Sometimes doctrinal and practical discussions spread and dominate the evangelical world. Of late, the issue of the baptism of professing children has been a subject consuming a lot of gigabytes. I thought that perhaps I might throw in a few of my own mini-bytes.
The question of the baptising of children with which I am concerned has nothing to do with infant baptism (which is biblically unwarranted); rather, the question with which we need to wrestle is, at what age can the local church responsibly baptise those who have professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? And, of course, this raises the issue of whether it is responsible to baptise children. If so, at what age?
Let me say from the outset that I do not advocate pinpointing a particular age at which the church baptises a professing believer in Christ. I understand that some churches stipulate a minimum age. That can be wise in some cases. However, my inclination is away from such a policy. Perhaps if I do a good job with this article, the reasons will become clear, and maybe even convincing.
First, what is the Scriptural teaching and examples of Christian baptism? Clearly baptism (by immersion) is the commanded expectation for everyone who “gladly receives” the gospel (Acts 2:41; Matthew 28:19–20). The book of Acts records several historical examples of believer’s baptism (Acts 2, 8, 10, 16, 19). Scriptures such as Romans 6 and 1 Peter 3:21 reveal that baptism is the scripturally-prescribed norm for those who call upon the name of the Lord as their Saviour.
But we should also note the absence of the mention of minor children in any of these recorded examples of baptism. We who hold to believer’s baptism are quick (and right) to point out that there are no examples in Scripture of infants being baptised. Well, turnaround is fair play, and so we cannot then argue from silence that minor children were baptised along with adults in Acts 2; nor can we argue from silence that minor children were among those in the household baptisms recorded in Acts. The fact of the matter is that we have no way of knowing whether minor children were among these households. Let’s quit trying to give voice to the silent spaces in the Bible.
What we do know, however, is that those who “gladly received the Word” of the gospel were baptised; we know that the Ethiopian believed that Jesus is the Son of God and that he was subsequently baptised (Acts 10:36–39). So it was for Cornelius and his household; so for the Philippian Jailor and his household; and so for Lydia and her household (see Acts 10:44–48; 16:11–15, 30–34). We can conclude that those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ are to be baptised.
Credible or Incredible?
We often qualify that one should only be baptised on expression of a “credible profession of faith.” This is wise. It would be unwise to baptise those who cannot articulate the gospel; that is, no one should be baptised apart from the expression of their need for forgiveness of their sins, and that in Christ alone. We should expect a profession/confession of faith in Christ as the Bible prescribes. The Ethiopian gives a clear example of this (Acts 10). Phillip deemed his confession to be “credible.” The same standard should apply to children. However it is precisely here where we need to be careful.
Often, when it comes to the child’s profession of faith in Christ, we simply do not believe them. Because we understand that it is easy to mimic “I am trusting in Jesus for a new heart,” we tend to delay their baptism until there is sufficient fruit to give credence to their profession of faith. Children are impressionable. Children can be emotionally charged and even manipulated in their belief system. Children can function as “people pleasers,” who make a profession of faith to either get the pressure off or to make someone happy so that they can feel affirmed. Children can be guilty of simply doing what others are doing. Hmm. Come to think of it, that sounds like a lot of adults I have known! It sounds like some whom I have baptised on their “credible profession of faith,” and yet who are now no longer to be found worshipping God. So, should we treat children differently? I think so.
Children, by definition, are not adults. (Yes, profound insight, I know.) This means that they are not generally as mature in their thinking process as adults (are supposed to be). For this reason, prudence calls for caution before inviting the child into the baptismal waters. Does the child understand what it means to count the cost? Does she grasp her responsibility as a Christian to confess Jesus to her friends and others when given opportunity? Does he understand that he is saved to serve and therefore he is to do so in his context (beginning in his home, extending to being available to do so in the church)? Does the child have the ability to understand the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3–4)? Does she understand that she is to live under the commands of Jesus Christ as her Lord and Master? These are important considerations that must not be easily brushed aside.
Yet l want to address something that troubles me when it comes to this matter: Too often, we put children under a “fruit-inspecting microscope” that we do not with reference to adults. For example, we watch how children interact with others and conclude that they are not saved because they are observed behaving selfishly, or losing their temper, or being prideful. But one of the characteristics of children is transparency. They have not yet learned how to effectively hide their bad side from others—like mature adults have! I rarely have seen professing adult Christians publicly behaving this way. But what happens in the home? How does the adult behave as they leave the church parking lot? My point is that we should not be unjustly hard on children. Or, at the least, let’s be equally hard on adults who profess Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
If the child can credibly say yes to the questions above, and to some degree display such faithfulness, then to withhold baptism from them, as I see it, is unjustified. But before you too excitedly reserve your child’s baptismal robe, we need to address the issue of who it is that will assess the child’s readiness? Certainly the one carrying out this ordinance (normally church leadership) will have a say in this. Yet, fundamentally, this responsibility lies with the parent(s).
On a personal note, I would not baptise a child whose parents did not believe that the child is ready. But neither would I baptise a child whose parents were not ready. If parents are not evidentially, intentionally raising their child for Christ, I would be deeply concerned whether the child understood the significance of the gospel and therefore of baptism. After all, if the parents seem to be lax about this then there may be grounds to question whether the child is also half-hearted. My hesitation would be driven by a concern that biblical discipleship—which is expected subsequent to baptism (Matthew 28:19–20)—would not be carried out in the home. Long after the baptismal clothes have dried, will the parents be faithful to help the child to continue to follow Jesus?
So yes, examining the child’s profession of faith is very important. But, at least in a professed believing home, this examination equally applies to the parents. If the parents are not seriously following Christ then I would be concerned that the child may in fact not understand the gospel and its implications. In that case, I would counsel delaying the baptism until there is more evidence that the child understands the implications of the gospel. In fact, this may mean that the delay is until the parents get the gospel.
So how do we answer the question, “To baptise or not to baptise?” Delay may be the better part of wisdom. Consider the above and then, parents, decide—keeping in mind that delay need not necessarily be discouragement. More on that next week.