Should Baptists baptize children?
By Raul Enyedi
Some time ago I learned about a practice among our churches which is strange to us: that of baptizing young children. We in Romania were perplexed when we heard of it because it seems to us so contrary to the strong stands our kind of churches take on baptism and church truth. We expressed our concerns both in private and public. Since this practice seems to be gaining more of a foothold, we would like to call everyone’s attention to the potential harmful effects that such a practice may have in the life of individuals and in our church life. Some may find this article offensive and think it exaggerated, but I wish it would be perceived as a token of our love and appreciation for our sister churches in the U.S. All I ask is that they give us a fair hearing.
I have done my best to research the matter and to understand why Baptists would adopt such a practice. I learned that baptizing preteen children is of recent origin. It started in the 20th century (there may be exceptions, but I haven’t come across any yet) and is mostly practiced in America and in places where American Baptists have a strong influence. In other parts of the world Baptists usually delay baptism until a person reaches at least teenage years or even adulthood. This has been generally true throughout our long Baptist history. Back in Reformation times we find that even some early Reformers (Zwingli is one such example) recommended at first that parents would wait in bringing their children to be baptized until they were 12 years old. What would our forefathers, the Anabaptists, say if they saw us baptizing children that are younger than those initially baptized by the Reformers? Looking at history I learned that baptizing preteen children is something new among our Baptist churches and, as with any novelty, it should be put to the test to see whether it is something harmless or not.
But what does the Bible say? With us it is the Bible not history or any tradition that should have the final say in the matter. When we look in the Scriptures we do not find a minimum age of the candidate stated. But does this silence grant us the liberty to baptize children at any age? No, it does not. Even though we do not have a minimum age of the candidate stated, when we look at the baptisms in the book of Acts we first find that personal faith in Christ is a prerequisite for baptism. One that does not or cannot believe in Christ is not a proper candidate for baptism. In the book of Acts those that believed the Gospel are repeatedly described as “men and women,” (Acts 5:14; 17:12). All the baptisms in the New Testament were performed on “men and women,” (Acts, 8:12) and church members are described as “men and women,” (Acts, 8:3, etc.). In the book of Acts we do not find little children believing, being baptized and becoming church members. We have enough evidence to see a pattern even though a minimum age is not given: the person baptized must be old enough to understand the great truths of the Gospel and independent enough to declare personal faith and loyalty to Christ.
But what about little children that profess faith in Christ? Do we not see in the Book of Acts that all those that profess faith are baptized? Why not baptize them? I believe this is often the reasoning behind this practice in our churches. There are several things to consider. First, all those mentioned in the book of Acts that professed faith are men and women not children. Second, since God-given repentance and faith produce visible changes in one’s life, we should demand signs of true conversion before baptizing anyone at any age. This is what John the Baptist did; he refused to baptize those who did not show “fruits meet for repentance.” Is this also true for the baptisms in the book of Acts? Yes, even though it is not specifically mentioned. Let us remember that all those that professed faith in Jesus as Christ came from a non-Christian background. For the Jewish leaders our Lord Jesus was a deceiver: an impostor. His followers were hated, mocked and persecuted. There was an immediate price to pay for anyone that publicly professed faith in Him. So if a person professed such faith it meant that they were ready to pay the price for following Him. This is still true in non-Christian societies in our day and time. (Think of a man or woman in a Muslim country professing Jesus as Lord and Savior. Such a profession is proof in itself of conversion because there is a high price attached to it). But in societies that have a Christian tradition there is no such price tag implied in our profession of faith and this is why we should wait until we see fruits of conversion in any candidate. So who was baptized in the book of Acts? Men and women that professed faith in Christ: their profession involving the readiness to pay a high price for discipleship.
The Lord can save someone at an early age. But the conversion of little children (their repentance and faith) is something that cannot be verified until years later when they grow into adulthood and become independent enough to make their own choices and experience life on their own. This is one reason why we should delay baptism of children that come to profess Christ. When children profess Christ without being manipulated they are no doubt sincere. They are sincere even when they are manipulated: this is one of the great qualities of a child that all of us adults should desire to imitate. We should be aware that children are naive, easily influenced and changeable. These are actually good qualities because they make a child trainable. But they also make it difficult to recognize the permanent changes that conversion brings in someone’s life. Despite of all our precautions and good intentions, it is so very likely that a child will make a profession in all sincerity without being really saved. If a child was really saved in his preteen years, then the cementing of his individuality in teenage years will confirm the genuineness of his conversion. Such teenagers will be able now to understand better the great truths of the Gospel and the greatness of salvation in Christ. Teenage years are the earliest usual age when the first fruits of true conversion can be seen, therefore, we believe it is wise that baptism is not considered before anyone reaches this age.
As children grow they begin to explore and discover their own individuality and the surrounding world. In teenage years children have the natural tendency to disobey their parents and question the established facts that they were taught. This rebellion against authority is part of the process of becoming independent from their parents and building their own individuality. They want to put everything to the test and see for themselves if what they were taught is true or not. These are also the years in which we discover our sexual desires. It is a time of being self-centered mostly because it is the time when we discover our own selves: who we really are. The matters of faith are not excepted from questioning and many teenagers and young adults discover that what they thought to have been a conversion was not something real.
There are two reactions to this sad discovery: some in an attempt to be honest with themselves will deny their former profession of faith to the disappointment of their parents while others, even though doubting the reality of their conversion, will not deny it. Some will not have the courage to re-evaluate themselves from fear of finding a lack of true conversion and will continue to trust themselves in that profession even if real fruit is lacking. Outwardly they will keep a form of obedience and service to Christ without being changed inwardly. In the cases above the early profession of faith caused more harm than good to everyone involved.
But there is something else to consider regarding conversion. Let us remember what conversion really is. It consists of repentance toward God and faith in Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance is more than being sorry for sin. A lost person can “repent” in that sense too and at any age. But this is not God-given repentance. Even if the person is sincere such a repentance does not last long because the nature has not been changed. The apostle Paul talked about a godly sorrow that works repentance so being sorry for sin and true repentance should not be confused. God-given repentance is a total change of heart: it is an attitude that involves our intellect, emotions and will. Our intellect is involved because we must understand the message of the Gospel. The Gospel starts with the bad news for the sinner and talks about our rebellion against God and the just condemnation for our sin. The sinner hearing the Gospel needs to thoroughly evaluate himself (his past experiences, his character, his world view) through the lens of the Gospel message. The Spirit will convict him and assure him that the message is true. His conscience will bear witness to his failures to live by God’s standard. The outcome is that his self sufficiency and confidence in his own merits will crash. He learns that he stands before God already condemned and awaiting the execution of that condemnation.
When he reaches the sense of total helplessness and realizes that there is no way he can escape the just condemnation of God the Spirit will point him toward the Person and work of Lord Jesus Christ who bore our sins and paid in full our debt. The helpless sinner will then cast himself at the feet of Jesus, cling to Him as his only help and understanding the magnitude of His love and grace will pledge his unconditional allegiance to His Lord and trust Him with his life. Faith in Christ is more than agreement with some statements or facts. It implies faithfulness or loyalty to Him. But that doesn’t come without an ability to comprehend the cost of service to Him. And this means that we understand what we’re giving up and what we are taking upon ourselves when we declare our faith in and allegiance to Him.
God-given repentance and faith involve the deepest of our emotions and the strongest determination of our will. But they also involve our intellect. They involve the ability to understand concepts like life, death, good, evil, justice, forgiveness, service, love, sacrifice, etc. They also involve the ability to know ourselves and evaluate our past actions, character and world view in light of the statements of the Gospel. It should be obvious that preteen children are not able to comprehend the Gospel as described above except in a limited and superficial way. God can save them even with limited understanding, but there is no guarantee of true conversion until they will be independent enough to make their own choices: to know themselves and discover their own identity. No one can be given assurance of salvation until they come to understand the magnitude of things involved in their conversion. Therefore, when young children are baptized there is no definite proof that their conversion is real. But their baptism is actually a confirmation to them that they are truly saved in the estimation of the adults around them (parents, church leaders and members) who understand conversion much better than they. If they are not truly saved as often is the case then they are led to trust in a false profession: they are given a false hope. If the Lord does not show them their condition later in life they will be lost religious people. Baptizing young children puts them into a worse position than the infants baptized by the Protestants who encourage such to make a profession later in life. When Baptists baptize young children they do so upon what they consider genuine profession of faith and children will naturally trust in that profession (genuine or not) since the adults around them confirmed it by accepting them for baptism. Delaying baptism until definite signs of conversion are obvious (in later teenage years at least) will confirm to children the seriousness of the subject and will lead them to continually evaluate themselves until they are assured by the Lord regarding their salvation. This is far better for the children because if they were not truly saved in early years they avoid the discouragement of finding that they weren’t saved even though the adults around them assured them that they were by approving their baptism.
There is something else to consider: what are the effects of this practice upon church membership. When we are baptized we are immediately incorporated into the church body. In this body all members are equal even though each one is different in strength and function. Church membership is a great blessing, but it involves great responsibilities. The church is the administrator of the “keys of the kingdom” and one use of them is the power to discipline unrepentant members as the Lord teaches us in Matthew chapter eighteen. In order to do that the members of the church must be able to understand and judge the cases brought before the church. Members must have a degree of maturity and independence of thought to form their own opinions and vote according to the dictates of their own conscience in order for their vote to amount to anything. If that is not the case then the church has a congregational form of government in name only. It should be obvious to all those that have participated in business meetings that young children do not have the maturity of comprehension and the independence of thought to form their own judgment and exercise a vote accordingly. Therefore, they are not fit to be church members until they reach an age when they are independent and capable enough to make their own judgments.
Baptizing young children affects negatively the testimony of a church: it weakens it. How can we defend believer’s baptism against the Pedobaptists when our candidates are just a few years older than theirs? How strong can be our case for congregational form of government when our deliberative body is composed of members that cannot even comprehend the matters under discussion?
Even though we readily admit that God sometimes saves young children we wonder why is it that in the last decades we see a steady increase of such professions and baptisms? Let us look around at those who practice them on a large scale. What kind of Gospel do they preach? In most cases it is a diluted Gospel message or an altogether false one. Many respond to such a call, but they are still dead in trespasses and sins no matter the age. Baptizing young children and baptizing anyone without looking for signs of conversion endangers the church. The Lord built His church to be composed of regenerated members. If we keep adding members that are lost our church will fall into apostasy like countless other churches before us. Apostasy is real: is irrevocable. No church is spared. The soundest church is only one generation away from apostasy. Brethren, let us realize that if we do not guard the faith our church will become apostate. We are not immune to it. If we let the guard down we will be overtaken.
A word to believing parents: every parent desires that their children will be saved and spared from the defilement of the world. But baptism and church membership will not spare them from the temptations and rebellion of teenage years and young adulthood. If they weren’t truly saved it will make it worse for the children, for the parents and for the church. If the Lord saved a child at an early age that child will be a good member of the church some years later. Teach children the great truths and virtues of the Scriptures, set yourselves as examples and pray for them constantly! Explain the Gospel to them. Exemplify with your life what it means to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. Make sure you make time for family prayer and devotion. But do not push for a profession of faith and for baptism. You sow the seed and let the Lord work in His due time. The salvation of every person rests ultimately with God.
A word to people that made early professions: if the Lord saved you in your childhood years and you came to this assurance, be thankful, praise Him and love Him with all your being for He chose to spare you from many pains! It is a great grace that not many have received! Live a clean life that honors Him!
If you find yourself among those that made a profession of faith in your early life, but you are not sure if you are really saved then I urge you to come to the Lord! If you do not hunger and thirst after Him and His Word: if you are not different than lost people around you: if you do not see the fruit of the Spirit in your life then do not try to trust in something that you did: come to the Lord now! Baptism will not save: your years of coming to church will not save you! Only He can save you and give you true assurance!
If you made a profession of faith and realized that your life is not changed – if you question the reality of salvation and believe everything is counterfeit – let me tell you that counterfeits exist because the real thing exists! Regeneration is a life changing experience and it is real! Do not be discouraged: seek the Lord! Come to the Lord now and ask Him to grant you true repentance and faith! He will not cast away any one that comes to Him!
A word to preachers: let us carefully examine ourselves before the Lord! We are His messengers! We proclaim His message not ours. Let us make sure that we do not remove anything from it! The true Gospel is foolishness to the flesh! Only those that are regenerated by the Spirit of God can answer the call of the gospel of grace! If unregenerate and unconverted people (no matter the age) can habitually answer to the call of the Gospel that we preach then there is something wrong with our preaching! It means that we have taken out the element that is offensive to the flesh. But that very element is what distinguishes the true Gospel from its counterfeits and what makes it the power of God unto salvation of anyone who believes. Many have changed the Gospel and adapted its message to the liking of their hearers no matter their ages. The direct result of it is that their churches are large, but largely lost. Let us make sure that we learn from them and steer clear from that danger! Let us emphasize what true repentance and faith are! This is our duty to the Lord that sent us and to the people that we serve!
A word to churches: brethren, we have a holy task: to protect, to preserve and to proclaim the truth at any cost. We are members of the Lord’s churches not men made organizations. A true church is not a trivial thing. If the Lord tarries we must make sure that we entrust the sound faith and practice to the next generation for them to carry on the Great Commission when we are called home. It is probable that our times are the greatest times of apostasy in all our history. What is our attitude about it? Should we be pleased with being just a little better than apostate churches? They should serve us as a warning, not as a standard! Some baptize children of age five or younger and call it believer’s baptism. And most of their membership is most likely lost. Should we be satisfied to being just a little better than them?
A church will stand or fall depending on how she guards her ordinances. Baptism is the means to enter into church membership. Why is it so important? Because the church is designed by the Lord to be composed of regenerated persons. It is the only way it can function properly and fulfill its purpose. The need for regenerated membership is the very reason why we advocate believer’s baptism. Only those who can make a valid profession of faith are scriptural candidates for baptism. Since we do not believe that baptism is necessary to salvation we should demand from all candidates “fruits meet for repentance,” that is, clear visible proof of a changed life and delay the act until such fruit is made visible.
I do not doubt the good intentions of the parents whose greatest desire is to see their children saved and baptized. Neither do I doubt the good intentions of the churches that baptize young children because it is a great joy when a person raised among us comes to faith and asks for baptism. But we need to see what a practice does on a long term basis before generally approving it. And it does much more harm than good, it weakens our churches and has the potential of even leading toward apostasy. Let us learn from the mistakes of others and return to the practice of our predecessors for the benefit of our children, our churches and for the testimony of Christ!