Luke 18:15-17

As you may remember, since Luke 9:51 we have been in a section of the Gospel of Luke in which most of the material — both historical narrative and teaching — is without parallel in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Assuming Mark to have been the first of the Gospels to be written, as most do, Luke has been self-consciously adding material to the account of the Lord’s ministry that we are given in Mark. Luke 9:51 to 18:14 is known in Gospel scholarship as Luke’s “great interpolation.” We now return to Mark’s general outline, the short paragraph we are reading this morning being found in both Mark and Matthew and in broadly the same place in all three of the synoptic gospels.

Text Comment

v.15     In art this scene is usually represented with mothers bringing their children to Jesus, but the pronoun “them” at the end of the sentence is masculine. Perhaps we should think of fathers and mothers together coming to Jesus with their children. They want him to touch them, which is to say, they want him to bless them. [Bock, ii,1469)

We are not told why the disciples rebuked these people, but the impression is that they thought that children were too insignificant, that they were “beneath the notice of God or the Messiah.” [Caird, 204] These parents were distracting Jesus from more important work and it was their task, as his assistants, to keep him free to attend to the great business at hand. The fact is few of the world’s great teachers have given much attention to children, but Jesus was different in this respect. [Morris, 283]

v.17     There has been unending debate as to the nature of the Lord’s analogy here. In what sense are all Christians like these little children? Some have said that it is in the innocence of the child to which the Lord is drawing attention; usually people who have not had children! Others have argued that it is the child’s capacity to trust. Much better is a child’s “receptivity” (Caird, 204), his willing acceptance of what is given to him. But in the context of this episode and the Bible’s entire doctrine of children it seems much more likely that the point of comparison is in the child’s dependence. These children didn’t come to Jesus, they were brought. Some of them, at any rate, were very little children for Luke uses the term for a nursing infant to describe them in v. 15.

The NIV rightly has “babies,” the ESV “infants.” They don’t do anything in this scene; they are done for. Anyone who thinks that receiving the kingdom of God requires him to do things is far from salvation. The one who knows that he must be carried into the kingdom, that he is incapable of entering on his own power, that man or woman is near to salvation. It will be precisely this misunderstanding — this spiritual pride and self-confidence before God – that the Lord will expose in the next episode, that of the rich young ruler. The ruler did not wish for anything he could not earn. [Caird, 204] In regard to him the lesson will be, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (v.27) The lesson here is the same. Children are a picture of the saved because they cannot do and so cannot earn. So is everyone who receives the kingdom of God.

Still today the attitude of the disciples finds a great many advocates in the church. Explain it as they might, it is clear that they are waiting for babies to grow up for them to become participants in the life of faith and salvation. They are waiting for them to be able to do something so that they might enter the kingdom of God.

There are plenty in our own church, the Presbyterian Church in America, who think in such terms. We have in our church library a series of videotaped lectures on church history and the history of Christian theology delivered by the late Prof. John Gerstner, the teacher and mentor of R.C. Sproul. Dr. Sproul gives the credit for his far-reaching ministry almost entirely to John Gerstner. Dr. Gerstner once said something nice about something I wrote so he’s been a hero of mine for years! Dr. Gerstner was an extraordinarily learned man and a fascinating and entertaining teacher, with his raspy voice and dry wit. But he was a representative of thinking that, in my judgment, approximates that of the disciples here. In his lecture he says that while our children are in one sense part of the kingdom of God and members of the church and though they have a right to baptism, they should not be thought of as Christians in the truest sense of the word, but only as prospective Christians, Christians-to-be one hopes at some time in the future. He thought that the children of believing parents, the children of the church, though baptized, should be considered unbelievers and non-Christians until they prove the contrary by their profession of faith in Jesus Christ at some point in their childhood or adolescence and give evidence of walking with the Lord. Our task, therefore, Dr. Gerstner thought, is to evangelize the church’s children just as we seek to evangelize those who are outside the church, adults and children alike. Dr. Gerstner, always a consistent thinker, even argued that the children of the church should not be taught to recite the Lord’s Prayer because we couldn’t know that they could say “Our Father,” sincerely, not yet knowing that they are real Christians.

Now, to his credit, scholar that he was and honest man that he was, Dr. Gerstner admitted that this was not the thinking or the theology of the Protestant Reformers whom he so greatly admired. It wasn’t, for example, what John Calvin in the sixteenth century thought about the children of believers. Quite the contrary. Calvin taught that the baptized children of believers were to be considered Christians, believers in Jesus unless and until, alas, they later proved the contrary. The task of parents and the church is thus to nourish and cultivate faith and life that are already their children’s. Calvin and his successors argued that this was everywhere the plain teaching of the Bible and that what we find here in Luke 18:15-17 is only what we find everywhere else in the Word of God.

Dr. Gerstner implied in his lecture that the church came eventually to correct Calvin on this point but he worried that there was a movement afoot to return to Calvin’s thinking. He hoped it would not succeed. I very much hope that it will.

Dr. Gerstner was correct to say that there have been theologians of our Reformed tradition who have indeed departed from Calvin at this point. The American southern Presbyterians, James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney were among the most prominent. Before them Archibald Alexander, the founder of Princeton Seminary, held similar views. Al1 of these men and their disciples held that the children of believers, though baptized, were to be regarded as unbelievers until they were old enough to be converted and give evidence of saving faith.

Dr. Gerstner was mistaken, however, in supposing that the views of Thornwell and Dabney were representative of Reformed or Presbyterian thinking, as if Reformed theology as a whole came to have his view of the spiritual situation of the church’s children. During the 19th century, Charles Hodge, the most influential of all American Presbyterian theologians, together with a number of others, championed Calvin’s view that the children of the church were Christians, were to be treated as such, raised as such, even disciplined as such, until and unless they proved themselves unbelievers. They championed that view precisely because they felt it was in eclipse in the church and they wanted it to be restored. They taught that, from the beginning of the history of the kingdom of God in the world, the nurture of Christian children in faith from their infancy has been the principle means of growing the church. Interestingly, among those American Presbyterian champions of Calvin’s view was J.W. Alexander, Archibald’s son, who abandoned the teaching of his own father on this point.

I could very easily prove to you that the great weight of Reformed thinking through the centuries lies on Calvin’s side of this question. Here is the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, whose Reformed Dogmatics, many think, and I among them, is the greatest modern work
of systematic theology.

“It is not an incontrovertible dogma, of course, that all covenant children or even all elect covenant children have already been regenerated in their infancy before or in baptism. Reformed theologians have never held this view in this rigorous sense. But they firmly maintained that such a rebirth in early childhood before the years of discretion could take place, since the Spirit of Christ is not bound to the consciousness and will of human beings. They confessed that such a rebirth in early life in fact often did take place, especially in the case of children whom the Lord took from this life in their infancy. Finally, they held firmly to the rule that we must regard and treat all covenant children born and baptized in the fellowship of the church not as heathen children, but in accordance with the judgment of charity, as true children of the covenant, until from their ‘talk’ and ‘walk’ the contrary is evident. [IV,l24]

Charles Hodge wrote similarly:

“We do not assert [the regeneration of all covenant children], or that they are true members of Christ’s body; we only assert that they belong to the class of persons whom we are bound to regard and treat as members of Christ’s church. This is the only sense in which even adults are members of the church, so for as men or concerned.”

And, much more recently, here is the late John Murray, for years Professor of Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, perhaps the most influential Reformed theologian in the second half of the 20th century.

“Baptized infants are to be received as children of God and treated accordingly.”

I could weary you with citations to the same effect. But you get the point. It is and has long been the doctrine of our church that the children of Christians are Christians and to be treated as Christians and discipled as Christians. Will some fail to reach heaven? Alas, to be sure. But then people who become Christians in their adulthood, who come from an unbelieving background and enter the church by professing their faith in Jesus, not all of them either make it all the way to the end as believers in Jesus. But no one doubts that we are to consider such converts as Christians until we know that they are not. The question is: what are we to think of our children and how are we to raise them? The question is: when our children enter the world, what is their relation to God and to salvation? These are the urgent questions. This is what a faithful Christian parent wants to know, needs to know, craves to know. We do not bring children into the world imagining that we are populating hell! Our children are precious to us. They are, as one Puritan described them, a piece of ourselves wrapped in another skin. To an earnest Christian parent nothing, and I mean nothing, matters as much as knowing that our children are saved and that they will live with us forever in the kingdom of God. This short passage in Luke 18 is life and hope to devout Christian parents!

Now, before we look more closely at Luke’s few verses, let me remind you — and this is very important to remember — that we have here only a single article of a much more complex doctrine or teaching of the Bible. We have merismus here, that characteristic of biblical pedagogy in which a particular doctrine is taught part here, part there. We have the promise in one place, the conditions in another. We have the principle in one place, the qualifications in another. We have the main point in one place the details in another. Part here, part there. Merismus, from the Greek word for “part.”

There is nothing here, for example, about baptism. We hear nothing explicitly of the promise of the covenant; repeated so often in the Bible, that God will be our God and the God of our children. Nothing is said here of the responsibility of parents to nurture their children in the faith
or of what that nurture consists. We have nothing here about infant faith, or faith in the seed, part of the total teaching of the Word of God concerning the infant children of believing parents. We have nothing here about children who die in infancy. The Bible addresses all of the various aspects of its doctrine of covenant children here and there, but nowhere does it teach the entire doctrine, or any doctrine for that matter, all at once. And so here. We have a piece, but only a piece.

But the piece we have here is the first piece, the foundation piece of the Bible’s doctrine of the children of believers: that foundation upon which is raised the entire edifice of that teaching as we have it in all sixty-six books of the Word of God. It consists of two facts.

I. The first is that there is such a distinct class of children as covenant children, the children of Christian believers, and that what the Lord said applies to them but does not apply to all children.

All children are not the same; the children of Christians form a distinct class. This has sometimes been contested. John Gill, the Calvinistic Baptist of the 18th century, argued that we can tell nothing here about the parents of these children, about whether or not they are believers, and so we cannot tell whether the Lord’s remarks concern the children of Christian parents, all children indiscriminately, or, for some unmentioned reason, these specific children only.

But that has never seemed to be the case to most students of this passage. Luke, following Matthew and Mark, is clearly giving instruction he thought was important and timeless. The Lord felt strongly enough about the importance of the point he was making that he rebuked his disciples for failing to grasp it and for betraying this principle in their conduct. But, more to the point, the text does indicate the spirit in which these parents brought their children to Jesus. No doubt, throughout his ministry, children were brought to him by parents who had no spiritual interest in him or in his message. Particularly that would have been the case with parents whose children were sick and who had heard of Jesus’ power to heal the sick.

But the sickness of their children was not what brought these parents to Jesus. These babies were not sick and they were not brought to Jesus that he might heal them. They were brought to Jesus that he might touch them, or as Matthew has it, that he might place his hands on them and pray for them. They were, in other words, asking Jesus to bless their children. They sought out Jesus because they saw in him one who was able to dispense God’s blessing and they wanted that blessing for their children. That was a spiritual interest and a spiritual act on their part. These were believers in other words who were taking God’s word to heart and were practicing it in their lives.

And lest we forget, in doing so they were standing in the great stream of the revelation of God’s gracious covenant, which, from the very beginning had been a promise that God would be our God and the God of our children. However much or little they may have understood about Jesus of Nazareth, they were doing what Abraham had done, what David’s parents had done, what Zechariah and Elizabeth had done for the son John: they were believing God’s promise to be their God and the God of their children. They were bringing their children to God. That much they knew about Jesus: he was dispensing the power and blessing of God! They believed for their children and acted for their children.

II. The second fact of the two that make up this fundamental piece of the biblical doctrine of Christian children is that what the Lord Jesus promised them here was nothing less than salvation, eternal life.

It has been argued by some, men like Dr. Gerstner, that while the Lord says that the kingdom of
God belongs to such children, he means only that they are enclosed within the kingdom’s circle of influence, that they are introduced in this way into a position of privilege, that it will be their blessing to be raised in the church, subject to its instruction, influence, and example. We may be hopeful of our children’s salvation, but we have no promise of it. Dr. Gerstner would argue as many others have that the Lord Jesus here was not saying anything about the salvation of such children.

Now, it is absolutely true that, alas, many children born and bred in the Christian church live in rebellion against God and die in unbelief. Sad to say. The saddest road to hell is the road that begins in a Christian home, passes down the aisle of a Christian Church right by a faithful Christian pulpit. The promise God made to us about the salvation of our children is not a promise without conditions. There are reasons why some covenant children reject their parents’ faith. The Bible addresses those reasons often enough. But that is not the Lord’s point here.

Here in Luke 18 we have only to observe that when the Lord says that the kingdom of God belongs to such children he is saying nothing less than that salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life belong to such children. If that point were not clear enough, the Lord puts it beyond
dispute in v. 17 when he speaks of others who must receive the kingdom in the same way as these little, helpless infants or else they will fail to enter it. He is obviously talking about salvation.

If you cast your glance down the page you, will find the next use of the phrase “kingdom of God” in Luke’s Gospel. It occurs in a similar context. The whole conversation with the rich ruler began when he asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life? He was asking after the way to be saved. In v.24, after the rich man had turned away, unwilling to pay the price of following Jesus, the Lord said, “How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.” Apparently entering the kingdom of God means the same thing as inheriting eternal life. And then the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” Apparently being saved and entering the kingdom of God are also the same thing.

Taking this together it is clear that Jesus was saying in v. 16 that God extends his saving grace to the tiniest children of his children, that they too are his children in faith and in grace. He is saying, as the Bible explicitly teaches elsewhere, that it is common for the children of believers to be saved when very young, even before they can be taught the gospel. Like David they trust in the Lord from their mother’s breasts, or like the author of Psalm 71 “they trust in the Lord from their infancy.” Like John the Baptist no doubt multitudes of them were reborn to eternal life when they were still in their mothers’ wombs.

And that being so, how dare his disciples think that the little ones weren’t important enough to have a claim on his time, that they were not as much an object of his tender concern as the Savior of sinners as any adult. After all, as he said in v. 17, so far as the matter of salvation is  concerned, covenant infants and adults are on precisely the same footing. Both must receive as a gift what they cannot earn, or achieve, or obtain by their own effort; both must be carried into the kingdom because neither can walk into it on his own two feet. Both await the blessing, the working, the provision of God in Jesus Christ for them and in them.

The disciples made the natural error of supposing that only what men do is important and, since babies are too young to do anything, they weren’t worth the Lord’s time and attention. But in thinking that way they missed the whole point. It is not our doing but Christ’s doing that matters
and babies can be done for just as well as grown-ups.

There is nothing new here. Jesus is not breaking new ground. He is reiterating the ancient doctrine of the covenant that the children of the church belong to the church, that God’s covenant embraces them as it does their believing parents, and that salvation being the work of God’s grace and power the littlest children can receive it as well as anyone else. We don’t understand salvation at all until we understand why that must be so.

One of the most important figures of the Dutch second reformation, the Puritan movement of the 17th century, was Wilhelmus á Brakel, the Reformed pastor of the city church of Rotterdam. Father Brakel as he was affectionately called was, perhaps we could say, the J.I. Packer of his day, and his great work of popular theology, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, was the Knowing God of his day.

Brakel was raised in a godly home. He often acknowledged that he could not recollect a time in his life when he was an unbeliever, growing into an ever more conscious faith as he grew from infancy, through childhood, and into adulthood. Like David, he would say, he trusted in the Lord from his mother’s breast. The seed of faith, implanted by the Spirit of God early in his life, was watered and cultivated by his faithful parents and by the community of Christians in which he grew up. Brakel tells us that his parents taught him so faithfully and prayed for him so diligently, that he remembers his mother saying to him when he was young, “O, what you will have to answer for, if you do not fear God!”

Well that’s the idea here. Salvation has been pledged to our children by our gracious God. It is ours to bring them to him for his blessing day by day throughout their early life so that his blessing will rest upon them from the headwaters of their lives until their end. We want our children to know and firmly to believe that

1. God was extraordinarily gracious and kind to them to bring them into his family before they had any understanding of what an indescribably great privilege it is for them to be the children of God;
2. That they, having been given this great privilege, are under the most solemn obligation to make the most of it, giving thanks to God and serving him all their days;
3. And that the same blessing will await their children in due time and the same
obligation will rest upon them to seek the blessing of Jesus Christ for them as their parents did on their behalf when they were very young.

It is my testimony as well, as I know it is of many of you — not all of you, of course, but some of you — that I have no recollection of ever being an unbeliever. The kingdom of God belonged to me, the blessing of God rested upon me, as the poet has it

Before my infant heart conceived
From whom those comforts flowed.

And the longer I live the more I bless God as I know many of you do, that the same promises made to me and kept on my behalf were made to my children after me. There is no greater joy for Christian parents than to know that there children are walking in the truth. For Christian parents there is no greater expectation or anticipation, save that of seeing the Lord himself, than to welcome their children to heaven.

It should be our expectation, our glad anticipation, and our earnest effort that generation after generation of children born and raised in this church will have the same happy testimony and the same expectation for their children and their children’s children. As God made mankind in families so he is remaking mankind in families. Even when that individual adult, that sole man, that single woman, comes out of the world and into the church because he or she has finally realized the depth of his or sin and need and that Jesus Christ is the only one who could possibility meet that need, I say when that individual man or woman comes into the church, we joyfully welcome that man or that woman who so often, not always I realize, but so often is coming  into the church to be the patriarch or the matriarch of another Christian family.

Saving grace to an individual sinner is an impossibly grand thing. That same grace to whole families is grander still!