Recently you cited Matthew 19.14, if I did not misunderstand you, as evidence that all infants who die in infancy go to heaven. I have written this letter to help you understand this verse more clearly. It reads,
But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
This verse has been often misunderstood and misused. For example, those who argue for infant baptism appeal to it without any justification whatsoever. Spurgeon commented on it,
We know this text is constantly used as a proof of baptism, but in the first place, Christ did not baptize them, for “Jesus Christ baptized not;” in the second place, his disciples did not baptize them, for they withstood their coming, and would have driven them away. Then if Jesus did not, and his disciples did not, who did? It has no more to do with baptism than with circumcision. There is not the slightest allusion to baptism in the text, or in the context.
However, Spurgeon immediately falls into essentially the very same error when he went on to state his belief that this verse proves infant salvation.
However, it does prove this, that infants compose a great part of the family of Christ, and that Jesus Christ is known to have had a love and amiableness towards the little ones (both quotes from a sermon entitled, “Infant Salvation,” MTP #411).
I acknowledge Spurgeon’s greatness while denying his infallibility. To use Spurgeon’s language, “there is not the slightest allusion to infant baptism or infant salvation in the text, or in the context.” As an aside, if we Baptists believed that infants are all saved, then we can hardly object consistently to their baptism also, since that ordinance properly belongs to all whom we can reasonably believe are saved.
These interpretive mistakes greatly obscure the true and real meaning of what Jesus said on that occasion. Both paedobaptists and Spurgeon are guilty of “eisegesis,” of reading into a text of Scripture something that is not found in it, whereas we are called to “exegesis,” drawing out of a text what really and truly is there, refusing to corrupt it with our own ideas or to press it into the service of a doctrine which the Holy Spirit never intended it to teach.
Like Spurgeon, we are all naturally attracted to the idea of infant salvation. We would all like to think it could be known as true that all who die in infancy go to heaven. Spurgeon admits his predisposition for the idea in these words:
“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hath God ordained strength,” and does not that text seem to say that in heaven there shall be “perfect praise” rendered to God by multitudes of cherubs who were here on earth—your little ones fondled in your bosom—and then suddenly snatched away to heaven? I could not believe it of Jesus, that he would say to little children, “Depart, ye accursed, into everlasting fire in hell!”
To answer his first rhetorical question, “No.” Whatever that text may “seem to say” to Spurgeon, we know absolutely for sure that it does not say that “your little ones fondled in your bosom” and “suddenly snatched away” in their infancy will be “cherubs” (i.e., angels) in heaven rendering perfect praise to God. Spurgeon has made a great leap away from the text by saying so. He has leaped into the chasm of human speculation unwarranted by the Word of God. This is always dangerous, and explicitly forbidden by Scripture.
The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deut 29.29).
Spurgeon used this very verse to rebuke those who imagined a “larger hope,” that is, a hope that more people will be saved than those who believe the gospel.
Brethren, the legatees in Christ’s will [those due an inheritance] are those who come and accept his atonement. There is nothing in Christ’s will for any person who will not trust his blood. I know of no mercy under heaven for any man who, knowing of the atoning sacrifice, willfully puts it away. Certain teachers talk about a “larger hope.” I read nothing of this fancy in the Scriptures, and I dare not go beyond the word of the Lord, and I am content to say with Moses, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong unto us, and to our children forever.” “Other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Other hope, large or small, I know not of from revelation, except this one,—“He that believeth in him is not condemned” (from a sermon entitled, “The Blood of the Testament,” MTP #1567).
Alas, Spurgeon is inconsistent with himself. The Bible promises salvation only to those who trust in Christ, whether they know of the atoning sacrifice or not, or whether they willfully put it away or not. Spurgeon’s doctrine of infant salvation clearly teaches that some who die without conscious faith in Christ (i.e., infants) go to heaven anyway, and this is at least to go beyond Scripture, if not against it.
As far as Spurgeon’s comment that he “could not believe it of Jesus, that he would say to little children, ‘Depart, ye accursed, into everlasting fire in hell!,’” this is nothing but an appeal to mere rationalism and sentimentality, most unreliable supports for any points of Christian theology. As one so thoroughly versed with our Lord’s life and ministry, Spurgeon should have considered that Jesus often said things that shocked all his hearers, including his disciples. We should admit that his thoughts are far above our thoughts, and his ways than our ways. Our knowledge of what Jesus will say in the future is limited to the biblical revelation. Speculation beyond Scripture about what he would and would not say is foolish.
So could Jesus say such a thing to little children? He could very justly, if it were his pleasure, because little children are not little innocents, but sinners with a bad record and a bad heart, both legally condemned by God’s imputation of Adam’s sin to them, and morally corrupted by the transmission of Adam’s sinfulness to them.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, which Spurgeon held and Reformed Baptists today hold, teaches these things very clearly:
Our first Parents by this [original] Sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them, whereby death came upon all; all becoming dead in Sin, and wholly defiled, in all the faculties, and parts, of soul, and body [and infants are not exempt from these terrible realities].
They [our first Parents] being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room, and stead of all mankind; the guilt of the Sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation [Christ only is excepted here, since he did not descend “by ordinary generation,” but by miraculous conception in a virgin’s womb], being now conceived in Sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of Sin, the subjects of death and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free (1689 LBCF VI.2-3, bracketed text—DSM).
It may be hard to accept, but little children, even infants, are guilty under God’s sentence of death, and dead in sin. They are wholly defiled, with a corrupted nature, conceived in sin, servants of sin, subject to death, which is the wages of sin, and to and all other miseries. Note this well: they are subject to “spiritual and eternal” miseries, according to the teaching of our esteemed Confession, which is amply supported by the Scriptures. Of course “eternal miseries” could mean nothing else than everlasting torment under God’s just wrath.
Now the Confession would be misconstrued if one thought it means that infants who die in infancy actually do perish. Rather, it is zealous to imply that they deserve to perish, and that they are liable to perish. Only the grace of God, and not their supposed innocence, would account for saved infants, so that the God of grace will have the praise for it.
The Confession explicitly affirms infant salvation in these words, “Elect Infants dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit; who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth” (1689 LBCF 10.3), but it does not make a statement about the number or identification of such “elect infants.” Even this cautious statement goes beyond the Scriptural teaching, and it probably would have been better omitted from the Confession, since it is arguably dubious. Still, it asserts only the salvation of “elect infants dying in infancy,” not all infants dying in infancy. Spurgeon and many Christians today have exceeded both the biblical statement and the confessional statement in advocating the doctrine of universal, unconditional infant salvation. Surely all Calvinists can affirm that if there are any “elect infants,” they shall certainly be saved, along with all God’s elect.
Now, with this background, let us consider exactly just what Matthew 19.14 actually says, with a fair interpretation of it.
The key phrase is, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.” On this the controversy hangs.
First, “the kingdom of heaven” is shorthand for all the blessings of salvation (cf. Matt 5.3, 10, etc.). Plainly, Jesus is announcing who is in a state of grace and salvation. This presents a real problem for Spurgeon and other Calvinistic advocates of infant salvation who misuse this text, because if the meaning is that infants and young children are all actually saved just because of their youth, then maturity causes them to lose the salvation they once had. This overthrows the Calvinistic doctrine of “the perseverance of the saints,” not to mention also destroying Calvinistic doctrine of election. Are we elect in infancy only to become reprobates in adulthood, and finally to perish? That could never be! This salvation-by-youth gives rise to the popular notion of the “age of accountability,” also without scriptural support.
When Jesus says, “of such is the kingdom of heaven,” he means that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such and to no one else. He is drawing a line of demarcation between the saved and the lost. The only alternative to “the kingdom of heaven,” an Hebraistic euphemism for “the kingdom of God,” is the kingdom of darkness, that is, of the devil (Matt 12.25-28; cf. Col 1.13). Whoever is in view, all others are presently excluded from the kingdom of God and necessarily included in the kingdom of Satan.
The next most crucial question is, “Whom exactly does Jesus mean by the phrase, ‘of such?’” Does he intend people who are physically little children? Or, rather, those who are “like them,” i.e., these particular children in the story, in some particular way? Surely it is the latter. Jesus is teaching that the only saved people are those who are like these children in some respect. He cannot reasonably be understood as limiting the kingdom of heaven to literal little children, excluding all adults.
To penetrate into the most important spiritual truth of our Lord’s teaching, we must ask, “In what way must anyone be like these children to be saved?” Jesus may have in mind the spiritual trait of humility, only found in real Christians, for he said in another place,
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18.4).
But this passage in Matthew 19 may be taken in another way, and to me it seems a preferable interpretation to the one just described.
These little children were being physically brought to Christ, and therefore had a public and visible association with Christ. It was probably common for the rabbis in that day to place their hands on little children, a gesture associated with prayer, and ask a blessing upon them. But these on this day were in Jesus’ arms. The spiritual parallel then would be a true association with Christ by faith in him, that is, discipleship to him.
If I am right about this, then the connection between Jesus’ rebuke and Jesus’ statement is more easily understood. Why was it so important to let people bring little children to Jesus for a blessing? Not only for their sake, but also because it affords a public illustration of the great spiritual truth that Jesus is the only Savior, and that only those who come to Jesus are in the kingdom of heaven, that is, in a state of grace, and saved. Of course it is not a physical approach to Jesus that is associated with salvation, but a spiritual approach by faith in him.
This exposes another problem with the “infant salvation” interpretation of this verse. Jesus is only pointing to these children in the story, not all children generally, in his remarks. He is pointing to these particular children as an illustration of a great spiritual truth. To widen his reference to all infants and children completely destroys the spiritual point of the account, since many other children were not brought to Christ.
Some modern translations bring out the sense of the phrase, “of such,” more clearly to a modern reader. For example, consider these several renderings:
People who are like these children belong to God’s kingdom (CEV).
The kingdom of heaven is made up of people like this (HCSB).
The kingdom of heaven belongs to people who are like these children (NCV).
Therefore, to assert with Spurgeon and many others that this text is teaching universal infant salvation is to twist it perversely, and to rob it of its true spiritual sense, namely, that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ. He is its central focus, not infants.
I do not say that all infants dying in infancy go to hell, nor that all infants dying in infancy go to heaven, but that we simply do not know what becomes of any particular infant dying in infancy. Certainly God does with each one whatever he pleases, and he leaves us without any definitive revelation in this particular matter.
For grieving parents, it should be enough to know that God is wise and just and good, and we can trust him with our little ones who have died at a very young age. The Lord does all things well. It is wholly wrong for us to fear that the Lord our God will do anything censurable. When all is said and done, there will be no doubt that God is glorious, that he has kept all his promises, and that he has lavished unspeakably great blessings upon all his chosen people, however long they lived and suffered in this world below. Everyone else will receive only what punishment justice requires, and no more.
May the Lord use this long letter to clarify his truth in your mind, to comfort your heart with the good news of salvation through Christ, and to bring you rest of soul in knowing that the destiny of deceased infants is among the secret things of a faithful God, where it belongs.Yours in the gospel, D. Scott Meadows, Pastor