Remember, we are in the middle of a series of vignettes or short scenes from the last period of the Lord’s public ministry – a few scenes chosen from no doubt hundreds of possibilities – scenes that Peter and Mark chose to illustrate the nature, the implications, and the seriousness of Christian discipleship. They teach us what it means to follow Jesus. Last Lord’s Day we considered the implications of loyalty to Jesus for Christian husbands and wives. Now we turn to Christian parents. That we are still talking about discipleship and what it means is made clear in v. 15 where the Lord uses the children to make a point about a general principle governing the kingdom of God.
Note the unaffected, straightforward way in which, in v. 14, the Lord Jesus identifies himself with the kingdom of God. Coming to him and coming to the kingdom of God amount to the same thing!
The term for little children used in v. 14, the Greek paidia, refers to very young children or, as Luke has it in the parallel text, to babies. In any case, they are small enough to sit on Jesus’ lap. The importance of this is that it is not some supposed virtue of little children – innocence or purity or humility – that accounts for their place in the kingdom of God, as has often been suggested, but their helplessness and their lowly position. They occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder in those days. What makes them fit subjects for the kingdom of God is not some virtue in them but precisely their need. They bring nothing; they need everything. And the Lord extends the point to embrace every Christian. We bring nothing to God but the sin and guilt from which we need to be redeemed. Followers of Jesus Christ are those who know that they have been saved by grace and grace alone and the proof of that is that the kingdom belongs to helpless babies. The Lord had made a point of saying in 9:37 that those who welcome little children in his name welcome him, but the disciples had obviously already forgotten that admonition. Here “kingdom of God” is virtually equivalent to eternal life, as the “enter it” of v. 15 indicates. Cf. the same word in the contrast between entering heaven and entering hell in 9:47. To enter the kingdom is the opposite of entering hell.
Now, as many Baptists have pointed out, there is no water in this passage. And it is true there is no specific mention of the baptism of infants here. Nor would a paedobaptist, an advocate of infant baptism, claim that the practice rests on this text. There are many other lines of biblical evidence more specific and direct. But it is certainly the case that infant baptism rests on the very premise that is here directly asserted by the Lord Jesus himself: the kingdom of heaven belongs to the babies of those who believe in Jesus, such as these parents who were seeking a blessing from him upon their children. That is what baptism signifies and seals: the membership of a person in the kingdom of God. What is more, the verb translated hinder in v. 14 is found in a number of baptism texts in the rest of the NT suggesting that this text influenced the way the early church thought about baptism. The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:36, for example, asked Philip what would hinder him from being baptized. Peter, in Cornelius’ house in Acts 10:47, asked whether anyone could hinder these new Gentile believers from being baptized. Peter had heard Jesus say “hinder” in such a setting and used the same word himself.
Now it is a happy providence that we come upon this text on a Sunday morning in which in both services we have scheduled the sacrament of baptism, and the baptism of little children in particular. There is to be sure one sense in which that does not really matter because the text is not about baptism per se and not even first and foremost about the little children of Christian parents. As the Lord indicates in v. 15, the text concerns instead the disciples’ failure to grasp the Lord’s viewpoint and, especially, their failure to understand what constitutes any person’s claim on the attention of the Lord. But what the disciples misunderstood was precisely the place of little children in the Kingdom of God. That was their error of thought and it became an error of life. They were hindering the welcome of these children.
The fact is the Lord made this point by making a statement about children that was the direct contradiction of the disciples’ prejudice and then goes on to say that children are to be welcomed not simply as an illustration of how things are in the kingdom of God but precisely because they belong to the kingdom of God. The lesson the Lord draws for every Christian is only significant if the theology of children the Lord articulates here is both true and important. And Jesus says that this is the truth about the children of the church and his irritation with his disciples’ and with their view of these children as a bother and an interruption indicates the importance he attaches to the point.
You are aware, perhaps, that the Bible’s teaching concerning the children of believing parents – that is, the sort of parents who would want Jesus to touch and bless their children – has been a special interest of mine. It was an interest of my father’s and I inherited it.
In the late 1940s he was the pastor of the College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. That church then prided itself on its openness regarding the baptism question. If you wanted your child dedicated, the minister would provide dedication. If you wanted your child baptized, the minister would baptize him or her. My father’s comfort with this was due in large part to the fact that, while born and raised a Presbyterian, he had not received very careful grounding in Presbyterian theology, even in a Presbyterian seminary, and during his graduate work had studied in a school much more open to Baptistic views than to Presbyterian ones. One Sunday morning, after such a service in which the church’s ambivalence toward the baptism of little children was on display, my father was greeting worshippers at the front door as he always did and one woman who shook his hand tartly offered the comment, “You don’t have much in the way of convictions do you.” It was that remark that led him to reinvestigate the question and eventually led to his little book defending infant baptism that has proved a help to many people through the years.
As I said I inherited an interest in the question from my father and have developed it through the years. I published an article on the general subject of covenant children and their place in the economy of God’s grace some years ago and over the past two or three years have contributed chapters to three different books dealing with the question in one way or another. I chaired the PCA’s study committee on covenant children and the Lord’s Supper – the practice that is called paedocommunion – some years ago and wrote the minority report of that committee.
And, like it or not, the various questions that swirl around the Lord’s statement that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such children are and remain controversial. I get emails from people all over the country who are embroiled in one controversy or another touching their understanding of the church’s children – what the Bible teaches about them and what is to be done as a result – (I got one this past week) and nothing suggests that the controversy is at all likely to die down any time soon. One might have thought that in a church where we not only practice infant baptism but trumpet that practice as a characteristic and supremely important feature of our theological position, we would all be of one mind about the church’s children, but we are not. The Presbyterian Church in America is a church whose roots are primarily in the old Southern Presbyterian Church and that church had a decidedly different view of covenant children, the church’s children, than did the old Northern Presbyterian Church and, for that matter, a different view than that entertained in Reformed theology generally throughout its history. John Calvin did not have the same view of the church’s children as did, for example, the great 19th century southern Presbyterian theologians, John Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney.
A simple way of describing the difference and of the very important and practical implications of the difference – though I admit this is a generalization that does not apply in every case – is to say that many in our church take the view that the children of Christians are to be viewed as unbelievers until they prove the contrary while many others hold that the children of Christians are to be considered believers until they prove the contrary. That is, in the one case infant baptism introduces the child into the church sort of, but we await that child’s real entrance into the church when he or she has grown to an age and is able to confess his or her own faith in Jesus Christ. In the other case, infant baptism introduces the child into the membership of the church and he or she is as much a member as someone who enters the church by profession of faith in Jesus as an adult. As the child grows we expect his or her faith to grow. We don’t expect him to become a Christian because he already is. In the first case the child is an object of the family’s and the church’s evangelism; in the other case, the child, as a Christian, is the object of the family’s and the church’s nurture and discipleship. In the one case the child, no matter his or her baptism, is still out, needing to get in. In the other case the child like any Christian is in and is more and more to learn to think and feel and act as the Christian he or she already is.
You will not be surprised to hear me say that I am quite sure the Bible’s own teaching expressly and emphatically teaches that the children of Christians are to be regarded as Christians and that they are to be nurtured as Christians and not evangelized as if they were not yet Christians. There is too much to say in demonstration of this, but let me at least mention some of the lines of evidence.
- There is first the negative evidence. Find me a verse if you can, from Genesis to Revelation, in which Christians are commanded, urged, or encouraged to evangelize their children or are shown evangelizing them. It is not the way the Bible teaches the duty of parenthood anywhere. A friend, a Reformed scholar of some note, has written a little booklet entitled How to Evangelize Covenant Children, but there is no text in the entire Bible that teaches us to think of our duty as Christian parents in those terms. You do not treat believers and unbelievers the same way and the Bible never treats the church’s children as unbelievers until and unless they prove that they are. We might mention here the simple fact, more important than I think is usually recognized, that never in the Bible do covenant children “join the church,” as adolescents or young adults, as if they had not fully belonged to it before. They didn’t in the OT and they don’t in the New. Our practice of two-tiered church membership, longstanding as it is, it must be admitted is a tradition only. It is founded on no teaching of Holy Scripture, no precept and no example. That seems to me to be a pretty important negative argument.
- But let’s accent the positive. If there are not verses to be found that teach us to evangelize our children, there are a host of verses that teach us to disciple them, to raise them in and for the Lord, to teach them to love God as their father and Christ as their Savior and to instill in them a love of God’s law. Most Christian parents who deny this when standing on their feet in debate nevertheless, and happily, confess it when they are actually raising their children. When their children are in the highchair they teach them to pray to their heavenly Father. They teach them that the promises of God have been made to them. They teach them that it is their obligation and their privilege to live for the Lord and by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the matter of parenthood, Christian instincts are often much better than Christian thinking. A man I greatly esteem, the late John Gerstner, was a careful and consistent theologian. He unfortunately took the view of Dabney and Thornwell that the children of Christian parents should not be regarded as Christians until they proved themselves so and that baptism rendered them only quasi-Christians, or, perhaps we might say, people we hope are on their way to becoming Christians. But being a consistent thinker, he therefore concluded that Christian parents should not teach their children to say the Lord’s Prayer. It begins, “Our Father,” and a child should not be taught to view God as his or her father until he or she had made an intelligent and heartfelt profession of faith in Christ which babies and little children cannot do. Dr. Gerstner was much smarter and much more learned than I am, but in a debate on this question I would defeat him every time because I would have all the Biblical texts on my side and he would have none on his side. I can point to passage after passage in which parents are taught to nurture their children in the faith but he can’t point to a single one that teaches parents, on the contrary, to treat and to teach their children as if they did not have faith.
- Then there is the artless way in which the Bible speaks of infant faith, as if there could be no controversy on the point. “I trusted in the Lord from my mother’s breasts,” said David. “From infancy you made me to trust in you,” says another psalmist. Paul speaks to Timothy about how from infancy he had known the Scriptures. Why John the Baptist was already spiritually alive in his mother’s womb as we learn from his response to the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb when the two women met while both carrying their first-born sons. The fact is there is something very ordinary about all of this. There is a vast host of Christians, in all ages of the church, who had and who today have no recollection of ever beginning to be a Christian. As far back as they can remember they believed in God and in Jesus Christ. This is, in fact, I am very sure, the life experience of by far the largest number of earnest, serious, devout Christians who have lived in the world. Whenever they were born again, whenever the new creation was accomplished in them, it was prior to the time of their conscious recollection. That is my own testimony and I know it is of many of you. Many of you, on the other hand, can remember the very day and the very circumstances of your coming to faith in Christ. You were an unbeliever and God called you and the Spirit of God changed you and you found yourself a Christian. But, dramatic as your experience was, you know very well that it has not been the same with your children.
And we have hardly begun to marshal the evidence for the fact that from beginning to end Holy Scripture views the children of believers as believers themselves. We have said nothing about circumcision, the sign of the covenant, the seal of the righteousness that is by faith, as Paul terms it, the initiatory rite of the ancient church that was given to children soon after their birth in the ancient epoch. We have said nothing about the household baptisms of the New Testament or about comments such as Peter’s that the promise is to you and your children or Paul’s to the jailor in Philippi, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your house.” We have said nothing about the practice of infant baptism in the earliest church. There is much more that can be said to demonstrate that when Jesus said “the kingdom of God belongs to such little children” he was not making a controversial statement; he was simply repeating the Bible’s longstanding conviction that, as God had first said to Abraham, he would be the God both of those who believe in him and their children.
But, it is inevitably asked: surely not all Christian children prove to be believers in their adult life? And, alas, that is so. The Bible says it is so and shows us that it is so. This is a promise and a privilege that parents and churches and covenant children themselves can forfeit by unbelief and disobedience. But in this they are as any other Christian. We know alas of people who came into the church as adults or young people. They professed to be Christians. They thought themselves to be Christians and we also thought them to be Christians. For a time they lived as Christians. But time proved both of us wrong. They went back to the world like a dog to its vomit. We cannot understand this but we know it happens. The Lord told us it would. But at no point is the possibility that a convert might return to the world allowed to undermine the obligation of the church to disciple him, to expect faithfulness from him, to help him to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord. The possibility of failure is never made the principle of sanctification. Everywhere in the Bible, adults who profess faith in Christ and their children are immediately treated as Christians, spoken to as Christians, expected to conduct themselves as Christians, encouraged as Christians, and so on. The Bible never suggests that we are to wait to see if a new Christian will stick before we begin treating him or her as a Christian. Quite the contrary. Discipleship, training and spiritual development begin immediately.
Well so with Christian children. Very clearly one doesn’t do one’s duty to a young Christian by worrying about the possibility that he or she might defect at some future date. One does one’s duty to young Christians by loving them in God’s happy and expressive and faithful way, by teaching them the Bible, by helping them to exercise their faith in the presence and promises of God, by teaching them to pray, by firmly but affectionately correcting their mistakes, by setting an example of godliness that they will want to emulate themselves, and by reminding them again and again what an unspeakably great privilege it is to have had the knowledge of the Lord and the gift of eternal life from the very headwaters of one’s life.
And as the Bible assures us and as we can see with our own eyes, children raised that way in their homes and in their churches grow up to love and serve the Lord. They do in vast numbers.
The fact is this doctrine that the children of believers belong to the kingdom of God is as fundamental to the welfare of the church and the people of God as is the fidelity of Christian marriages, the subject treated in the previous paragraph and the subject we took up last Lord’s Day morning. The embrace of our children, their welcome in the household of God, as little Christians and our training of them and our expectations for them accordingly are crucial to the growth, the stability, and the influence of the gospel and the Christian church in the world.
I read recently some statistics purporting to gauge the present situation and prospects of the evangelical Christian church in the United States. There are some 195 million unchurched people in our land, making the United States the fourth largest unchurched nation in the world. During the last ten years the combined communicant membership of all Protestant denominations declined by 9.5% (4,498,242) while the population of the country increased by 11.4% (24,153,000). Each year between 3,500 and 4,000 churches close their doors forever; only as many as 1,500 churches are started. And the most arresting statistic of all: despite the rise of mega-churches, no county in America has a greater church population than it did ten years ago.
Now, I admit, I don’t know how those statistics were tabulated or how precisely accurate they are. How do they know that there is not some small county in, say, Wyoming or West Virginia that doesn’t have a slightly larger church attendance than it did ten years ago? I don’t know. But the general drift of those statistics is confirmed on every hand and by every study.
But, this is my point. This could not be happening, it could in no way be happening if the church were not losing her children, if the church, in fact, were not hemorrhaging her children into the world. Evangelism cannot and will not make up these losses. It never has and it never will. The principle means of the growth of the church has been from its inception in Genesis covenant grace passed on by the instrumentality of Christian nurture in family and church. Evangelism has added its thousands, but covenanted grace in the lines of generations has added its ten thousands.
The story has been told ten thousand times ten thousand times in the history of redemption. A believing mother and father have raised their children to love and serve the Lord and they, in turn, have done the same with their children. And two Christians have become ten and ten have become forty and forty have become a hundred. It is the story of my family and the story of many of yours. It should be the story of Christians always and everywhere. All because it is a fact of the spiritual world that the kingdom of God belongs to the little children of believing parents.
And when Christian families and the Christian church fail to realize the magnificent potential of this reality, that they bring children into the world who already belong to the kingdom of God, and when they fail to embrace their calling to disciple these little Christians, when they neither faithfully teach them, discipline them, nor set for them a winning example of Christian faith, life, and love they not only squander their children – terrible as that is to contemplate – they squander the church’s power, her influence in the world, and so the salvation of untold multitudes of other human beings whose salvation depends upon a vibrant, growing church in the world.
There are many ways to follow these disciples in their indifference to the church’s children. There are many ways for us to make the Lord indignant and angry at us for the same reason. But all of them reduce to this: a failure to appreciate that the kingdom of God belongs to them and then to embrace the implications of that fact and the obligation, therefore, to love them and to bless them by bringing them to Jesus. “Jesus,” after all, “loves the little children.”