John uses four designations in this passage which can be a point of contention among Bible commentators. The matter is worth considering before we go any further. He refers to his readers as little children, that is, teknion, fathers, young men, and children, that is, paidion (1Jn 2:12-13). You’ll notice the first reference to children is different than the second.
As other authors of the New Testament do, John acknowledges the various stages of a believer’s spiritual growth. We all begin as immature children—”Infants in Christ,” Paul calls us (1Co 3:1)—before growing up to mature manhood (Eph 4:13). While we will always be the teknion or little children of God, our sanctification slowly but surely turns paidion or children into young men and, God willing, spiritually-mature fathers in the faith (1Jn 2:12-13). If we’re not growing, there’s cause for concern.
You can sense the frustration in the writer of Hebrews as he says to his readers:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)
There is no shame in being a new convert who still needs to be fed … with milk, not solid food as long as you crave pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation (1Co 3:2; 1Pe 2:2). We have to start somewhere, but we shouldn’t stay where we start forever. As Paul writes:
Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it to the goal. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way. (Philippians 3:13-15)
The Christian disciple should be able to examine his past and see progress year after year. His desire to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent should increase in fervency (Jn 17:3). His thinking and behavior should be conformed to the image of God’s Son more and more as time passes (Ro 8:29). His love for his brothers and sisters in Christ should grow as well (1Jn 3:14). If not, he has every reason to ask himself why.
Charles Spurgeon once preached:
The Christian life is very much like climbing a hill of ice. You cannot slide up. You have to cut every step with an ice axe. Only with incessant labor in cutting and chipping can you make any progress. If you want to know how to backslide, leave off going forward. Cease going upward and you will go downward of necessity. You can never stand still.
To phrase it another way, if we aren’t growing, we’re probably dying. If our maturity stalls, either our initial conversion was in vain or perhaps we’ve abandoned the love for Christ, his word, and his people we had at first (Rev 2:4). Regardless, we need to remember … from where we have fallen and repent (Rev 2:5). As Spurgeon so eloquently stated, we’re either climbing or falling. You can’t stand still on a hill of ice.
John knows the spiritual diversity of his audience and offers a reassuring word to four general groups, though some Bible commentators think he addresses only three. First, he writes to little children, a term he uses often in this epistle in reference to everyone (1Jn 2:12). Second, he writes to fathers, the spiritually mature among them (1Jn 2:13). Third, he writes to young men, those somewhere between infancy and full maturity. Finally, he writes to children, not be confused with the broader title, little children.
Whether we conclude John mentions three or four distinct groups in this passage is hardly relevant to his message. At some point or another, every last Christian can identify with every last statement he makes.