From Expository Thoughts on Mark, 10:13-16 (1857)
Let us learn, for one thing, from this passage, how much attention the souls of children should receive from the Church of Christ. The great head of the Church found time to take special notice of children. Although his time on earth was precious, and grown-up men and women were perishing on every side for lack of knowledge, he did not think little boys and girls of small importance. He had room in his mighty heart even for them. He declared by his outward gesture and deed, his good will toward them. And not least, he has left on record words concerning them, which his Church should never forget, “Of such is the kingdom of God.”
We must never allow ourselves to suppose that little children’s souls may be safely let alone. Their characters for life depend exceedingly on what they see and hear during their first seven years. They are never too young to learn evil and sin. They are never too young to receive religious impressions. They think in their childish way about God, and their souls, and a world to come, far sooner and far more deeply than most people are aware. They are far more ready to respond to appeals to their feeling of right and wrong than many suppose. They have each a conscience. God has mercifully not left himself without a witness in their hearts, fallen and corrupt as their natures are…
These truths ought to be diligently considered by every branch of the Church of Christ. It is the bounden duty of every Christian congregation to make provision for the spiritual training of its children. The boys and girls of every family should be taught as soon as they can learn… should be regarded with affectionate interest as the future congregation, which will fill our places when we are dead. We may confidently expect Christ’s blessing on all attempts to do good to children.
No church can be regarded as being in a healthy state which neglects its younger members, and lazily excuses itself on the plea, that “young people will be young,” and that it is useless to try to do them good. Such a church shows plainly that it has not the mind of Christ. A congregation which consists of none but grown-up people, whose children are idling at home or running wild in the streets or fields, is a most deplorable and unsatisfactory sight. The members of such a congregation may pride themselves on their numbers, and on the soundness of their own views. They may content themselves with loud assertions that they cannot change their children’s hearts, and that God will convert them some day if he thinks fit. But they have yet to learn that Christ regards them as neglecting a solemn duty, and that Christians who do not use every means to bring children to Christ are committing a great sin.
Let us learn, for another thing, from this passage, how much encouragement there is to bring young children to be baptized. Of course, it is not pretended that there is any mention of baptism, or even any reference to it in the verses before us. All we mean to say is that the expressions and gestures of our Lord in this passage, are a strong indirect argument in favor of infant baptism. It is on this account that the passage occupies a prominent place in the baptismal service of the Church of England.
The subject of infant baptism is undoubtedly a delicate and difficult one. Holy and praying men are unable to see alike upon it. Although they read the same Bible, and profess to be led by the same Spirit, they arrive at different conclusions about this sacrament. The great majority of Christians hold that infant baptism is scriptural and right. A comparatively small section of the Protestant Church, but one containing many eminent saints among its members, regards infant baptism as unscriptural and wrong. The difference is a melancholy proof of the blindness and infirmity which remain even in the saints of God.
But the difference now referred to must not make members of the Church of England shrink from holding decided opinions on the subject. That church has declared plainly, in its Articles, that “the baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” To this opinion we need not be afraid to adhere.
It is allowed on all sides that infants may be elect and chosen of God unto salvation — may be washed in Christ’s blood, born again of the Spirit, have grace, be justified, sanctified, and enter heaven. If these things be so, it is hard to see why they may not receive the outward sign of baptism.
It is allowed furthermore that infants are members of Christ’s visible church, by virtue of their parents’ Christianity. What else can we make of Paul’s words, “now are they holy” (1 Cor. 7:14). If this be so, it is difficult to understand why an infant may not receive the outward sign of admission into the church, just as the Jewish child received the outward sign of circumcision.
The objection that baptism ought only to be given to those who are old enough to repent and believe, does not appear a convincing one. We read in the New Testament that the “houses” of Lydia and Stephanus were baptized, and that the jailer of Philippi and “all his” were baptized. It is very difficult to suppose that in no one of these three cases were there any children (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16).
The objection that our Lord Jesus Christ himself never directly commanded infants to be baptized is not a weighty one. The church of the Jews, to which he came, had always been accustomed to admit children into the church by the sign of circumcision. The very fact that Jesus says nothing about the age for baptizing, goes far to prove that he intended no change to be made.
The Rt. Rev. J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) was a gifted teacher and preacher, one of the great leaders of the evangelical movement in 19th century Anglicanism. He served in a series of parish posts and became the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880. During his twenty-year leadership of the diocese, he made great strides in connecting the church’s ministry with the needs of the working classes. His Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, commentaries based on his sermons as a parish priest, were deeply influential across the evangelical world. The text has been adapted for contemporary readers.