By Tim Challies
Every Christian parent longs for his children to trust in Christ and to make this profession public. In Baptist churches such a profession is made public through baptism. One of the ongoing discussions among Baptists relates to the age at which children can or should be baptized. Many children raised in a Christian home—perhaps even most of them—profess faith at a young age. Many parents then ask, Should my child be immediately baptized? Here is my attempt to answer this question.
Baptism is an ordinance of God given to the New Testament church. It symbolizes that the recipient has been buried and resurrected with Christ and serves as public profession of faith and admission into the local church community. It precedes both membership and partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and as such, is the gateway to full participation in the life of the church.
Here are three premises related to the age of baptism.
Premise #1 – Those who make a credible profession of faith are to be baptized.
Without exception, the New Testament pattern for baptism is that it follows a credible profession of faith (see Acts 8:12, Acts 9:36, Acts 16:29-34). What makes a profession of faith credible? I look for credibility to be displayed in knowledge and maturity.
Knowledge. For a person’s profession of faith to be credible, he must display at least a basic knowledge of the gospel and of the meaning of baptism. Baptism is not a rite performed upon a person, but an ordinance in which he is a full participant. Therefore the one who is baptized must have knowledge of what is being done and why.
Maturity. Maturity displays itself in autonomy and in counting the cost. The mature person is autonomous in that he has the ability to make independent decisions. He is also one who counts the cost, who has seen some of what a decision may cost him in terms of relationship, prestige or suffering, yet still desires to proceed.
Premise #2 – Children may, and often do, become believers at a young age.
We must be careful never to communicate to children that they are too young to understand the gospel or respond to it. Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me.” God calls us to share the gospel with our children and to call them to repentance and faith. God graciously allows many children to come to a saving faith, even at a very young age. For this reason every member of a church ought to be active in sharing the gospel with every child in that church, calling on them to respond to it and trusting that God does work in the hearts of young children.
Premise #3 – This is a matter of wisdom and conscience.
The New Testament contains no clear example of a child receiving baptism; neither does it contain a clear example of a child being refused baptism. In the absence of clear commands, the leaders of each church must prayerfully exercise charity and wisdom as they seek to determine whether or not they will make it their practice to baptize children who profess faith.
The Age of Baptism
With these premises in mind, I believe there is wisdom in waiting until children are older before baptizing them. My reasoning is primarily grounded in the second test of credibility: maturity.
At some stage children are too young to make a credible profession of faith.
Imagine that you are listening in while a father has a conversation with his two-year-old son:
Dad: “Do you love Jesus, Johnny?
Boy: “Da!” (That’s his sound for “yes.”)
Dad: “Do you trust Him with all your heart?”
Dad: Do you think your sins make you bad?”
Dad: “Do you give Jesus your whole life?”
Is it possible that God just saved that boy? Absolutely! Can we have any degree of certainty that this is a genuine conversion? No, we can’t. The age of that child calls into question his ability to understand and respond to the gospel. His cognitive abilities and his self-awareness have not yet developed to the point where we can be certain that he can understand what it is that he is agreeing to. It is not unlikely that the same boy would answer “Yes,” when asked if storks deliver babies and if Santa Claus delivers gifts.
I use this illustration to display what all Christians affirm: There is evidently an age at which a child is too young to make a credible profession of faith. Though that child may be genuinely saved, he lacks the maturity, the autonomy and the ability to count the cost that will give us confidence that his profession is credible. Therefore, it would be unwise of us to baptize him until we can establish the validity of his profession. The question is, When does a child reach that level of maturity?
It is wise to wait to baptize a child until he has reached a certain level of maturity.
I believe that a person should be baptized when the credibility of his conversion becomes naturally evident to the church community. This will normally be when the child has begun to mature toward adulthood and is beginning to live more self-consciously as an individual. At this time he is able to understand that there will be a cost to being a Christian; he is able to anticipate this and to count it all joy. At this time he is also developing autonomy. In the process of leaving behind his child-like dependence on his parents he begins to make more and more of his own choices. Such independence and maturity will allow him to relate to the church directly and as an individual rather than being primarily under the authority of his parents. I believe that such criteria typically correspond to the teen years, and more typically, the mid-to-late teen years.
Delaying baptism does not mean we should consider childhood conversions or baptisms invalid.
While I believe it is best to delay baptism until a child’s knowledge and maturity offer substantial evidence of true conversion, this by no means negates the possibility or likelihood of childhood conversions. Neither does it render invalid the baptisms of those who are baptized as young, believing children.
Pastors ought to take every opportunity to meet with children to speak to them about their souls.
Even if it is not a pastor’s practice to baptize young children, he should always thrilled to meet with children to speak to them about their souls. When a child expresses a desire to be baptized, it presents a pastor a wonderful opportunity to spend time with that child, to hear how the Lord has been working in his life, and to encourage him to continue to seek the Lord.
What are the benefits of waiting to baptize children?
Delaying the baptism of children who profess faith offers several benefits:
- It allows membership in the church to proceed logically from baptism so that every baptized believer can immediately serve as a fully-functioning member of the church. This avoids the confusion of whether young children can be members of the church or whether they can be baptized but not members.
- It accounts for the uncertainty that may attend childhood conversions. Often a child professes faith, then retracts or doubts his profession, and then affirms it again. This model allows the child to proceed through much of this turbulence before he is baptized, thus preventing doubt about whether he was truly saved before his baptism.
- It calls on parents to lead their children and to understand that their children are not being disobedient in waiting for baptism. Their obedience in this area comes in submitting to their parents and the elders of the church.
- It esteems baptism as a one-time act to be anticipated as a public, credible, mature profession of faith.