Baptism is important to Baptists. The meaning and practice of baptism is a key mark of our particular Protestant expression. All Baptists agree on the practice of believer’s baptism: the practice that only conscious believers in Jesus can be baptized. However, Baptists can disagree on the administration and implications of baptism. We shouldn’t condemn one another over these issues, but we do need fruitful and thoughtful dialogue. The baptism of children is one of those issues.
Certainly, children can possess true faith. Jesus sets up their faith as a model for adults, “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’ (Luke 18:16-17).
Nevertheless, this does not mean we should indiscriminately baptize children. Most Christian parents recognize this, because most Christian parents ask pastors, “Is my child old enough to be baptized?” That question speaks to the reality that the conscience and convictions of a child can be fragile (1 Corinthians 13:11, Proverbs 22:15). Parents know this and love their children.
Some churches dismiss this question and act presumptuously and indiscriminately. And some churches act arbitrarily by setting an age requirement that Scripture does not demand. Being eighteen is no more a guarantee that someone is saved than being five. Still, we know that a child’s heart and mind are delicate.
Before we consider the particulars of children and baptism, we should examine some general biblical principles regarding baptism. Looking at Scripture, we could say: Baptism is an ordinance given to the church by Jesus himself that proclaims the gospel, symbolizes the new birth, and is a means by which a local church affirms its members.
Baptism is an ordinance given to the church by Jesus himself
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
One imperative drives these verses: “Make disciples.” What does Jesus charge us to do with those disciples? Two participles follow the imperative: Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
Of all the things that Jesus could have said to follow the command to make disciples, baptism was of first importance. This should cause churches and parents to pause and ask, “Why is baptism so important to Jesus and to the kingdom work he has called us to do?” Knowing how important this is to Jesus, we cannot afford to be presumptuously indiscriminate or arbitrarily restrictive.
Baptism proclaims the gospel
The Greek verb “baptizō” means “to immerse” or “to submerge.” In the case of baptism, we immerse or submerge under water. This is why John the Baptist baptized in the Jordan river – so that he could submerge people who were coming out to be baptized (Mark 1:4). The immersive design of baptism declares the glories of the gospel.
When James and John asked Jesus if they could sit at his side in heaven, Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38) The cup and baptism are interchangeable. The cup that he was referring to was his impending death on the cross (Mark 14:36). “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50).
Baptism is a proclamation of the good news of the death and resurrection of our Lord. Every time a church baptizes a believer by immersion, it is a declaration that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Baptism symbolizes the new birth
Baptism proclaims the gospel and it also symbolizes the new birth. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Water baptism symbolizes the spiritual baptism of the heart when someone believes in Jesus. The old life is put to death and buried. It is no more. Now, by the real and supernatural baptism of the Holy Spirit, a new life is raised up with Christ and for Christ.
Baptism does not create this reality, but it does testify to it. When a person is baptized he/she is testifying, “I am no longer the person I once was. That person is dead, and a new person has been raised to the glory of God.”
Baptism is a means by which a local church affirms its members
Baptism proclaims the gospel, symbolizes the new birth, and it also is a means by which a local church affirms its members. Baptism is not merely an act of the individual being baptized. In fact, it is primarily an act of a church. When a church baptizes someone, they are affirming that he/she is a repentant and obedient believer in Jesus.
Jesus calls this act of affirmation, “binding” in Matthew 16 and 18. After Peter professes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), Jesus tells the apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). And following instructions for a church to practice church discipline, Jesus says, “Truly I say you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).
In the context of Matthew 18:15-20, ‘loosing,’ clearly refers to removing unrepentant church members from the church. If loosing refers to removing members, then binding must refer to receiving members. Jesus has given the keys of the kingdom to his churches to bind and to loose, to receive and to remove.
And who should churches bind and receive? Disciples. And what should churches do with disciples? Baptize them (Matthew 28:19). Baptism is the act of a church saying to an individual, “Amen, we affirm you!” based on his/her profession of faith and new life in Christ Jesus.
Should we baptize children?
This brings us to the provocative title “Should We Baptize Children?” In light of what we have observed of baptism in Scripture, below are questions we should ask on a case by case basis.
Baptism proclaims the gospel – Does the child have a clear and solid understanding of the gospel? Does he/she understand who Jesus is? Can he/she distinguish the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus or the Easter bunny? Does he/she understand their sin? Does he/she understand what Jesus’ blood sacrifice accomplished? Is there any confusion in his/her mind that he/she is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and not by religious works and traditions?
Baptism symbolizes the new birth – Does the child possess godly sorrow for sin rather than mere worldly sorrow? Godly sorrow leads to repentance. Do you see a yielded and repentant heart within the child? Can you see a change in desires; no longer for selfish wants but for Jesus, his Word, holiness, and to love and serve others? Does the child have an obedient heart towards parents? If you say, “Well, they are too young for us to really see that,” then maybe more time should be given before we affirm them through baptism.
Baptism is a means by which a local church affirms its members – Is the child old enough to understand that a local church is affirming him/her? Is the significance of this affirmation lost on the child? Are the parents of the child baptized and active members of the church themselves? Can a child really be ‘bound’ by a church at a young age? If so, how should a church respond if a child departs from the faith or becomes unrepentant?
These are not extreme hypothetical questions that should be dismissed. These are the day to day realities of churches across the world. Notice I said, “realities,” not “problems.” Children being raised in the ways of the Lord and placing their faith in Jesus is never a problem; it is always a blessing!
God calls whom he will. He grants faith as he sees fit. Each child should be examined gently, patiently, and honestly. We must remember that God calls us to make disciples, not decisions. Baptism proclaims the gospel, symbolizes the new birth, and affirms disciples for life.
And if a child has been crucified and raised with Christ, then nothing can stop him/her from loving Jesus and living for him. Even delayed baptism.