The question among Baptists over whether to baptize small children is sensitive, and I’ve gone back and forth on it. There are several pastoral difficulties, and parents face many questions that they don’t often feel equipped to answer. Local churches who take conversion and church membership seriously have often taken a more conservative stance by implementing a certain age (say, 10, 15, or 18) before baptizing a child in order to guard against giving a young child false assurance or baptizing someone who isn’t truly converted.
Trevin Wax recently brought up the question and makes the case that “there is wisdom in delaying baptism for young children” (emphasis mine). He follows the lead of W.A. Criswell, who “encouraged and affirmed childhood decisions for Christ, but postponed baptism until a child was around 10 years of age.” So if your child professes faith at 6, the encouragement would be to wait until 10 to finally baptize him. Some churches wait longer, even until the child is out from under the direct influence and authority of parents.
I’m sympathetic to these concerns, and I understand the tension that a century of “easy-believism” has brought upon the question. I’m certainly not in favor of baptizing children merely at the sound of a profession. But I believe implementing a probationary period between belief and baptism has significant negative consequences.
Without reverting back to “easy-believism” Christianity, I believe the Bible gives us good reasons for parents to baptize their children upon observing a clear profession of faith in the gospel without a probationary period.
Why Not to Delay Baptism for Small Children
Here are four reasons to consider not delaying baptism for small children:
1. The regular pattern in Scripture doesn’t give any indication of a probationary period.
The biblical examples of baptisms give us no reason to insert a probationary period between belief in the gospel and being baptized. Rather, baptisms came immediately after belief, usually on the same day. The Bible doesn’t seem to give us any examples of an un-baptized Christian (see Robert Stein’s chapter in Believer’s Baptism, ed. by Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright), because the apostles were following Christ’s command to baptize all those who profess faith. I’m afraid that in the attempt to guard against false conversions, we have also prohibited obedience to Christ in following his command to be baptized. A child could go for years without being baptized, all the while confessing Christ and trusting in his gospel. This is a category of Christians that do not exist in the Bible, nor do I think it should today.
2. A probationary period seems to imply that there is something more than faith we need to do in order to be a Christian.
Setting up a probationary period or age before a child can be baptized seems to imply a number of things contrary to the very gospel we are encouraging our children to believe. We have reacted against an “easy-believism” Christianity with a “prove yourself” mentality. Wax and others aren’t attempting to supply biblical commands for what is necessary for baptism, merely pointers to use biblical wisdom in this area. But telling an 8-year-old who wants to be baptized that she needs to wait until she is 10 (or whatever age you assign) implies that she is either not a Christian or not a good enough one. In other words, a probationary period implies that there is something more than faith we need to do in order to be a Christian: I need to be at least 10 years old; I need to be able to vote in a church meeting (to use Wax’s example); I need to act in a certain way or articulate things properly so that my parents or pastor will finally treat me as a Christian. If we have no reason to doubt their belief in the gospel, we have no biblical precedence to keep them from being baptized and accepted into church membership.
3. Affirming belief in the gospel is never false assurance.
I’m sympathetic to the concern that early baptism could give a child false assurance. But telling our children that they are a Christian because they have placed their trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins is never false assurance. Never. To think or say otherwise is putting our children’s assurance in something other than a life of faith in Christ’s finished work. We must say to them, “Keep believing! Keep believing!” If we are to affirm faith in young children, then the only biblical and pastoral thing to do is baptize them.
4. The New Testament pattern is reactive rather than proactive concerning conversion.
This point is a little bit harder to summarize, but it’s an important one. The emphasis in the New Testament seems to be more on reacting upon false conversions—leading to church discipline—rather than a proactive, preventative approach to conversion. In other words, the New Testament projects a pattern of assuming a profession of faith to be true and reacts upon what may have been or is false faith by disciplining an unrepentant sinner or identifying a wolf and calling him so. But the reaction is not only negative to false faith, but also a positive encouragement for believing Christians to persevere in faith. The New Testament’s emphasis is not on the proof of an individual’s conversion, but rather the laboring, exhorting, praying of pastors, elders, and parents for their sheep to persevere in a life of faith in the gospel.
Observing Faith in Young Children
The difficulty for both pastors and parents is identifying what is true belief and what is excitement or a desire to please parents. But if a child is expressing faith in the gospel, our first impulse should not be to doubt it. We have every reason to believe that God has used the ordinary means of prayer, discipleship, and teaching to bring to life faith in our young children.
If parents spend time discipling their children in the knowledge of God’s Word and his gospel, evidences of faith will begin to be exposed, such as remorse over sin, a love for Jesus Christ, and a hunger to learn more about God. Intentional discussions and questions can reveal motivations and desires that can either affirm or call into question the child’s faith. Bringing pastors and church leaders into these discussions will help parents recognize these evidences. But if our children express an interest in being a Christian with none of these evidences of faith, we then have good grounds to guard them from being baptized; all the while praying for them, teaching them, and, with great expectation, looking for evidences of faith.