These words of our Lord are very positive and emphatic, and will, therefore, receive a serious attention from every one who is anxious concerning his future destiny beyond the grave. For, they mention an indispensable requisite in order to an entrance into eternal life. "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein."
The occasion of their utterance is interesting, and brings to view a beautiful feature in the perfect character of Jesus Christ. The Redeemer was deeply interested in every age and condition of man. All classes shared in His benevolent affection, and all may equally partake of the rich blessings that flow from it. But childhood and youth seem to have had a special attraction for Him. The Evangelist is careful to inform us, that He took little children in His arms, and that beholding an amiable young man He loved him, -- a gush of feeling went out towards him. It was because Christ was a perfect man, as well as the infinite God, that such a feeling dwelt in His breast. For, there has never been an uncommonly fair and excellent human character, in which tenderness and affinity for childhood has not been a quality, and a quality, too, that was no small part of the fairness and excellence. The best definition that has yet been given of genius itself is, that it is the carrying of the feelings of childhood onward into the thoughts and aspirations of manhood. He who is not attracted by the ingenuousness, and trustfulness, and simplicity, of the first period of human life, is certainly wanting in the finest and most delicate elements of nature, and character. Those who have been coarse and brutish, those who have been selfish and ambitious, those who have been the pests and scourges of the world, have had no sympathy with youth. Though once young themselves, they have been those in whom the gentle and generous emotions of the morning of life have died out. That man may become hardhearted, skeptical and sensual, a hater of his kind, a hater of all that is holy and good, he must divest himself entirely of the fresh and ingenuous feeling of early boyhood, and receive in its place that malign and soured feeling which is the growth, and sign, of a selfish and disingenuous life. It is related of Voltaire, -- a man in whom evil dwelt in its purest and most defecated essence, -- that he had no sympathy with the child, and that the children uniformly shrank from that sinister eye in which the eagle and the reptile were so strangely blended.
Our Saviour, as a perfect man, then, possessed this trait, and it often showed itself in His intercourse with men. As an omniscient Being, He indeed looked with profound interest, upon the dawning life of the human spirit as it manifests itself in childhood. For He knew as no finite being can, the marvellous powers that sleep in the soul of the young child; the great affections which are to be the foundation of eternal bliss, or eternal pain, that exist in embryo within; the mysterious ideas that lie in germ far down in its lowest depths, -- He knew, as no finite creature is able, what is in the child, as well as in the man, and therefore was interested in its being and its well-being. But besides this, by virtue of His perfect humanity, He was attracted by those peculiar traits which are seen in the earlier years of human life. He loved the artlessness and gentleness, the sense of dependence, the implicit trust, the absence of ostentation and ambition, the unconscious modesty, in one word, the child-likeness of the child.
Knowing this characteristic of the Redeemer, certain parents brought their young children to Him, as the Evangelist informs us, "that He should touch them;" either believing that there was a healthful virtue, connected with the touch of Him who healed the sick and gave life to the dead, that would be of benefit to them; or, it may be, with more elevated conceptions of Christ's person, and more spiritual desires respecting the welfare of their offspring, believing that the blessing (which was symbolized by the touch and laying on of hands) of so exalted a Being would be of greater worth than mere health of body. The disciples, thinking that mere children were not worthy of the regards of their Master, rebuked the anxious and affectionate parents. "But," -- continues the narrative, -- "when Jesus saw it he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God;" and then immediately explained what He meant by this last assertion, which is so often misunderstood and misapplied, by adding, in the words of the text, "Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child" that is with a child-like spirit, "he shall not enter therein." For our Lord does not here lay down a doctrinal position, and affirm the moral innocence of childhood. He does not mark off and discriminate the children as sinless, from their parents as sinful, as if the two classes did not belong to the same race of beings, and were not involved in the same apostasy and condemnation. He merely sets childhood and manhood over-against each other as two distinct stages of human life, each possessing peculiar traits and tempers, and affirms that it is the meek spirit of childhood, and not the proud spirit of manhood, that welcomes and appropriates the Christian salvation. He is only contrasting the general attitude of a child, with the general attitude of a man. He merely affirms that the trustful and believing temper of childhood, as compared with the self-reliant and skeptical temper of manhood, is the temper by which both the child and the man are to receive the blessings of the gospel which both of them equally need.
The kingdom of God is represented in the New Testament, sometimes as subjective, and sometimes as objective; sometimes as within the soul of man, and sometimes as up in the skies. Our text combines both representations; for, it speaks of a man's "receiving" the kingdom of God, and of a man's "entering" the kingdom of God; of the coming of heaven into a soul, and of the going of a soul into heaven. In other passages, one or the other representation appears alone. "The kingdom of God," -- says our Lord to the Pharisees, -- "cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here, or lo there: for behold the kingdom of God is within you." The apostle Paul, upon arriving at Rome, invited the resident Jews to discuss the subject of Christianity with him. "And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging, to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God," -- to whom he explained the nature of the Christian religion, -- "persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from, morning till evening." The same apostle teaches the Romans, that "the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;" and tells the Corinthians, that "the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power." In all these instances, the subjective signification prevails, and the kingdom of God is simply a system of truth, or a state of the heart. And all are familiar with the sentiment, that heaven is a state, as well as a place. All understand that one half of heaven is in the human heart itself; and, that if this half be wanting, the other half is useless, -- as the half of a thing generally is. Isaac Walton remarks of the devout Sibbs:
"Of this blest man, let this just praise be given, Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven."
It is only because that in the eternal world the imperfect righteousness of the renewed man is perfected, and the peace of the anxious soul becomes total, and the joy that is so rare and faint in the Christian experience here upon earth becomes the very element of life and action, -- it is only because eternity completes the excellence of the Christian (but does not begin it), that heaven, as a place of perfect holiness and happiness, is said to be in the future life, and we are commanded to seek a better country even a heavenly. But, because this is so, let no one lose sight of the other side of the great truth, and forget that man must "receive" the kingdom as well as "enter" it. Without the right state of heart, without the mental correspondent to heaven, that beautiful and happy region on high will, like any and every other place, be a hell, instead of a paradise. A distinguished writer represents one of his characters as leaving the Old World, and seeking happiness in the New, supposing that change of place and outward circumstances could cure a restless mind. He found no rest by the change; and in view of his disappointment says: "I will return, and in my ancestral home, amid my paternal fields, among my own people, I will say, Here, or nowhere, is America." In like manner, must the Christian seek happiness in present peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, and must here in this life strive after the righteousness that brings tranquillity. Though he may look forward with aspiration to the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth a perfected righteousness, yet he must remember that his holiness and happiness there is merely an expansion of his holiness and happiness here. He must seek to "receive" the kingdom of God, as well as to "enter" it; and when tempted to relax his efforts, and to let down his watch, because the future life will not oppose so many obstacles to spirituality as this, and will bring a more perfect enjoyment with it, he should say to himself: "Be holy now, be happy here. Here, or nowhere, is heaven."
Such being the nature of the kingdom of God, we are now brought up to the discussion of the subject of the text, and are prepared to consider: In what respects, the kingdom of God requires the temper of a child as distinguished from the temper of a man, in order to receive it, and in order to enter it.
The kingdom of God, considered as a kingdom that is within the soul, is tantamount to religion. To receive this kingdom, then, is equivalent to receiving religion into the heart, so that the character shall be formed by it, and the future destiny be decided by it. What, then, is the religion that is to be received? We answer that it is the religion that is needed. But, the religion that is needed by a sinful man is very different from the religion that is adapted to a holy angel. He who has never sinned is already in direct and blessed relations with God, and needs only to drink in the overflowing and everflowing stream of purity and pleasure. Such a spirit requires a religion of only two doctrines: First, that there is a God; and, secondly, that He ought to be loved supremely and obeyed perfectly. This is the entire theology of the angels, and it is enough for them. They know nothing of sin in their personal experience, and consequently they require in their religion, none of those doctrines, and none of those provisions, which are adapted to the needs of sinners.
But, man is in an altogether different condition from this. He too knows that there is a God, and that He ought to be loved supremely, and obeyed perfectly. Thus far, he goes along with the angel, and with every other rational being made under the law and government of God. But, at this point, his path diverges from that of the pure and obedient inhabitant of heaven, and leads in an opposite direction. For he does not, like the angels, act up to his knowledge. He is not conformed to these two doctrines. He does not love God supremely, and he does not obey Him perfectly. This fact puts him into a very different position, in reference to these two doctrines, from that occupied by the obedient and unfallen spirit. These two doctrines, in relation to him as one who has contravened them, have become a power of condemnation; and whenever he thinks of them he feels guilty. It is no longer sufficient to tell him. that religion consists in loving God, and enjoying His presence, -- consists in holiness and happiness. "This is very true," -- he says, -- "but I am neither holy nor happy." It is no longer enough to remind him that all is well with any creature who loves God with all his heart, and keeps His commandments without a single slip or failure. "This is very true," -- he says again, -- "but I do not love in this style, neither have I obeyed in this manner." It is too late to preach mere natural religion, the religion of the angels, to one who has failed to stand fully and firmly upon the principles of natural religion. It is too late to tell a creature who has lost his virtue, that if he is only virtuous he is safe enough.
The religion, then, that a sinner needs, cannot be limited to the two doctrines of the holiness of God, and the creature's obligation to love and serve Him, -- cannot be pared down to the precept: Fear God and practise virtue. It must be greatly enlarged, and augmented, by the introduction of that other class of truths which relate to the Divine mercy towards those who have not feared God, and the Divine method of salvation for those who are sinful. In other words, the religion for a transgressor is revealed religion, or the religion of Atonement and Redemption.
What, now, is there in this species of religion that necessitates the meek and docile temper of a child, as distinguished from the proud and self-reliant spirit of a man, in order to its reception into the heart?
I. In the first place, the New Testament religion offers the forgiveness of sins, and provides for it. No one can ponder this fact an instant, without perceiving that the pride and self-reliance of manhood are excluded, and that the meekness and implicit trust of childhood are demanded. Pardon and justification before God must, from the nature of the case, be a gift, and a gift cannot be obtained unless it is accepted as such. To demand or claim mercy, is self-contradictory. For, a claim implies a personal ground for it; and this implies self-reliance, and this is "manhood" in distinction from "childhood." In coming, therefore, as the religion of the Cross does, before man with a gratuity, with an offer to pardon his sins, it supposes that he take a correspondent attitude. Were he sinless, the religion suited to him would be the mere utterance of law, and he might stand up before it with the serene brow of an obedient subject of the Divine government; though even then, not with a proud and boastful temper. It would be out of place for him, to plead guilty when he was innocent; or to cast himself upon mercy, when he could appeal to justice. If the creature's acceptance be of works, then it is no more of grace, otherwise work is no more work. But if it be by grace, then it is no more of works (Rom. xi.6). If the very first feature of the Christian religion is the exhibition of clemency, then the proper and necessary attitude of one who receives it is that of humility.
But, leaving this argument drawn from the characteristics, of Christianity as a religion of Redemption, let us pass into the soul of man, and see what we are taught there, respecting the temper which he must possess in order to receive this new, revealed kingdom of God. The soul of man is guilty. Now, there is something in the very nature of guilt that excludes the proud, self-conscious, self-reliant spirit of manhood, and necessitates the lowly, and dependent spirit of childhood. When conscience is full of remorse, and the holy eye of law is searching us, and fears of eternal banishment and punishment are rakeing the spirit, there is no remedy but simple confession, and childlike reliance upon absolute mercy. The sinner must be a softened child and not a hard man, he must beg a boon and not put in a claim, if he would receive this kingdom of God, this New Testament religion, into his soul. The slightest inclination to self-righteousness, the least degree of resistance to the just pressure of law, is a vitiating element in repentance. The muscles of the stout man must give way, the knees must bend, the hands must be uplifted deprecatingly, the eyes must gaze with a straining gaze upon the expiating Cross, -- in other words, the least and last remains of a stout and self-asserting spirit must vanish, and the whole being must be pliant, bruised, broken, helpless in its state and condition, in order to a pure sense of guilt, a godly sorrow for sin, and a cordial appropriation of the atonement. The attempt to mix the two tempers, to mingle the child with the man, to confess sin and assert self-righteousness, must be an entire failure, and totally prevent the reception of the religion of Redemption. In relation to the Redeemer, the sinful soul should be a vacuum, a hollow void, destitute of everything holy and good, conscious that it is, and aching to be filled with the fulness of His peace and purity.
And with reference to God, the Being whose function it is to pardon, we see the same necessity for this child-like spirit in the transgressor. How can God administer forgiveness, unless there is a correlated temper to receive it? His particular declarative act in blotting out sin depends upon the existence of penitence for sin. Where there is absolute hardness of heart, there can be no pardon, from the very nature of the case, and the very terms of the statement. Can God say to the hardened Judas: Son be of good cheer, thy sin is forgiven thee? Can He speak to the traitor as He speaks to the Magdalen? The difficulty is not upon the side of God. The Divine pity never lags behind any genuine human sorrow. No man was ever more eager to be forgiven than his Redeemer is to forgive him. No contrition for sin, upon the part of man, ever yet outran the readiness and delight of God to recognize it, and meet it with a free pardon. For, that very contrition itself is always the product of Divine grace, and proves that God is in advance of the soul. The father in the parable saw the son while he was a great way off, before the son saw him, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. But while this is so, and is an encouragement to the penitent, it must ever be remembered that unless there is some genuine sorrow in the human soul, there can be no manifestation of the Divine forgiveness within it. Man cannot beat the air, and God cannot forgive impenitency.
II. In the second place, the New Testament religion proposes to create within man a clean heart, and to renew within him a right spirit. Christianity not only pardons but sanctifies the human soul. And in accomplishing this latter work, it requires the same humble and docile temper that was demanded in the former instance.
Holiness, even in an unfallen angel, is not an absolutely self-originated thing. If it were, the angel would be worthy of adoration and worship. He who is inwardly and totally excellent, and can also say: I am what I am by my own ultimate authorship, can claim for himself the glory that is due to righteousness. Any self-originated and self-subsistent virtue is entitled to the hallelujahs. But, no created spirit, though he be the highest of the archangels, can make such an assertion, or put in such a claim. The merit of the unfallen angel, therefore, is a relative one; because his holiness is of a created and derived species. It is not increate and self-subsistent. This being so, it is plain that the proper attitude of all creatures in respect to moral excellence is a recipient and dependent one. But this is a meek and lowly attitude; and this is, in one sense, a child-like attitude. Our Lord knew no sin; and yet He himself tells us that He was meek and lowly of heart, and we well know that He was. He does not say that He was penitent. He does not propose himself as our exemplar in that respect. But, in respect to the primal, normal attitude which a finite being must ever take in reference to the infinite and adorable God, and the absolute underived Holiness; in reference to the true temper which a holy man or a holy angel must possess; our Lord Jesus Christ, in His human capacity, sets an example to be followed by the spirits of just men made perfect, and by all the holy inhabitants of heaven. In other words, He teaches the whole universe that holiness in a creature, even though it be complete, does not permit its possessor to be self-reliant, does not allow the proud spirit of manhood, does not remove the obligation to be child-like, meek, and lowly of heart.
But if this is true of holiness among those who have never fallen, how much more true is it of those who have, and who need to be lifted up out of the abyss. If an angel, in reference to God, must be meek and lowly of heart; if the holy Redeemer must in His human capacity be meek and lowly of heart; if the child-like temper, in reference to the infinite and everlasting Father and the absolutely Good, is the proper one in such exalted instances as these; how much more is it in the instance of the vile and apostate children of Adam! Besides the original and primitive reason growing out of creaturely relationships, there is the superadded one growing out of the fact, that now the whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint, and from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in human nature.
Hence, our Lord began His Sermon on the Mount in these words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled." The very opening of this discourse, which He intended should go down through the ages as a manifesto declaring the real nature of His kingdom, and the spirit which His followers must possess, asserts the necessity of a needy, recipient, asking mind, upon the part of a sinner. All this phraseology implies destitution; and a destitution that cannot be self-supplied. He who hungers and thirsts after righteousness is conscious of an inward void, in respect to righteousness, that must be filled from abroad. He who is meek is sensible that he is dependent for his moral excellence. He who is poor in spirit is, not pusillanimous as Thomas Paine charged upon Christianity but, as John of Damascus said of himself, a man of spiritual cravings, vir desideriorum.
Now, all this delineation of the general attitude requisite in order to the reception of the Christian religion is summed up again, in the declaration of our text: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." Is a man, then, sensible that his understanding is darkened by sin, and that he is destitute of clear and just apprehensions of divine things? Does his consciousness of inward poverty assume this form? If he would be delivered from his mental blindness, and be made rich in spiritual knowledge, he must adopt a teachable and recipient attitude. He must not assume that his own mind is the great fountain of wisdom, and seek to clear up his doubts and darkness by the rationalistic method of self-illumination. On the contrary, he must go beyond his mind and open a book, even the Book of Revelation, and search for the wisdom it contains and proffers. And yet more than this. As this volume is the product of the Eternal Spirit himself, and this Spirit conspires with the doctrines which He has revealed, and exerts a positive illuminating influence, he must seek communion therewith. From first to last, therefore, the darkened human spirit must take a waiting posture, in order to enlightenment. That part of "the clean heart and the right spirit" which consists in the knowledge of divine things can be obtained only through a child-like bearing and temper. This is what our Lord means, when He pronounces a blessing upon the poor in spirit, the hungry and the thirsting soul. Men, in their pride and self-reliance, in their sense of manhood, may seek to enter the kingdom of heaven by a different method; they may attempt to speculate their way through all the mystery that overhangs human life, and the doubts that confuse and baffle the human understanding; but when they find that the unaided intellect only "spots a thicker gloom" instead of pouring a serener ray, wearied and worn they return, as it were, to the sweet days of childhood, and in the gentleness, and tenderness, and docility of an altered mood, learn, as Bacon did in respect to the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of heaven is open only to the little child.
Again, is a man conscious of the corruption of his heart? Has he discovered his alienation from the life and love of God, and is he now aware that a total change must pass upon him, or that alienation must be everlasting? Has he found out that his inclinations, and feelings, and tastes, and sympathies are so worldly, so averse from spiritual objects, as to be beyond his sovereignty? Does he feel vividly that the attempt to expel this carnal mind, and to induce in the place thereof the heavenly spontaneous glow of piety towards God and man, is precisely like the attempt of the Ethiopian to change his skin, and the leopard his spots?
If this experience has been forced upon him, shall he meet it with the port and bearing of a strong man? Shall he take the attitude of the old Roman stoic, and attempt to meet the exigencies of his moral condition, by the steady strain and hard tug of his own force? He cannot long do this, under the clear searching ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, without an inexpressible weariness and a profound despair. Were he within the sphere of paganism, it might, perhaps, be otherwise. A Marcus Aurelius could maintain this legal and self-righteous position to the end of life, because his ideal of virtue was a very low one. Had that high-minded pagan felt the influences of Christian ethics, had the Sermon on the Mount searched his soul, telling him that the least emotion of pride, anger, or lust, was a breach of that everlasting law which stood grand and venerable before his philosophic eye, and that his virtue was all gone, and his soul was exposed to the inflictions of justice, if even a single thought of his heart was unconformed to the perfect rule of right, -- if, instead of the mere twilight of natural religion, there had flared into his mind the fierce and consuming splendor of the noonday sun of revealed truth, and New Testament ethics, it would have been impossible for that serious-minded emperor to say, as in his utter self-delusion he did, to the Deity: "Give me my dues," -- instead of breathing the prayer: "Forgive me my debts." Christianity elevates the standard and raises the ideal of moral excellence, and thereby disturbs the self-complacent feeling of the stoic, and the moralist. If the law and rule of right is merely an outward one, it is possible for a man sincerely to suppose that he has kept the law, and his sincerity will be his ruin. For, in this case, he can maintain a self-reliant and a self-satisfied spirit, the spirit of manhood, to the very end of his earthly career, and go with his righteousness which is as filthy rags, into the presence of Him in whose sight the heavens are not clean. But, if the law and rule of right is seen to be an inward and spiritual statute, piercing to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit, and becoming a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart, it is not possible for a candid man to delude himself into the belief that he has perfectly obeyed it; and in this instance, that self-dissatisfied spirit, that consciousness of internal schism and bondage, that war between the flesh and the spirit so vividly portrayed in the seventh chapter of Romans, begins, and instead of the utterance of the moralist: "I have kept the everlasting law, give me my dues," there bursts forth the self-despairing cry of the penitent and the child: "O wretched man that I am.! who shall deliver me? Father I have sinned against heaven and before thee."
When, therefore, the truth and Spirit of God, working in and with the natural conscience, have brought a man to that point where he sees that all his own righteousness is as filthy rags, and that the pure and stainless righteousness of Jehovah must become the possession and the characteristic of his soul, he is prepared to believe the declaration of our text: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." The new heart, and the right spirit, -- the change, not in the mere external behavior but, in the very disposition and inclination of the soul, -- excludes every jot and tittle of self-assertion, every particle of proud and stoical manhood.
Such a text as this which we have been considering is well adapted to put us upon the true method of attaining everlasting life. These few and simple words actually dropped, eighteen hundred years ago, from the lips of that august Being who is now seated upon the throne of heaven, and who knows this very instant the effect which they are producing in the heart of every one who either reads or hears them. Let us remember that these few and simple words do verily contain the key to everlasting life and glory. In knowing what they mean, we know, infallibly, the way to heaven. "I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which we see, and have not seen them: and to hear those things which we hear, and have not heard them." How many a thoughtful pagan, in the centuries that have passed and gone, would in all probability have turned a most attentive ear, had he heard, as we do, from the lips of an unerring Teacher, that a child-like reception of a certain particular truth, -- and that not recondite and metaphysical, but simple as childhood itself, and to be received by a little child's act, -- would infallibly conduct to the elysium that haunted and tantalized him.
That which hinders us is our pride, our "manhood." The act of faith is a child's act; and a child's act, though intrinsically the easiest of any, is relatively the most difficult of all. It implies the surrender of our self-will, our self-love, our proud manhood; and never was a truer remark made than that of Ullmann, that "in no one thing is the strength of a man's will so manifested, as in his having no will of his own." "Christianity," -- says Jeremy Taylor, -- "is the easiest and the hardest thing in the world. It is like a secret in arithmetic; infinitely hard till it be found out by a right operation, and then it is so plain we wonder we did not understand it earlier." How hard, how impossible without that Divine grace which makes all such central and revolutionary acts easy and genial to the soul, -- how hard it is to cease from our own works, and really become docile and recipient children, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, and trusting in Him, simply and solely, for salvation.
[Footnote 1: "Concerning the object of felicity in heaven, we are agreed that it can be no other than the blessed God himself, the all-comprehending good, fully adequate to the highest and most enlarged reasonable desires. But the contemperation of our faculties to the holy, blissful object, is so necessary to our satisfying fruition, that without this we are no more capable thereof, than a brute of the festivities of a quaint oration, or a stone of the relishes of the most pleasant meats and drinks." HOWE: Heaven a State of Perfection.]
[Footnote 2: GOETHE: Wilhelm Meister, Book VII., ch. iii.]
[Footnote 3: Compare Isaiah lxi.1.]
[Footnote 4: ULLMANN: Sinlessness of Jesus, Pt. I., Ch. iii., Sec.2.]