Teaching series from 1 John

Stages of Spiritual Development

1 John 2:14

Teaching t10383


Review setting and purpose—to expose and refute the false teachers’ view of spirituality, and to remind them of what authentic Christian spirituality looks like.

The false teachers may have taught that spirituality is like breaking the sound barrier: “Learn our secret knowledge and you’ll have a dramatic experience that will catapult you into complete knowledge of God.”

Over against this, John reminds them that real Christian spirituality takes place over time, and in with stages of spiritual development marked by key features—read 2:12-14. 

You can see that John refers to three different stages of development: childhood (“dear children”), young adulthood (“young men”), and mature adulthood (“fathers” or “parents”).

John is referring not to people of different chronological age, but to Christians in different stages of spiritual development—because he supplies spiritual characteristics to describe them.

Why the repetition?  This is a form of Hebrew parallelism (like the rest of the letter!) which both emphasizes John’s points and allows him to elaborate on those points.

Now let’s take a closer look at each of these stages of spiritual development to learn what characterizes them...


Read phrases.  This is the childhood stage.  Notice the two things that John says characterize this stage:

“Your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.”  That is, you have assurance that God forgives you completely—and that his forgiveness isn’t based on how well you perform for him or doing penance when you sin, but based on what Jesus did for you.  This is what “on account of his name” means—because of Jesus and his death (review 2:1,2).  It is this complete and permanent gift of forgiveness through Jesus that is the foundation of all healthy spiritual development, and it paves the way for the experience that John says marks this stage...

 “You have known the Father.”  That is, you have met God and are getting to know God—not formally as an abstract, distant Deity—but personally as your loving heavenly Father.  God’s Spirit comes into your heart and introduces you to God as “Abba.”  You experience his love in personal ways (personal prayer; sensing that you are secure in his love; seeing his loving activity through answered prayer, having his Word come alive; experiencing his correction/deliverance from obvious sins, etc.).

This is what characterizes this early stage of Christian spiritual development.  Of course, how you experience these things (specifics and intensity) varies from person to person. And of course this experience is not constant—there are ebbs and flows, and ups and downs. But John can describe this stage knowing that the young Christians can relate to what he is saying!

Can you relate to it?  If not, it may be because you haven’t begun a personal relationship with God.  Just like physical development, there must be birth before there can be growth.  You must begin a relationship with God, you must be born spiritually into his family in order to grow in your relationship with him.  And unlike physical birth, in which your decision plays no part, you can/must choose to be born spiritually by personally receiving Jesus (read and explain Jn.1:12).  Have you made this decision?  If not, why not do so today/right now...

But Christian spirituality doesn’t end here.  God builds on this foundation to lead you into the next stage of spiritual development...

“Young men”

Read phrases.  Spiritual childhood should develop into spiritual young adulthood.  And this does not mean breaking through to a state of permanent bliss and tranquility.  Rather, it is characterized by victorious struggle.  Not long after you meet God and experience his love and forgiveness, you will meet his enemy (Satan) who opposes now you because you belong to God (ME W/ BELIEF IN SUPERNATURAL EVIL).  This is not the place to elaborate on Satan—but you will have to fight against him on at least two different fronts:

He will try to keep you enslaved to sin.  Once the flush of God’s complete forgiveness dies down, you discover that although you have been forever delivered from sin’s penalty, there is still a battle to be fought to be delivered from its power.  Old sins that you thought were gone forever may return and tempt you with great intensity.  As God shows you how much more sinful you are than you thought (EXAMPLES), Satan will tempt you to fatalism and despair.  You will have struggle to believe that God is willing and able to gradually change you, and to continue to cooperate with the lessons he is teaching you.

He will oppose you as you share Christ with others.  This is the reason why God leaves you here on earth and changes you once you receive Christ.  He wants to work through you to invite others to receive Christ, and to help other Christians (especially younger Christians) to grow spiritually.  When you follow Jesus into this way of life, Satan will attack you to dissuade you from doing this.  He will unleash painful circumstances, he will incite people to lash out against you, he will personally oppress you, etc.  This painful struggle is not evidence that something is wrong—it is the sign that you are healthy and growing!

Where do you get the strength to be victorious in this struggle?  Not from will-power, or from secret mantras or rituals—but from abiding in God’s Word.  Satan is a deceiver, and all of his attacks involve deception—so the key to discerning his attacks and overcoming them is to make your home in the truth of God’s Word.  This involves two things—constant exposure to God’s Word through daily Bible reading, teaching, memorization and meditation, etc., and obeying God’s Word as he creates personal opportunities for you to do this (EXAMPLES).

As you continue to abide in God’s word and share him with others in spite of these attacks (and in spite of your failures), God will win victories in your character (transforming you to be more like Christ) and he will influence more people and people more deeply through you.  You will be overcoming the evil one in ways that glorify God!  And you will eventually develop into the next stage...


Read phrases.  On the surface, this sounds like the same thing that characterizes spiritual childhood—“You have known him.”  And on one level it is—because from first to last, the main goal is always to know God better and better.  That’s why spiritually mature Christians don’t outgrow their appreciation of God’s love and forgiveness, or of relating to God in prayer, etc.  Their appreciation of these things just continues to grow...

But on another level, there is something new and different about their knowledge of God.  John hints at this by stressing that they know God “who has been from the beginning.”  Spiritually mature Christians know by personal experience that God is unchanging and utterly faithful to his Word.  And so their lives have a stability (Col.1:11) and perseverance and hope (Rom.5:3-5) because they have passed through many tests of their faith and personally experienced how reliable God is.  Because they have built their lives on the rock of God’s Word, they have survived many storms and they have a quiet strength that is precious beyond words.

This kind of maturity is for all who know Christ!  No matter how damaged you have been, no matter how immature you are presently, no matter how distant spiritual adulthood may seem to you—God is willing and able to develop you into a spiritually mature adult as you simply keep in step with him...

This kind of spiritual maturity is not just for you and me to enjoy—although it brings great joy.  It is also for others.  This is one reason why John calls them “fathers”—they are spiritual parents to other younger Christians.  God will draw younger Christians to you so that you can inspire them and guide them into their own spiritual maturity.  And John says that this role brings an even greater joy (read 3John 1:4).  This brings me to the first of two concluding observations...

2 concluding observations

Notice that John’s development terms are not “novice, intermediate, and expert” (e.g., VIDEO GAME)—but “children, young men, and fathers.”  These are relational terms, family roles.  This is purposeful, because genuine spiritual development is essentially relational, and it therefore requires a relational context.  John implies here what the rest of the New Testament explicitly and repeatedly teaches—that deep and lasting spiritual development takes place in community.  (HOME GROUPS.)

Spiritual development is not automatic (like physical development).  In this regard, it is more like emotional and intellectual development, which requires our willing cooperation.  Our spiritual development can become arrested, and we can even regress spiritually (though we can never lose our salvation).  This is why John immediately follows with warnings about two dangers to our spiritual development—the world-system (NEXT FEW WEEKS) and counterfeit Christian teaching...