My wrestling with the idea of baptizing children began in 2004, when my wife was pregnant with our first child. At the time, my struggle wasn’t about baptizing children, rather it was specifically about the baptizing of infants. I draw this distinction between baptizing infants and baptizing children because I believe it is an important one for this discussion. The issue of baptizing infants falls under the umbrella of what is known as padeobaptism, or as I prefer to call it, covenantal infant baptism. I don’t intend to discuss the baptism of infants here, but I draw the line between the two because I want to be clear that I am talking about credo (or confessional) baptism in this article. This is baptism, not based upon the covenantal promise given by God to parents, rather a person’s, in this case a child’s, confession of faith in Jesus.
Eventually my wife gave birth to our son, and 20 months later, our daughter. Since we were not attending a church that supported infant baptism, along with the fact that infant baptism wasn’t yet at the level of a conviction for me, we never baptized either of our kids as infants. Despite my leanings towards, and growing conviction concerning, covenantal infant baptism, it was when my son turned 5 and daughter turned 3 that I knew it was “too late” for me to baptize my kids based on the padeo-baptist framework. So, I was left wondering what to do. At what age, or what time should I discuss baptism with my kids? If they, at a very young age, say they want to be baptized, should I let them? What if I don’t think they are regenerate? What if I’m not sure of the state of their soul before God? What if I’m not sure they really grasp the truth of the Gospel? What am I to do? These were my wrestling.
On April 4, 2010, my wrestlings were resolved as both my children (ages 3 and 5) chose to enter the waters of baptism in obedience to Christ’s command, and as a declaration of faith to the Church and the world. As a father, I was both encouraged and enthralled to welcome my children as brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ. Their baptism, like all the faithful before them, is valid, fruitful, and efficacious. Theirs is no “mock” baptism, trial run, or kiddy version. Like the faithful before and after them, my kids were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Now, the purpose of the post, article, paper, or whatever you want to call it, is to explain the basis for which I believe it is appropriate and right for churches to baptize young children under a credo-baptism framework. For the sake of clarity, I will be using the term “young confessing children” throughout and, by this I mean those children under the age of 6 (+/-) who confess to have faith in Jesus as both their Lord and Savior.
My hope is that the arguments below will help give other parents and pastors food for thought in this critical area of church life.
Baptism is Not
Let me begin with what I hope is obvious to all. Namely, baptism does not save. Jesus saves.
Entering into a body of water, answering a few questions, being plunged or sprinkled, and having someone say “…in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost…” does not remit or remove the stain of sin and offense committed against the holy and true God. Nothing but the sinless blood of Jesus can pay for sin, and nothing but faith in His propitious work can save you from the wrath of God.
When we look at the issue of baptizing children, or anyone for that matter, we are not saying that the water of baptism saves them.
This is a topic that could (and does) fill entire books. That said, I hope that you will excuse my brevity, as I will lay out only a few pieces of the puzzle that I believe are important to the discussion at hand.
~ Baptism is a command ~
In Matthew 28:18, Jesus gives instructions to the 11 that they are to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Later, at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41), Peter stands up and gives a powerful explanation for the events unfolding in Jerusalem that day. After hearing his message, the crowd is “cut to the heart” and asked the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s response was for them to repent and be baptized. Finally, Peter, in Acts 10:48, actually “commanded” the gentiles to be baptized after he observed that they had received the Holy Spirit.
Further scriptures attest to the fact that baptism is a non-negotiable aspect of Christianity. Every time we see someone come to faith in Christ in the New Testament, it is almost immediately followed by baptism (see Acts 8:13, Acts 8:38, Acts 9:18, Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33, Acts 18:8, Acts 19:5, Acts 22:16).
Confessing Christ and baptism go hand-in-hand. That being the case, it is imperative that we seriously consider the implications of not baptizing, or discouraging the baptism, of young confessing children.
~ Baptism is a sign and seal ~
I include this section, not so much because it bears directly on the whether or not we should baptize young confessing children, but because it it helpful in thinking through what baptism is. Here, in regards to sign and seal, I find Calvin’s explanation in Institutes (IV, xv, 1-2) far better than mine, and I encourage you to read his words slowly and attentively. I think Calvin walks the delicate balance of what baptism “is” as a sign and seal, while also showing that, by itself, baptism is not salvific:
1. BAPTISM is the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the Church, that being ingrafted into Christ we may be accounted children of God. Moreover, the end for which God has given it (this I have shown to be common to all mysteries) is, first, that it may be conducive to our faith in him; and, secondly, that it may serve the purpose of a confession among men. The nature of both institutions we shall explain in order. Baptism contributes to our faith three things, which require to be treated separately. The first object, therefore, for which it is appointed by the Lord, is to be a sign and evidence of our purification, or (better to explain my meaning) it is a kind of sealed instrument by which he assures us that all our sins are so deleted, covered, and effaced, that they will never come into his sight, never be mentioned, never imputed. For it is his will that all who have believed, be baptised for the remission of sins. Hence those who have thought that baptism is nothing else than the badge and mark by which we profess our religion before men, in the same way as soldiers attest their profession by bearing the insignia of their commander, having not attended to what was the principal thing in baptism; and this is, that we are to receive it in connection with the promise, “He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
2. In this sense is to be understood the statement of Paul, that “Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:25, 26); and again, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). Peter also says that “baptism also doth now save us” (1 Peter 3:21). For he did not mean to intimate that our ablution and salvation are perfected by water, or that water possesses in itself the virtue of purifying, regenerating, and renewing; nor does he mean that it is the cause of salvation, but only that the knowledge and certainty of such gifts are perceived in this sacrament. This the words themselves evidently show. For Paul connects together the word of life and baptism of water, as if he had said, by the gospel the message of our ablution and sanctification is announced; by baptism this message is sealed. And Peter immediately subjoins, that that baptism is “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, which is of faith.” Nay, the only purification which baptism promises is by means of the sprinkling of the blood of Christ, who is figured by water from the resemblance to cleansing and washing. Who, then, can say that we are cleansed by that water which certainly attests that the blood of Christ is our true and only laver? So that we cannot have a better argument to refute the hallucination of those who ascribe the whole to the virtue of water than we derive from the very meaning of baptism, which leads us away as well from the visible element which is presented to our eye, as from all other means, that it may fix our minds on Christ alone.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
Baptism as Grace
Neglect not baptism. True, there is nothing saving in it, nothing meritorious; but baptism is a means of grace.There have been many, who have found, like the eunuch, that when they have been baptized they have gone on their way rejoicing — rejoicing as the effect of grace given when they have obeyed their Master.
Charles H. Spurgeon, vol. 6, Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 6, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Spurgeon’s Sermons (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998).
There are numerous things given to the church that God has chosen to be means by which men, women, and children can encounter the grace of God. Three of the most commonly accepted means of grace are baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Word. In considering whether or not it is appropriate to baptize young confessing children, I think this is an important consideration. In allowing a young confessing child to be baptized, you are allowing them access to a means by which God extends grace to individuals.
How powerful is that event of baptism! Could it not be the very thing that God uses to encourage and strengthen them in their walk and development as a young person. Could it not be the very thing he continues to bring to their remembrance of who He is and what He offers them in Christ? Is it not baptism that Paul uses to encourage the Romans to flee from abiding sin (Romans 6:1-14). What a merciful tool we have in our lives, to look at our baptism and be encouraged in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For what reason would we ever deny a young confessing child this merciful gift?
Jesus Calls the Children to Come
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Let us first be clear that Jesus is not baptizing these children. However, there are three very important pieces of information in these verses that I believe bear weight in the question about baptizing young confessing children.
First, Jesus gives honor to the children. He doesn’t shoo them away or allow his disciples to dismiss them because of their age, or their mental ability to discern Jesus as the Messiah. Instead, he rebukes his disciples for hindering these young boys and girls from coming to him. He opens his arms and calls them to come.
Second, Jesus declares “for to such belongs the kingdom of God/Heaven.” The use of “such” doesn’t give us the ability to imply that Jesus was saying “children belong to the kingdom of God/Heaven” but rather that those who are like children. It seems reasonable to assume though, that if one must be like a child (ie. dependent, trusting, etc) to enter the kingdom, then those who are most like children (namely children) would be allowed to enter the waters of baptism (the kingdom’s sign) based on the faith and understanding they possess as children.
Third, Jesus (in Matthew and Mark’s accounts) lays his hands on the children. Mark goes further to say that Jesus was blessing them. We obviously do not know the exact details of this blessing, but it is not insignificant that Jesus blesses the children and is worth considering when we think about the blessing of allowing our young confessing children to enter the blessing of baptism.
Based on these passages, the fact that Jesus bids the children to come, likens the family of God’s kingdom to the children, and blesses the children, I think it is reasonable to ask ourselves if Jesus would rebuke us if we refused to allow young confessing children to be baptized. Personally, based on these texts, I’d be afraid to withhold the waters of baptism from young confessing children. Perhaps we are far too often like the disciples and try and hinder children from receiving the blessing of Jesus.
Jesus was Baptized as a Child
Ok, I know he wasn’t baptized. But, after 2,000 words I thought you needed a little pick-me-up. However, I don’t think this section heading is too far of a stretch. By that I am referring to the relationship between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism. Colossians 2:11-12 is one text that closely shows the relationship between the two, with baptism replacing circumcision as the sign of the covenant with God. If, indeed, baptism is the New Testament sign of the covenant (replacing circumcision) then I think it is only reasonable to consider the use and application of circumcision as the covenantal sign. Namely, consider that Jesus (Luke 2:21) and all males in Israel (Genesis 17:10-23) received the sign and seal of the covenant as children (infants to be precise).
Now, the continuity between circumcision and baptism is typically used in defending the case of infant baptism (which, I have been clear, is not what this article is about). But, again, I think this information is important to consider when trying to decided if it is appropriate to baptize young confessing children. If the sign of God’s covenant was applied to infants in the Old Testament, those who had no confession at all, why would we think it inappropriate to withhold the sign to those children who can, and have, confessed faith?
Biblical “Requirements” for Baptism
It seems to me that the only requirement for entering the waters of baptism is belief. While other things like repentance and confession are often related to, and associated with, baptism, only belief seems to be necessary to enter the waters. We see this in the fact that most cases of baptism indicate that the ones being baptized had heard and believed the gospel (see Acts 2:41, Acts 8:12, Acts 8:13, Acts 8:35-36, Acts 16:31-34). While there are other things that accompany each of these accounts, the common thread is belief.
How Much Belief is Enough for “Believer’s Baptism”
Here is where I think a major problem lies for the church. We seem to have quickly strayed from the apostolic example of Acts and begun to place numerous restraints on those entering the waters of baptism. Now, in order to be baptized a person must sit through weeks of classes or catechisms, have an interview, and pass some arbitrary “discernment” process of a pastor to judge if the individual is ready to enter the waters. In fact, probably the biggest challenge in regards to baptism is that in the name of guarding something holy, we have essentially hindered people from freely entering in to God’s gracious gift of baptism.
The fact remains that the New Testament is overwhelmingly unanimous in depicting the process of baptism being an immediate response to hearing the Gospel. In every New Testament instance of baptism, it administered as soon as someone wishes to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. You can look at any reference from the last section and see that this was always the case.
The problem, I believe, is that we are desperate to prevent the unregenerate from being baptized. We have somehow come to the conclusion that baptism is only to be administered to someone who has, without a doubt, been born again. However, this is not what we are presented in Acts. In fact, many suspect that Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9-25) was not a Christian based on Peter’s rebuke in Acts 8:20-23. If that be the case, then it is interesting that the Apostles Peter and John had no problem baptizing him only a few verses earlier on the basis of his confession alone.
I bring up all this to say that, if we, in our desire to protect the waters of baptism, set ourselves as the external judge of who enters the waters, then how can we ever let anyone enter? If a young child, or a college student, or an elderly individual hears the gospel and confesses faith, then that should be the only standard by which we judge someone ready for the waters of baptism. Not only that, but the New Testament would seem to indicate that we should usher them to the waters quickly.
To young and old, “Do you believe the Gospel?” If yes, then let us go to the water and receive the sign of baptism.
We’re All Liars
Surely, with this approach, some who are not truly born again will enter the waters of baptism (see the mention of Simon the Magician above). This may even be the case with young confessing children. As I have thought about this fact, I was reminded that it was not my own righteousness that allowed me to be baptized. This, in fact, is the very essence of the Gospel. You aren’t worthy. I’m not worthy. Confessing children aren’t worthy. Though I confess the Lord, I have sinned and fallen short of His glory. So, how am I, or others who have confessed faith yet sinned, any more worthy of the water than a child who confesses faith.
Sure, a very young child might not be regenerate or have saving faith, but if you present the gospel, and the confess faith, what makes them less worthy of the water than you or a 30-year-old college graduate? Is it not better to believe their confession of faith IN FAITH!
The Greater Danger
If you are concerned, for whatever reason, that it might be a bad idea to baptize young confessing children, then I ask you to consider that it may be far more dangerous to the spiritual well being of the child to not baptize him or her. Perhaps the greater danger than allowing a young confessing child to be baptized is to tell the child that his or her faith and confession is not sufficient and that he or she is not welcome in the family of God. This is, in fact, what we are saying to a child who confesses Christ, is not allowed to be baptized. Instead of embracing the child’s “Child-like” faith, even if that faith is merely a trusting in his or her parents words, we are sending the message that he or she is not yet “good enough” to be accepted by Christ and his church.
What great harm this can have! For, as they grow older, we have done nothing but teach them to question their faith and judge whether they have yet attained the spiritual maturity worthy of coming to Jesus. Would it not be far, far better to teach your children the way they should go, and at each stage and age of life point them to Jesus? Not only do you point them to Him, but you trust His promises to you as a parent. Namely, that he will be God to you, and your children after you. Should we not exemplify to our children that we trust God with their very salvation to such a degree that, while they are weak (as children) we trusted that God was strong and that He would be faithful.
Certainly we must daily teach our children about sin, repentance, faith, and the entirety of the Christian life. But is that not the same for our own souls? Why not trust that God can, and does, honor the faith of children who confess Jesus as Lord, and bring them to the waters of baptism. Their baptism then becomes the mark at which you can point them to the Gospel and God’s grace and mercy extended to them, encouraging to daily repent and believe.
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
2 Timothy 2:19
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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
The age at which to baptize children is often a sticky one for churches that do not practice infant baptism. Most churches opt to wait until an age where a child has the mental capacity to truly digest the depth of the gospel and that signs of regeneration, or “fruit,” is evident in the child’s life. I however contend that this is neither biblical or necessary. If at a young age (under 6 +/-) a child hears the gospel and responds with a confession of faith, then it is the church’s duty and delight to bring that child to the waters of baptism.
The Lord knows who are his.
He is a faithful, covenant keeping, God.
To Him be glory forever.
Not Yet by sigsegv