Infant Salvation: The Call of Christ to Children
Welcome back! It’s been a long time since we’ve discussed this subject, so let me give you the rundown on what we’ve covered thus far:
Now today we will examine what is, I think, the last major position held by advocates of infant salvation; namely the call of Christ to children.
What is the Call of Christ to Children?
This call is based on two Scriptures — Matthew 19:13-15 primarily, and Matthew 18:1-6, 10 secondarily. Let’s start with Matt. 19.
“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And he laid his hands on them and went away.”
Parallel passages to this are Mark 10:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17. Advocates of infant salvation claim this passage (especially the Luke parallel) is a clear indicator that children who die, specifically children who die before reaching an age of moral responsibility, will be taken to heaven by Christ. The kingdom of heaven is theirs, and we should do nothing or say nothing contrary to that. Jesus clearly calls children to himself, therefore all children who die in infancy are saved.
Let’s examine this claim carefully. There are some big leaps in logic and hermeneutics being made here.
This interpretation very obviously takes the passage out of its context. What is happening in this brief aside in the Gospels is that people were bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus. Quite possibly this was another instance where people sought out Jesus for blessings, healings, and the like. Only this time, it was children specifically that were brought to him. The disciples were upset at this; they were rebuking the people for bringing children! Why would this be? It would seem that children were viewed as a distraction. Indeed, Jesus had “important” things to be doing, and he “didn’t need” children running around underfoot! Instead, Jesus rebukes the disciples, saying that it is children for whom he has come to preach the Gospel. It is children who will be given heaven. Therefore if one brings a child to Jesus, we should never stand in that child’s way, but willingly usher the child to the Savior.
Note that the passage does not say such children are saved. It seems to be saying something else entirely; namely that children who are coming to faith in Christ should not be blocked from accepting Christ. The parallel passages make this point a bit more forceful and the misinterpretation more clear, stating that whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. First of all, childlike faith should not be discouraged, but encouraged. Second, we must all accept Christ in this manner. The second point makes it difficult for this passage to refer to infant salvation. Why? Because this type of faith is not automatic.
Not all children automatically trust “strangers.” And God is a “stranger” to all unbelievers. A child’s trust, beyond their parents (and sometimes even on the part of the parents), must be won. Have you ever noticed how some babies become upset when a stranger holds them? They don’t know who this person is. He/she is holding them the “wrong” way. His/her face is scary. And so on and so on. God is like that to an unbeliever. He holds us in ways we don’t like. He is scary to us. We get upset and push him away! It is only through constant exposure to the “stranger” that an infant becomes comfortable and accepting of him/her. That is how babies and children trust their parents almost completely — they are constantly exposed to them! And isn’t that what God’s Holy Spirit does when doing his convicting work on an unbeliever? Constantly expose him/her to the truth until the believer has no choice but to repent and seek Christ’s atonement? Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
So it’s clear that this passage does not teach that babies who die go to heaven, but rather that children who come to Jesus must never be turned away, because they will receive salvation. This passage has more to do with children’s ministry than anything else. Christ is not saying all children who die go to heaven. He is, instead, saying that children who come to him for salvation will receive it, and we adults must be like them.
Let’s look at a passage used to support the one we have just examined, Matthew 18:1-6, 10:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”
Wow. What a powerful verse. I absolutely agree this passage fully supports the Matt. 19 episode. It would be much better for someone turning away a child who wants to receive Jesus as Savior to be utterly destroyed. But does this passage teach infant salvation? Not one bit.
Our prior discussion should make most of that clear. This passage also discusses children coming to faith in Christ. Advocates of infant salvation have also taken it out of context. Again, Christ is teaching that children who come to him for salvation will receive it, and for us adults to be saved, we must be like them. To be saved, we must have the deep, implicit, unwavering trust in the Lord that a child would have in a parent or other trusted person. That kind of trust only comes from constant exposure to God.
Now, do babies and pre-natal children have that kind of exposure? Unless we’re going to take a very generous reading of Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”), no they do not. Without knowing what happens mentally or spiritually in the womb and in early life, we have absolutely no way of knowing if a child is actively exposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Why, then, do I say no? Because quite simply Scripture teaches that no one can resist God (2 Chronicles 20:6; Job 9:12, 23:13; Daniel 4:35; Isaiah 14:27; Romans 9:18-20).
If it is true that children who die before reaching a point of moral responsibility go to heaven, this potentially means that all children must be actively experiencing the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit up to that point! This is absurd and cannot be sustained. But if we say, “no, only those whom God has allowed to pass on experience this work,” aren’t we only begging the question? Why would God, if this is true, allow some children to reach moral responsibility — and thus be certainly condemned to hell — and at the same time hold back some from such cruelty? We’re moving right back into one of our unbiblical positions, where we would have to affirm a universalist principle by stating that it would be better for all children to die before reaching moral responsibility so they would go to heaven! Since no one can resist God, shouldn’t all these kids be killed off before they have the conscious moral ability to resist God? Furthermore, why would God allow his salvation of those who are not morally aware to fail once they reach this awareness?
This is an untenable position. The convicting work of the Holy Spirit only comes upon those whom God has intended to save and none other. None can resist this work. The only clear choice when under the regenerating influence of the Spirit is faith in Christ. And since we have no idea from Scripture if this work extends to those infants predestined to die, we cannot say with certainty that they go to heaven.
To conclude, I think we can say that there is no clear reason to believe that Christ’s call to children teaches the salvation of infants. To believe such is to take this call out of its context. We are still left with no clear teaching from Scripture about the destiny of infants who die. Scripture has, up to this point, been glaringly silent.
Next time, we will look at a final position, one which I believe gives us the best position to take in this issue, from 2 Samuel 12:22-23, where David speaks of losing his first child with Bathsheba in punishment for his sin:
22He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”