I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake…. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.
I John 2:12, 13c.
The inspired apostle John would remind us here that at the heart of living the Christian life stands the knowledge of who we are. We must know who we are and to whom we belong—as children, as fathers, and as young men. The text calls our attention to a wonderful distinction in Christ’s church—that of the various age groups in which God performs His wonder work of grace, and the privileged place that children occupy in God’s family.
There are two parallel lines of thought in verses 12- 14, with each of those two lines taking into account a threefold distinction in God’s work of grace—in children, in fathers, and in young men.
John’s reference in verse 13 clarifies the group to whom he writes in verse 12. For the Greek word that he uses in verse 13, although translated the same, little children, is different. There the term refers to young children, even infants. The apostle speaks of the church’s little ones, children. “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.”
God saves little children. The sins of little children, even infants, are forgiven! Bear in mind, John does not write of all little children. He addresses these little ones very particularly. They are God’s children, otherwise referred to as His lambs, those whom He has chosen in Christ before they were even born. What a powerful testimony of God’s saving grace, particular grace! Our children are conceived and born in sin. Still more, the apostle speaks of the little children as having sins, plural. They continually miss the mark—the glory of God that we are constantly to aim for and the calling to love Him perfectly. They do so even before they can consciously pervert God’s commandments. They do so by their sinful natures. But for all that—terrible as is the reality of the situation—John, the inspired apostle, says, “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven.” He addresses the little children as saved by God, received into the fellowship of God’s own covenant life! No greater privilege is there! Even little children have a wonderful place, being loved by God Himself!
As an aged apostle and pastor in Christ’s church, John’s view of children was entirely unlike that which has become common in the churches that deny infant baptism. They hold that the children of believers are no different from the children of unbelievers. They are lost, unbelieving and unconverted. For that reason the Baptists refuse to baptize infants. Baptism, you understand, marks cleansing by the blood of Christ. It is a sign and seal of the righteousness that is ours in Christ (Rom. 4:11). For that reason it may only be administered where there is salvation. At least being consistent with their error, Baptists only baptize believers, adult believers. Where there are those in Reformed churches who view the church’s children as unregenerate and unconverted, the only difference between them and the Baptists is that while the Baptists—consistent with their position—deny infant baptism, the Reformed who walk in this error sprinkle a little water on the heads of those children they consider unregenerate. They baptize while inconsistently and essentially denying the significance of baptism. They profane the sacrament of holy baptism. John’s view of the little children was entirely different. He did not look at them as unconverted, unsaved. He would not pervert the gospel as it applies to little children. He says, “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you!”
The question that must be faced, of course, is: “On what basis can he say this?” A little child—with the emphasis on little, even an infant—is totally dependent. That child can do nothing. He cannot exercise saving faith. He cannot enjoy the experience of true conversion. He cannot show true repentance before God. He can do nothing toward the establishment of a living relationship with God, which is life eternal. Yet the apostle writes, “your sins are forgiven you.” How can that be?
The answer is found in the words of the text that remain: “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.” The expression “for his name’s sake” refers to Christ! That is the only forgiveness there is! Our children are sanctified in Christ. That is why we baptize them. That is their privilege, an amazing gift of God’s grace. And this is stated as a fact. These are the Holy Spirit’s words through the inspired apostle!
There are those who teach that God promises every one of the little children salvation and extends to them His covenant grace, but attaches a condition. The actual fulfillment of God’s promise to them depends on whether or not they grow up to believe in Christ, walk in obedience to Him, and thus embrace the covenant promise. If the child does not fulfill the condition attached to that promise, he forfeits the promise, his baptism thus having no effect. But that concept is soundly rejected by what John writes here. He is writing to the church’s little children. He is not speaking to those who have grown up and who have shown themselves to be the children of God. He attaches no condition. He simply writes, “Your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.” Salvation is never left to depend upon the work and will of the sinner, never. If so, not one of us would be saved. Romans 9:16 sums the truth up plainly: “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”
The privileged place of the church’s little children is in Christ. Their forgiveness of sins is for His name’s sake.
No, this privileged place is not the possession of all little children, not even all baptized children. It is the place of those who belong to the assembly of the elect, those who are chosen in Christ and, therefore, those for whom Christ died and whom He saves and preserves for His own name’s sake. John was not deluded in writing these words. He did not think nor teach here that every little child in the church is saved. He simply maintains the truth and perspective that is consistent in the teaching of our Lord and His apostles in viewing the church organically. Always our eye is upon the church as an organism, the elect organism.
We look upon Christ’s church, though often polluted with sin, as the beloved of God. We recognize all are not Israel that are of Israel. We deal with our children individually, too, pointing them to Christ, showing them the life of true conversion, calling them to repentance and faith. We discipline our children. And when we see hardness of heart, it grieves us. For we recognize, as the apostle will write in verse 19, that there are some who go out from us because they were not of us. But those things do not detract from the fact that we view Christ’s church with the judgment of love. We do so also with the church’s little ones. And therefore we do not hesitate to call their attention, as did the inspired apostle, to the privileged place God has given them. So we instruct them. We teach them all that is involved in this eternal life that is ours, this life in God’s covenant. We teach them the way of repentance. We teach them the glorious truth of forgiveness. We teach them the commandments of God, the law of love. All that John writes to the church, he writes to the children as well. He does so for a reason. “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.”
You understand how important forgiveness is for little children. Little children have an intimate bond to their loving parents. Without their parents they are lost. So it is, when they sin and must face the discipline of father or mother, they must know that the righteous anger of father or mother is a passing anger. They need to know there is forgiveness, acceptance once again. They need to know that though they face chastisement when they do wrong, yet that chastening is part of the love that father and mother have for them. Forgiveness is the most prominent blessing found in a family relationship. Where love is, there is forgiveness. So it is in God’s covenant family, for Christ’s sake. What a great God is our heavenly Father! How majestic is His glory and grace! How deep is His love for little children!
But there is more. For emphasis the apostle will repeat this glorious truth from yet another perspective. “I have written unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.”
That knowledge is life everlasting. To know the Father is to know God in Jesus Christ and, therefore, to know Him as a member of His family. Such knowledge in little children is a very rudimentary knowledge, knowledge at the very earliest stage of development. It is a knowledge of only the beginning principles of living in God’s fellowship. But while a knowledge at the earliest stage of development, this is indeed knowledge, the knowledge of faith, which is life eternal.
The nature of this knowledge of a small child is something that we cannot really comprehend. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of which is referred to in Ecclesiastes 11:5: “As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.” Even in a baby there is a knowledge of his parents, of the bond he has to his parents, a knowledge of their love and attention. The voice of the mother is very comforting to that child. He recognizes also the voice of father. He recognizes his parents’ voices even from the womb. You see that amazing recognition in the smallest infant. He does not know much. He certainly cannot talk theology. He cannot even yet speak or sing. But he knows his father. And it is written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and preserved for the church and her children today: “I have written unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.” You know Him as the Father apart from whom you cannot live and in whose fellowship you have life!
There is to be development in this knowledge, even as there is development in the physical stature of a child. Development is a sign of life. When God instills the principle of new life, we are not all of a sudden full grown and perfect. The child must increase in knowledge. And as that child develops, he will more and more consciously appropriate Christ.
That development of a child comes by God’s use of means. What is true of our physical life is also true spiritually. God has given us food and drink for the nourishment of our bodies. But for our spiritual development He gives us His gospel and the preaching of that gospel. He gives parents to apply that gospel in training their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. So the life of the Father’s little children is marked by blessedness.
Their life is blessed because they are the children of our heavenly Father, united to Christ by the living bond of faith. There is no other blessedness. Our children must know that. We must teach them that. We must remind them of their privileged place and of the knowledge that they already possess and that they must continue to seek. In the consciousness of God’s love and fellowship, we have the joy of the Christian life. There is no peace to those who live to themselves, who know not the Father, who do not experience the forgiveness of sins. Our blessedness is living in the midst of a family, with God our heavenly Father. That is what we teach the church’s children. That is why we take them to church and instruct them in catechism. That is why we show them how life in Christ comes to expression, by walking in God’s commandments. We do not encourage mere outward conformity to God’s law. We point them to Christ, to whom they belong. We remind them that “your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.”
So we expect of them lives of godliness. And if—may God graciously forbid—some should show themselves ungodly and live as those who know not the Father, we will humble ourselves before God’s sovereign work, knowing that they are not all Israel which are of Israel. At the same time, we will continue to pray for them and labor with them, knowing as well the powerful work of God’s grace in restoring some who have fallen so grievously. But do not look for the little children to fall away. We expect to see in them the fruits of God’s grace. In that truth we praise God for His goodness and grace.