The Kingdom of Heaven, part 2
Part I ended with these questions: “This leaves us wondering, then, at what point does the child cease to be a child? And at this point is the kingdom that belonged to him or her as an infant and child now ripped from him or her? Is this the so-called age of reason? Additionally, what role does faith and hearing play in the lives of the unborn and infants? Difficult questions that I hope to answer or at least explore in Part 2.”
I will say at the outset that if your looking for a sort of one-for-one answer in a systematic fashion, you will probably be a bit disappointed. But I appeal to the truth that Jesus is a man, a human who is conceived by God. As dangerous as it is to say, I must say that Jesus is not a systematic. That is not to say that doctrine is somehow secondary to Jesus as He is the word made flesh. He taught and so teaching is part and parcel of who He is. Doctrine does indeed wholly matter. But the teaching is one of life, eternal life, not one of theses, counter theses, and simple propositions. But enough of that; to the matter at hand.
Here is the problem: Jesus says the kingdom of heaven belongs to the little ones, so we conclude that they should be baptized. Good so far. But then we read that faith comes by hearing and that without faith it is impossible to please God and that we are saved by grace through faith. How can these be reconciled? How can little ones who cannot hear (i.e., be edified by what is said, comprehend, etc.) believe what is preached? If they cannot believe, how can they be saved?
We are left with a few options. 1) Because children are innocent of intentional sins, they are automatically saved. 2) Baptism saves children so we should baptize them. 3) The hearing of faith is somehow different than the hearing of physical ears so that infants and children can, in some way, discern the gospel from what is preached.
I must admit that I have defaulted to the last option in the past but now wonder if that’s such a good idea. It’s not that I don’t believe infants can have faith, they can! And there’s always the example of St. John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Ghost at the greeting of the Blessed Mother, but still, it seems to fall flat based on the above paraphrase of St. Paul that faith comes by hearing. This hearing isn’t a theological or spiritual hearing but an actual reception of what is being said so that a deaf person can “hear” the gospel by the properties of the language of signs and a hearing person hears the gospel by the properties of the language of words. But an infant, the unborn and so forth, cannot hear in this way. No matter how much we may want them to, they cannot hear with clarity the good news that Jesus died for them and was raised for them and will come again for them. What good is it, St. Paul asks, if we speak in a language that cannot be comprehended? It doesn’t build up. So I think we can put to rest the notion that the ears – developed or otherwise – of the little ones are the means by which they are saved in the same way that an adult who hears the gospel and say “amen” to it.
But does this mean that infants (hereafter the words “infant” “child” “babies” and so forth will be shorthand for the time from conception to the time when a person can reason with others) are saved in a different way than adults? Do they have a (gulp) different dispensation? I don’t think so, but much of the answer will lie in the postulation of two points: that of election and that of what I will call the journey of the faithful. Here is a fourth option to the three unsatisfactory ones above: the option of Jesus’ preeminence, our election, and the journey of faith.
But before I continue down this path, which I think is the path that will lead us to a proper understanding of this present quandary, I would address the first two options. (I have already dismissed the third option in the paragraphs above.) The first option is obviously rejected because no child is innocent of damning sin because every child born of the seed of Adam is infected with original sin; lack of fear and trust in God. “No one is righteous” includes little ones just as “all nations” includes them. So, no, children are not saved or blessed because they are innocent.
The second point is trickier. Taken one way it must be rejected, but taken another way it may be said rightly that baptism saves. In fact, St. Peter says exactly that. He teaches that baptism saves us as an appeal to a clean conscience before God by the resurrection of Jesus (1 Peter 3:21). In other words, because Jesus is raised from the dead and reigns in holiness and purity, we who are baptized into Him appeal to His innocence and righteousness as the reason we are not condemned. By His life we are declared innocent and have a clean conscience. Baptism is our assurance that this is so.
But it must be rejected to say that baptism saves us like some magical bath in mythical waters. In other words, as so many people are keen to say, water doesn’t save anyone. True. But baptism is not just plain water. It is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s promise. As long as we keep this perspective we can say with great confidence that baptism does indeed save us. But here we must – it seems we always must – be reminded that those who reject the promises of God given and attached to baptism are not saved precisely because they do not believe said promises even if they are baptized. In the end, baptism is comprehended by faith. Faith does not make baptism work, the word of God is the power in holy baptism, but to receive the promises offered in holy baptism is to have faith. Some say that faith receives the promises of God in baptism, but I think this leads to unnecessary confusion as faith is the reception of the promises. Properly speaking, faith doesn’t receive the promises, receiving the promises is faith.
Anyway, even with baptism we cannot get rid of faith as a necessary component of salvation. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Faith is trust in what God says about Jesus and us. So what about children? It seems that instead of reconciling children and infants to faith we have further removed from them the possibility that they can in fact believe because they cannot comprehend language, the medium of the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. Here I will shift our approach by saying that faith isn’t a quality. Faith is a way of life, what I refer to above as the journey of the faithful.
Here is where the fourth option comes into play. If children cannot comprehend language (spoken or sign), how can they believe and be saved? If we approach salvation from the vantage point of a human life, that a person is conceived, born, grows up, and then dies, and somewhere along the way hears and is exposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and either believes or doesn’t believe, then our concern about the salvation of children is justified since they cannot comprehend language. But if we approach salvation from the vantage point of election and the life of faith, admitting that our common use of the word “saved” is shorthand for “going to heaven” then the salvation of children, and even of all people, is more easily understood and delighted in.
What do I mean that the word “saved” is shorthand for “going to heaven”? I mean that when we ask if a person is saved we most often are asking if they will go to heaven. This is not necessarily wrong, but it is not complete and sometimes quite wrong. To understand salvation we mustn’t start with us and our faith and our hearing and our exposure to the gospel. We must start with Jesus. He is our salvation and we are saved in Him. Indeed, the scriptures teach that creation is saved through Him (Romans 8:19-23). St. Paul writes that Jesus is the first born of all creation, that He is the head of the body, the congregation of saints, that He might be preeminent in all things. It is true to say, as scripture does, that Jesus is the beginning of creation (Revelation 3:14). This is so simple to write but the ramifications of it are so far reaching as to be beyond my ability to express it. Thank God for the Scriptures!
In Jesus humanity is saved. When this is the beginning of our preaching and comfort for others – if not literally at least ideologically – then faith and all that pertains to godliness falls into place. We tend to think of faith in terms of something we have or do not have. And there is merit in this; even the scriptures speak that way at times. But faith is also spoken of as remaining in the truth and working out our salvation and striving for what is ahead. Faith is not merely the consent or belief that Jesus is the Son of God, born of the Blessed Virgin, and all the creeds confess, a consent to historical facts, faith is also living under the reign of Jesus. So whether we believe or are simply are too overwhelmed by the glory of it all but that we shake our heads in disbelief that God could be so merciful as to save us by the sacrifice and life of His Son, we still live under the reign of Christ. This is what it means to submit to Christ.
When we participate in the sacraments, we are submitting to the reign of Christ. When we refuse to do so we are denying His reign. So as much as we can say that we are saved, we also say – as the scriptures do – that we are being saved. We can now understand Jesus’ words that whoever endures to the end shall be saved (Mark 13:13). To those who submit to Christ we can say with St. Paul that “[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him,” that “in love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5).
The kingdom of heaven belongs to the little ones. If they reject it by refusing to submit to Christ, then they reject it. They can repent according to the will and kindness of God (Romans 2:4), or, hardening their hearts they reject the truth and live apart from God having rejected the very kingdom which was purchased for them. When does this happen? Who knows? Ours is never to decide when a person can somehow take responsibility for their faith – those who teach that confirmation is just that might pause in such an insistence – but to proclaim that by the promises of God in Christ salvation belongs to us and all who the Lord calls to Himself and to renounce and rebuke those who reject those promises.
So once again (see Part 1), we see that participation in the sacraments is not for unbelievers but for believers. The gospel is for all people and those who believe, those who say “amen” participate in the sacraments even as we baptize infants because of the promise that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. The unborn, too. It might be tempting to say that the unborn, because they cannot be baptized and they cannot comprehend the gospel, cannot be saved, but this would be to deny that they, too, are little ones for whom Jesus died and rose and ascended, that they cannot live in submission to Christ. If you wonder about all those die as little ones yet never heard the gospel and aren’t born to Christian parents, I would say that such an obstacle doesn’t make void Jesus’ words. But honestly, I’m not sure how much thought we should give this scenario. Not because it is too sad or damning – nothing is impossible with God – but because it leads us to think that salvation for infants and children is different than for adults. Unbaptized babies are not damned because they are unbaptized. They are not damned at all! God elects no one to damnation. Do they go to heaven? We shall see. But what we know and can stand on and find great comfort in is that to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.
So where does this finally leave us? Trusting in the promises of God given through the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. The grand and almost over the top descriptions of His reign and majesty that you sometimes hear in the apostles and prophets are actually the extreme limits of the human language to describe the indescribable and make known the unknowable. In the end we submit to Him who is who was and who shall be; Him who reigns in heaven and on earth and makes His reign known through the proclamation of His kingdom of mercy, grace, and life.