relationship John wants to highlight. As many of us understand, children instinctively know their parents – even though they might not know much about them at the start of their lives.
The same thing is true for new believers with God. They know that God is their Father, and they know the voice of their Father as they hear the Word. The Word may be difficult to understand for them, and yet there is something about the Word of God that draws them, that speaks to them, that comforts their hearts, and that reassures them of God’s presence, care and love for them.
New believers typically can’t tell you a lot about God. Their theology is usually pretty minimal at that point, but their love for God and their knowledge that God is their Father in heaven is a true, childlike love for God. They know they have been born again, and they know that God is indeed their Father. I’ve seen this repeatedly over the years: new believers who have very little theological understanding, but they want to know the voice of God in Scripture; and they are all in, devouring God’s Word to learn more about the One who has saved them and forgiven their sins.
So this is where it begins. Every believer has been at this point, and of course as we grow, we never leave this behind because our sins are still forgiven, and we still know the Father; but these two things are the key markers of those who are very young in their faith. Next, we will jump out of John’s order to the Spiritual Young Men to look at that stage of spiritual maturity in the life of a believer.