This was originally published at sbcIMPACT a couple of years ago. We had a lively discussion then. William Thornton’s article this morning got me thinking about it. I’ve revised it a little. For the record, the baptisms referenced in the first paragraph were a couple of years ago, not yesterday.
Last Sunday I baptized five children in our early worship service. In the next couple of weeks, there are 4 or 5 more that are waiting in the wings to publicly picture the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Many are the fruit of an evangelistic family which adopts children and brings them to Christ (may their tribe increase!). Others came to Christ during our associational children’s camp or during our recent Vacation Bible School. I have talked to each child and they have answered my questions, satisfying me that they have professed faith in Christ and understand biblical baptism. These children range in age from about 7 to 10 years old. In the past I have baptized several 6 years olds, and even a rare 5-year-old.
I have read articles very critical of what I am doing. One blogger I respect deeply (and almost always agree with) calls what I do a Baptist version of paedobaptism. He believes that we should not baptize until much later in a child’s development. The danger is that children with an incomplete understanding of faith may be baptized before they have been truly converted, thus giving them a false basis of hope or salvation. I remember back to a Pastoral Ministry class I was in 150 years ago, in which one pastor recommended we wait until at least age 12 to be baptized. Others have advocated an age even higher.
So here is our question: is it inadvisable to bring younger children who have expressed faith in Christ to the waters of baptism? Or, would it be better to make them wait until they are older and understand their commitment better?
I continue to baptize even young children who make a clear profession of faith in Christ and give evidence of a basic understanding of the purpose and meaning of baptism. I admit that it is very possible, even probable, that some of these children will, as they grow, give evidence that their profession may not have been genuine. And still, I continue to baptize them. I will join in the chorus of those who are critical of some of the tactics and strategies of some who work with children. One church in Sioux City (not SBC) gave perhaps the worst gospel presentation I have ever heard. One of our families (the evangelistic adopters I mentioned above) sent their children to the VBS alternative that this church offered. A couple of weeks later they got a letter in the mail congratulating them because their child had “made the Big JC her best friend.” That was the gospel – do you want to make the Big JC your best friend? That passed for evangelism, I guess. A relative of mine came home from Sunday School as a young boy very upset. The evangelist had come to class and left him with the impression that by not receiving Jesus as his Savior that day, he now had a black spot on his heart that would never go away. We have to be very careful when we deal with children – they are gullible, eager to please (mostly) and it would be easy to lead those children to false professions based on faulty understanding. And still, I plan to continue baptizing children who make a clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Permit the little children to some to me.” I plan to do nothing to hinder children who have trusted Christ from being fully obedient to him in all things, including baptism.
My Convictions about Baptism
I believe it is my responsibility as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ to baptize anyone who comes to me with a clear profession of faith in Christ and a clear understanding of the meaning and purpose of baptism. My convictions on this issue are based on my general understanding of baptism. Last year, I wrote a series of blogs on my personal site that spell out what I believe about baptism. I will not rehash all of that now, but if you are interested, the links to that series are here,here, here, and here. My views have been growing and developing as I have continued to study this issue, and I might word a couple of things differently (perhaps less stridently). But, essentially, those posts summarize my beliefs and I will not repeat than information here.
What we need to address today is one application of these principles. What is required for me to perform a valid baptism? Should I, after someone comes to me with a profession of faith, require instructional classes or catechisms? Should I require certain evidences and actions as proof of the validity of the baptism; signals that the discipleship process is taking hold? Should I wait for the children to reach a certain age? Or, should I baptize every person who comes to me with a clear profession of faith after I explain to them the meaning and purpose of biblical baptism? I have already stated that I am convinced of the second option. Perhaps other options exist that our readers can add for me to consider.
Reviewing the Evidence
As best I can find, there are eight baptismal stories in the book of Acts. In Acts 2:38-41, Peter finished his sermon with a call to repentance. Three thousand souls responded. Those who received the word were baptized. Simple, straightforward statement. When they received the word of God and expressed faith in Christ, they were immediately baptized. I see no evidence of any intervening actions. Conversion, then immediate baptism.
Acts 8:12-13 tells the story of Philip. When they believed the message Philip taught, they were then baptized. No one was consulted. No classes were held. Conversion, then immediate baptism.
Peter was carried off into the wilderness and met the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:37-40. He explained the gospel to this man who had been reading from a scroll of Isaiah. The Ethiopian asked if there was any reason he shouldn’t be baptized. Philip had none. He did not need to consult with or get the approval of any church or put the man through any classes. Conversion, then immediate baptism.
In Acts 9:18, Paul was baptized by Ananias after he believed. His baptism was not immediate. He was so stunned from his encounter on the road and there were no believers around. But when Ananias found him and the scales fell from his eyes, they baptized him. Conversion, then almost immediate baptism.
Acts 10:46-48 is another telling story. Peter, without consulting with the Jerusalem church or the other apostles, baptized Cornelius and others when they professed faith and were filled with the Holy Spirit. Here, there was clear and convincing evidence of their salvation, but the principle still applies here. Conversion, then immediate baptism.
Seeing a pattern develop?
Look at Acts 16:14-15, the story of Lydia’s conversion. The Lord opened her heart, she believed and was immediately baptized. In Acts 16:30-33, Paul and Silas led the Philippian Jailer to faith in Christ. Verse 33 says, “he was baptized at once.” Not after the new members class finished. Not when he turned a certain age. Both were converted, then immediately baptized.
The last significant account is Acts 19:3-5. Paul encountered a band of John’s disciples. He explains the fulfillment of the gospel through Jesus and they believe. Verse five tells us, “on hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Conversion, then immediate baptism.
There seems to me to be a clear pattern. In the book of Acts, NOTHING comes between salvation and baptism. If I led you to Christ, we would go and find a pond, creek or river and you would be baptized before the hour was out. That seems to be the clear pattern. It is not a command that we baptize immediately, but it certainly seems to be a pattern.
It is unfortunate that none of these stories involves children, though there are a couple in which households are involved; households that may well have had children. No children were baptized in these stories, but neither is there any prohibition of such. The argument of silence is weak in both directions.
What I Believe and Why I Do What I Do
1) It is clear to me that in the New Testament days, as just demonstrated in the review of the passages in Acts, baptism followed conversion immediately (or as nearly so as practicable). When a believer shared the gospel with an unbeliever and the unbeliever believed, the next thing they did was find some water for a baptism. Granted, we only have eight examples and it could be argued that they do not represent the practice of the church as a whole. But there are eight examples and they are uniform in the pattern – conversion, followed by an immediate baptism. If this was not the general practice of the early church, one might expect to find instructions in the epistles to countermand the clear implication of this pattern.
2) I see no evidence of any kind of screening process, membership class, or discipleship process that preceded baptism. This does not necessarily invalidate them, but it makes it hard to argue that they are a biblical mandate. Baptism seems to be an initial picture, a public proclamation of salvation in Christ that initiated the process of discipleship and is not the culmination of it.
3) It does not seem to me that new believers were required to prove their faith before baptism in any tangible way. They were baptized on clear profession of faith, not on the proof of that faith. I am sure that the disciples were careful to explain the gospel clearly and exercised reasonable vigilance to see that the confession was not in any obviously false way.
It is always sad when someone gives a profession of faith then turns back from it in later days. I think we try to examine folks so carefully to avoid this. Certainly, we are required to exhibit due diligence in explaining the faith and verifying the understanding of those who confess Christ.
But baptism initiates discipleship, it is not the culmination of it.
4) While there is no example of the baptism of small children, neither is there any prohibition of it. We each have to make a decision based on our understanding of scripture.
Baptism and Children
1) It is my duty to baptize those who give a clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ – regardless of their age. If a child gives a clear and convincing profession of faith in Jesus Christ and understands that salvation and the picture of baptisms, I will baptize them.
I want to see the following things:
• A clear understanding of the gospel. “Jesus is my best friend” is not enough. Sin. Death. Hell. Jesus’ death on the cross. His resurrection. A childlike faith is fine, but even children need to understand these things. Frankly, I have received some excellent explanations of the gospel from very young children.
• Genuine conviction of sin. Obviously, children haven’t usually done horrible, wicked things, but they are sinners. They need to understand that they have sinned against God and are under his judgment. They must have a sense of the seriousness of their sin and their need for Christ.
• A realization that Christ came to bring new life; a life in which he is Lord. Children need to understand that it is more than just Jesus coming to live in their hearts and taking them to heaven one day. They are surrendering their lives to Christ as Lord.
• An understanding of the meaning and purpose of baptism. They must realize that baptism is a symbol, a public profession of faith and not a saving event in itself. This is especially important in areas like mine in which certain other denominations hold sway and teach that baptism “washes away our sin.” This needs to be made clear.
2) Our families and our children’s ministries must make these truths absolutely clear. Personally, I think it is best to continually proclaim the gospel and these truths, but to refrain from invitations, especially ones with pressure, when children are involved. Children will often respond to please, and they are susceptible to guilt and pressure. Who would not ask Jesus to be their best friend? We need to teach clearly and let the Spirit of God create the desire and conviction within them. My experience has been that children saturated with the true gospel message will tend to respond at the proper time, young or old. Make the message clear, but don’t make the decision too easy. Even children must count the cost.
3) I have baptized many children aged 6 to 11 in my years of ministry. Some have fallen away and perhaps given evidence that their testimony was not genuine. But the simple fact is that the vast majority of those I have baptized have continued to serve the Lord. I have not done a scientific study as to the rates at which children and adults I have baptized have given evidence of genuine conversion. I would hazard a guess that children have a slightly higher “recidivism” rate, but not by that much.
4) I recognize that early baptism often leads to a time of doubt and reevaluation in the teenage years or following. I was saved and baptized at age 6 and I certainly went through that reevaluation process. But I am convinced that I was saved that night in my bedroom as my dad read a book called, “Little Pilgrim’s Progress.” Now, 48 years later, I still think it was real.
5) It would be very easy to manipulate children into “decisions for Christ” and build your baptism statistics. That would be despicable! Providing false hope for parents or facilitating a false experience for children is contemptible. Any of us who baptize children must be absolutely sure that we examine the children and their profession clearly. Do they understand the gospel? Do they evidence repentance and an awareness of their sin? Do they understand that baptism does not save, but is only a picture of salvation.
6) Here’s my question for those who make children wait. If we believe that baptism is the first act of obedience required of a believer in Jesus Christ, are we not requiring that children who are genuinely saved begin their Christian lives with disobedience? I know that is no one’s intent, but is that not the effect?
I am teachable on this issue. But until someone convinces me biblically that baptizing children is wrong, I will continue doing it. I will baptize anyone of any age who gives me a clear and convincing testimony of faith in Christ and demonstrates an understanding of baptism. I try to discern that this is a function of their own faith and conviction and that it is not being done under parental pressure. I was saved and baptized at age 6.
Does that make me a Paedobaptist? I don’t think so, but now, you make the call.