May The Paedobaptist Fairly Appeal To Matthew 19:13–15?

It was a wonderful day yesterday at Escondido URC. In the morning we had two baptisms, one of an adult convert who had never been baptized. So, like the adult baptisms we see in Acts, he received the sacrament, sign, and seal of baptism as a sign of his admission to the Christ-confessing covenant community. My Baptist friends rejoice with us. We also, however, baptized the infant of professing believers. We did so because we are convinced from God’s Word that is what God commands. The pattern begins in Genesis 17 and continues to the book of Acts (2:38–39; ch. 16 [all]). In his sermon our pastor, Chris Gordon, argued for the propriety of infant baptism on the basis of Matthew 19:13–15. Was he right to do so?

Scripture says:

Then infants were brought to them in order that he might lay hands on and pray for them but the disciples rebuked those bringing the infants and Jesus said, ‘Permit the infants and forbid them not to come to me for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And after he laid hands on them he left that place. Τότε προσηνέχθησαν αὐτῷ παιδία ἵνα τὰς χεῖρας ἐπιθῇ αὐτοῖς καὶ προσεύξηται· οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ ἐπετίμησαν αὐτοῖς. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν· ἄφετε τὰ παιδία καὶ μὴ κωλύετε αὐτὰ ἐλθεῖν πρός με, τῶν γὰρ τοιούτων ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. καὶ ἐπιθεὶς τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῖς ἐπορεύθη ἐκεῖθεν.

As he read the text of Scripture and proclaimed the good news of the covenant of grace, I read along with him in my Greek New Testament. One of the interesting questions about this passage is this: what does the word paidion (παιδίον) mean? Does it refer to small children, toddlers, infants? How inclusive is it? The first time we see the word it refers to our Lord Jesus as an infant (Matt 2:8–21). It is used of Moses as an infant (Heb 11:23). It can also refer to young, playful children (Matt 11:16). In the plural it is used figuratively of adults (John 21:5; Heb 2:13–14; 1 John 2:18). So, in NT usage it is fairly inclusive of a range of ages.

The Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) is essential for understanding the New Testament. That is certainly true of  Matthew, who is zealous to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises made to the Jews. So it is interesting and suggestive that the first place where paidion (παιδίον) occurs is in Genesis 17:12, in the institution of infant circumcision. It says. “And on the 8th day your infant shall be circumcised…” (καὶ παιδίον ὀκτὼ ἡμερῶν περιτμηθήσεται ὑμῖν). This was a central text for the Jews. This is the institution of circumcision, the sacrament/ordinance for admission to the visible covenant community. By circumcision, one ritually died (Col 2:11–12) to the world. When Abraham was circumcised he was cut off from his Gentile past. As Paul reminds us, he was brought to new life and true faith in Christ (John 8:56) by grace alone (Rom 4:9–12). As an adult believer, hitherto uninitiated, his circumcision was a visible mark of his initiation, a ritual cutting away of the old man but the true, inward circumcision of the heart, was always spiritual. As baptism points to the necessity and gift of new life, so too did circumcision.

So, when we read Genesis 17:12 we get a clearer picture of what paidion (παιδίον) could mean. Because it is used in connection with the institution of infant initiation into the visible covenant community, we know exactly how old a paidion is in this case. 8 days old. This does not mean that the word cannot or does not mean anything else. We have already seen that it has a range of meanings depending on context.

How might Genesis 17:12 help us with Matthew 19? First, it eliminates the objection that paidion (παιδίον) cannot mean infant. It certainly can and does in a most important passage. Second, as we work through the passage in Matthew 19 we have some indicators that the paidia (παιδία) in this passage might be infants. The paidia were brought to Jesus (v. 13). The verb might be fairly translated “were carried” since prosphero (προσφέρω) can mean that. The use and context paints a picture of parents bringing their very young children to Jesus to be blessed. That is the import of “laying hands” on them. This was not an ordination ceremony. The parents wanted Jesus formally to pronounce God’s blessing on their children.

It has been objected that the children are said to “come” therefore they cannot be infants. When Jesus said, permit them to come, we may not tear that way from the earlier verb of bringing, which is in the passive voice. They are coming in the sense that they are being brought and being presented to Jesus for his blessing, for the laying on of hands and for prayer.

It might be objected that one should not connect this passage to infant baptism because Jesus did not baptize these infants, he only prayed for and laid hands on them. A sound argument for infant baptism would not end here. This passage is only part of a larger argument. Of course this passage itself is not definitive but it does tend to create a presumption. Certainly infant baptism is a kind of bringing infants to Jesus for blessing and forbidding them to come would seem to fall afoul of our Lord’s correction of his disciples.

Calvin is helpful here:

This narrative is highly useful; for it shows that Christ receives not only those who, moved by holy desire and faith, freely approach to him, but those who are not yet of age to know how much they need his grace. Those little children have not yet any understanding to desire his blessing; but when they are presented to him, he gently and kindly receives them, and dedicates them to the Father by a solemn act of blessing. We must observe the intention of those who present the children; for if there had not been a deep-rooted conviction in their minds, that the power of the Spirit was at his disposal, that he might pour it out on the people of God, it would have been unreasonable to present their children. There is no room, therefore, to doubt, that they ask for them a participation of his grace; and so, by way of amplification, Luke adds the particle also; as if he had said that, after they had experienced the various ways in which he assisted adults, they formed an expectation likewise in regard to children, that, if he laid hands on them, they would not leave him without having received some of the gifts of the Spirit. The laying on of hands (as we have said on a former occasion) was an ancient and well known sign of blessing; and so there is no reason to wonder, if they desire that Christ, while employing that solemn ceremony, should pray for the children. At the same time, as the inferior are blessed by the better, (Heb. 7:7,) they ascribe to him the power and honour of the highest Prophet…

To exclude from the grace of redemption those who are of that age would be too cruel; and therefore it is not without reason that we employ this passage as a shield against the Anabaptists. They refuse baptism to infants, because infants are incapable of understanding that mystery which is denoted by it. We, on the other hand, maintain that, since baptism is the pledge and figure of the forgiveness of sins, and likewise of adoption by God, it ought not to be denied to infants, whom God adopts and washes with the blood of his Son. Their objection, that repentance and newness of life are also denoted by it, is easily answered. Infants are renewed by the Spirit of God, according to the capacity of their age, till that power which was concealed within them grows by degrees, and becomes fully manifest at the proper time. Again, when they argue that there is no other way in which we are reconciled to God, and become heirs of adoption, than by faith, we admit this as to adults, but, with respect to infants, this passage demonstrates it to be false. Certainly, the laying on of hands was not a trifling or empty sign, and the prayers of Christ were not idly wasted in air. But he could not present the infants solemnly to God without giving them purity. And for what did he pray for them, but that they might be received into the number of the children of God? Hence it follows, that they were renewed by the Spirit to the hope of salvation. In short, by embracing them, he testified that they were reckoned by Christ among his flock. And if they were partakers of the spiritual gifts, which are represented by Baptism, it is unreasonable that they should be deprived of the outward sign. But it is presumption and sacrilege to drive far from the fold of Christ those whom he cherishes in his bosom, and to shut the door, and exclude as strangers those whom he does not wish to be forbidden to come to him.1

Let us be clear. Calvin may be right that all those infants, in that instance, were regenerated but he did not write that if an infant is baptized by a minister that he is necessarily regenerated. The Reformed churches do not teach baptismal regeneration. Calvin’s Geneva Catechism (1545) specifically rejected baptismal regeneration. Nevertheless, this does not mean that infants should be excluded from the visible covenant community. In our understanding of redemptive history and Scripture, infants were always included into the visible people and it is there that God ordinarily brings his elect to faith. Contrary to the widely held assumption, we do not necessarily know when the Spirit brings people to new life and true faith. The minister who baptizes a professing adult convert does not know infallibly that person to be regenerated. We operate on the basis of credible professions of faith and divine promises. “I will be your God and your children’s God” (Gen 17:7) is still a divine promise. It did not mean that Esau was regenerated. He was not but neither may we conclude that we should forbid all infants from entrance into the visible covenant community because there might be an Esau among them.

Calvin’s comment gets to one of the core issues in the debate. Is the visible church composed only of believers or does the Abrahamic pattern of admitting believers and their children as professing and outwardly initiated members of the covenant community continue in the New Testament? The Reformed understanding of redemptive history and our Lord’s teaching is that the pattern continues. This is why the Apostle Peter said, “for the promise is to you and to your children and to all who far off…”. This is the Abrahamic pattern that unifies redemptive history. It includes believers, their children, and the Gentiles, those who were far off, those whom the Lord should efficaciously call to faith.

All things considered, bearing in mind Genesis 17:12, we must answer yes, the paedobaptist may fairly appeal to Matthew 19:13–15 for support of the theology, piety, and practice of infant baptism.

NOTES

1. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 389.

Calvin says in his Insitutes:

Hence our Lord Jesus Christ, to give an example from which the world might learn that he had come to enlarge rather than to limit the grace of the Father, kindly takes the little children in his arms, and rebukes his disciples for attempting to prevent them from, coming (Mt. 19:13), because they were keeping those to whom the kingdom of heaven belonged away from him, through whom alone there is access to heaven. But it will be asked, What resemblance is there between baptism and our Saviour embracing little children? He is not said to have baptised, but to have received, embraced, and blessed them; and, therefore, if we would imitate his example, we must give infants the benefit of our prayers, not baptise them. But let us attend to the act of our Saviour a little more carefully than these men do. For we must not lightly overlook the fact, that our Saviour, in ordering little children to be brought to him, adds the reason, ” of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And he afterwards testifies his good-will by act, when he embraces them, and with prayer and benediction commends them to his Father. If it is right that children should be brought to Christ, why should they not be admitted to baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ? If the kingdom of heaven is theirs, why should they be denied the sign by which access, as it were, is opened to the Church, that being admitted into it they may be enrolled among the heirs of the heavenly kingdom? How unjust were we to drive away those whom Christ invites to himself, to spoil those whom he adorns with his gifts, to exclude those whom he spontaneously admits. But if we insist on discussing the difference between our Saviour’s act and baptism, in how much higher esteem shall we hold baptism (by which we testify that infants are included in the divine covenant), than the taking up, embracing, laying hands on children, and praying over them, acts by which Christ, when present, declares both that they are his, and are sanctified by him. By the other cavils by which the objectors endeavour to evade this passage, they only betray their ignorance: they quibble that, because our Saviour says “Suffer little children to come,” they must have been several years old, and fit to come. But they are called by the Evangelists “βρέφη καὶ παιδία,” terms which denote infants still at their mothers’ breasts. The term “come” is used simply for “approach.” See the quibbles to which men are obliged to have recourse when they have hardened themselves against the truth! There is nothing more solid in their allegation, that the kingdom of heaven is not assigned to children, but to those like children, since the expression is, “of such,” not “of themselves.” If this is admitted, what will be the reason which our Saviour employs to show that they are not strangers to him from nonage? When he orders that little children shall be allowed to come to him, nothing is plainer than that mere infancy is meant. Lest this should seem absurd, he adds, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” But if infants must necessarily be comprehended, the expression, “of such,” clearly shows that infants themselves, and those like them, are intended (Institutes, IV. 16. 7).

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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9 comments

  1. Just a wonderful description of God’s working in the visible church, to assure us that even infants in their helplessness, are included in the administration of the covenant by virtue off the visible sign that assures them that, even in their inability to do anything to please God, they were offered acceptance with God through faith when they believe like our father Abraham. Calvin’s tender, pastoral commentary on Christ’s love for the little children brought me to tears.

    • Recently read the transcript of a sermon by John MacArthur who argued all the passage meant was that Jesus has a special care for children. It was painful to read, to say the least.

  2. Hi Scott. At the outset you asked the question: “Was he right to do so” (i.e., argue for the propriety of infant baptism on the basis of Matthew 19:13–15)? This seems to be a different question than what you answered in your post. Clearly, Matthew 19 and other texts like 1 Cor 7:14 support paedobaptism because they show that little children are members of the covenant, but that doesn’t make them optimal texts for a sermon on paedobaptism. There are clearly better texts (e.g., Acts 2:39, one of the household baptisms in Acts, or even Genesis 17).

    • Ken,
      I think you are missing the point. Christ’s acceptance of the little children is illustrative of the covenant promise to Abraham, I will be a God to you, and your children. The baptism of an adult and an infant show how God extends the covenant promise to adults that have come to faith and to covenant children. When we see that we have nothing to bring, when we are as dependent as little children, Christ is ready to receive us and bless us, just as He welcomed the little children. Baptism of infants says to them, even when you were a helpless infant God gave you the sign of his covenant promise that He loves you and accepts you by grace alone, through faith alone, in this promise.

    • Ken,

      To be clear, I do think Chris was right to use this text. I think there is an allusion to Genesis 17 in the text. As I said, this text is part of a broader argument. I would not rest the whole case here but this contributes significantly to the case for paedobaptism. Like any other sermon, this was one in a stream of sermons and part of the ongoing edification/instruction of the congregation. He was not resting the whole case for infant baptism on this text the congregation certainly saw the connection as the parents brought their children forward to be baptized and to be welcomed as members of the visible covenant community.

      Note that I appended Calvin’s comments on this verse from the Institutes which are helpful.

  3. I find it interesting that many who reject paedobaptism on supposed lack of biblical grounds will bring present their infant children in a Baby Dedication ceremony, of which no mention is ever made in New Testament practice.

  4. RSC: Having recently preached on the parallel passage in Mark 10, it struck me in my preparations how *ministerially off* the Twelve were in their moment of rebuking the parents. It seems their conduct was part of their slow progress to understand the identity and mission of Jesus. So this occasion is yet another lesson for them in Christology. They knew very well about the covenant membership of children. But, no, here they were eager to get on with the business of the kingdom as they misunderstood it. They had little time for those who were as powerless, insignificant, and unimportant as children. It is really telling to read how Jesus reacted with such indignation against what the Twelve had done, angry that they had interfered with the actions of the parents. He was emphatic: He endorsed those who were bringing their children to Him to lay His hands on them and pray. He affirmed the parents’ intention to submit their children to His ministry. He not only welcomed children: He *blessed* them as He announced in their presence both the promise and the warning of God’s covenant. He *prayed* for them. In other words, His was a prayer of covenantal benediction. In all this, it seems clear that He was affirming, for the benefit of the Twelve as well as the parents (and readers of the Gospels), the children’s identity as members of the covenant community over which He is Lord and mediator. Baptism would emerge later as the sign of the new covenant, but here Jesus reaffirmed the genealogical principle of the covenant community that He was re-forming under His mediation.

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