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)
4 thoughts on “Baptizing Children”
As someone who has worked in children’s ministry, i agree, we need to be very careful in how we deal with children. The simple truth is that our methodology is littered with error. Having grown up baptist, i’ve seen this first hand. Whether it’s misleading kids into thinking that walking the isle, praying a prayer, or getting dunked under water, will result in being a Christian, there are variety of ways we have altered the Gospel and how one receives salvation. However, if we are going to ask kids questions we need to make sure we know what we are asking and why. For one, what does it mean ‘to repent of one’s sins?’ The bible speaks of repentance and it speaks of sin, but if we telling someone they have to repent of their sins to be a ‘genuine’ Christian then what are we requiring of them?
Hi Joel, thank you for commenting and I appreciate your thoughts.
I’m curious, what is your current setting? You say, “Our methodology is littered with error,” but I’m just wondering who “our” is, at least in a general sense. As for us in Reformed Baptist world, we don’t have aisle walking or sinners prayer kind of stuff, so those really aren’t difficult issues to deal with in our circles… they just don’t exist!
I speak of repentance in the sense that those who are justified will acknowledge their sinful nature and repent of sin as an ongoing, daily practice. We are justified by grace, through faith, apart from any works whatsoever. However, those who are justified will repent. There is no such thing as a person who is in heaven who has not repented, but that repentance was not a condition upon which they were saved. Repentance is an instrument, not a condition. However, we certainly don’t shy away from calling people to repentance: “Repent and be baptized!” “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”
So when I talk to children, I ask them if they are sorry for their sins, and if they are, what do they do about that? We talk about whether or not they know what repentance is and if they admit their sin to God and ask for forgiveness. Something along those lines, depending on the age and understanding of the child.
When I say ‘our methodology’ i’m speaking of modern, western Christianity. Whether it’s Campus Crusades four spiritual laws, the Roman road, The ABCs of Christianity, alter calls, repeating the sinner’s prayer, etc. there are a lot of methods which have attempted to make salvation a formula. It isn’t, and these methods have created a lot of confusion. And regardless of whether you teach these things, you likely deal with the results of such methods. Although, I was raised Southern Baptist, I’ve worked with a variety of denominations and also serve in a para church children’s ministry. Your post was linked on Facebook, and although I am very familiar with reformed theology, i’m not familiar with a specific reformed Baptist denomination. We used to call those Presbyterians. LOL.
All that said, I’m afraid we’d have some major disagreements on the usage and definition of the term repentance, which is one reason I left the SBC, and a reason I’m not reformed. (See Michael J. Cochoris’ paper, Repentance, The Most Misunderstood Word in the Bible) But, hey this is your forum, and I’m not interested in an argument on that stuff. Just had some questions about your questions. Best to you in your endeavors.