Three Basic Things Every Christian Must Know by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John.” It was preached in the 1940’s and re-published as one volume (formerly in five Volumes) in 2002 by Crossway Books.
I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father. I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one. I JOHN 2:12-14
THESE THREE VERSES come as a kind of parenthesis in the series of appeals and exhortations which the Apostle makes at this particular point in his letter to these early Christians. We have considered the verses in which he tells them that they must keep that commandment of love to the brethren which is so essential to fellowship with God, and he is now proposing to go on to make another great and striking, and to many perhaps, a startling exhortation—‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’ But before he does that, he introduces this break, and therefore it is important to discover exactly why the Apostle does this, why he suddenly interrupts his series of exhortations and at the end of verse 11 pauses and says, ‘I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake,’ and so on.
Now this is very interesting. The Apostle, as it were, puts it like this: ‘I have been showing you,’ he says in effect, ‘some of the basic principles. I have been reminding you of some of the demands which the Christian life makes upon you; I have been showing you what are the very conditions of blessing.’ Why, then, the pause and the break? Well, the answer, it seems to me, is this: it is because the Apostle was a pastor, an understanding and loving pastor. His object after all, as we have seen, was not simply to lay down Christian doctrine; he had a very practical object, which was to help these people. So he has to appeal to them; he wants to make sure that he is carrying them with him; so here, in his typical, practical manner, he just stops for a moment and says, ‘Now are you quite clear about all this? You see the line of argument; let me once more just remind you of the thing on which I am basing my whole appeal and exhortation.’
Now that is the way to understand this particular parenthesis. John, at this point, was anxious to do three main things. Firstly, he was anxious to comfort these people; he has been holding forth a very strong and stern doctrine before them—keeping the commandments and loving the brethren—and it is as if he said to himself, ‘Now I wonder if these people will be discouraged. Will they feel I am holding the standard so high that they cannot attain to it? Will it make them feel they are condemned sinners and that there is no hope for them at all? Very well, I will just stop and give them a word of comfort.’
The second thing he is anxious to do is to encourage them, and he does so in this way: He, in effect, says to these people, ‘Now do not think of this commandment and exhortation of mine as something quite separate or disconnected from anything else. Let me remind you,’ says John, ‘that all I am saying to you is based upon the fundamental doctrine which I have already outlined to you.’ If we were presented with the Christian standard of life and morality and ethics without first of all being shown clearly how this is possible in the light of the Christian doctrine, there would be nothing more discouraging in the world than the New Testament. But, thank God, the New Testament never appeals to us to do anything at all until it has told us certain vital things which are essential to the carrying out of the Christian life; so John writes this to encourage them.
I think he has a third object also, and that is to show them that there is no excuse at all for failure in this life in view of the provision that has been made. In other words, we can look at it like this: Someone may say to me, ‘That is all very well! It is an easy thing to tell us to love our brothers; it is a very simple thing to say we are to keep God’s commandments; but if you look at them, surely no one can be expected to do these things.’ ‘But,’ says John, ‘in the light of my doctrine there is no excuse for failure.’ So he introduces this parenthesis in that way; comfort for those who feel condemned, encouragement for those who feel this is some exalted task, and, before he goes any further, taking away every excuse that we may tend to put forward, any attempt to excuse ourselves from this high calling, this great vocation into which we have been called in the Lord Jesus Christ.
John here, as it were, stops and says, ‘Do you think this is all hopelessly impossible? Do you think that what I am really asking of you is so heroic as to be entirely outside the reach of the average Christian? It may be possible, you think, for those who go off into monasteries and who spend their whole life in doing nothing but cultivating their religious life, but surely not for the average Christian in business and other affairs. Now,’ says John, ‘if that is your feeling, it is quite clear to me that you have not grasped the original doctrine. You are approaching the whole thing in the wrong way. Indeed it seems to me that you must be uncertain somewhere as to the basic elements of the Christian faith. So,’ he says, ‘I am not going to take any risks; I am not going a step further; I shall not make another exhortation until I am perfectly satisfied that we really are agreed about the bases, the fundamentals. It is no use going on with the building if there is something wrong with the foundation.’
And this is the way in which he proceeds to do that: He tells them that he is writing these things to them on a certain assumption: ‘I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write unto you, fathers, because’—in the light of the fact that—‘ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one.’ ‘That is my basic assumption,’ says John, ‘and if you are uncertain about that, then obviously these appeals and exhortations of mine will be utterly useless. I shall be wasting my time,’ he says, ‘if I go on to tell you not to love the world and the things of the world, because unless you are in the basic Christian position you obviously will not understand it and you will feel that the whole thing is a sheer impossibility. So let us go back and just make sure we are agreed about the vital things.’ In other words, we have, in these three verses, what I am again describing as the very fundamentals, the bare essentials, the irreducible minimum of the whole Christian position.
Now I shall not go into a detailed discussion as to the mechanics of the way in which John puts this great conspectus of Christian doctrine. You will find that the commentators spend most of their time in doing that—debating as to what exactly John means by ‘little children,’ ‘fathers,’ and ‘young men’ and why he repeats himself as he does. Such discussion is all quite interesting as far as it goes, but it seems to me that it is not very important and not very profitable. Different writers have different views about it, and you will find that it is almost impossible to find two who will agree about this matter. Does ‘little children’ in verse 1 mean all Christians, or does it literally mean little children—and similarly with ‘fathers’ and ‘young men’? Then in verse 13 it is not the same word in the Greek, and there is a discussion as to whether it means his little children or whether it does not.
We cannot decide all this, and it does not matter. There are two ways of looking at it. You can say that ‘little children’ means all Christians; he says at the beginning of the chapter, ‘My little children, these things write I unto you,’ so he is including them all—it is a term of affection from an old man to disciples and followers; that view may well be right. Then there are others who say that there you have all Christians, and then there are two subdivisions—fathers and young men. Again in verses 12 and 13 he talks about children and once more he divides it into fathers and young men, so the possibility is that he has three divisions. Well, they ask, if that is what he has in mind, why does he put fathers immediately after little children and then young men after that? Would it not be more natural to say, children, young men, fathers?
But I repeat, it does not matter, because what really matters is that clearly the Apostle is telling us that these truths of the Christian life and of the Christian faith must be understood by all of us. At the same time, there are particular emphases that are more important at particular ages and stages. In other words, we must realise that not only the little children are to know that their sins are forgiven—all Christians must know that. It is not only the fathers who know that from the beginning, all Christians should know it. It is not only the young men who overcome the wicked one; that is to be true of all Christians. So he writes for all, but at the same time there are steps and stages in this Christian life, and at these stages we need one emphasis more than another and then we go on to need another one.
That, to me, is the glory of this Christian faith. The whole is meant for everybody, and yet there are particular applications at particular points, and that, I think, is exactly what John is doing. He is reminding them of the whole position, and as a wise pastor he just has this particular word of emphasis for people in particular ages or stages.
So let us look at it from the particular like this: It is essential that we should be clear about the basic Christian position; there are certain fundamental postulates and assumptions without which it is a sheer waste of time to appeal to people to live the Christian life. That is the New Testament doctrine from beginning to end; it has nothing to say by way of appeal for conduct to anyone who is not a Christian. It is no part of the Christian Church’s business to be exhorting the world to practise Christian ethics, for it cannot do it. It is difficult for the Christian, it is impossible for the world, so there is no single ethical exhortation in the Bible to a person who is not standing on the Christian position. Christians do not turn to people of the world and say, ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world’; they know they cannot understand the language, still less can they practise it. No, we must be absolutely clear about these fundamental, basic things.
That is why, I think, John repeats these things twice, for repetition is the very art of teaching. Wise teachers always repeat themselves. There are certain things that can never be repeated too often, and although John is an old man, he is a teacher.
So what is it that every Christian should know? What are these basic postulates and assumptions behind the Christian appeal for keeping the commandments, loving the brethren, hating the world, and all the other exhortations? Well, there are just three. First, we must be perfectly clear in our knowledge with regard to the whole question of the forgiveness of sins. ‘I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake’—a fundamental postulate.
What does this mean? Let me divide it like this: The first thing that Christians should know is that their sins are forgiven. That can perhaps best be put by a series of negatives. The Christian is not a person who is seeking forgiveness, or who is hoping to be forgiven. The Christian is not a person who is uncertain about forgiveness or who prays for it or tries to merit it. No, Christians are people who know that they are forgiven.
Now this is absolutely vital and fundamental. So many people, when you ask them if they know that their sins are forgiven, say, ‘I am hoping that they are; I am seeking forgiveness; I am praying for it; I am very uncertain about the whole thing, but I am hoping that my sins will be forgiven me.’ ‘No!’ says John. ‘That is not the Christian position—that is a typical non-Christian statement. The Christian is one whose sins are already forgiven.’
Let me emphasise that still more. The Christian’s certainty and assurance of forgiveness of sins is based upon his knowledge of the way in which his sins are forgiven—‘I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.’ What a glorious statement! You know, the whole of the Christian doctrine in its fundamentals is there. He is everything. This is the basis of our certainty and assurance; we are forgiven because of the perfect, the finished, the full work of the Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf. Christians know that their sins are forgiven, not because they bank loosely and vaguely upon the love of God, still less because they rest upon the hope of their own good lives and merits or their own good works.
Again, this is absolutely central. Let us ask ourselves the question, Have I believed my sins are forgiven; and if so, on what grounds do I believe? Now you put that question and you will find that people say, ‘I believe my sins are forgiven because God is love.’ Yes, but if those are your grounds for believing, then I ask again, where does the Lord Jesus Christ come in? Is He central? He is central with John because ‘your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.’
John has already put that like this in verses 1 and 2: ‘If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’ Christians have certain objective grounds for their assurance of forgiveness of sin. Let me summarise them again. It is ‘for his name’s sake.’ What makes me know my sins are forgiven is that the Lord Jesus Christ is standing there as my representative with God; it is for His sake, for His name’s sake, that I am forgiven. My sin has been dealt with in Him—‘The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all,’ and ‘with his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:6-5). Our sins have been taken and laid upon the Lord Jesus Christ by God Himself; and because He has borne the punishment of my sins, I shall not bear the punishment for them because my sins are forgiven in Him, for His name’s sake. As we saw in our consideration of Chapter 1, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins,’ because the very justice of God insists upon my being forgiven, because Christ has been punished for me. These are the grounds of my certainty and assurance.’
But let me rather put it in this practical form—and I do not hesitate to put it like this: if you are uncertain about the forgiveness of your sins, that in itself is sin. I want to be ruthless about this because there are people who feel that an assurance of forgiveness of sins is presumption, and they rather give the impression that they are being humble and modest.
They say, ‘I would not like to say my sins are forgiven, I do not feel good enough to say that, I am so conscious of my own unworthiness.’ They give the impression that they have unusual lowliness and humility.
The simple reply to that is that if you speak in that way there is only one explanation of it, and that is lack of faith, that is unbelief; it is no mark of saintliness to be uncertain that your sins are forgiven; it is to deny and doubt the Word of God. The certainty of the New Testament is that your sins are forgiven you; you have been forgiven for His name’s sake. If you, therefore, do not know that, it is because you are not clear about the doctrine, because you are still relying upon yourself, because you are not relying upon the finished, complete work of the Son of God for you upon the cross. It is because you do not realise the merit and the power of His blessed name. That name pleaded before God immediately assures pardon—the name that is above every other name, the name in whom all fulness dwells, the name that gives an entry to the courts of heaven and to the very presence of God.
So let us be quite clear about this. It is absolutely essential to living the Christian life, because while you are unhappy or disturbed about this question of forgiveness of sins, you cannot be going forward; in a sense there is no point in going forward. What is the point of my saying to myself, ‘Well, from now on, I am going to live the Christian life, I am going to try to keep the commandments,’ if I am uncertain about my past sins?Though I may live a good life from now on, the past guilt remains. How can I go on until that has been dealt with? And the only way to deal with it is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot undo what you have done, you cannot go back and erase your past—it is impossible. But it has been done in Christ, and I say once more with John that there is no point appealing to people to go forward until they are clear about the past.
Are you clear about it? Do you know that the Lord Jesus Christ has borne your sins and has died your death and risen again to justify you, and are you relying utterly and absolutely upon Him and upon Him alone? If so, you can say that you know your sins are forgiven you. That is the first thing that every Christian should know.
The second is that every Christian should know the way in which sin can be overcome. ‘I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one’ (v 13), and ‘I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one’ (v 14). Again I would call attention to the way in which John puts it. ‘I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome’—not because you are going to, but because you have.
Now what does this mean? Well, it can be put very briefly like this: There is an immediate victory of which one becomes conscious the moment one believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. Let no one misunderstand me. I spend a good deal of time denouncing the gospel of perfection, and I am as far from preaching it as I have ever been, but I say this: the moment we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, we are conscious of a victory over the wicked one—not complete, absolute victory, but victory. We may still be conscious of great weakness, yes, but the moment we believe on Christ we have an immediate consciousness that we are somehow or other no longer under the dominion of sin. Yes, the wicked one is very great; he is very powerful and we may be afraid of him in our weakness, and yet we know that there is something about us, there is an immediate victory. Though we have not finished with sin, we are no longer under the dominion of sin and Satan. We may be conscious of great weakness, and yet we know that he is a defeated enemy and that we are fools if we listen to him.
But to put it still more simply, we can say that those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ know that they are in Christ; they know that Christ has already defeated the wicked one. It is a great thing when you are confronted by an enemy to know that that enemy is defeated. That is the position of Christian men and women; they cannot be beaten by the enemy in combat because there is Someone standing by them who has done it. You are a little child in the victorious army, and you can leave the enemy to Him.
That is the way to understand this victory over sin. John divides it like this: we know we have been made strong. ‘I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong’—it does not mean that they are strong in and of themselves, or that they have developed some strange, mystic strength. Rather it must be that they know they have been made strong. Every Christian should know that, and we know it like this: We receive new life and power; the moment we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and become Christians, we are aware of a change and of a difference. We know that something has come into us, something has happened to us, there has been a kind of infusion of new life, we are aware of a power that we never knew before. There is strength, though it may be small, which we never had in the past. So we can see why John has this parenthesis. What is the point of telling us to keep the commandments and to love the brethren and to hate the world unless we have been given strength?
Furthermore, ‘the word of God abideth in you.’ The word of God is the word which brings new life to us. ‘Being born again,’ says Peter, ‘not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever’ (1 Peter 1:23). James talks about this life being engrafted into us by the word (James 1:21). The word of God comes into us and gives us life, and it abides and the life grows. We can think of this word also as the ‘sword of the Spirit.’ Paul, when he tells the Ephesians to put on the whole armour of God, gives a list, and he refers to the ‘sword of the Spirit’ with which we are to fight the enemy—‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17).
How is it that this word of God makes us strong to fight sin? I think it does it in this way: it shows me the horrible nature of sin; and while the word of God abides in me, I am made to see sin in all its ugliness and selfishness and perversion and I hate it. It also teaches men and women about the destiny of those who are the slaves of sin. It shows them that they are going to hell and destruction outside the life of God for all eternity. It also shows them, thank God, the power of Christ and how Christ has defeated the enemy already and how Christ comes into them and makes them strong and enables them to become more than conquerors against all these things that assail them.
Let me sum it up again like this: If we feel that the demands of this Christian life are too high or impossible, it is nothing but sheer ignorance, a sheer lack of faith. If we feel that we would rather be talking about our own weakness and about our own failures, then let me emphasise once more that that is not humility, nor Christian modesty; it is lack of faith and lack of knowledge. There is a sense in which we have no right to be weak, no business to be failures when all this is offered to us. ‘So then,’ says John, ‘I am writing to you because you know these things and because you know that these things are facts.’ So the Christian must have this certain knowledge of the power of Christ and the ability to overcome sin.
And that brings me to the third and last point, which is that we must all have a knowledge of the Father and of the Son. This, as we have seen, is the basic truth in the whole epistle. ‘I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning’—that is, the Lord Jesus Christ: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life’ (1:1). Then: ‘I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.’ This is the blessed knowledge that every Christian must have, a knowledge of God—not God as some great power, not as some great force, not someone who is opposed to us and hates us, imposing these commandments upon us—but God as Father, God who has loved us with an everlasting love, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the God who so loves us that He counts the very hairs of our head, the God who causes the sun to rise upon this world, this amazing Father God. ‘We know Him,’ says John. ‘I write to you because you know Him, and if you know Him you will not feel that His commandments are a sacrifice; you will know that they are all destined for your good; you will know He has brought them in because He wants to bless you and because He wants you to be conformed to the image of His own dear Son.’ So it is a knowledge of the Father and likewise a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ; to know Him in person, to know His work for us, to know Him in His offices as the sin-bearer, as the sacrifice, as the prophet, priest, and King. It is to know the New Testament doctrine concerning Him, and above all to know Him and to feel that He is near in the hour of need and in temptation so that we can rise above it; to know perfect peace in Him and through Him; to know the Father and to know the Son.
There, then, are the three basic things which every Christian must know: sins forgiven for His name’s sake, power to overcome the sin, and to know God the Father and God the Son through God the Holy Spirit.
This is the knowledge that John also applies in particular to the different age groups. While we are young in this Christian faith and feel so weak and small, the one thing we really want to know is that God is our Father, that God loves us and that our sins are forgiven; so he emphasises that in writing to the ‘little children.’ You see, in that first stage all we really want to know is that we can, as it were, recline in safety in the loving arms of God. That is what the child wants; he depends upon the parent; he wants to receive everything, but he does not give anything, and God is like that with us, in the early stages. At the beginning of the Christian life we do not understand much, so God gives us everything.
I have often said in passing, and I am sure every minister and preacher will confirm what I say, that as a man goes on preaching this gospel, he finds he has to work more and more. In the early days of my Christian ministry I was given sermons, but now I have to work harder, and it is like that in the Christian life. God is the Father, and the child is given everything. Little children, you know your sins are forgiven you.
Yes, but go on a little bit and you become a young man; you find now there is a fight involved, and ‘young men’ in the Christian life are conscious of that fight, and the enemy is attacking them. In the beginning the Christian life was easy; now there is a conflict and difficulties. ‘You are quite right,’ says John, ‘and what I would emphasise for you is this: He can make you strong, and you can overcome the wicked one, and the word of God will abide in you, so that when you are in this middle stage of the Christian life you have to remember this-–the young man, the middle age group, must especially hold on to this—that you are not left to yourself. The word of God abides in you, and Christ who has defeated the enemy can enable you to overcome. And, fathers, you who are old in age, some old in the Christian life, what should be true of you is this: you no longer as children must expect everything to come automatically. You are not in the stage to fight combats and conflicts. No, you have gone beyond that, you should have gone beyond it, you no longer are interested in the gifts, no longer interested in the fight, though you are still fighting. What matters to you is the knowledge of the giver Himself. You are old, and you know you have not much longer in this world, and what should be occupying your mind and attention is that the day will soon come when you will see Him face to face. You know Him that is from the beginning. Do you dwell more and more on Him? As a child you thought of gifts; you now are thinking more of the giver. You have gone through the struggles, and you have overcome; you know all about that; now what you are thinking about is the consummation, the ultimate reward, of standing and seeing Him face to face. So you dwell more and more upon the person, and you say, “Oh, what I long for is to know Him better; to know my Saviour as a person and to know God better.” And you look wistfully to the day when with Paul you will be able to say, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21), for it means “to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phil 1:23).
There are steps and stages like that in the Christian life, and whatever stage we are in, there is an aspect of the truth that speaks specifically and especially to us, some basic doctrine for us all and a special word of encouragement according to our several positions. Let us thank God that He caused His servant, the Apostle, to pause at this point to introduce this glorious, magnificent parenthesis. Let us thank God that we stand on such solid ground: a knowledge of sin forgiven, a knowledge of how to overcome sin, and above all the knowledge of Himself, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. (201-212)