“What is the appropriate age to baptize believing children?”
Here’s a question that’s been asked more than a few times by Baptist pastors and churches seeking to be faithful to Scripture and responsible in their discipleship. Broadly speaking, you might take one of two positions: either you baptize believing children upon a credible profession of faith, or you delay baptism until they’ve matured as individuals — whether that means they pass subjective milestones (e.g., understanding or increased independence) or objective milestones (e.g., moving out from under their parents’ authority).
The tension has existed for centuries because Scripture doesn’t give us a simple and neat answer key — but it also doesn’t leave us without any direction.
What Is Baptism?
As with many disagreements, the first critical step is to get the question right. In this case, before wading into any issues related to the practice of baptism, we should ask, What is baptism anyway?
For more than three centuries, the first paragraph in chapter 29 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession has articulated the fundamental conviction of believer-baptism:
Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.
“Baptism is a sign of the believer’s faith-union with Jesus.”
In short, baptism is a sign of the believer’s union with Jesus by faith. It is a sign for those who are in Christ, and in order to be doubly clear, the second paragraph of chapter 29 tells us who qualifies for such a sign: those who actually profess repentance toward God, faith in Jesus Christ, and obedience to him as Lord.
The three words mentioned here — repentance, faith, obedience — are the ingredients that contribute to that good Baptist phrase “credible profession of faith.” The little adjective credible means more than simply believable. In light of the confession, we might say a credible profession is one that appears genuine because of discernible repentance, positive faith, and practical obedience — markers that we can reliably, but not infallibly, read. This inevitably determines how we practice baptism, and these three elements are so essential in one’s profession that our local church (along with many other Baptist churches) reflects each of them in baptismal vows.
Unadorned Union with Jesus
As an example of baptismal vows, our local church has our pastors ask the baptismal candidate three questions just prior to immersion in the triune name:
- Are you now trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to you?
- Do you renounce Satan in all his works and ways?
- Do you intend now, with God’s help, to obey the teachings of Jesus and to follow him as your Lord, Savior, and Treasure?
Previously, the pastor has met with the baptismal candidate and discerned a genuineness of faith. Then, through these questions, he invites the candidate to extend this profession to the watching congregation, showing himself to be among the “only proper subjects of this ordinance.” The baptismal candidate makes his profession by simply answering “I am,” “I do,” and “I do” to these questions.
These direct questions and simple answers are meant to be straightforward and plain, not requiring the candidate to have public-speaking skills or theological acumen, but only what is sufficient to convey a manifestly genuine faith. This is why, following the candidate’s three affirmations, the pastor declares, “Based upon your profession of faith, I baptize you . . .”
In the moment of baptism, it should be clear to everyone that the immersed individual is appropriately receiving the ordinance as one who is in Christ. The sign of the believer’s faith-union with Jesus, conveyed in the moment of immersion, is the “featured presentation” of the baptism, and so we administer the ordinance with unadorned simplicity (without need for video assistance, strobe lights, or confetti cannons).
Getting the Question Right
As straightforward as the ordinance may be, the biggest challenge comes in how pastors might discern a manifestly genuine faith in someone who is emotionally immature or inexperienced in life, such as a child — which gets back to the question at hand.
“Remember, you are attempting to discern genuine faith, not maturity.”
Asking how we discern genuine faith is the best way to approach the question of when to baptize believing children. To start with the question, “What is the appropriate age to baptize believing children?” may get us off on the wrong foot if it already assumes that a church may delay baptism to a believer, a practice for which Scripture gives no example and which the theology of baptism does not allow.
Discipleship concerns aside, I believe that hindering baptism to believers on the basis of age (rather than the inadequacy of a credible profession) is as sub-biblical and systematically compelled as paedobaptism. It seems especially strange in light of Jesus’s words regarding children, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder [kōluō] them” (Mark 10:14), and the Ethiopian eunuch’s question, “What prevents [kōluō] me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). As we answer the latter question, we cannot disregard what Jesus himself says.
So then, how might a pastor recognize discernible repentance, positive faith, and practical obedience in a child who claims Christ and desires baptism?
Discerning Genuine Faith
In most cases, the process of discerning genuine faith, as best we can, involves pastors conducting a “baptism interview” with the candidate. A similar kind of interview would apply to a believing child, except that pastors should also consult with the child’s believing parents. (I recommend that pastors employ the assistance of the child’s Christian father in the interview if possible.)
Without duplicating a template for these interviews in the present article, pastors should keep in mind at least three key principles.
1. We are attempting to discern genuine faith, not maturity.
The first line of questions for the child should be related to positive faith. These would be questions essential to understanding the gospel: Who is Jesus? What is sin? What does God think about sin? Why did Jesus die? Where is Jesus now? How do we know about any of this?
One might call these basic grammar questions. The pastor is looking for evidences of faith that go beyond inferences of natural revelation. While the pastor doesn’t expect the child to recite the Nicene Creed, he is looking for more than vague references to a “higher power.” We want to see if the child has an understanding — childlike as it will be — that our knowledge of God comes from the Bible, and we’re not free to just make up what we believe. Common sense may be our best tool here. In some of the answers, the child might giggle or say something silly or look over at his dad for help. That doesn’t mean the child is unregenerate; it means he is a child.
Because the child’s life experience is so short, we shouldn’t expect the testimony to be a Damascus Road page-turner. Rather, we’re looking for the child to have a sense of the wrongs he has done — white lies, harsh words with siblings, refusal to share toys, and the like. The pastor should help children connect the dots that these sins (commonly tolerated as they are in the lives of many adults) are actually in the service of Satan himself, and our faith in Jesus means we renounce the devil (as stated in many baptismal vows).
This is where the presence of the child’s father in this interview can be especially helpful. While some might think involving a parent provides a crutch for the child’s profession and spoils the process, it actually becomes a line of deeper accountability. In questions related to repentance and obedience, imagine having the same interview with an adult candidate in the presence of someone who has basically observed the candidate’s entire life. We don’t need the children to act like adults, but to manifest genuine faith as children.
2. Address false assurance with robust discipleship.
Many churches delay baptism for believing children because they want to avoid giving false assurance of salvation to an unregenerate child. While I understand the concern, I think there is a better way to address it, and one that doesn’t require us to sidestep the pattern of baptism in the New Testament. In general, rather than churches making it difficult for anyone to take the first step of obedience to Jesus (through baptism), they should make it difficult for individuals to take steps away from Jesus.
The antidote for false assurance is not sub-biblical hurdles to baptism, but thick community within the local church and a culture of discipleship. The members of the church should know one another. This doesn’t require that every member know every other member well, but that every member is known well by many, having been plugged into discipleship structures that encourage shared stories and openness. Local churches can build a culture where it’s hard to not walk in the light. And cultures like this, together with regular teaching and resourcing from the word of God, will go further in preventing false assurance than forbidding a believing child from the baptismal waters (not to mention the Lord’s Table).
3. Pastors should recognize their worst-case scenario.
Our consideration of this topic would be served if pastors and churches checked our worst-case scenario right away. What is the worst we can imagine — that we accidentally give an unregenerate child false assurance? That we unhinge baptism and church membership? That we allow immature persons to become church members? Or is it that we hinder baptism to a person who is regenerate and genuinely manifests that reality?
I believe only one of the scenarios above is expressly unbiblical. As Peter once put it, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people?” (Acts 10:47). What is hindering pastors from hindering believing children to do what should not be hindered? That is the real question.
Regardless of where your church lands on when to baptize believing children, any tensions related to faithfulness to Scripture and responsible discipleship are worth facing. And more than that, the fact that there are individuals in your church, and especially children, who are turning to Jesus is something for which to give thanks. Such is God’s will.