My friend and I have an ongoing debate about the relevance of Matthew 19 for the discussion of infant baptism. He says it has nothing to do with the Sacrament of Baptism, and I insist it does. Some were bringing children to Christ that He might lay His hands on them. When the disciples saw it, they tried to prevent them. But our Lord responds, "Let the little children come to Me and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
On the surface, my friend is right; baptism is not explicitly mentioned. But the failure to see the connection between this text and the Sacrament of Baptism says something about the way he views Baptism as well as revealing the way he does theology.
First, what does Scripture tell us Baptism does? For many evangelicals the question itself does not make sense. When I ask the question in person, I often get a response similar to the one I get when I hit the wrong button on my computer and the computer doesn't know what to do with it. It doesn't compute. That's because most evangelicals are taught that baptism is an outward sign of an inward thing. In other words, Baptism is merely symbolic. But is that true?
According to Scripture, Baptism washes away sin (Acts 22:16), grants forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), and saves us (1 Peter 3:21). Awww, did he just say Baptism saves us? No, he just pointed out that Scripture tells us Baptism saves us. Baptism washes away sin, forgives sin, and saves because in Baptism we are joined to the work of Christ, "Don't you know that all of you who were Baptized into Christ Jesus were Baptized into His death. We were, therefore, buried with Him through Baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so you too may have new life." In Baptism were are united to Christ and enjoy the benefits of His saving work.
So, we see that Baptism is not an empty sign. It is not an outward sign of an inward work. Far from it. Baptism is truly a Sacrament that really DOES SOMETHING for us.
Baptism, according to the apostle Paul in Romans 6, unites us to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Being united to Him in baptism, we belong to Christ and His community. Paul's language is Baptismal language. Often we see Paul writing the phrase, "in Christ." This, "in Christ," language is baptismal language.
And to be Baptized into Christ is to be united to His Church, the community of believers. Paul uses this language in 1 Corinthians 12, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body." To be Baptized into Christ is to be Baptized into the Church, Christ's community. Acts 2: 41 says, "So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls."
In Matthew 19, it is clear that the disciples believe that the children being brought to Christ do not belong there. Obviously, they think that Christ should not be bothered by these little curtain climbers. But you can sense Christ's indignation in His answer, "Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." If the Kingdom of heaven belongs to "these," then the gifts of Christ's kingdom belong to them as well.
How can the kingdom of heaven belong to the little ones? Does it belong to them by nature? In other words, are children innocent and natural members of the Kingdom? No. Romans 5 makes it clear that Adam's sin has impacted all of humanity with no exceptions. Everyone born in Adam is dead in sin and condemned. David tells us in the great penitential Psalm 51, that we are conceived and born sinful. By nature we are alienated from God and His kingdom and are children of wrath. Christ says, "That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit." (John 3:6)
So how can little children be part of the community of Christ? The answer is the same as it is for adults. "You must be born again," and "unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:5) One is not a member of the kingdom of God by nature, he must be born again. It's true that God does not have any grandchildren, but God graciously makes our children his in the waters of baptism, "for this is for you, and FOR YOUR CHILDREN, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call. (Acts 2:38)
Children become part of the community of Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. The children in Matthew 19 similarly were part of the kingdom through the Old Testament rite of circumcision. Now, in the community of Christ, children belong to the kingdom through the waters of Baptism where something actually happens, they are united to Christ in His life, death and resurrection and now belong to Him.