I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake. (2:12)
John knew that the people to whom he was writing were believers and that their sins had been forgiven. In this verse, and in the verses that follow, the apostle said “I am writing to you” or “I have written to you” six times, in order to emphatically state that his message was limited to his readers, the ones who truly were part of God’s family.
The word translated little children (teknia) means “born ones,” speaking of offspring in a general sense without regard for age. It is commonly used in the New Testament to describe believers as the children of God (John 13:33; 1 John 2:1, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21; cf. Gal. 4:19, 28). By using this term, the apostle was addressing all who were true offspring of God, at any level of spiritual maturity. His focus was on all who mourned over their sinful condition (Matt. 5:4), trusted Jesus Christ as their only Lord and Savior (Acts 16:31), had their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), lived in obedience to God’s Word (Rom. 6:17), and showed sincere love for one another (1 Peter 1:22).
Only two spiritual families exist from God’s perspective: children of God and children of Satan (cf. John 8:39–44). God’s children do not love Satan’s family or give their allegiance to the world he controls (cf. 1 John 2:15). Instead, they grow (though not all at the same rate or with equal consistency) in their love for the Lord, a love that will manifest itself in heartfelt obedience and service (cf. John 14:15).
The New Testament plainly states that all believers, no matter where they are on the spiritual growth continuum, have been forgiven of all their sins (1:7; Matt. 26:28; Luke 1:77; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 26:18; Col. 1:14; 2:13–14). In fact, this truth is foundational to the evangelistic mission of the church. Jesus told His apostles “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Luke 24:47). Peter declared to Cornelius and his companions, “Of Him [Christ] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43; cf. 13:38–39). Paul attested: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7; cf. 4:32; 1 John 1:7; 3:5). Of course, this great reality of the forgiveness of sins was not new in the New Testament, but was firmly rooted in Old Testament teaching (cf. Pss. 32:1–2; 86:5; 103:12; 130:3–4; Isa. 1:18–19; 43:25; 44:22).
John concluded this sentence with the reminder that God grants forgiveness to believers, not because of their own worthiness or merit, but for His name’s sake. That expression refers to God’s glory (cf. Deut. 28:58; Neh. 9:5; Ps. 8:1; Isa. 42:8; 48:11), which is the overarching reason for everything He does (cf. Pss. 19:1; 25:11; 57:5; 79:8–9; 93:1; 104:31; 106:7–8; 109:21; 111:3; 113:4; 145:5, 12; Isa. 6:3; 48:9; Jer. 14:7–9; Hab. 2:14; Rom. 1:5). God forgives sinners because it pleases Him to glorify His name by manifesting His superabundant grace, mercy, and power. As those who have been given the gift of forgiveness, believers will forever praise and magnify God (cf. 2 Cor. 4:15; Rev. 5:11–13). Still, while on earth, they are at different stages of growth, with distinguishing characteristics.
12. Little children. This is still a general declaration, for he does not address those only of a tender age, but by little children he means men of all ages, as in the first verse, and also hereafter. I say this, because interpreters have incorrectly applied the term to children. But John, when he speaks of children, calls them παιδία, a word expressive of age; but here, as a spiritual father, he calls the old as well as the young, τεκνία. He will, indeed, presently address special words to different ages; yet they are mistaken who think that he begins to do so here. But, on the contaray, lest the preceding exhortation should obscure the free remission of sins, he again inculcates the doctrine which peculiarly belongs to faith, in order that the foundation may with certainty be always retained, that salvation is laid up for us in Christ alone.
Holiness of life ought indeed to be urged, the fear of God ought to be carefully enjoined, men ought to be sharply goaded to repentance, newness of life, together with its fruits, ought to be commended; but still we ought ever to take heed, lest the doctrine of faith be smothered,—that doctrine which teaches that Christ is the only author of salvation and of all blessings; on the contrary, such moderation ought to be presented, that faith may ever retain its own primacy. This is the rule prescribed to us by John: having faithfully spoken of good works, lest he should seem to give them more importance than he ought to have done, he carefully calls us back to contemplate the grace of Christ.
Your sins are forgiven you. Without this assurance, religion would not be otherwise than fading and shadowy; nay, they who pass by the free remission of sins, and dwell on other things, build without a foundation. John in the meantime intimates, that nothing is more suitable to stimulate men to fear God than when they are rightly taught what blessing Christ has brought to them, as Paul does, when he beseeches by the bowels of God’s mercies. (Phil. 2:1.)
It hence appears how wicked is the calumny of the Papists, who pretend that the desire of doing what is right is frozen, when that is extolled which alone renders us obedient children to God. For the Apostle takes this as the ground of his exhortation, that we know that God is so benevolent to us as not to impute to us our sins.
For his name’s sake. The material cause is mentioned, lest we should seek other means to reconcile us to God. For it would not be sufficient to know that God forgives us our sins, except we came directly to Christ, and to that price which he paid on the cross for us. And this ought the more to be observed, because we see that by the craft of Satan, and by the wicked fictions of men, this way is obstructed; for foolish men attempt to pacify God by various satisfactions, and devise innumerable kinds of expiations for the purpose of redeeming themselves. For as many means of deserving pardon we intrude on God, by so many obstacles are we prevented from approaching him. Hence John, not satisfied with stating simply the doctrine, that God remits to us our sins, expressly adds, that he is propitious to us from a regard to Christ, in order that he might exclude all other reasons. We also, that we may enjoy this blessing, must pass by and forget all other names, and rely only on the name of Christ.
12 The first of John’s five slogans/sayings, addressed to his “children,” recalls the theme of 1:9–2:2: “your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.” Because this is clearly a comment on the salvific work of Jesus, and because it refers to Jesus in the third person, John is most likely citing a community slogan rather than a saying of Jesus (some have suggested this slogan is cited from an ancient baptismal formula; so Brown, 302–3, 320–21; Culpepper, 35; Rensberger, 71–72).
While 1-2-3 John and the fourth gospel have surprisingly little to say about forgiveness (cf. Jn 20:23; 1 Jn 1:9–2:2), the “name” of Jesus is an important point of Johannine thought. Jesus’ “name” represents his divine identity and power, so that “belief in his name” means acceptance of John’s claim that Jesus came from God (Jn 1:12; 3:18; 1 Jn 3:23; 5:13). Those who act in Jesus’ name enjoy various benefits, including the expectation that the Father will answer their prayers (Jn 16:23–26), the hope of eternal life (Jn 20:31), and (here at 1 Jn 2:12) forgiveness of sins. Marshall, 139, notes that John may be reminding his readers of the forgiveness they received when they first accepted the name of Jesus at conversion. The perfect tense of aphiēmi (GK 918; NIV, “your sins have been forgiven”) focuses on the continuing effect of a past event (Johnson, 49). The experience of forgiveness should motivate them to remain faithful.
12 John, then, addresses his readers as children, just as he does elsewhere in the Epistle, to express their need of instruction and their state of dependence upon God and upon teachers such as himself. They are people whose sins have been forgiven; they have fulfilled the condition laid down in 1:9, and as a result of their confession of their sin, they know the joy of forgiveness. Forgiveness, however, does not depend on human confession in the sense that this secures favor and pardon from God; it is granted “on account of his name,” a phrase which directs our minds back to what John has said about the blood of Jesus and his role as advocate and offering for sin (1:7; 2:1f.), and which also leads forward to the need for belief in his name (3:23; 5:13). The act of forgiveness is expressed by a perfect tense; John is thinking of the conversion of his readers, whereas in 1:9 his thought was more of the continual forgiveness for which the Christian daily prays. If John is thinking here of new converts, the appropriateness of this statement is manifest. The experience of forgiveness is the center of the Christian experience of conversion. “No man can properly rank as a Christian, in the sense of the New Testament, who has not received the forgiveness of sins, or who is not conscious that through its impartation something has happened of decisive moment for his relation to God,” wrote H. R. Mackintosh.22 In a day when many find the essence of Christianity elsewhere John’s “recall to fundamentals” deserves attention.
2:12 / The decisive fact which the Elder here wants to underscore for his readers is that their sins have been forgiven. The past has been taken care of; they have been cleansed. Forgiven is in the perfect tense, implying an act begun at a specific point in the past (conversion) and whose effects continue on into the present (they stand forgiven). This forgiveness is renewed on a daily basis by confession (1:9).
Forgiveness is based on his name. It is on account of his name that the community enjoys its victory over sin. In 1:7 and 2:1–2 the writer states the christological foundation of forgiveness: “the blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” and “Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, … is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The name of Jesus is also the object of the believer’s faith in 3:23 and 5:13. It is by faith in his name (who he is and what he has done) that we are forgiven and have eternal life.
little children—Greek, “little sons,” or “dear sons and daughters”; not the same Greek as in 1 Jn 2:13, “little children,” “infants” (in age and standing). He calls all to whom he writes, “little sons” (1 Jn 2:1, Greek; 1 Jn 2:28; 3:18; 4:4; 5:21); but only in 1 Jn 2:13, 18 he uses the term “little children,” or “infants.” Our Lord, whose Spirit John so deeply drank into, used to His disciples (Jn 13:33) the term “little sons,” or dear sons and daughters; but in Jn 21:5, “little children.” It is an undesigned coincidence with the Epistle here, that in John’s Gospel somewhat similarly the classification, “lambs, sheep, sheep,” occurs.
are forgiven—“have been, and are forgiven you”: all God’s sons and daughters alike enjoy this privilege.
Ver. 12.—I am writing to you, little children (see on ver. 1), because, etc. Beyond resonable doubt, ὅτι is “because,” not “that,” in vers. 12–14; it gives the reason for his writing, not the substance of what he has to say (cf. ver. 21). For his Name’s sake must refer to Christ, not only because of the context, but also of the instrumental διά (cf. ch. 3:23; 5:13; John 1:12); and Christ’s Name means his character, especially as Saviour. Because they have already partaken of the ἱλασμός (ver. 2), and have had their sins washed away in the blood of Christ (ch. 1:7), therefore he writes to them this Epistle. Note the perfects throughout, indicating the permanent result of past action: ἀφέωνται, ἐγνώκατε, νενικήκατε.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 72–73). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (pp. 181–183). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 444). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Epistles of John (pp. 138–139). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Johnson, T. F. (2011). 1, 2, and 3 John (p. 49). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 528). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). 1 John (p. 23). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.