As A Little Child?

There is a movement in many of today’s churches that takes the tact of being simple in their understanding, thinking that the theology taught in our great God’s Scripture is intended for only those who are pastors, teachers, and theologians (this is said with the understanding that all pastors are teachers, all teachers are pastors, and all pastor-teachers are theologians), and that the language of theology, which has accompanied the growth and expansion of the church throughout redemptive history, is reserved for these individuals alone.

A consequent attitude that accompanies the first is that it is the pastors, teachers and theologians work to make this theology of the Scriptures, as understood and expounded throughout the history of the church to myriads of believers, as simple as possible to understand by those who attend to partake of the means of grace (preaching, teaching, praying, fellowship, and the sacraments as utilized in corporate worship in a local covenant body of believers each Lord’s Day).

Although this is laudable on the surface of the proposition, it belies that which is, in actuality, being expressed: Don’t give us deep theological terminology, that is your purview; give us the watered-down version of what God has been pleased to teach you, that we may understand it!

Texts such as Matthew 18:3 are cited in support of this overriding presupposition:

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (ESVall citations will be from this translation, unless otherwise noted)

Other texts which speak to the maturing of each member of the body of Christ in the knowledge of the Lord will be brought to bear, benefiting our understanding of the verses cited above to show that one must be as a child in their understanding of evil, but in doctrine, which is to say the application of knowledge and wisdom of God’s Word, they must cooperate with our God’s grace, in order to properly live and grow in the Christian faith; that any would think the former meaning (as to being children in regards to evil) is to be understood with regard to doctrine and maturity, is sad, because nothing could be further from the truth of our God’s Scripture!

 For instance, Paul, in writing to the fractious Corinthian church, gave them this gentle, but strong, admonishment:

 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. (1 Corinthians 14:20)

 At this point, although it would be fruitful to go into the Greek, we will simply look at the words as they occur in the English text, with two helpful exceptions and additions concerning the voice of two words, in the Greek, to emphasize that we are acted upon to initiate and continue the change and progression of that change whereby God makes us His children, and that we cooperate thereafter in this functioning God’s grace; the reason for sticking, in main, to the English, is simple: I once heard a caller call into a show called The Dividing Line, hosted by Dr. James White. They asked what the text meant in the Greek, and much to their disappointment, Dr. White replied, “The same thing it means in the English.” What Dr. White was saying was not that the Greek of the New Testament is not worth studying, but that the good translations we have faithfully translate that language into modern day vernacular that is able to be studied and understood by any believer who has been born again, and so has the regenerate reason, given to each believer via the Holy Spirit in the new birth, that is able to meditate upon the Scriptures and come to the deep truths which God has given us in His Scriptures.

This is also not to say that we should not use study aids (yes, such study aids are not simply reserved for the pastor-teachers and theologians). God has blessed the church with a succession of faithful men who, in turn, have passed on His truth to other faithful men, for the purpose of building up the local and universal body of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2:2), and we would be remiss, as believers in Jesus Christ, if we did not take advantage of this vast repository of knowledge. Today, especially, when there are so many free commentaries, systematic theologies, historical theologies, Biblical theologies, church histories, Reformed confessions, audio and video lectures of seminary level, sermons, and various other resources available for free on the Internet, there is really no excuse for any believer in Jesus Christ to not avail themselves of these amazing resources.

I have spoken, on the internet, to many believers in what is termed “emerging nations” (we must be politically correct, mustn’t we?) who are familiar with and use this vast storehouse of wealth available through the Internet, so I tend to turn a deaf ear to those who protest that they have not the resources at hand to study the great doctrines of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”

So, getting back to 1 Corinthians 14:20, let us look at the meaning the Holy Spirit intended, through the apostle Paul, for us to understand in that text.

In this text, in direct opposition to the widely held belief that the foregoing text in Matthew 18:3 is telling believers to be simple in all that they say or do, the apostle is giving an expansion and exposition upon what our Lord determined us to understand by His words. That is, to turn and become like children is not intended for us to understand that we must be simple in our understanding, but rather, to be simple in our trusting our Lord and God, as the little child who, trusting their parent, might thrown themselves off a porch into the waiting parent’s arms, knowing that they will be caught and suffer no harm. You turn is rendered converted in the NASB and NKJV, and conversion is the process that begins with the new birth and continues throughout the lifetime of each believer, each member of the body of Christ; become is rendered exactly the same in each English version. In the Encarta Dictionary Microsoft makes available (English, North American Version), these various meanings are given for the conversion:

  1. Change something’s character – to change something from one character, form, or function to another, or be changed in character, form or function.
  2. Change something’s function – to change the function or use of something, or be able to change the function or use.
  1. Change somebody’s beliefs – to adopt new opinions or beliefs, especially religious beliefs, or change the opinions of beliefs of somebody.

Become is defined, in this same English dictionary, in the following manner:

  1. To change or develop into something.

For further understanding, we give the definition of the Greek words for converted and become as used in the Matthew passage: to change one’s manner of life, with the implication of turning toward God—“to change one’s ways, to turn to God, to repent;” “unless you change and become like children. [1] It is of interest to note that the voice of this verb converted in the Greek is passive, meaning that the subject is being acted upon by an outside agent, in this address of our Lord, and in the context of our being acted upon in conversion in this manner; the word become is defined “to come to acquire or experience a state—‘to become.’”[2] It is in the middle voice, meaning that the subject is acting upon itself, therefore showing our cooperation with our God in loving, thankful, worshipful obedience in this ongoing process of conversion.

All of the above definitions have application to what happens to a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ when God, by His Holy Spirit, applies the work of His Son on the cross and in resurrection to them. There is first a fundamental change of being that occurs on the spiritual level, which the Scripture defines in this manner:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1-6)

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses. (Colossians 2:13)

That which was dead in sins and trespasses, therefore, God has made alive – there is a fundamental change in nature, a vital change in the essence of who we are, that was not there before, and this is wrought by the Spirit of God by applying the redemptive, mediatorial work of our Lord Jesus Christ as He was born, lived, died, and was resurrected to satisfy God’s wrath against us and give us to partake of that resurrected life He was given for the purpose of displaying God’s glory in the riches of His grace in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7). However, this is but the first part of conversion, that which God has done to us, and it does not end here.

It must be understood, here, that this paper is not an exposition of the ordo salutis (order of salvation), and we are not seeking to define, develop, and illustrate each aspect of that ordo salutis within the confines of this article; rather, we are merely seeking to show that that which traditionally, within the Reformed faith, occurs after regeneration, and the positive outworking of that regeneration in faith and repentance (both the positive and negative sides of belief in our Lord Jesus Christ), which carries on into and through that initial transformation after these things (sanctification), is but a continual process, initiated by God, monergistically, in time and history for each individual believer (regeneration), which consequently carries throughout the Christian life from that moment on and up to glorification (which, despite all our efforts and a loving, thankful, worshipful obedience, which obedience itself is given us to perform by the ongoing grace which saved us, must itself be said to be monergistic – we in no manner affect any aspect of our glorification at the eschaton; our efforts this side of the eternal state only have reference to our present state of holiness before God, none of which we earn, but which we do co-operate in growing in).

Thus, the sense of conversion, as used in this paper, is looking at not only that change wrought to our nature (soul, spirit) at the moment of spiritual conception (regeneration), but as this change affects our lives immediately after, and throughout, our present time of living, prior to the eternal state in which we are perfected by the same grace that saved us; we are looking at the ongoing provision of our God’s grace, during our time before glorification, which enables and empowers us to grow in that grace, knowledge and holiness which are pleasing to our God, and culminates in His changing us to be like He is (cf. 1 John 3:2b; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29).

Hopefully, those who are reading this will understand that we speak of conversion, therefore, as an ongoing process which is more fully defined in considering the other aspects of the ordo salutis, yet does not change the fact that conversion is, in consideration of all these things, wrought by God at the first, carried forth in cooperation with His grace during our lives while still within these tents of corruption housing our regenerate spirits, and finally completed by Him at the time of the redemption of our bodies. This is the reason we gave various English dictionary definitions and the definitions of the words and voice of the words in the New Testament Greek in our Matthew passage. So, this is to say, conversion is initiated by God at the point of regeneration, and we cooperate with His glorious grace thereafter, in this intermediate state, until He completes us in redeeming our bodies to be like that of our glorified Lord’s body; therefore, in this sense, we may truly say, regeneration is the beginning of conversion whereby we are enabled and empowered to live in a progressive manner of godliness and holiness until and up to the time where God resurrects our carnal bodies to that state of perfection wherein we will no longer be subject to the vagaries of sin, sickness and death, but will perfectly worship the Lord in spirit and truth forevermore.

We are told to be renewed in our minds instead of being conformed to our former manner of life, which renewal is ongoing, and affects our behaviors (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 1:7; cf. Colossians 3:1-17, esp. v. 10). The fundamental change to that essence, or nature, which is our life, is to be used in regenerate reason (discerning what is good and evil, what is perfect and acceptable to our God), and this occurs in our gaining that knowledge that is inherent in the Scriptures (John 17:17), by the working of the indwelling Holy Spirit, in a progressive, or maturing, manner (there are various other Scriptural, theological terms to define the things which occur in ongoing conversions which we are not going into in this paper, as it is beyond the scope of this present writing). Therefore, Paul’s instruction and command to be infants in evil has to do with the manner in which we live, since we have been born again by the grace of God through His Spirit. We are to be as trusting towards God, our heavenly Father (more!) as a child is towards that parent they throw themselves trustingly into the arms of, and to be as children regarding doing and saying what is evil according to our former way of life.

However, Paul also commanded the Corinthians (and us, by extension and use of the sanctifying Word of God) that they not be children in your thinking. We have covered, in large part, what this means in the above portions of this article, but will now take a bit more space to flesh it out somewhat.

A child has a limited view of the world in which they live; while not born innocent of the inherent sin nature all gain through Adam, they are ignorant of much of what goes on around them in the world. They are driven by basic appetites and desires; love, hunger, acceptance, greed, pleasure and so forth.

Who among us has not seen a little child, deprived of that which they want, go into a fit of rage?

As the child grows (but still could be called a child), they form societal bonds with other children and with those in their family that are entirely based upon these needs. Peer pressure comes into play, and a child will do the most outlandish things in order to be accepted among their peer groups. It is in this respect that Paul tells the Corinthian believers do not be children in your thinking, that is, as respects the way you think, do not be guided by desires to be accepted among others who behave in certain manners, or by the desire to show yourself better than the others; in contradistinction, be guided by the Holy Spirit applying the sanctifying influence of the Word of God, since you have been graciously adopted into His family through the work of His Son. This is what Paul means in the terminus of his command to the fractious, peer driven Corinthians when he says do not be children in your thinking… but in your thinking be mature.

To illustrate what maturity is for the believer, we submit it is a growing in the knowledge and grace of our God in the Lord Jesus Christ so as to affect not only their thinking, but their behaviors (speech and actions), effectively causing them conform to the image of He who died for them, then rose in glory (Romans 8:29; cf. Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 6:14; Romans 6:4-5).

I can think of no better way to show this that the writer of the epistle of Hebrews words to the Jewish Christians at the end chapter 5 and the first two verses of chapter 6:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)

Notice, here, four things: (1) They have become dull of hearing – their long disuse and ignorance of sound doctrine has, over time, caused their spiritual perception, regarding the things of God, to be so muffled as to make them unable to understand them when they are taught. This takes place over a period of time, and can lead not only to a stunted spiritual growth and understanding of the things of God for the believer, but, for the false professor, can be the beginning of the very real and deadly sin of apostasy (if God does not show mercy and bring them to understand the truth as it is in Christ Jesus – 2 Timothy 2:24-26) (2) They have been instructed of the Word of righteousness enough, by this time, so that they ought to be teachers. This does not have reference to the pastoral gift given in the office of pastor/elder, but to a common understanding of the Word of God that has grown, in maturity (there’s that word again), to the point where the believer is able to instruct a new believer, or one who is less mature in the faith, regarding the things (doctrines) of that faith (“faithhere meaning the body of doctrines of the Christian faith), in these doctrines. (3) They have regressed in their Christian maturity to the point where they are admonished and rebuked: you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. (4) This has affected their ability to discern, or distinguish, between good and evil, which is implied as a negative condition by reference to the positive example of those who are called mature and have had their discernment trained by constant practice. They have come to the place, in other words, where they no longer possess the skill to determine the doctrines of the Christian faith which go beyond the basics, and need to attentively listen to one who does have such skill, with humility, in order to come back from their stagnation in the doctrines of God as set forth in Scripture to a place where they are again growing (maturing) in their faith.

The writer to the Hebrews further explains what he means at the beginning of chapter 6:

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:1-2)

Although there is a specific historical context for these words to the Jewish Christians that must be considered in a direct exposition of these verses, we may also broaden them out to gain that exposition which directly relates to the situation of all Christians in all ages of the history of the church.

Elementary doctrine simply means, for our purpose, those beginning teachings which were our introduction into the Christian faith. We are never to forget the great grace God showed us in regenerating us, so that we could confess our sins and place our hope of life eternal in Christ Jesus, but to remain upon these doctrines over and over again, to the exclusion of the further teachings contained in the Scriptures of our God regarding that necessary growth in the Christian life, is to stunt one’s spiritual growth. Therefore, the author of Hebrews goes on to say not laying again a foundation, which is to say that which everything else stands upon, as a house stands upon the foundation laid in order to build the walls, which in turn support the roof, and so forth. The foundation the writer to the Hebrews speaks of is referring to elements contained in Mosaic worship, for he is addressing those who were being enticed and persecuted to turn again to these things, which gives the reason for such strong language in the warning passages in this same epistle (which passages we mention in passing, it not being relevant to our present discourse to expound upon them); for our purposes, we may say that we are not to again lay that foundation of those elementary doctrines which have to do with initial repentance of sins (dead works), for we are saved, or have believed in God through Christ Jesus to save us from our sins, and to have the mind-set that we must again be saved is to deny that glorious work of effectual, eternal grace that our God has worked for us in Christ Jesus. We are also not to again to express such rudimentary faith toward God, meaning that initial belief “that He exists and that He rewards those who seek him,” (Hebrews 11:6b), for believers who have been walking a life of faith well know this as a fundamental truth. Also, instruction about washings referred to certain rites as practiced by the Jews who did not believe in Christ, but for our benefit, we may say it intends that which would positively incur further favor for us with God, based upon our merit of doing such a thing, as at our initial baptism, which, of course, could not be the case in subsequently sought baptisms based on doubt of the foregoing elementary doctrines; the laying on of hands signifies God’s blessing at the time of the believer’s baptism, and is still practiced by some churches at that time, as well as at the ordination of elders and deacons, and at the time of baptism, or of reinstatement of a penitent who had formerly strayed from the communion of the saints (as stated in our Confession of Faith, LBCF 26.9, regarding these officers of the church). It is not necessary that the laying on of hands be done again (except in the case of the penitent, as practiced by various churches) to vouchsafe that blessing of God which was so signified at the believers’ initial baptism – which is to say, when they first believed (for it was common in ancient times, and still is, in churches of Christ which take seriously the commandments contained in the Scripture, that when one has been discipled in the faith to the point where they make such a certain, postive confession, the ordinance was to follow as immediately as possible – Matthew 28:19b; Acts 2:39 &etc.).

This is followed by the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. It should be immediately apparent that these things have reference to that beginning of the Christians’ confession of faith in Christ Jesus, and are not, as some think, to be done over and over again, negating the very promises of our Lord that He will never forsake us or allow us to perish, but that He insures we who are His will have eternal life, be raised in glory on the last day, and persevere until that day by the same grace that saved us and continually upholds us (John 6:37-40; 10:27-29; Matthew 28:20b; Philippians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Corinthians 1:7-8; cf. 2 Peter 1:1-12 [part. v. 10]; Jude 1:20-21). Eternal judgment, as mentioned here, has to do with that fear which accompanies those who believe they will be subject to it, and such fear is foreign to the child of God, but is certainly a very real thing to one who knows of the things of God yet has not professed faith in Christ, or one who has professed such falsely (1 John 4:18; cf. Hebrews 10:26-27).

Those who have made a genuine confession of faith in Christ should not be in a position of again repenting from dead works, making acknowledgement of faith in the one true God and His Son, Jesus Christ, again be preoccupied with doctrines concerning baptism, the laying on of hands in assurance of God’s pardon during this sacrament, and the resurrection of the dead unto judgment eternal. For those who are in a church where only the basics are taught, over and over, such might be somewhat excusable, and we would hold their elders responsible for stunting and even regressing their growth and maturity in Christ; for those sitting under solid Scriptural teaching, as these Jewish Christians were (which we noted from Hebrews 5:12-14), the blame must rest upon themselves for ignoring and forgetting that which they are being taught, and the reprimand of admonishment is well placed; and you see, the context from 5:12-6:2ff is all of a piece, for both speak of the elemental (or foundational) things of the faith, and the blame is on those who have had solid teaching, because they have become dull of hearing and are, to use the negative sense of the positive from v. 14, feeding on milk (which here intends food for babies, not the pure spiritual sustenance of the Word with solid doctrine, as in 1 Peter 2:2).

Before continuing, it must be understood that we have merely sketched out some general considerations from these texts in Hebrews, especially in the first two verses of the 6th chapter – this is not intended to be an in depth exposition of these verses. For that, I would recommend John Owen’s exegesis of these vv. in his exposition of Hebrews, and for a simpler but very good treatment, Dr. James White’s exposition of the same available on sermonaudio.com.

So, you see, there is a simplicity to trusting God that does not – and according to Scripture, should not and must not – bleed into the continuing growth in the faith (doctrines of God in Christ Jesus), and it is not merely the purview of the pastor-teacher-theologian (again, we insist that the pastor, or elder, is to be all of these); rather, trusting God in all things as a young infant and child trusts his daddy, we are to learn of the things of God. This is what it means to be a disciple. It is not forced upon any; rather, it is learned from the sanctifying influence of the Word of God as given to certain men of God and ministered to the hearers, all by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, in conclusion, those who disdain and refuse to learn the theology of God, as taught by faithful men throughout the centuries of the existence of the church, are in direct disobedience to the commandment of God. Theological terminology should be that which is desired by the disciple; it was used by the apostles, and God has seen fit to use such in the ongoing realization of His church, as a preview, in local and world-wide covenant communities, of that which is to come at the eschaton, when we will be blessed to know our Lord as He has known us, and all of the things we have been learning will be made most plain to us, in the most joyous, thankful, worshipful manner that we are yet unable to imagine (but we can study about these things now, and “grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”).

SDG – Bill H.


[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains, 41.50 & 31.60 (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (509). New York: United Bible Societies.

[2] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains, 13.48 (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (153). New York: United Bible Societies.

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