Preachers are like archers, aiming the arrows of God’s Word at various consciences at different distances. With the guidance of 1 John 2:12-14, this article considers three types of believers: the new convert, the young in the faith, and the fathers in the faith. The author notes how preaching can target these different types.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2008. 4 pages.

Targeting the 15-Yarder: The Growing Believer

In regular pulpit ministry, we address the assembled congregation which normally contains a mixture of saved and unsaved people. A primary target for our preaching, as Paul shows us in his epistles, should be the children of God, those true believers in our particu­lar flock of sheep who have made a genuine confession of faith (1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2). They, who are the future of the church, are looking to be fed, instructed, corrected, admonished, and challenged.

Ministers are a bit like the two spies, Joshua and Caleb, who went into the Promised Land to bring back a good report to the people of Israel. Figuratively speaking, we weekly search out the promises and riches of the Bible for God's people and bring back a good report the following Lord’s Day, showing them God's promises while feeding, instructing, correcting, admonishing, and challenging them with the Word.

Healthy, growing believers need to hear the whole counsel of God, which focuses on Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The minister must lead the flock into the green pastures of God's Word so that they grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. William Perkins says, “the heart of all preaching is to ‘preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ.’”1

We can learn much from the Puritans about preaching to the children of God. They were master instructors and comforters who led their sheep to Christ to drink deeply of the wells of salvation. J. I. Packer writes:

Puritan preaching revolved around ‘Christ, and him crucified’ — for this is the hub of the Bible. The preacher’s commission is to declare the whole counsel of God, but the cross is the center of that counsel, and the Puritans knew that the traveler through the Bible landscape misses his way as soon as he loses sight of the hill called Calvary.2

Perhaps you say, “All of this is obvious. Of course, we preach first and foremost to the people of God. But my question is: should I distinguish in my audience the children of God at various stages of growth, and minister at times to them at their particular stage of growth?”

Three Types of Believers🔗

Too many preachers today approach growing believers among their flocks as a solid, undifferentiated group, forgetting that, as John says in 1 John 2:12-14, some are only infants in grace, while some are young men in grace, and some are fathers in grace. Of course, a preacher cannot distinguish these subgroups in every sermon, but he can and should make appropriate appli­cations to various maturity levels among the children of God when the text or doctrine he is expounding warrants his doing so. It takes time and experience to develop a skill for this precise kind of target preaching.

To target believers among believers, the preacher must understand these subgroups and precisely which believers belong to these various maturity levels. Let us turn to John’s presentation in 1 John 2:12-14 for help this:

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.

By referring to each group twice, I believe John has three groups in mind. It is difficult to come to any other conclusion when you compare verse 12 with verse 13c, verse 13a with verse 14a, and verse 13b with verse 14b. Though the general context of the epistle indicates that the “little children” in verse 12 (ԏԑĸѵία, teknia usually refers to the entire church since John uses it several times that way in his first epistle (2:1, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21), the immediate context of our verses justifies three levels of experience. Moreover, the second word translated in verse 13 as “little children” is παɩδία (paidia, which definitely means young children. These, then, are the three groups:

  1. The young convert in the faith🔗

The young convert, whom John calls “little child,” is a recent convert or a child of the covenant recently awakened and newly arrived at personal faith in Christ. He is only newly aware that his sins have been forgiven, and he is begin­ning to appreciate what it means to have God as his Father. So John says in verse 12, “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake” and in verse 13, “I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.”

The minister should periodically describe clearly from the pulpit what a joy it is in the first days after conversion to cling to Christ the Savior and God as Father, to learn about God, to delight in Him, to depend on Him, to be embraced by Him, and to sing His name in praises and petitions before the throne of grace. The joy of for­giveness and a personal relationship with God are most precious to young converts.

But the minister should also provide wise counsel for the young convert. Although the new believer has experienced the goodness of the Father and wants to behave like an obedient child, he has had little experience in doing so. He has much love for God and a tender conscience for God, but he does not understand the warfare of daily sanctification, the intense battles of daily Chris­tian living, or the need continually to live out of Christ. It is the minister’s task to help the new believer grow in maturity by explaining how these matters have been experienced in the more spiritually mature. The minister should make clear that though the young believer’s simplicity and strength of faith as well as the brightness and joy of his initial experiences of grace and forgiveness are a gracious blessing for the church, he still has much to learn. He may yet depend too much on his feelings at a given moment; he may be lifted high in times of obedience and fresh communion with God, then plunge low in times of disobedience or feeling separation from the Father. He is both easily encouraged and easily dis­couraged.

The minister should teach the new convert from the Scripture how to walk by faith and not by sight, how to trust God in times of darkness, and how to surrender all to God in the midst of great trials. Since the young convert knows little about what is expected of him but is hungry and thirsty to know more, the minister has a wonderful opportunity to target him when preaching from Scripture’s histories of conversion or from some of Paul’s epistles, particularly his pastoral epistles to Timothy.

Then, too, as William Perkins has said, new believers must repeatedly be taught the basic doctrines of justifi­cation, adoption, and sanctification. They need continual teaching on the objective work of Christ — who He is and how they are pardoned through Him, what justification is, how it connects with sanctification, and how those benefits are worked out in the life of faith.

  1. Young men in the faith🔗

Between the new convert and the mature Christian is the young man in the faith, which, of course, by extension, implies young women in faith as well. A young man in his early twenties is partly mature and partly immature, but he is gaining experi­ence from the rigors of daily adult life. Similarly, these spiritually young men and women are being prepared for full Christian duty in the thick of the battle and in bearing the burden and heat of everyday troubles. They search the Scriptures with spiritual vigor and they are fervent in faith, mighty in prayer, intense in action, and bold in testimony. They are strong in Christ, endure by Christ, and resist attack through Christ. They represent the church’s first line of defense against attack in the midst of the strain of Christian living.

These men and women of faith are grateful that God has broken the reign of sin and Satan in their lives. Though they still stumble and fall into error, just as young men and women are apt to do in life, they have felt the thrill of spiritual victory. They have been made strong by grace through the Word, they earnestly contend for the faith, and they, at times, are able to overcome the wicked one. Such conflicts then become conquests.

Yet these young believers lack maturity. Their expe­rience is by no means complete. They struggle hard against ungodliness, but they need to persevere in grace. They have yet to learn that “old Satan may prove too much for young Melanchthon.” They often think too much of themselves and are unsettled by emotional highs and lows. Too often they are more impressed by what they have been doing and how they feel than by what God has been doing and how God feels. The minister must lovingly show them that they need to grow more in living for the glory of God, not themselves.

  1. Fathers in the faith🔗

Fathers or, by implied extension, mothers in the faith are spiritually mature and stable. They have come to know the eternal God in Christ in an intimate way. John stresses the fathers’ consciousness of the immutable, eternal God of grace by saying twice in verses 13 and 14 that he writes to fathers “because ye have known him that is from the beginning.”

Spiritually mature fathers and mothers focus on Christ. They have insights into the wonders of Christ’s glorious person and His distinctive offices. They see Him as the center of all Jehovah’s counsels, the image of the invisible God, and the One in whom all the promises of God are fulfilled (Eph. 3:11; 2 Cor. 1:21).

The experience of the spiritually mature in Christ is more complete than that of young men and women in Christ. Like Mnason in Acts 21:16, these fathers and mothers are seasoned disciples. Their knowledge is deeply rooted (Col. 1:23), influential, and stable (Phil. 1:9; Eph. 3:18). They are settled in the truth, prudent, sober, and self-controlled (Eph. 4:14; Titus 2:2). Faith and obedience are evident in their lives. They have a mature understanding of the ways of holiness and are equipped to practice it in the strength of Christ. They have experienced that the Lord Jesus Christ is an excellent master to serve. They have experienced how patiently God has borne with their ignorance, how gra­ciously He has pardoned their sins, and how faithfully He has supplied their needs. Christ’s goodness moves them to exercise love, obedience, and gratitude. They have reached, in some measure, what Paul calls “the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Through mature expository preaching, ministers can assist spiritual fathers and mothers in letting the Word of God continue to dwell richly in them. Ministers should encourage them to use their good spiritual sense, their experiential life in Christ, and their seasoned counsel to benefit the church of God. Paul said, “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers” (2 Cor. 4:15). So ministers should call upon the spiritually mature to guide patiently and lovingly the ignorant as well as children and young men and women in the faith, so that their winsome lives will move others to emulate their Christ-centeredness.

Ministers should admonish fathers and mothers in Christ not to grow lukewarm about the precious truths of the gospel, but rather to keep their conversation filled with rich talk of Christ in interacting with children and young men and women in the faith, as well as with the broken-hearted and the doubting. They should be encouraged to use their mature gifts to discern between form and power, hypocrisy and sincerity; to resist foolish ideas and enterprises that will not prosper the church; to help a congregation focus on the Triune God and His truth; and to maintain the purity of the gospel.

A Comparison of Believers🔗

The three types of believers John addresses can benefit greatly from specific targeting from the pulpit. All three groups are a blessing to the church: the children are the church’s reaching hand; the young men and women are the church’s strong arm; and the mature fathers and mothers are the church’s backbone. Children represent the church’s tender love; young men and women, the church’s strength; fathers and mothers, the church’s knowledge. Yet each group of believers has its weaknesses. Children in the faith are prone to make too much of what they feel, young men and women make too much of what they do, and fathers and mothers make too much of what they know. Believers in all three categories need the constant, daily ministry of the pastor and the Holy Spirit to remain unspotted from the world.

Distinct preaching to various groups among believers must never take priority over the most common form of preaching — namely, proclaiming God's Word to all believers at once. Even in the context of 1 John 2:12-14, John asks Christians of all levels of maturity to reflect on three major truths that apply to all Christians: (1) their sins are forgiven, (2) they know the Father and the Son, and (3) they have victory over sin and Satan in Christ. John emphasizes the foundations upon which believers’ lives have been established so that they might be encouraged to go forward and build upon these foundations.

A mature preacher often will find himself almost unconsciously moving from distinct applications to subgroups among believers to distinct applications to the entire group of believers. Here is a summarizing example:

Fathers and mothers, lay aside childish things. Young men and young women, be strong in Christ Jesus. Children, obey your Father who is in heaven. And, everyone, remember that God builds us up by the same means with which He saved us — His Word and His Spirit. Search the Word, depend on the Spirit, and look to Christ.

This kind of diversity, flowing from the heart of a seasoned pastor, is a great blessing for the sheep of God.3


  1. ^ William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 79.
  2. ^ J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 24.
  3. ^  Parts of this section are adapted from my The Epistles of John (Dar­lington: Evangelical Press, 2006), 78-87. For several of these ideas, I am indebted to Dr. Andrew Woolsey of Northern Ireland.

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