If I’m honest—and I want to be—one of the more difficult things for me as a baptist is having to discern whether or not a child is prepared for baptism. My conscience is bound to what I understand the Bible to teach, and that is believer’s baptism, but there are numerous difficulties that arise in the search for genuine, saving faith. There is no shortage of resources and articles about this important topic, but I want to share what I think through as a parent and as a pastor.
As a Christian father, I want my children to hear about Jesus every day while they are in my home. They go to church and attend Sunday school and worship, we do family worship, we attend a weekly small group, we talk about the Scriptures, we read the Bible and other age-appropriate books about biblical things, we pray together before meals and before bed, we have other Christians in our home regularly and talk about the Lord and His Word, and I encourage them to pray and to trust the Lord and to be obedient to his Word. I’m guessing most Christian families do these things, or something similar. It’s a blessing for our children, and one that the Lord often honors with the gift of salvation (1 Corinthians 7:14).
That being said, children are dependent upon their parents and have a tremendous trust in us. So, in their minds, what reason would they have to not believe what we take so seriously, what we teach them, and what we encourage them to believe to be true and trustworthy? But their believing it’s true because we believe it’s true is completely different than them having true, saving faith in Jesus Christ. The difference between the two though, is very difficult and often nearly impossible to discern. So, what should we do?
Most children begin asking about baptism after witnessing one in church or reading about it in the Bible. I also see parents having quiet conversations with their children about the Lord’s Supper when the plate is being passed, as they explain the necessity of faith in Christ for one to partake of the elements. So when the questions start coming up, I tell parents (myself included) to continue offering encouragement, telling their children that it’s a wonderful thing they’re thinking about baptism and expressing a desire to be a Christian. They should be urged to keep asking questions, learning the Scriptures, and asking God to be at work in their everyday lives. My oldest daughter is 6 years old and asks me almost daily, “Daddy, am I a Christian? I want to be!” That’s a wonderful thing, and we want to celebrate and encourage that belief. However, I also let her know that while we’re waiting for a while to baptize her until she grows and understands more, if she is a Christian, God will save her no matter what we do in terms of baptism now.
So what should we be looking for? I will offer a few suggestions based on what I look and listen for when speaking with children in our church, and what I am looking and listening for in my own children. First, I always ask the following questions up front:
- Why do you want to be baptized?
- What is baptism?
- Why should anyone be baptized?
And then I ask them (and the way I ask it is dependent upon their age):
- What does it mean to be a Christian?
- Can you tell me if there is a difference in your life? Was there a time you weren’t a Christian, but now you are? What’s different?
- Who is Jesus and what has he done to save us?
- What do we have to do so that Jesus will save us?
- Tell me about yourself and how you interact with God and with other people. How has that changed? (I’m looking for some kind of acknowledgement of sinfulness and being deserving of judgment). What do you think about yourself and your own heart?
- What is repentance? Have you repented of your sin?
- How are you trusting in God day-by-day?
- Can you tell me what the gospel is?
I don’t coach children through the answers, and I encourage parents to be careful to not just give their children answers to memorize and repeat. Obviously, most children aren’t going to be able to answer all of the questions using the same language an adult would, but we are merely looking for evidence of an understanding of each element and how each element belongs within the broader story of their life with Christ. It may be very elementary, but we’re not looking for advanced theologians, we’re looking to see if they understand what they profess to believe.
When a young child is encouraged to keep on believing, learning, and asking questions while baptism is delayed, if they truly understand about salvation and recognize their lost condition, they will not be easily dissuaded from being baptized. Perhaps, their persistence is an indication of their readiness. But if they’re not serious and it’s only a periodic discussion because they see something (Lord’s Supper, baptism, etc.), or they stop talking about it completely, then it’s worth waiting on for a while to see where it goes.
Obviously, there is no magic age when a person who professes faith should be baptized. But I also know I can get my three year old to tell me what I hope to one day hear and make the argument that she said the right things and should, therefore, be baptized. So we’re left to be wise and ask for God’s direction. There’s no harm in waiting for a while after an initial desire for baptism is expressed. I do believe it is unfortunate when we baptize too quickly because it can cause a false sense of assurance. However, we also want to be sensitive as to not provoke our children to wrath (Ephesians 6:4). If they are truly Christians, we want them to benefit from all of the means of grace.
In the end, we do have the means by which to keep the church pure through church discipline, or sometimes once they are teenagers or adults, those who were baptized as young children realize they were not saved when they though they were initially, and therefore do not maintain the same kind of relationship with the local church. Either way, there are safeguards, but it’s best not to use them if we can avoid it up front by being thoughtful and discerning when we consider whether or not to baptize our children.
(By: Nicholas Kennicott)