“I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.” I John 2:12
Weapons of warfare have changed considerably since the day the apostle John wrote his first epistle. While Romans soldiers in the first century fought with swords and spears, they would be no match for our Special Ops today that use the M4 carbine rifle, a shortened version of the standard U.S. M16 with a detachable 40mm grenade launcher mounted beneath the barrel. The weapon can also mount a night-vision sight, and some troops carry night-vision goggles with them. A soldier on sniper duty might lug a heavy Barrett .50 caliber rifle that can hit targets a mile away with a bullet stout enough to pierce armor. Some soldiers carry the M3 Carl Gustav reusable launcher, a bazooka that fires antipersonnel and antitank rockets. 1
But a Christian’s weapons have not changed. Our enemy remains the same in spiritual warfare and so do our weapons regardless of what century we live in. But the tactics of the enemy can vary from situation to situation, but the weapons that bring us victory remain unchanged.
The book of I John is primarily about having fellowship with God, not about going to heaven; it is about our practice, not our position. But understanding and believing our position in Christ is foundational for victorious Christian living. For example, in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in the city of Ephesus, he first presents the truth about our position in Christ (Ephes. 1-3) before addressing our practice of that truth (Ephes. 4-6). Paul knows that it is essential to know and believe our position in Christ if we are to effectively live it out. 2
The apostle John is preparing his readers for spiritual warfare. Christians face three primary enemies: the devil (Ephes. 2:2b; 6:12; I Pet. 5:8; Rev. 12:9), the world (John 15:18-19; Ephes. 2:2a), and our sin (Ephes. 2:3; James 1:14-15). John addressed our sin in I John 1:5-2:2. He is about to deal with our other two enemies: the world (2:15-17) and the devil (2:18-25). To get us ready to deal with these two enemies, he is going to review some basic truth about our position in Christ (2:12-14). 3
In 2:12-14, the terms “children… fathers… young men” refer to all the readers in each case since John addressed all his readers as “little children” (cf. 2:1, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). If John was referring to different chronological age groups or differences in spiritual maturity, we would expect the sequence: “little children, young men, and fathers.” But instead, we see the sequence: little children, fathers, and young men. 4
“It seems best… to view the terms of address as referring to all the readers in each case. Then each experience ascribed to them is appropriate to the category named.” 5
Anderson writes, “But the words are switched up to look back at ground already covered and look forward to the battle ahead:
Little Children—Forgiveness; ground covered in 1:5−2:2.
Fathers—Intimacy (deep knowledge of God); ground covered in 2:3-11.
Young Men—Victory over the Evil One; ground covered in 2:15-28.” 6
In verses 2:12-14, it is also noteworthy to observe the phrase, “I write to you… because…” “Clearly John does not regard his readers as ‘false professors.’ Viewing this epistle as presenting ‘tests’ by which to determine the genuineness of a person’s salvation misreads the epistle.” 7
John is not writing this epistle to provide tests for eternal life. He is not questioning whether his readers are saved or not. He is writing because he is assured of their salvation and their deepening fellowship with God. His concern is that their enemies may jeopardize their fellowship with God by questioning the genuineness of their salvation experience (2:25-27; 5:9-13) and their subsequent fellowship with the Lord.
John begins with his readers’ experience as “little children.” “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.” (I John 2:12). Like “little children” (teknia = “little born ones”) 8 John’s readers had experienced the forgiveness of their heavenly Father. That John is referring to his readers’ position in Christ is underscored by using the Greek perfect tense of the word “forgiven” (apheōntai) which refers to a completed action in the past with continuing results to the present. 9 When John’s readers believed in Christ for His gift of eternal life in the past (5:13a), they were forgiven of all their sins – past, present, and future (Col. 2:13-14) – and they remain forgiven in the present when John writes to them.
The word for “forgiven” means “to release or cancel” a debt owed. 10 This is judicial or positional forgiveness whereby God cancels our sin debt to Him the moment we believe in Jesus for His complete forgiveness of all our sins so we can become His forever children (cf. Acts 10:43; Col. 2:13-14; John 1:12; 6:37). We are declared totally righteous before God in His courtroom at the moment of faith in Christ (Romans 3:21-4:5; 8:33). This not only includes our past sin debt, but our present and future sin debt to God as well (Col. 2:13-14). Nothing is more important for a believer in spiritual battle than his secure standing before God. Satan will accuse the believer of wrongdoing, but he cannot do so successfully because Christ has canceled that believer’s sin debt in full and declared him to be totally righteous in God’s courtroom the moment he believed in Jesus (Rom. 8:33-34). This is positional forgiveness.
Another feature in this verse that points to a believer’s position in Christ is the phrase “for His name’s sake.” Why did God grant complete forgiveness to John’s readers? It was “for His name’s sake.” This phrase looks back to the first time John’s readers believed in Jesus’ name. 11 John writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” (I John 5:13). God wants people to know that complete forgiveness is connected to believing in “the name of the Son of God,” Jesus Christ. Christ forgives us not because we deserve it but because He wants His name as a forgiving God to become more well known among people all around the world. If Christians lost their positional forgiveness in Christ, it would tarnish Jesus’ name as a forgiving Savior.
First John speaks of two types of forgiveness. One is the forgiveness we receive because of our position in Christ. This is the forgiveness spoken of in I John 2:12 (cf. Ephes. 1:7). The only condition for positional forgiveness is belief in Christ (Acts 10:43). The extent of this forgiveness is past, present, and future sins (Col. 2:13-14). It is permanent as the prefect tense suggests in 2:12 and is therefore unrepeatable. The second type of forgiveness is practical or fellowship forgiveness which was addressed in I John 1:6-2:2. The condition for this forgiveness is confession of sin (I John 1:9). The extent of this forgiveness is the confessed sin. It is temporary and needs to be repeated whenever the believer becomes aware of his unconfessed sin (Matt. 6:12, 14-15). It is important to understand that this practical forgiveness is based on our positional forgiveness.
Anderson illustrates: “When my oldest daughter started to drive, she took Driver’s Ed. She was a good student and did well, but on the day she got her license, she was quite nervous. That night she wanted to go to Young Life, and she borrowed our brand-new family car to do so. I was out that evening myself, so when I got home, I happened to notice that the left side of the car was smashed in, and the left rear-view mirror was missing. I walked into the house and didn’t say a thing. Because I have an eternal relationship with my daughter, she has advanced forgiveness for anything she might do to injure herself, me, or our family. We had insurance on the car, so it was no big deal, but I knew she was going to be feeling very badly.
“I just sat downstairs and turned on the TV, waiting for her to come to me. Well, an hour went by. She didn’t come. She knew I was home because she could hear the TV. But it wasn’t until her older brother called out, ‘Christie, Dad’s home. Don’t you have something to tell him?’ that she came down the stairs. It was hard for her to get up the courage to tell me. But she finally did so and started crying.
“I said, ‘Christie, don’t worry. You are not hurt, you didn’t hurt anyone, and the car can be fixed. But even if we didn’t have insurance on the car and you were hurt, I would forgive you. You’re my daughter. My love for you will last forever. Come here.’
“She came over and I gave her a big hug. Then I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we go out and practice some more.’ So, with me at her side, we went out driving.
“Christie was still somewhat shaken by her first mistake, so she made a second. She drove at thirty miles per hour right through a four-way stop. A policeman saw and stopped us. As he walked up to the car, he had his head cocked with a curious expression on his face. He said, ‘You just didn’t see it, did you, honey?’
“You see, most stop signs are run out of defiance (in which case the car is often accelerating) or with a ‘roll stop.’ But Christie just cruised right through at the accepted speed limit for the area. From this the policeman deduced that she had not seen the stop sign at all. He was merciful and only gave her a warning. Now her second mistake wasn’t as bad as the first, and she learned even another lesson. Slowly she developed her confidence as a driver and hasn’t had any more wrecks (to my knowledge) since then. She is now thirty-one years old.
“But in order for Christie to relax and become a better driver, she had to know that she was forgiven for her mistake. And not only the first big mistake, but she had to know that I wasn’t going to revoke my forgiveness for the first mistake when she made the second mistake. Because of our father/daughter relationship, because of her position in our family as my daughter, she already has advanced forgiveness for any mistake she may make in life. That’s what we call positional forgiveness, forgiveness because of our relationship. But in order to feel close to me, she needs forgiveness not only in her position, but also in her condition. That’s why she needed to tell me what she had done, and that’s why I reassured her of my love and forgiveness and gave her a big hug. It is very important to see that our fellowship is based on our relationship.
“My daughter and I have an eternal relationship. As such, she has advanced forgiveness for anything she might do to hurt me. This is relationship forgiveness. But when she does do something wrong, she needs to come to me and confess that wrong in order to be reassured of my love and forgiveness. This is fellowship forgiveness. The latter is based on the former. Any child needs the assurance of relationship forgiveness over and over!
“In the passage before us, John is reassuring his little children of God’s forgiveness because of their eternal relationship with Him. A knowledge and assurance of this forgiveness is absolutely essential for them to feel confident as they go into battle against the world and the devil. A good soldier cannot operate at his best with the fear that a mistake or two will take him off the front lines.” 12
The challenge for many Christians is they don’t believe they have positional forgiveness. Charles Stanley illustrates this with an experience from his seminary days:
“One of my most memorable seminary professors had a practical way of illustrating the concept of grace for his students. At the end of his evangelism course, he would hand out the exam with the caution to read it all the way through before beginning to answer it. This caution was written on the exam as well.
“As we read through the exam, it became unquestionably clear to each of us that we had not studied nearly enough. The further we read, the worse it became. About halfway through, audible groans could be heard throughout the lecture hall. By the time we were turning to the last page, we were all ready to turn the exam in blank. It was impossible to pass.
“On the last page, however, there was a note that read, ‘You have a choice. You can either complete the exam as given or sign your name at the bottom and in so doing receive an A for this assignment.’
“Wow! We sat there stunned. ‘Was he serious? Just sign it and get an A?’ Slowly, the point dawned on us, and one by one we turned in our tests and silently filed out of the room. It took the rest of the afternoon for me to get over it. I had the urge to go back and check with him one more time to make sure he was serious.
“When I talked with him about it afterward, he shared some of the reactions he had received through the years as he had given the same exam. There were always students who did not follow instructions and began to take the exam without reading it all the way through. Some of them would sweat it out for the entire two hours of class time before reaching the last page. Their ignorance caused them unnecessary anxiety.
“Then there were the ones who would read the first two pages, become angry, turn in their paper blank, and storm out of the room. They never realized what was available. As a result, they lost out totally.
“One fellow, however, topped them all. He read the entire test, including the note at the end, but he decided to take the exam anyway. He did not want any gifts; he wanted to earn his grade. And he did. He made a C+, which was amazing considering the difficulty of the test. But he could have easily had an A.
“This story vividly illustrates many people’s reaction to God’s solution to sin. Many are like the first group. They spend their lives trying to earn what they discover years later was freely offered to them the whole time. They spend years sweating it out, always wondering if God is listening to their pleas for forgiveness, always wondering if they have finally pushed Him too far. They hope God has forgiven them; they suppose He has. They do all they know to do to get forgiven. But insofar as God is concerned, they do not want to be presumptuous. So, they live their lives with doubts.
“Many people respond like the second group. They look at God’s standard—moral and ethical perfection—and throw their hands up in surrender. Why even try? they tell themselves. I could never live up to all that stuff. They live the way they please, not expecting anything from God when they die. Often, they decide there is no God. Their acknowledged inability to live up to His standard drives them to this conclusion. Instead of living under constant pressure and guilt, they choose to completely abandon the standard. What a shock it will be for them when they stand before God and understand for the first time what was available had they only asked!
“Then there is the guy who took the test anyway. I meet people like him all the time who are unwilling to simply receive God’s gift of forgiveness. Striking out to do it on their own, they strive to earn enough points with God to give them the right to look to their own goodness as a means of pardon and forgiveness. They constantly work at ‘evening the score’ with God through their good works. ‘Sure, I have my faults,’ they say. ‘But God does not expect anyone to be perfect.’
“When it comes to forgiveness, there is no room for boasting in one’s own ability. As we will see, forgiveness is not a team effort. It is not a matter of God’s doing His part and us doing ours. Unlike my professor’s test, in God’s economy anything less than 100 percent is failing.” 13
When Christians go into spiritual battle, our enemy, the devil, will accuse us of wrongdoing to get us to focus on our past. He wants to persuade us that our past sins cannot be forgiven. Satan knows that focusing on our past will make it difficult for us to face the enemy in front of us. This will also weaken us when we face the world with its various temptations.
John reminds us that we have been completely forgiven in Christ the moment we believed in Him (I John 2:12; cf. Acts 10:43; Ephes. 1:7; Col. 2:13-14). In Christ, God sees in us absolute holiness… purity… righteousness… and goodness. Everything He sees in Jesus Christ He now sees in us (Rom. 4:5; 8:33; Ephes. 1:4; Heb. 10:10-14). Our relationship with God is eternal and therefore can never be lost (John 6:35-40; 10:28-29; 17:3). This is the first unchanging weapon that all Christians possess going into battle.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, we praise You because we are Your little children whose sins are all completely forgiven forever the moment we believed in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. There is no other name given under heaven by which we could be saved and forgiven forever (Acts 4:10-12). Thank You for this assurance and security that gives us sure footing as we prepare to go into battle against the devil and his world system with its many temptations. Knowing we have an eternal relationship with You strengthens our resolve to stand firm against the schemes of the evil one. No matter what we face, You remain our heavenly Father and we Your children forever. Thank You for this blessed assurance! In the mighty name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
1. David R. Anderson, Maximum Joy: I John – Relationship or Fellowship? (Grace Theology Press, 2013 Kindle Edition), pg. 95.
4. Zane C. Hodges, The Bible Knowledge Commentary Epistles and Prophecy, Editors John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (David C. Cook, 2018 Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 3669 to 3673.
5. Ibid., Kindle Location 3673.
6. Anderson, pg. 96.
7. Zane C. Hodges; Robert Wilkin; J. Bond; Gary Derickson; Brad Doskocil; Dwight Hunt; Shawn Leach; The Grace New Testament Commentary: Revised Edition (Grace Evangelical Society, Kindle Edition, 2019), pg. 591.
8. Hodges, The Bible Knowledge Commentary Epistles and Prophecy, Kindle Location 3558.
9. Anderson, pg. 96.
10. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: Third Edition (BDAG) revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 Kindle Edition), pg. 156.
11. Anderson, pg. 96.
12. Ibid., pp. 97-98.
13. Ibid., pp. 98-100 cites Charles Stanley, The Gift of Forgiveness: Put the Past Behind You and Give… (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), pp. 43-45.