As a pastor, I’m often asked a very important question by members of the church I pastor and by friends in the ministry – “When should my child be baptized?” As I begin, I want to be clear that I will be writing from a distinctively Baptist position, first because I’m Baptist and also because it’s the right position as I like to tell my Presbyterian friends.
What Is Baptism?
Baptism is an act of obedience to Jesus Christ whereby a follower of Christ is immersed under water to symbolize the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the new life in Christ (Romans 6:1-11). Baptism is the most pure profession of faith that a follower of Jesus can make publicly. Baptism is an ordinance of the church, and as a result, should be performed under the authority of the church. It should likewise be noted that nowhere in Scripture do we see that the act of baptism saves sinners or removes sin. Salvation involves several aspects such as regeneration and justification which both precede the public statement of baptism. It should be further stated that baptism is for believers – just as the Lord’s Supper is reserved only for followers of Christ. That’s why I hold to a firm position of believer’s baptism rather than baptizing infants as my Presbyterian friends do.
Words of Caution
Baptism matters to God. To approach it lightly is to overlook the significance of baptism. By now, we’ve all seen the YouTube video of the boy entering the baptistry with a cannonball splash. It should be our desire to avoid such circumstances. It’s not that we can’t “laugh” in church, but that we want to approach baptism with a more serious tone.
Baptism is not a yearly competition for churches to race each other through the calendar year. We would frown upon publishing the fastest churches to eat the Lord’s Supper during a communion service each month. We would consider that a perversion of the sacredness of the Lord’s table. Likewise, we should frown upon competing with other churches based on baptism numbers in a given time period. Baptism isn’t a race, it’s an ordinance of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Just because little Jimmy attended the last night of summer VBS (Vacation Bible School) and raised his hand when the teacher asked if anyone wanted to “ask Jesus into their heart” doesn’t mean he should be baptized. Likewise, just because Jenny attended summer youth camp at the beach and prayed a prayer after an emotional evangelistic meeting doesn’t mean she should be baptized in the ocean with her youth group. The why, how, when, and where of baptism all matter. Likewise, age matters too.
I’ve also heard troubling stories of spontaneous baptisms where people are invited to be baptized on the spot after viewing others follow the Lord in believer’s baptism. Once again, we must approach baptism with a sense of humility as we consider what it means for the individual and likewise what it communicates to others. As a pastor, I see the magnitude of responsibility regarding proper instruction through the baptism process. To error here could cause unnecessary stress and a false sense of security for unbelievers who are baptized without being properly examined and discipled. How many of us have been baptized more than once as a result of a false conversion and subsequent baptism at an early age?
What Age is Appropriate?
Some well respected pastors such as Mark Dever and Capitol Hill Baptist Church require believing children to wait until they can articulate their faith through words and actions that are not bound by parental authority. According to their official statement adopted in 2004 by their elders, they write:
We believe that the normal age of baptism should be when the credibility of one’s conversion becomes naturally evident to the church community. This would normally be when the child has matured, and is beginning to live more self-consciously as an individual, making their own choices, having left the God-given, intended child-like dependence on their parents for the God-given, intended mature wisdom which marks one who has felt the tug of the world, the flesh and the devil, but has decided, despite these allurements, to follow Christ. While it is difficult to set a certain number of years which are required for baptism, it is appropriate to consider the candidate’s maturity. The kind of maturity that we feel it is wise to expect is the maturity which would allow that son or daughter to deal directly with the church as a whole, and not, fundamentally, to be under their parents’ authority. As they assume adult responsibilities (sometime in late high school with driving, employment, non-Christian friends, voting, legality of marriage), then part of this, we would think, would be to declare publicly their allegiance to Christ by baptism.
Many other Baptists feel that the language of the New Testament insinuates that baptism should be closely linked in time to the conversion of the sinner. While they would oppose the baptism of infants, they are willing to baptize believing children because of the Scripture such as, Acts 2:38 – “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.‘”
Grace Community Church, under the leadership of John MacArthur and their elders are willing to baptize believing children. According to their church distinctives, they provide the following explanation:
Here at Grace Community Church, our general practice is to wait until a professing child has reached the age of twelve. Because baptism is seen as something clear and final, our primary concern is that when a younger child is baptized he tends to look to that experience as proof that he was saved.
The choice to baptize or withhold baptism from believing children both carry good motives and logic. When making decisions as a church it’s important to base decisions upon the Scriptures. Once again, in the case of those who withhold baptism they do so on the basis that age is rarely mentioned and that the converts are coming from a non-Christian background and can adequately demonstrate outward signs of conversion that may not be as clear in our Christian contexts. While it seems that children are following Christ too, the lack of information provides enough reason for some churches to make a decision to baptize adults only.
The decision to baptize believing children under the care of their parents and the oversight of elders likewise has merit based on texts that have conversion and baptism closely connected (to name a few verses: Acts 2:38; Acts 2:41; Acts 8:12; Acts 9:18; Acts 10:48). The decision to baptize children rests upon the elders and the church as a whole, but the decision should be carefully made and each baptism should be taken seriously.
My personal position falls closer in line with Grace Community Church than Capitol Hill Baptist Church. While I respect Mark Dever and their church greatly, I differ with them on this issue. Age my vary, but I’m cautious to baptize children too young. I do think that the evidence of the New Testament provides grounds for believing children to be baptized, but the burden of oversight must be taken with a spirit of maturity and serious examination must be carried out prior to entering the baptistry. Each believing child must cognitively grasp the truths of the gospel and the definition of baptism while demonstrating faith in Christ.
The ability to articulate this without pressure from parents or a peer group is essential, and sometimes this can be difficult to discern. That is one of the burdens for elders to bear in their oversight of the church. Just because a child doesn’t want to burn in hell or has “asked Jesus into their heart” doesn’t mean they are a legitimate candidate for baptism. We must bar the gate to the baptistry and only allow people with a credible conversion to partake in this sacred act of obedience.
Baptism matters! Each individual baptism should be taken with a spirit of mature oversight by the elders. After the work of examination and education is complete – the gathered church celebrates as each individual is baptized as a follower of Jesus Christ. As they go through the physical act of baptism, they are communicating some really important truths to the gathered assembly and likewise, the church is communicating some very important truths to them. The work of Christ on the cross is enough. Jesus is their Savior. Their sins have been atoned for by Christ’s work on the cross. Christ was buried and rose again on the third day – and as each individual rises from the water – they do so with the understanding that Christ is their hope and one day they will experience a different resurrection just as Jesus was bodily raised from the dead.
No matter where you land on this issue, we should all agree that it’s an important issue worthy of consideration and we should likewise approach the ordinance with a spirit of maturity and a heart of joy! J.C. Ryle accurately describes the sacredness of baptism in his commentary on Matthew 3:
[We should] regard the sacrament of baptism with reverence. An ordinance of which the Lord Jesus Himself partook, is not to be lightly esteemed. An ordinance to which the great Head of the Church submitted, ought to be ever honorable in the eyes of professing Christians.