Last week I addressed the question, when should a child who professes faith in Christ be baptised? My counsel is that, largely, the parents need to make that call, and they need to do so carefully and intentionally. This requires scriptural examination of their child’s profession of faith, as well as self-examination of the parents. This is so important. Let me illustrate how serious this is.
The Bible does not teach infant baptism; nevertheless, for argument’s sake, consider this scenario: Many parents have their infant “christened” (or whatever) as some kind of a spiritual safety net. Lamentably, many parents find out that the threads of that net were weak and the child falls into a life of godlessness and eventually into hell. A huge part of the reason is that the parents were not deliberate; they were not intentional in pointing their child to Christ as the child got older. Getting the child all dressed up to get wet was a mere formality; the child later never embraced the Saviour that the ritual was supposed to picture. But before we cast aspersions on paedobaptists, we Baptists have often been just as guilty.
For instance, many children have made professions of faith at an early age and then been baptised shortly thereafter. Sadly, many parents hastily rushed their child into the baptismal waters with the presumption that now “all is well.” Unfortunately, in some cases, the parents were not careful at the time, nor were they intentional from that time, to examine their child’s profession of faith. In many cases, there was no true root of saving faith and the subsequent years of fruitlessness prove this spiritual absence. And so, at the final judgement, those baptised as infants who never came to faith in Christ and those baptised later as minor children who also never really came to faith in Christ will share the same eternal perdition. It is for this reason that parents, and pastors, need to be careful when baptising children. It is for this reason that it is often a display of wisdom to delay baptism of minor children. But the question arises, will not such a delay result in discouragement in the child? I believe that there are two extremes to avoid in this matter.
On the one hand, we should be careful of hastily baptising children (or anyone for that matter) immediately upon their profession of faith. After all, we want to take them at their word; we certainly don’t want to unnecessarily discourage them. But we also need to beware of the opposite extreme: that of delaying baptism until the child has “irrefutable proof” that they are saved. Now, I know that no one would use those words, but that is certainly the impression that those who delay baptism until adulthood often give. Though I appreciate their concern, I also think that this is wrongheaded. It may arise from genuine pastoral concern; in fact, I am sure that, in the majority of cases, it does. The problem, of course, is that it has no scriptural authority. The New Testament is unequivocal: Those who “gladly receive the gospel” are baptised.
It is interesting that Jesus spoke of some who received the gospel “with joy” and yet, because they did not have the root of real faith, they soon “fell away” (Matthew 13:20–21; Luke 8:13). This is a sad reality of church history—of any church’s history. It probably was true of the church in Jerusalem. Doubtless some who “gladly received the word” on Pentecost, and who were subsequently baptised (Acts 2:41), did not endure to the end. The epistle to the Hebrews is evidence of this. Yet the church continued to baptise people. We can learn from this the need to be careful of an unhealthy scepticism while at the same time being wise when it comes to baptising—whether children or adults. Be careful of allowing negative experiences to cause unnecessary delay. Consider the following.
In Acts 8, Phillip was asked by the Ethiopian what hindered him from being baptised. Philip answered, “If you believe with all your heart you may.” The man responded, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (v. 37). Philip then baptised him. What I find remarkable is that, earlier in the same chapter, Phillip baptised a man who proved to be a fraud (vv. 4–24). Simon the Sorcerer made a profession of faith and Philip baptised him. Simon’s profession proved to be false. And yet Phillip did not allow this experience to create hoops for the next person he baptised. Philip did what the Bible commanded and left the results with God. There is a lesson here for us: Yes, the church will always have false professions of faith, and yes, we should be careful. But we should not become “serial sceptics”; our children need our encouragement, not unnecessary discouragement.
So, how do we handle our minor child’s request for baptism? We should not be sceptical when our children profess faith in Christ. Rather we should encourage them to keep looking to Christ. We should rejoice with them that they have professed faith in Christ alone. We should then do all we can to disciple them to continued faithfulness to Christ. But does this mean that we should immediately baptise them? Not necessarily. Delay, in fact, may in some cases be the better part of wisdom. But for how long? That will vary case by case.
Perhaps you are concerned that delaying baptism will discourage your child. It might. And in some cases it may be a necessary discouragement. It may, in fact, be a means of parental nurturing to help your child learn humility and submission, both of which are major characteristics of those who have been granted saving faith.
But there is an irony here: If your child displays a joyful submission to you refusing them baptism, then in fact this is a wonderful indication that you probably should not delay any longer!
Of course, there is an unhealthy kind of delay that may discourage your child, and this is the delay motivated by the parent’s own unbelief and/or judgemental spirit. How foolish for a parent to assume that a child cannot be saved. John the Baptist was saved in his mother’s womb. (And his first response to faith in Christ was that he kicked his mother! See Luke 1:15, 41.)
Though John’s case is not normative it is instructive. God can, and He most frequently does, save children; yes, God saves minor children. So be careful that you do not “call unclean what God has called clean.”
We have lots of children in this church. We pray regularly for their salvation. So when they tell us that God has saved them, let’s be careful to not discourage them.
Don’t discourage them by being openly sceptical. Neither discourage them by presuming on their profession of faith. That is, if you “presume” they are saved, and you do not carefully evaluate their profession, then another kind of discouragement can settle in: the discouragement of constant defeat. If they are trying to live as a Christian when in fact they are not, then scepticism about the gospel may arise. So be careful. The solution to both types of discouragement is intentional discipleship. Nurture their profession of faith. Pray with them; teach them the gospel; encourage them towards Christ. In other words, delay through discipleship will guard your child from discouragement.
Each parent will need to consider their child’s profession of faith seriously. And if a parent believes it is wise to delay the child’s baptism (as long as the delay is accompanied by continual joyful and hopeful assistance of the child to follow Christ), then delay need not be detrimental. In fact, the delay can be very beneficial. But this is dependent upon the parents’ continual and intentional nurturing the child towards Christ.
What a privilege to be a parent. And yet what a weighty responsibility; a responsibility with eternal ramifications. Therefore, may God give you wisdom as you disciple your child to believe and therefore to follow Christ.