Jan 4, 2015

Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me

Luke 18:15–17

God alone is worthy of our unconditional trust. In the sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke, encouraging us to draw near to our heavenly Father in childlike faith and dependence.


This morning, we will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 18:15–17. I want to ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him and said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”

This statement from our Lord is brief but exceedingly important, as He sets before us necessary criteria for entering His kingdom that we should not overlook or neglect in any way. Remember that this is the unvarnished Word of God, carrying the fullness of His truth and authority. Please receive it as such and be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, we need Your help to have a correct understanding of Your Word, not only that we may understand it with our minds, but that it would go to our hearts and souls and change us from within. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Central Doctrine of Justification

Before I look at this text, I would like to do some historical reconnaissance that might shed some light on the profound significance of the words Jesus spoke to His disciples so long ago. I am thinking of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, which resulted in the greatest fracture of Christendom in church history.

When we examine the root causes of the Protestant Reformation, we see that there were several issues on the table. Two were more significant than the rest. The first, called the material cause of the Reformation, was the central issue of the debate, namely the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Luther observed that this doctrine was the article upon which the church stands or falls. Calvin called it the hinge upon which everything turns. Packer called it the Atlas upon which everything depends. You might remember Ayn Rand’s famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, and I think that image is one of the most provocative in print. Imagine mighty Atlas with the globe of the world on his shoulders, and suddenly he shrugs, and there goes the world.

The idea in those metaphors is that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not some secondary or tertiary theological consideration but concerns the core of the gospel itself. Without this doctrine, you do not have the gospel, and without the gospel, you do not have the Christian faith. So, we can see why the debate was so furious in the sixteenth century.

Authority in Question

Lurking beneath the surface of the material cause of justification was the second matter that provoked division: the question of authority. When Luther defended his doctrine of sola fide before the magisterium of the Roman communion, he engaged in debates in Leipzig, Heidelberg, and other places with the prelates and theologians of Rome.

Constantly, Luther was asked this question: “Brother Luther, how can you believe a doctrine that is rejected by holy mother Church? We look to our church history, and we see that church councils and papal encyclicals all affirm a doctrine that you’re denying.”

The issue was the question of authority. Later, when the final council came at Wittenberg at the Imperial Diet called by Emperor Charles V, when Luther was called to recant of his work, he said: “Revoko? You want me to say, ‘Revoko, I recant?’ Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I cannot recant, because my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” The Reformation was off and running.

The Counter-Reformation

After the Protestant Reformation took place, the Roman Catholic Church did not roll over, play dead, and acquiesce to the dictates of the Protestant movement. Rather, they brought forth what historians call the Counter-Reformation, the response to the Reformation.

The Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century was three-pronged. First was the Spanish Inquisition, during which those who departed from the church and embraced Protestant doctrine were captured and subjected to forms of torture that would make the contemporary debate about torture insignificant. I was once in Rottenburg, Germany, which contains a museum filled with the implements and machines of torture used in the Inquisition, and they were ghastly, but that was only the first prong.

The second prong was creating a special order of priests to deal with the intellectual academic issues in dispute with Protestantism, and that order of priests was founded by Ignatius of Loyola. One of the ironies of church history was that the very same day Ignatius of Loyola, dressed as a beggar, entered as a freshman at the University of Paris, another Frenchman was leaving the campus holding in his hand the certificate of his doctorate in theology. Whether they brushed shoulders or saw each other, we do not know, but the man leaving with his PhD was John Calvin, who would be Loyola’s greatest adversary. That was the second prong of the Counter-Reformation.

The third and surely most important prong of the Counter-Reformation was the calling of an ecumenical council. In an ecumenical council, bishops from all over the world made definitive decrees for the church, such as what happened at the Council of Nicaea, the Council of Constantinople, the Council of Chalcedon, the First Vatican Council, and the Second Vatican Council.

An ecumenical council was called and held in Trento, Italy, called the Council of Trent. There, the Roman Church defined her doctrine, in their view, infallibly for all time. It took several years and many sessions to complete their work. The most important was the sixth session, in which they defined once and for all their doctrine of justification, a doctrine they reaffirmed as recently as the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the 1990s.

In the sixth session of Trent, Rome defined her doctrine of justification and gave over twenty anathemas against what they saw as heretical views of justification, including the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. It was a formal statement saying, “If anyone says that we are justified by faith alone, so let him be anathema, let him be damned.” That decree of damnation has never been rescinded and still exists today.

Private Interpretation

My concern this morning is not necessarily justification, though I am always concerned about justification, but rather about the secondary issue, that of authority. In the fourth session of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church declared that the Holy Scriptures were indeed the Word of God, infallible, inerrant, and inspired. On the same plane as Scripture, however, they placed the tradition of the church. Rome defined a dual standard or source of divine revelation, the Bible and church traditions, so the Council of Trent itself would have as much authority as the Bible. With respect to the Bible, however, the church rejected the Protestant doctrine of private interpretation.

Let me read to you a statement from the fourth session: “Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, it decrees that no one relying on his own judgment shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds…” You get the idea.

In this statement, when the guns of Rome fired at the Protestant view of private interpretation, they missed their target altogether. Neither Luther or any of the magisters or Reformers said that any individual has the right to distort the Scriptures according to their own conceptions. The doctrine of private interpretation says we all have the right to read and interpret the Bible for ourselves, but with that right comes the awesome responsibility to interpret it correctly. That was a dead miss, but the statement goes on to say, “No one can presume to interpret them contrary to that sense in which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation.” We never have the right to interpret the Bible in any manner that differs from the way it has been interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church, according to this council.

Implicit Faith

If you look at the doctrine of justification throughout church history, you will see that perhaps the most significant person with respect to that doctrine was the ancient theologian Saint Augustine. Luther was a member of the Augustinian order of monks, and it was from reading Augustine that he was awakened to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Calvin’s favorite theologian was Augustine.

The Reformers, with respect to questions of salvation, all followed Augustine, but with respect to the doctrine of the church, they departed from Augustine. He said that holy mother Church is to be believed, obeyed, and given a faith that he defined as a fides implicitum. What does that mean, and who cares? The idea is that people are to submit to the teaching of the church with an implicit faith. That means, if the church says it, you believe it. That is the end of it. You trust the church implicitly.

As much as I might wish people believed what I said implicitly, nobody thinks that is happening. Everybody knows that I am not infallible. They know that I make mistakes. They know that they are not responsible before God to believe everything that I say, preach, or teach without question. You are not supposed to have a slavish dependence upon my authority.

On the other hand, you are held responsible by God to give serious consideration and weight to what your pastors teach and preach to you, knowing of course they are not infallible, but they have been trained, tested, and are responsible to accurately teach you the Word of God. Even though you may disagree with them with impunity, you cannot just dismiss their teaching out of hand. That is the other side of the coin.

One Went Home Justified

What does all that have to do with the text I read this morning? Before Jesus had this brief discussion with His disciples, He gave the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, and that question came down to justification.

The two men went into the temple to pray, and one stood looking up to heaven saying, “Lord, I thank You that I’m not like other men, especially that miserable tax collector standing way back in the back.” The tax collector would not even raise his head to heaven. He would not come close to the Holy Place, but he simply said, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said that man went to his house justified. Jesus ended that parable with these words: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Children Brought to Jesus

The next portion of the text Luke gives us is an incident of parents trying to bring their children close to Jesus to have Jesus touch their heads and pronounce His blessing upon them. When Jesus was trying to preach and heal people, we might picture these parents interrupting Him, trying to push to the front of the crowd with their little ones so that Jesus could bless them.

The disciples were annoyed: “What are you doing? Can’t you see the Master’s busy? He doesn’t have time for your children. You should have left them at home with a babysitter or taken them to a childcare center if you were going to come hear Jesus.” The disciples were angry and trying to prevent the little ones from coming to Jesus.

Luke says, “Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.” If it was time for a rebuke, it was not for the parents bringing their infants. It was for those trying to prevent them. Jesus called them to Himself and said: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them. Do not hinder them. Don’t prevent them. Don’t get in their way. Let them come. Bring them to Me.”

This has radical implications for infant baptism, but I am not going to carry those out this morning. I will save that for some other time. This is what Jesus was saying: “They want to come close to Me and they want My blessing. The parents want Me to put My hand on their head and pronounce a blessing upon them.”

Jesus did not believe that He could place His hand on the children’s heads and save them just by that. Jesus believed in justification by faith more than Luther did. He did, however, want the little infants set apart and consecrated, such that they would be in a place where they would grow up in the understanding, nurture, and teaching of the things of God.

Childlike, Not Childish

Jesus said: “Do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” He was saying: “Let them come. Gentlemen, I’ve been training you as My disciples, but you don’t understand it yet. These little ones belong to My kingdom. Those that are like these little ones, to such belong the kingdom of God.”

Jesus did not say that every infant is automatically in the kingdom of God, but He was saying that people in the kingdom of God must be like these infants. They must be as little children.

When Jesus said that you must be like a little child to get into the kingdom of God, we need to understand what that means. The Bible teaches much more elsewhere about being like children. How many times have you heard people say: “I don’t want a snobby doctrine. I don’t want to get involved in the complexities of theology. I want to just have a childlike faith”?

Dear friends, there is a huge difference between a childlike faith and a childish faith. The New Testament rebukes us when we want to stay as children. We were told to be babes in evil, not grown-up, sophisticated, for-adults-only kind of sinners. The sins we have should be the minor sins associated with little babies and children, not gross and horrendous sins that adults commit.

The Apostle says, “Be babes in evil, but in understanding, be adults” (1 Cor. 14:20). You cannot be satisfied with milk, which is for infants. As you grow into adulthood, you want to dig deeply into the Word of God, to the meat of Scripture, and be nurtured by the meat of the Word of God. Paul said: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I acted like a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11).

Implicit Trust in the Father

What did Jesus mean in this text? How are we to be childlike? I think it relates to the question I went over earlier regarding authority and fides implicitum. I know we talk about the “terrible twos” and so on with respect to our kids, but for the most part, our little ones do not give us sophisticated arguments against our authority.

I was at the supermarket yesterday while Vesta was buying food. I sit in the car and watch when I have nothing else to do. I see how people observe the stop signs. I counted seventy-nine cars at the stop sign, and two of them stopped. Seventy-seven treated them as “opt” signs, optional. You really must stop for them.

While I was counting stop sign offenders, I watched a man come across the parking lot with a three-year-old little boy, and he had him by the hand. The little boy did not even know where he was. He was looking all over the place, and his father had to keep pulling on his hand to get him to come along, but he was not fighting, kicking, and screaming against his father.

The boy’s father was leading him across the street where there was traffic, and the little boy trusted the hand that held him. He trusted his father implicitly. That is what it means to have a childlike faith. You do not trust me implicitly. You do not trust the church implicitly. You do not trust the government implicitly. But you do trust God implicitly.

Believing God

This morning in our liturgy, when we had our confession of sin followed by our assurance of pardon, the minister read these words from 1 John: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I love and hate that verse.

When I was a young man, I had a guilty conscience about something. I talked to the minister, and he took me to 1 John 1:9. He said, “The Bible says that if you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I read the verse and said, “I still feel guilty,” and he said, “Let me give you another verse to read.” He handed me the Bible and pointed to the same verse. He said, “Now read that one.” I said, “That’s the one I just read.” He said: “Read it again. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. How do you feel now?” I said, “I still feel pretty guilty.” He said, “Okay, let me give you another verse,” and he gave me the same verse.

How many times before you believe Him does God have to tell you that if you confess your sins to Him, He will forgive them? I have said a thousand times, it is one thing to believe in God, but what Christianity is all about is believing God.

It was the prophet Habakkuk who said the just shall live by faith, or the righteous shall live by trust. Three times that verse is repeated in the New Testament with respect to our salvation, which means to be justified by faith means to be justified by trusting what God says.

The biggest problem we have in our lives is that we do not believe what God says. We would prefer to sin than to obey Him because we do not believe that if we obey Him, we can be happy. Not once in the history of the human race has sin brought happiness. It has brought pleasure, but never happiness.

God Deserves Trust

When God gives His law, it is not because He is a killjoy. It is because He loves us and knows what is good for us, because He does all things well. He says to us: “Trust Me. Trust Me with your life. Trust Me with your vocation. Trust Me with your marriage. Trust Me with your family.”

He wants from His children fides implicitum, an implicit trust. The only being that exists who deserves implicit trust is God. Why should we not trust Him implicitly? Has He ever lied? Has He ever broken a promise? Has He ever uttered a falsehood? His Word is truth. Trust it. That is what Jesus was saying in this text.

If you do not give that kind of trust to God, you will never enter the kingdom of God. Jesus took this opportunity with the little ones to say to the big ones, “Learn from the little ones, because this is how My kingdom is established.”

Draw near to God

Recently I have been re-reading the great Puritan writer Jeremiah Burroughs’s book titled Gospel Worship. It is one of my favorite books. It talks about what true worship looks like. True worship always involves preparation. You do not just come into the presence of God without some forethought of where you are going and what you are going to do there.

Burroughs goes back to the Old Testament where God called Moses up to the mountain to receive the law. God told Moses to say to the people before going: “Consecrate a fast among the people. Have the people wash their clothes and prepare their souls, lest they come profanely and when they touch the mountain, they die.”

God says repeatedly in the Bible, “Draw nigh unto Me.” We are to come close to Him. We are to approach Him, just like the little children who came to Jesus. At the same time, we are told who it is to whom we come near.

Every Jew in Palestine who went to synagogue knew that God is omnipresent. Moses certainly knew that God is omnipresent. There is nowhere God is not. David said: “Where shall I flee from Thy spirit? If I ascend to heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. I can’t get away from You. You are everywhere.” Yet, God had them make a tabernacle and a temple, of which He said: “This is our meeting place. This is my dwelling place.” God’s location is not fixed inside of a building, but He said: “This is a special place that is holy ground. Come near to Me.”

That is why, when you walk through the door of the church, you leave the world. You leave the profane, and you come into the presence of the holy, because God has said: “Come into My presence. Hear My Word and trust it.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.