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I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have over come 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.—1 John ii. 13, 14.
OBSERVE in these words—
1. That there are three sorts of christians, ‘fathers,’ ‘young men,’ and ‘little children.’
2. Several things are ascribed to them, correspondent and proper to every age—
[1.] To fathers, that ‘they have known him that was from the beginning.’ The knowledge of ancient things which are past is best befitting old men.
[2.] That which he ascribeth to young men is, that they ‘are strong,’ that ‘the word of God abideth in them,’ that they ‘have over come the wicked one.’ Strength for war is fit for young men.
[3.] To babes and little children, ‘because you have known the Father.’ Little children acknowledge their parents are dear to them, hang about them, and cannot live without them.391
I shall now insist upon the first observation, the distinction of three sort of christians, ‘fathers,’ ‘young men,’ and ‘little children.’ The question is, whether this distinction respects the diversity of their natural age, or their different measures of growth in grace? Some apply it only to their natural age, others more properly understand it of their spiritual growth.
I shall give you the sense of these words in several propositions.
1. Though spiritual growth be most considerable here, yet natural age is not altogether to be excluded. God hath people of all sorts and sizes, some old, some in the prime and freshness of youth, others that are but newly got out of infancy and childhood. As it is hard to find out a calling wherein there are not some one or other that belong to God, so not an age wherein God hath not showed some remarkable instances of his grace. For fathers or old men, we read of Paul the aged, Philem. 9, and of Mnason an old disciple, Acts xxi. 16. Among young men we read of Josiah, 2 Chron. xxxiv. 3, ‘That in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet young, he began to seek after the God of David his father: and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and carved images, and molten images.’ He began to reign at eight years old, as soon as out of his minority. So of good Obadiah: 1 Kings xviii. 12, ‘But I thy servant fear God from my youth.’ In the rank of children we read of Samuel: 1 Sam. ii. 18, ‘And Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child;’ and of Timothy, ‘that from a child he had known the holy scriptures,’ 2 Tim iii. 15. Hosanna was not displeasing to Christ in little children, yea, it was defended by him: Mat. xxi. 15, 16, ‘And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, Hosanna to the Son of David, they were sore displeased, and said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus said unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?’ God instils a measure of grace into the hearts of little ones, and is delighted in their praise according to their measure of understanding suitable to their age. He that punished little children for crying Baldpate to his prophet, defendeth little children, and accepts it as an honour when they cried Hosanna to himself. Well, then, people of all ages should apply themselves to religion. Old men excuse themselves, they are too old to interest themselves in Christ; and children are not ripe, and young men are otherwise occupied; but fathers for age should be also fathers for knowledge and godliness. It is a great blessing and a crown of honour when the hoary head is ‘found in a way of righteousness,’ Prov. xvi. 31; when a man is grown old and greyheaded in Christ’s service, as Enoch lived three hundred and sixty-five years, and ‘walked with God,’ Gen. v. 22; a long age and well spent. On the contrary, how sad is it when men have spent many years unfruitfully, and are acquainted with all other things but God and their own souls, and have not as yet begun to live spiritually; when they have one foot in the grave, and are as good as dead already! As it is said of Abraham, Heb. xi. 12, ‘Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead.’ You never begin to live till you live in Christ. You have but told over so many summers and winters; 392all that time is lost that is spent in your unregeneracy. A man may be long at sea, and yet make but a short voyage, get but a little ground, though long tossed upon the waves. Oh, bethink yourselves before your hoary head go down to the grave in sorrow I Say not, as Nicodemus, ‘Shall a man re-enter into his mother’s womb, being old?’ This is a spiritual work that must pass upon you. God promiseth to pour out his Spirit upon old ones: Acts ii. 17, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’ Out of a ruinous heap of stones that is ready to drop in pieces, he can raise up to himself a temple for the holy Ghost to dwell in. Submit to this work before it be too late. Chimneys long foul, if they be not swept, are fired at length: ‘The sinner of a hundred years old shall be accursed;’ Isa. lvi. 20, ‘There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days; for the child shall die a hundred years old, but the sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed.’ It is a difficult place; but the meaning is, that God promiseth his people long life; and if they did attain to it, and employed it merely to fill up the measure of their sins, it should not be to them a blessing, but a curse; that is, he that lives unreclaimed and unreformed shall at length prove an accursed wretch.
2. For young men, it concerneth them to apply their hearts to godliness. There is an ignorant and profane conceit which possesseth many men’s minds, that it is not so necessary for young men to study the scriptures, or to trouble themselves much with thinking of heaven or the life to come, because they are young and lusty, and likely to live many years, and therefore think it more fit for them to follow the world, and mind the things of this life, and let old men alone to think of heaven and holiness. Our apostle was not of this mind: ‘I write unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you.’ And the scripture biddeth us to ‘remember our Creator in the days of our youth,’ Eccles. xii. 1. Our best and flowery years should be consecrated to God. And David would have the ‘young man cleanse his way,’ Ps. cxix. 9. The world thinketh, What have young folk to do with so serious a work? When old age hath snowed upon their heads, and the smart experience of more years in the world hath ripened them for so severe a discipline, then it is time to think of repentance, and cleansing the heart from sin, and providing for our last end and great account. No; God demandeth his right of the young man, that he should be seasoned betimes with grace. It is but reason that God, that gave all, should have our first and best; they glorify God most who begin with him soonest. The lusts of youth being boiling hot, need the correction of a more severe discipline. Youth are apt to be inclined to liberty and carnal pleasures, are led by the motions of the flesh, are headstrong in their passions; the devil layeth most snares for them, as those who are most prone to sin, who are like to serve him longest; and therefore, that they may not be caught in Satan’s snares, they should begin with God betimes. It prevents many sins which afterward will be a trouble to us. We think tricks of youth are long since forgotten and forgiven. Oh, but the guilt of them may flash in our faces, even after they are pardoned: Ps. xxv. 7, 393 ‘Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to thy mercy remember thou me, for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord;’ Job xiii. 26, ‘For thou writest bitter things against me, and makest me possess the iniquities of my youth.’ It will save us a great deal of trouble in age. A good man may remember old sins with new fears, that they are not pardoned. While it is easy to sin, it is not easy to believe the pardon of sin; but as a man groweth up into a greater sense and esteem of God’s holiness, he will find it more difficult to believe a pardon. Now afflictions may awaken the sense of old sins, as old bruises trouble us a long time after upon every change of weather.
3. For babes or little children; they being born in sin, must also be born again. Little children are baptized and washed, for they have filthiness to be cleansed away in the laver of regeneration, as heretofore they were circumcised: Deut. xxx. 6, ‘And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live;’ because there is filthiness to be pared away. And many times God shameth old men when little ones get the start of them. Christ inviteth little children to come to him that he might bless them, Mark x. 16. They cannot be brought to him before they are welcome. The great God, whom heaven and earth cannot contain, deigneth to dwell in the hearts of little ones. Surely they that have the education of children belonging to them should season them betimes with good principles; they find the benefit of it ever afterward. Timothy proved the better instrument because of his good education; the apostle telleth us, that his ‘faith dwelt first in his grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice,’ 2 Tim i. 5. Certainly it is much to have children brought up in knowledge, and an owning of the power of godliness. Families are societies to be sanctified to God, as well as churches. Governors of them have a charge of souls, as well as pastors. Many offer their children to God in baptism, but educate and bring them up for the world and the flesh; as the Jews: Ezek. xvi. 20, ‘Moreover, thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters, which thou hast borne unto me, and these hast thou sacrificed unto them.’ The scripture often inviteth us to a careful education of them; and there be many promises of good success: Prov. xxii. 6, ‘Train up a child in the way in which he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’ Dye the cloth in the wool, and not in the web, and the colour is the more durable. God worketh strangely in children, and many times rare things are found in them beyond expectation.
But now in regard of spiritual growth—
1. There is a great difference among christians; all are not of one stature, strength, and growth in godliness; as here, there are fathers, young men, and babes. He supposeth the more elderly will be fathers in Christ, and that every one hath profited according to his time and standing. So in the parable of the sower, Mat. xiii., some brought forth ‘fruit thirty, some sixty, and some an hundred-fold,’ Mat. xiii. 23. There is not only a difference between the good soil and the bad ground, but the bad1111 Qu. ‘good’?—ED. soil is not in all places alike fruitful. Every true christian that is fruitful doth not bring forth fruit in a like measure. So 394in the parable of the talents, there is five, two, and one, Mat. xxv. 21-23. He is owned as a good servant that brought an account of his gain proportionable to his receipt. So Christ, when he giveth Peter charge of his flock, John xxi. 15, 16, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.’ There are varieties of tempers and degrees of strength among christians. Some are weak, or lambs; some stronger, or sheep: Isa. xl. 11, ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom; and shall gently lead those that are with young.’ They all need a ministry to teach, whether lambs or sheep, whether fathers or children. So again, some are weak and some are strong: Rom. xiv. 1, ‘Him that is weak in the faith, receive you.’ Some need milk, and some stronger meat: Heb. v. 13, 14, ‘For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe; but strong meat belongeth unto them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.’ Well, then, you see there is great variety of christians, who differ, not only from the carnal and wicked, but among themselves, in several degrees of excellencies. God created Adam and Eve in their full perfection, but doth not regenerate us into our full stature in Christ.
2. It may fall out that the elder christians may be babes in Christ, and the younger christians rather fathers for their longer experience in the things of God, and for the better government of their passions. A young man may be an old disciple; as Josiah, Samuel, and King Edward the Sixth. The Spirit of God doth wonderfully discover itself in some betimes; as in Samuel, Jeremiah, and Timothy. Ignatius in his epistle to the Magnesians saith, There are some οἱ τὴν πολιὰν μάτην φέροντες, that they hang out the bush of grey hairs in vain, as inviting others to take notice of their folly: these are children of days, of grey heads but green wits; ancient of age, but of childish behaviour and disposition, Whereas David when young was wiser than his enemies, than his teachers, than the ancients: Ps. cxix. 100, ‘I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.’ Gracious abilities come not from age, but from the Spirit. He was ‘wiser than his enemies,’ because he consulted not with flesh and blood, but with the word of God, or his duty: as plain honesty will be found at length to be the best wisdom. He was ‘wiser than his teachers,’ because he contented not himself with naked doctrinal truths, but laboured with his conscience to make them profitable to himself, and so saw further by these truths into his own cause than they intended. Wiser than the ancients, or men of long study and experience, because of his diligent practice. Those who are slow and dull of conceit, by long use may grow wise; and having smarted often, learn by their own harms to be more circumspect. But now the Spirit of God can teach us in an instant, and a man well studied in God’s law may excel the ancients in true zeal, knowledge, and piety. Mortified young ones may have more of this wisdom than the ancients. Ancient men try several conclusions to their own loss; but God is more ancient than they, and at one view and prospect seeth all things; if he will direct me, I am safe. Joseph young, at seventeen years old, was wiser than his brethren. Naaman’s ‘servant came near, and spake to him, and said, 395My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldst thou not have done it? how much more then when he saith, Wash and be clean?’ 2 Kings v. 13. Christ at twelve years of age puzzled the doctors. Young Elihu brings milder words and better arguments in the dispute with Job than his aged friends, chap. xxxii. Solomon was very wise when young. Daniel and his fellows ten times more than all the astrologers and magicians, though children, Dan. i. 17-20. Joseph taught the senators of Egypt wisdom. It is God’s free grace and sovereignty, who giveth to every one as he pleaseth: Job xxxii. 7-9 ‘I said, Days should speak, and the multitude of years teach wisdom: but there is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding. Great men are not always wise, neither do the aged understand judgment.’ God will not be tied to age. Some drink in religion with their milk. Jeremiah was sanctified in the womb, Jer. i. 5. And many times youth goeth before the aged in ripeness of wisdom, and in solid and settled manners, though they are so much behind them in number of years. So there are old children.
3. As to spiritual growth, some may be weak and strong, young and old at the same time, in different respects, as we see by experience. Some are weak in knowledge, rude and unsettled in the faith, who yet have a good zeal toward God, and are temperate, just, and holy, and have a great command over their affections and passions. On the other side, some are of a good understanding, and they come behind in no gift, yet are subject to carnal passions and affections, and so are babes in that respect: 1 Cor. iii. 1-3, ‘And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able: for ye are yet carnal; for whereas there is among you strife and division, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?’ Our first parents, the upper part of their souls were well furnished, yet miscarried by appetite. Solomon, who had so great wisdom, had also his foolish lusts. Therefore, the apostle biddeth us add to knowledge temperance, 2 Peter i. 5. A great measure of grace is seen in governing our own hearts. Now a christian should labour for both, for a good heart well-headed, and a head well-hearted. Of the two it is better to excel in graces than in parts. In the primitive times there was a distinction of the ψυχικὸι and πνευματικὸι; the ψυχικὸι, such as had rare perfections of learning and parts, and πνευματικὸι, spiritual. Sometimes these terms were applied to those who had attained to a higher degree of knowledge and sanctification: Gal. vi. 1, ‘If a man be overtaken with a fault, ye that are spiritual restore him.’ ‘Spiritual’ is put for a higher sort of christians. A spiritual people is not a people of parts, knowledge, and abilities, but of grace and sanctification.
4. There is a wonderful difference between christians and themselves at sundry times; so that these three degrees may be coincident. The gravest father may be as weak as the youngest child, as violently tempted as the young man. The state of a godly man is not always one and the same; sometimes they are carried into the mount to behold Christ in his glory, at another time tossed with waves and tempests, as a ship ready to sink; now rapt up with Paul into the paradise of 396God, to see things which cannot be uttered, and anon they are afflicted with a messenger of Satan. Alterations and changes, calms and storms, peace and troubles, combats and conquests, weaknesses and strength, are there found in God’s children; therefore the best are to walk humbly, and in a holy fear and trembling. Satan’s design is against the spiritual christian, and those who are more eminent than others, to throw them into the mire, that religion may have the greater wound and dishonour. Thus did Satan desire to winnow Christ’s own disciples: Luke xxii. 31, ‘And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.’ And the apostle biddeth the spiritual, which sometimes signifies a higher sort of christians, to ‘take heed lest they also be tempted,’ Gal. vi. 1; and those that stand, to ‘take heed lest they fall,’ 1 Cor. x. 12. It is woful when a christian of great parts and grace begins to have any confidence in himself, and falls, as Peter did. In violent gusts of wind, even cedars may fall to the ground. Therefore, as we grow in grace, we should increase in humility and godly fear.
5. All this doth not hinder but that some from their settled constant frame may be called ‘fathers,’ ‘young men,’ and ‘babes.’
[1.] Fathers are such who, through long experience and much acquaintance with a godly life, do walk more evenly, and constantly, and cheerfully, and fruitfully in the ways of God than others do. la old men more constancy may be expected, or a more even and an uninterrupted course of godliness, because they are more acquainted with the snares of Satan to prevent them, more weaned from the baits of sense, and so sin hath not such a power over them; walk more cheerfully in their service to God: 1 John i. 3, 4, ‘That which we have heard and seen, declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. These things I write unto you, that your joy may be full;’ Mat. xi. 30, ‘For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light;’ as knowing not only the toil, but the pleasure of obedience. Being inured to a course of godliness, it is as another nature to them; the difficulty is worn off. It is said, Ps. xcii. 14, ‘They shall bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing.’ Their last works are their best works, because their salvation is nearer than when they first believed. In short, they have brought their hearts to a heavenly temper, and accustomed themselves to a heavenly course, and do delight in obedience as their perfect liberty. These, though not grown up into a perfect man in Christ Jesus, or come to their complete growth, yet have made a great advance in heaven’s way.
[2.] Young men in Christ are such as have most courage, resolution, and earnestness, yet not that experience which Christ’s old servants have gotten; a middle sort of christians, not so settled as the aged, nor yet altogether so weak and infirm as babes. They are more exercised with temptations, and a life of conflicts, as having many rebellious passions and inordinate desires to subdue, which being irritated by the suggestions of Satan and the baits of sense, do put them to no small trouble; that they may not dishonour religion, and put a damp upon their hopes, and obstruct their own progress to heavenly glory.397
[3.] There are babes or little children, and they are of two sorts—
(1.) Some are as it were in the birth, inter regenerandum; it is a doubtful question whether they are regenerated, yea or no; have the grace of the third or fourth ground. Of such the apostle speaketh, Gal. iv. 19, ‘My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you.’ They are such whose evidences of regeneration lie under ground, and much in the dark; so that as to outward appearance there is little of the life of God to be seen in them. Their apprehensions of the love of God are very uncertain; the beauty of the image of Christ is hardly discernible in them. They have good inclinations, will not turn off from the holy ways of God, but keep waiting upon them until grace be impressed upon them in a fairer character. They prize the favour of God, and nothing can satisfy them without it, though as yet they have no persuasions of it. They have a sense of religion, though it cannot stand up in such considerable strength against temptations.
(2.) There are others who hang upon the breast, as infants that are new-born, can hardly live between one ordinance and another: 1 Peter ii. 2, ‘As now-born babes desire the sincere milk of the word, that they may grow thereby.’ They cry after their Father, though with a lisping and stammering tongue. They take pleasure in the tenders of grace, and cannot live without renewed applications of the sensible comforts of God’s presence; must be dandled on the knees, cannot digest the frowns of a father, and are not yet hardened for conflicts and the stricter severities of religion.
Use 1. If there be ‘fathers,’ ‘young men,’ and ‘children,’ then—
1. Let us ‘not despise the day of small things,’ Zech. iv. 10; not in ourselves, nor others. Not in ourselves; let us not conclude a nullity of grace, though we be in the lowest form of christians. There is the highest measure, and that is heroical grace; and there are some in the middle rank, some that are yet conflicting with great temptations; some in the lowest, weak, and unsettled rank, and yet would not quite turn from God for all the world. It is ground that bringeth forth thirty or sixty, but not a hundred-fold. Lambs belong to Christ as well as elder sheep; babes as well as young men and fathers. The ear of corn that hath thirty grains is carried into the barn as well as that which hath sixty; and in the family of God there are little children as well as grown persons. He is a good servant that had but two talents, and gained but two. Christ rebuketh those who kept little children from him; much more will he receive spiritual babes. Strait necked vessels are long in filling, yet if we be but filled, it is our comfort. Christ would not have us break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, Mat. xii. 20.
2. Let us not despise the meanest degree of grace in others. Time was when every one was a babe in Christ, and time may be when those who are but babes may grow old men: Mat. xx. 16, ‘So the last shall be first, and the first last.’ If we be higher, let us bless God: 1 Cor. iv. 7, ‘Who maketh thee to differ?’ not only from the carnal, but from those who begin to have a sense of religion, and have some sincerity, though not that perfection as others have. The apostles often persuade the strong to be charitable and indulgent to those who are weak, 398and not to despise and contemn them: Rom. xiv. 1, ‘Him that is weak in the faith, receive you.’ He biddeth them to take the weak into his bosom with much pity and compassion. So his rule of peace: Phil. iii. 15, 16, ‘Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall even reveal this unto you. Nevertheless whereunto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.’ Though strings in tune must not be brought down to those out of tune, and the weak must not guide the strong, yet we must bear with their weaknesses, even with their affectation of pre-eminence, and not crush them and suppress them. How patient and condescending was Christ to the disciples, notwithstanding their dulness and corruptions!
Use 2. Let us consider in what rank we are, that we may wisely apply ourselves to the duties proper to our condition. Usually that which old men want is fervour; that which young men want, if they know their hearts, is sincerity: the one must beg quickening grace, as David doth often in Ps. cxix. That which the other should most labour after is a sincere love to God and holy things. There may be a strong love where there is not a sincere love; a moral sincerity not to dissemble, but not a supernatural sincerity, when their love is a pure flame, not enkindled nor fed with anything but fire from heaven. Many have zeal, but they know not what spirit they are of. Old professors are more heavenly, young men more active in present duties. Now it is good that one age should borrow of another; that young men should consider their end, and old men be doing for God while they have any opportunity. The old are more prudent, the young more zealous. Our zeal should be seasoned with prudence, and our prudence quickened by zeal.
Use 3. To awaken us to labour after the highest rank of grace; it is the aim and purpose of every believer to be in the highest form. Luke speaketh only of a hundred-fold, Luke xviii. 31, to show that we should not content ourselves with less. God is the more honoured the more fruitful we are: Phil. i. 9, ‘And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in all knowledge, and in all judgment or sense;’ John xv. 8, ‘Herein is my Father glorified, if ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. The more perfect, the more like God: for we are required to be holy as he is holy, and to be perfect as he is perfect, Mat. v. 48. Therefore, as we must not always be babes, so not always young men. When men have lived long, and have time and other means to improve themselves both in knowledge and grace, they are very culpable before God: Heb. v. 13, ‘For every one that useth milk, is unskilful in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.’ They had teaching enough, and yet are babes in grace: John xiv. 9, ‘Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long with you, and hast thou not known me, Philip?’ Oh, do not keep in low things! To be always weak and always carnal doth highly provoke God.
Again, look after growth and strength according to your means: Mat. viii. 10, ‘Christ marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel;’ Mark vi. 6, ‘And he marvelled at their unbelief.’ God proportioneth our trials, not according to what we have de facto, but de jure, according to what we 399might have been. They that have great means, and long experience, and much acquaintance with God, have great temptations.
Lastly, How sad will it be for aged christians to be infants in grace! 2 Chron. xvii. 3, ‘And the Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the first ways of his father David.’ That there should be spots and blemishes in those who are stars of the first magnitude, how sad is this!
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