A CHILD IN THE MIDST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-11-69 10:50 a.m.
Sharing with us the First Baptist Church service in Dallas, this is the pastor bringing the message entitled A Child In The Midst. Reading from the First Gospel chapter 18:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the
greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
And Jesus called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of them—
and that is the title and the text, A Little Child in the Midst—
And Jesus called a little child and set him in the midst
And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as this little child, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
And whoso shall receive one such little child in My name receiveth Me.
I am to speak first of the importance of the little child. In God’s sight, the virtues exhibited by the little child are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven; the life of faith and trust exhibited by the little child. The little child reflects more of the spirit of Jesus and the presence of God than any other illustration God could find in the earth.
With doubt and dismay you are smitten,
as up the hilltop you plod.
Then friend, get close to a baby,
for a baby is nearest to God.
Your head is encompassed by darkness,
with your feet stuck fast in the sod.
Nearby is the light of a baby’s smile,
And back of the smile is God.
And this appraisal of the worth and the virtue of a little child is confirmed by all that I can read in pedagogy and in psychology. Preparing for some of the decisions that I am being forced to make, one of which I shall announce this morning, and in preparing for this message and other messages that shall follow like it, I asked Mrs. Lively, our librarian, to gather for me books on pedagogian and child psychology. To my amazement, she brought a large satchel full, and I took them out to the study at the parsonage and went through those books.
And as much as I suspected that the psychologists and the psychiatrists and the pedagogues would lay at the foot of our training of little children, all of the issues that develop in our lives, I was even more overwhelmed by what actually they are saying today. For example, a great far-famed mathematician said that in teaching mathematics, he was gradually working himself down from the graduate school to the kindergarten and then added, “and now I have come to the nursery.”
These things are fantastic; they are unbelievable; that a great mathematician, in seeking to teach mathematics and the mind that can enter into all of the intricacies of those mathematical formulae and equation, that he finally takes it down to the nursery! And then as I read and looked through those books, I was surprised at the experiments by which they teach little fellows to think and to reason. I haven’t time even begin to enter into these things, but I’ll give you one illustration of how one of them did, and how early in life he did it.
Take a little baby, and it’s a bottled baby. That’s quite different from the way that I grew up. I nursed at my mother’s breast, but they don’t do that much anymore. And there are a whole lot of psychologists who say that there are a whole lot of things that go wrong today because of that, and I’m not able to say yea or nay because I’m not instructed in those things, but today we feed our babies with a bottle.
Now they took this little baby, and they gave him a bottle as you would give a bottle to a little baby to nurse. Then, in order to teach that little child how to think and how to reason, how to use his mind, why, the pedagogue takes a bottle and turns it wrong-side, and gives it to the little fellow with the blunt end, and then watches until that little fellow learns to turn it over where the nipple is and to get his dinner. How early in life these psychologists experiment with the human mind, teaching children. And all of them as they follow through the repercussions in our lives, all of them go back and back and back and back and back, and some of the most learned pedagogues of this generation avow that, by the time a child is three years old, practically all of his ultimate character and responses are formed, and by the time he is six years old, they are set.
It’s astonishing to me what I read in these books on pedagogy. Well, be that as they shall write and implement, there is no doubt but that the influences that in early life are placed around children ultimately meet whatever that boy or that girl is to be. And of all of those influences, of course, the first and foremost and the earliest is the mother.
Nero’s mother was a murderess. Is it any wonder at Nero? Lord Byron’s mother was ill-tempered and violent and volatile. Is it any wonder that Lord Byron should have written on his thirty-sixth birthday, after which he soon died, “My days are in the yellow leaf. The flowers and fruits of love are gone. The worm, the canker and the grief are mine alone” [On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year, 1824].
Wesleys’ mother was one of the godliest women who ever lived; is it any wonder at Charles, who sang so beautifully and whose songs we sing today? And John who preached the gospel? Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s mother—the great English Baptist London preacher—Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s mother was known far and revered for her graces. She was a little petite woman and, of course, belonged to the Anglican Church. And upon a day Charles Haddon Spurgeon was walking with his little mother in the garden, and he had his arm around her shoulder. And as they walked together, the sweet graceful little mother said to Charles, “Charles, I prayed that God would make you a preacher, but not a Baptist preacher!” whereupon Charles Haddon Spurgeon replied, “Well, Mother, always God gives us more than we ask for.”
The mother of George Washington was one of the noblest women of her kind and of her time. And the mother of Sir Walter Scott was a painter and a poet and loved both. The Scottish bard but reflected in his life, the love and training of his gifted, devoted mother.
Nor have I time to speak of the home. When the home is volative and furious and ill-tempered and ill-mannered, without the graces and the virtues of the Christian faith, why, no wonder the children reflect what they find and see and do in the home. I read that there were a couple of kids out in the yard, and they were just going at it like wildcats. And the mother went out there, and said, “Stop that, you kids! What you doing?” And they said, “We’re playing papa and mama.” Children are great imitators; that’s how they learn. And they reflect the training in the home. And I haven’t time to speak of the school, and I haven’t time to speak of the companions, the little friends they grew up with, but I take a moment to speak of the church.
To my great sorrow, to my inexpressible grief, I read that the influence of the church, its method of training and teaching go for almost nothing in the life of the child. And the illustration of that nothingness, of that ineptitude and inaptitude, and of our dismal and abysmal failure was illustrated by a scientific survey that was made by one of the great fundamental, conservative denominations of America. It is not the Southern Baptists; it is another denomination, but that denomination preaches the Bible and believes in Jesus, and is a great fundamental communion. And the scientific pedagogical survey was made of the youngsters and the young people in that communion. And this is what they found; they said that there are not four percent of the youngsters and the young people in that denomination who are any different because of their Christian training from the other kids and the other young people in the neighborhood and in the community where they live. It has no affect upon their lives whatsoever. Whatever the other kids do in the community, they do. Whatever the other kids do in the neighborhood, they do. And whatever the young people are doing, they are doing. And that the church and its teachings and its ministries make no effect, no contribution, no change in the life of the young people at all, not for ninety-six percent of them.
Well, a thing like that brings inexplicable grief and sorrow to my heart. Could that be true of our young people, too? We love them, and pray for them, and rear them, and teach them in this church. Then when they go outside and mingle with their companions, they’re no different. Whatever the rest of them doing, they do. Whatever the rest of them believe, they believe. Whatever the rest of them play at, they play it. Whatever the rest of them are giving their lives to, that’s what they’re interested in. Is that true, that Jesus makes no difference in the lives of ninety-six percent of them?
A thing like that brings sorrow to my heart and also a re-examination of our pedagogical methods here in our own church. How are we teaching the mind of God in Christ Jesus? And how are we trying to mold and to train the life of that child as he and she grows up? Lord, what’s the matter with us? And how is it that we failed so disastrously? God has to give us wisdom to know how to do. I am just saying this, that Jesus placed the emphasis upon the child; “of such,” He said, “is the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 19:14]. This is what it is to be like God. And to be like our Lord, this is it. And this is what it is to be a Christian, and if we can’t teach that and keep that in the lives of our youngsters and our young people and finally in the manhood and womanhood, how abysmally and abjectly and miserably have we failed?
Somebody went up to a farmer one time and said, “How do you get such beautiful sheep?” And he replied, “By taking care of the lambs.” In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of John, you have that addendum to the Gospel that John wrote, and it’s a personal word about his old friend Simon Peter.
And as they brought in their heavy catch of fish, why, they saw coals and a breakfast prepared.
And after they had dined, Jesus turned to Simon Peter and said, Simon, lovest thou Me more than these? And Simon replied, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. And Jesus replied, Then feed My lambs.
And the second time He said, Simon, lovest thou Me? and he said, “Lord, You know I love You, and the Lord said, Then feed My sheep.
[John 21:9, 15-16]
And I have read that, as you have a thousand times. Do you suppose the Lord had a meaning in what He said? Do you suppose the Lord was conscious of the words that He used? Why, you could not convince me in a thousand years that the Lord was unconscious of what He said and that the words that He used had no significance. My soul, this is the revelation from heaven, and this is the inspired will of God for our lives! Then if that is correct, and if that’s so, then the Lord said first, “Simon, Simon, as the leader of our apostles and as the one who shall bring God’s message at Pentecost [Acts 2:14-40], and as the one to whom I have given the keys of the kingdom first [Matthew 16:18-19], and as the one who shall open that door to the Gentiles and to the Jews and to the Samaritans [Acts 1:8]; Simon, feed My lambs! Take care of My lambs, then take care of My sheep [John 21:15-17]. If you have money left over, take care of the men and women. If you have any time to spare, take care of the adults. If you have any place to put them, take care of the older ones, but first, take care of My little ones! Take care of My lambs; take care of My little boys and girls.” And I am persuaded that Jesus was God’s wisdom when He said that. If you want a church of tomorrow, remember these little fellows. If you want to change society, start with them. If you have any building in your mind and any visions in your soul, then let’s put them in their hearts. “Take care of My lambs.”
Well, I am going to speak now—and this will be all the time that I have—I am going to speak now of the response of that child. I have spoken of the importance of the child. I have spoken of the influences around the child. Now I am going to speak of the response of the child. As surely as God lives and as you breathe, if a child is brought under the influence of the gospel in Sunday school, in church, the day will come when that little thing will respond to the appeal of the gospel. He just will. She just will.
I have often illustrated the life in a child by a seed. The thing looks like a rock. It looks like a stone. It looks like a pebble. But on the inside of it, God has placed a germ of life; a little piece of God is in that seed. Life is in it. There’s no man in the earth who can put it there, only God can do it. And take that seed and plant it, and the vernal showers fall upon it, and the warm sunshine bathes it, and the moist earth is a womb around it, and behold, a miracle of miracles: that little stone, that little pebble, that little thing that looks like a little rock will burst wide open, and out of it will grow, oh, a beautiful flower, fruit, a plant, a living thing under God.
A child is just like that. On the inside of that child is a little piece of God, the image of God, the likeness of God. When that little fellow is placed under the preaching and teaching of the gospel, the day will come, always, never fails, just as true as God lives, the day will come when that little fellow will be tugging at your sleeve or pulling your coattail. He’ll be saying, “I feel in my heart God speaking to me. I feel the Lord talking to me.” And he may say in our church, growing up here in this congregation, “I want to go down there and tell the preacher—and tell the pastor that I love Jesus and that I’ve given my heart to Jesus.” That’ll come as surely as God lives.
Now, when that comes, as you have heard me say for twenty and five years here in this pulpit, when that times comes, don’t say. “Oh, no. You’re too young,” or, “You don’t understand,” or on and on and on. Don’t, don’t. Never stand in the way or interdict when a child feels moved toward God! Say, “Why, son, that’s marvelous, that’s great. You want to go down there and tell the pastor? Good, let’s go,” anytime, any day, any hour, any service. “Let’s go, son, let’s go.”
“Now pastor, what about joining the church? What about being baptized? When should the child be baptized?” Now we are entering into an altogether different world, because you’re talking about something now that I do and you do. I can baptize the youngster, and he becomes a member of the church upon the reception by the congregation.
Now, to be saved is one thing; that’s something God does, and no man in the earth can do that. I could take somebody and wash him every day, scrub him every day with lye soap, baptize him every hour on the hour, and he’s still not a Christian! It is God that washes the stain of sin out of our soul, like the Bible says: “The blood of Jesus washes us, cleanses us from all sin” [1 John 1:7]. To be a Christian is something inside of you that’s between you and God, not between you and anybody else in this earth. Its between you and God. That’s what it is to be saved.
Now to be baptized and become a member of the church is something that we do; its in our hands. Now, when should that child be baptized and become a member of the church? Well, I look at the other faiths of the world, and you do too, and these are some of the things that we see.
In the Jewish faith, in the Jewish religion, a boy, on the first Sabbath after his thirteenth birthday, goes through a service that they call a bar mitzvah, a bar mitzvah; on the first Sabbath after his thirteenth birthday, usually in the synagogue. When Lee Roy and I were in Jerusalem at the Western Wall—used to be called the Wailing Wall, the most sacred place in the world to the Jews—we went through and attended two bar mitzvah services. Now, the purpose of that is this: when the boy has passed his thirteenth birthday, on that first Sabbath, the bar mitzvah service, he becomes a member of the adult synagogue congregation. He is responsible, from then on, for all of his life, [for] his behavior, and he fasts and he prays like his father. When he is thirteen years of age, he becomes a member of the congregation.
Now in the Christian world, practically all of our pedobaptist denominations, practically all of them—by pedobaptists, I mean denominations who will baptize an infant; they will sprinkle, they will christen an infant—now, those denominations, practically all of them, will have what they call a confirmation service when the child is twelve years of age. Usually the age is twelve for that beautiful and meaningful confirmation service.
Now what shall we do here in our church? Well, I have gone through this for years and years. I have struggled with this for forty years and more, and I have struggled with it here in my own congregation with my own families until I could just, my heart breaks wide open sometimes at what I see our people doing. So I have come to a very firm and definite conclusion for me and my ministry, and it is humbly and simply this.
Going back now, anytime that child, anytime that child wants to move towards God, let him. Encourage it, be proud of it, pat him on the back, go with him, bring him down here to me. “Son, you want to take Jesus as your Savior today?” “Yes.” “Son, you feel God’s spoken to you in your heart?” “Yes.” “Want to tell the whole world Jesus loves you and you love Jesus?” “Yes.” Wonderful, anytime the child comes. If he wants to come three or four, half a dozen times, fine; we’ll pray down here together and tell Jesus all about it.
But, before that child is baptized and before he becomes a member of the congregation of the Lord, he ought to be taught, and taught, and taught, and taught, and taught. Now, a little child is growing. He grows in his big toe and his little toe. He grows in his thumb and his little finger. He is growing in his nose and his ear. He is growing all over, and he is growing spiritually and mentally. He is growing in his soul. He’s growing in his heart. He’s growing in his mind, and as he grows, his comprehension grows also, and his understanding grows!
Now he is going to be baptized one time in his life, just once. Just once. There is a meaningful baptism, and the child first is to be saved. He is to be converted. He is to ask God to forgive his sins, being conscious of sin and being lost, and is to accept Christ Jesus as his Savior. Then, he is to be taught, faithfully taught, carefully taught, and then, and here is my firm conclusion: the child should not be baptized until he has reached at least nine years of age.
Take those other years—the child is moved to God when he is five, or when he’s six, or when he’s seven—take those years, take time for the child! You take time, let us take time, and let’s teach the child what it means to be saved, and what it means to be baptized, and what it means to take the Lord’s Supper, and what it means to belong to the congregation of the Lord.
Then, when the youngster is baptized, let it be one of the great, meaningful events in his life. Why, bless your heart, I have baptized children in this baptistery that brought—my heart has been stricken with what I was doing. I have felt condemned in my heart by what I’m doing. So small and so young, I had to keep them in my arms and set them here at the front just in order that their heads be above the water. And a mother will come to me and say, “Now, pastor, you are not consistent because the Bible says that when we confess our faith and take Jesus as our Savior, that we are to be baptized. And this little child has accepted Jesus as his Savior, and he ought to be baptized.”
Well, I have thought and prayed and read, and here’s what I have found. The message of this Bible, you look at it from beginning to end, the message of that Bible is addressed to a mature mind, always, and there’s no exception to it. There is no passage in that Book that is not addressed to a mature mind; all of it. You start the first, you go clear to the end; all of it is addressed to a mature mind. When John the Baptist is preaching his preaching, when Jesus is preaching His preaching, when Peter and Paul, “Repent ye, be converted, and be baptized because of the remission of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” [Acts 2:38]. All of it presupposes an adult mind, a mature mind.
Now let’s take the spirit, and the address, and the letter, and the Word of that New Testament and lets follow it out in our ministry here. When the child wants to come, let him come and pray for him. Then let us receive him as under God, and be responsible to God for him, and teach him and teach him and teach him. Then after he’s nine years of age, and I speak of nine because, oh, I can tell a difference in a Primary and a Junior child. An eight year old child and a nine year old child, oh, there is such a difference between a child seven, eight, six, seven, and eight—five, six, seven, and eight—and the child nine, ten, and eleven, and twelve, such a difference! Let’s take time and teach that child. Be responsible unto God for him. Then when he’s baptized, make it a beautiful, a significant, and a meaningful thing when he’s added to the congregation of the Lord, to the house of the people, to the church of Jesus Christ, baptized into the body of our Lord. And I think if we will do these things, God will bless us. He will bless that youngster. He will bless you, and through you, God will bless us all.
Now our time is spent. We sing our song, our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, come down here by me. “Pastor, today we’re putting our lives in the fellowship of this dear church,” you come. Or just one somebody you, “Today, I take Jesus as my Savior,” you come, you come. Nobody, nobody leaves during this invitation. If we move, we’re going to move toward God. Some of you to come; the rest of us, we’re going to stand there and pray in this holy hour, this precious moment.
In the balcony all the way round, there’s a stairway at the back and at the front and on either side, and there is time and to spare; come; a couple, a family, or just you, in the throng on this lower floor, into the aisle and down here to the front, “Here I am, pastor. I have made the decision and I’m coming now.” Taking Jesus as Savior, or putting your life with us in this dear church, make the decision now, and on the first note of the first stanza, when we stand up, stand up coming, and angels attend you in the way, while we stand and while we sing.