Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Eric Parker Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven: Thoughts on the Religious Rights of Christian Children

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,” (Matt. 18:1-5).

The debate over whether infants should be baptized is usually waged over certain passages of scripture or the lack thereof, yet it seems to me that, as often happens in debates of this sort, the real issue is even more basic. The real issue involves preconceptions about what God’s kingdom is, and ultimately a commitment to the belief in either (a) a fundamental correspondence between earthly and heavenly citizenship requirements or (b) a fundamental antithesis between earthly and heavenly citizenship requirements. A fundamental correspondence does not mean that the two are identical. Also, an antithesis does not mean that the two are thought to be contradictory. Rather, an antithesis here means that one of the fundamental elements of citizenship is removed or destroyed, in this case it refers specifically to the denial of citizenship by birthright.

It seems to me that if we believe that God’s grace is always restorative and never destructive of what is properly basic in the world as we know it then we must affirm a fundamental correspondence between the principles of earthly things and those of heavenly things. For example,  even though salvation on earth is very different than salvation in heaven – the one depends upon hard work and quite a bit of luck and the other is a pure act of God’s grace – there is still a fundamental correspondence between the two. In both cases human beings are being saved and in both cases they are saved not completely apart from their own actions (i.e., justification requires faith, though faith is not the cause of justification). If there were no correspondence, or if the correspondence were to fundamentally alter the concept of salvation then salvation would be like a sudden rapture of God’s people into heaven with no waiting period between Christ’s resurrection and his second coming. Likewise, if there were a fundamental antithesis between earthly and heavenly citizenship requirements then physical lineage (consanguinity), one of the fundamental elements of citizenship in an earthly kingdom – presupposing the existence of a kingdom and a/many sovereign ruler(s) – would have nothing to do with the requirements for heavenly citizenship. It would be possible to have a kingdom without physical lineage, but it certainly would not by any means be a natural institution.

What evidence do we have, then, for correspondence between earthly and heavenly citizenship? If Jesus meant us to take his statements regarding his kingdom literally then we have ample warrant to conclude that our basic notions of what a kingdom is, including our ideas about how laws function and the “ins and outs” of kingdom citizenship, should also correspond quite literally to the ‘kingdom of heaven’ that Jesus preached about so frequently. Also, since Jesus knew that we already have preconceived notions about what a kingdom is, then if Jesus wanted his church to have a radically different idea of kingdom or some aspect thereof when he refers to the Kingdom of Heaven, he would have to make that difference very clear.

As a matter of fact, Jesus does set heavenly citizenship in contrast with earthly citizenship. He clarifies that membership in the heavenly kingdom does not depend on any earthly identity markers. For, “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus confronts the religious leaders of Israel with a politically subversive message. The kingdom of heaven does not belong to the children of Abraham because of their birth but to those who are meek and humble, those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and so on. What does Jesus mean by this? If citizenship in the heavenly kingdom does not depend upon physical descent (consanguinity) or birthright, then how is it really a kingdom? Kingdoms consist of and are maintained by families who look after the common good for one another and for the kingdom itself. No kingdom can survive long without them and no kingdom would last that excluded children from their share in the common good.

In recognizing the stark difference that Jesus portrays between earthly and heavenly citizenship we should be careful not to exaggerate Jesus’ meaning. Notice what Jesus does not say. He does not say that citizenship in the heavenly kingdom does not depend on physical lineage. He says “your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.” What is clear from Jesus’ message is that citizenship in the heavenly kingdom is not exclusively dependent upon physical lineage. God is not bound to admit individuals into his kingdom merely because of the promises that he made to their ancestors. This does not mean, of course, that physical lineage is not important or that physical lineage has no bearing on who will and who will not be a citizen of the heavenly kingdom.

The issue of physical lineage is a huge issue in the New Testament. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is entirely taken up with this question of whether physical lineage is still important for citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. The very length of the epistle should lead us to conclude that it is, in fact, still quite important. All of God’s promises to Israel have to do with physical lineage. He promises to be a God to them and to their children, meaning that God’s promise to Abraham gives the children of Abraham certain rights. They have a right to the blessings of the covenant. They have a right to inherit the land of Canaan. They have a right to citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Jacob wrestles with God, for example, and is not killed. Why would he not be killed while attempting to take something from God? Because he wrestles God for something that God had promised to Abraham. He wrestles God for the inheritance that is rightfully his within the covenant that God himself had established. Again, this is how kingdoms work. Citizenship is a right that depends upon physical lineage and the protection of a sovereign King. It is a right that one can lose, just like Israel lost the right to inherit the Promised Land when they doubted God in the wilderness, and just like Esau lost his birthright when he sold it to Jacob.

God’s covenant promises to the physical descendants of Abraham is a central theme in the New Testament. This is why Jesus and his disciples preached to the Jews first. This is why Paul preaches in the synagogue and goes out of his way to accommodate the Jews, even offering sacrifices in the Temple. This is also why Paul still holds out hope for the eventual salvation of the Jewish people even if some of the branches have been cut off. The question for Christians today, however, is ‘does citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven depend upon physical lineage in the same way that it did in the Old Testament?’ God message to Isaiah regarding the citizens of Heaven in the new covenant provides us with the answer to this question:

“And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore” (Is. 59:21).

Despite Jesus’ radical message he is also adamant that he did not come to abolish the central message of the law and the prophets. He did not come to destroy God’s promises to Israel. There is also no mention in his sayings or in the rest of the New Testament of any fundamental change in the nature of citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul tells us that Abraham was justified by faith, yet his children had the right of citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. Citizenship in Israel was conditional in the same way that citizenship in earthly kingdoms is conditional upon loyalty to the sovereign. When Israel lost faith in God he punished them but he continued to extend the benefits of the covenant to them. This shows that, in God’s kingdom as in earthly kingdoms, children are assumed to be loyal until they prove otherwise, but even then the sovereign has the power to pardon whom he pleases.

God promised to Israel through the mouth of Isaiah that in the new covenant God’s promises would function in the same way that they did in the old covenant. Those who are faithful to the King receive the right to become citizens of God’s kingdom, and God also promises that his word will not depart out of the mouth of their children and their children’s children. This means that in the new covenant the children of believers have the right of citizenship and are in fact citizens in God’s kingdom. They have this right because of their physical lineage, though their lineage is also spiritual because of their parents’ faith. This is why Peter says quite clearly that “the promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39). The children of believers are born into a holy family, which is why Paul says, “now [your children] are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14).

Jesus wants his church to assume that the basic rules of a kingdom apply in the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a sovereign King and the kingdom includes citizens who believe in him and are loyal to him and who show their loyalty by keeping his laws. Of course the Kingdom of Heaven is much more than that. For, Christ himself is much more than a king. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He fulfills all of the laws and has mercy on those who have hated him, mocked him, and even murdered him. Yet, the basics still remain. The Kingdom of Heaven is made up of citizens who have been given a new law, the law of repentance and belief. The law applies to all adults and to their children. Even children who are not capable of proving their belief are called citizens. In fact, Jesus says that we must become as humble as a little child if we want to be citizens of his kingdom.

So, if Jesus wanted his church to have a radically different idea of kingdom citizenship he would have to make that difference very clear. He does not. The new law of “repent and believe” does not nullify God’s promise “for you and your children” any more than God’s law of belief nullified his promise to Abraham’s children. God, like any earthly king, has always demanded faith from his people and has always had mercy on those who are incapable of showing their faith just as he shows mercy on those who are unfaithful. This is why we baptize our children.

Some would no doubt agree that their children are citizens of heaven but deny that their citizenship necessitates their baptism. Yet,  the requirements for citizenship and baptism are the same – “repent and believe” is the requirement for both. These requirements do not exclude Abraham’s children since they are children of the promise. They should, therefore, receive baptism because they have been received into God’s kingdom. If the kingdom law of citizenship applies to children in the same way that it applies to adults then children cannot partake of either heavenly citizenship or baptism. The point of the passage in Isaiah, however, is that the only requirement for the children of believers to be citizens (and to be baptized into the kingdom) is their birth into a family of believers. The adult citizenship requirement is not the same as that for infants and children. The basic rules of earthly citizenship, that is, citizenship by either immigration or by birthright, are the same as those of heavenly citizenship. The adult requirement of “repent and believe” is imputed to children on account of their lineage, that is, on account of their parents’ faith, which helps to ensure that the children will also grow to have faith. The parents’ loyalty to the King, in other words, is credited to the child as the child’s loyalty. This means that the question of whether children have faith or not is really not the at the heart of the issue.

Baptism is a child’s initiation into heavenly citizenship, the proof of their loyalty to the King and the King’s seal of acceptance upon them. They are loyal because their family is loyal. We don’t baptize because we expect the water itself to make them loyal. Rather, we trust in God’s promises to us that our children have the right of citizenship in God’s kingdom. In so trusting we baptize our children as a sign of the faith and loyalty that they will one day be able to demonstrate. Baptism, on might say, is their birth certificate. How do we know they will grow up to be faithful? We trust in God’s promise, and just like Abraham we know that sometimes they will make the wrong choice. We do not exclude them for the treason that they might commit later in life. By putting our trust in God, we also trust that the majority of Christian children who are raised to place their loyalties in Jesus will not fall away completely. For, he pursues them just like he pursues us. He is our shepherd and we are the sheep of his pasture. Ever wandering. Ever being sought. So, our children have the right of citizenship and a right to baptism. Paul does not exclude them when he says “our citizenship is in heaven,” (Phil. 3:20).

The exclusion of children from either kingdom citizenship or kingdom initiation (i.e., baptism) implies a fundamental antithesis between our earthly and heavenly concepts of citizenship. It nullifies the concept of birthright citizenship, and because birthright citizenship is fundamental to our understanding of what a kingdom is, it creates confusion about the very nature of what God’s kingdom is. Surely it is the sin of man, not God, that causes the confusion when our disloyalty leads to the removal of branches from the vine of the promises. The fact that God grafts new branches onto the vine does not nullify birthright citizenship. Rather, each new branch sprouts its own branches and God promises to give those branches increase by the sunlight and water of both the biological family and the church family. The family organism is the lifeblood of the heavenly kingdom on earth because it is the wellspring of faith and loyalty to the King. It gets its life from the Holy Spirit, from the sunlight of the face of God in Christ, and it shares this light through the natural channels of the family unit, shaping it, refining it, and releasing it into the world to bear its own fruit for God’s kingdom. Therefore, the children of believers have a right to both citizenship and to baptism because of God’s promise to their parents. Let’s not be guilty of denying them what God himself has promised to them.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

One reply on “The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven: Thoughts on the Religious Rights of Christian Children”

Excellent, excellent piece on the covenant–and one which I hope to write a detailed response to in the near future (holiday obligations permitting). I think you’ve hit the key question with this:

“The real issue involves preconceptions about what God’s kingdom is, and ultimately a commitment to the belief in either (a) a fundamental correspondence between earthly and heavenly citizenship requirements or (b) a fundamental antithesis between earthly and heavenly citizenship requirements. A fundamental correspondence does not mean that the two are identical.”

Polemically, I’d rephrase this as the question “Is God’s kingdom on earth as we see it portrayed in Scripture made up of believers (as best we can tell, based on confession and practice); or is it made up of believers and unbelievers (with the understanding that our judgment of such will be imperfect)?”
But of course, that’s not engaging with the specifics of your article–which again I hope to do.

Comments are closed.