My daughter has never known a time when she did not believe in Jesus, she loves going to church, and she isn’t shy about telling people that she loves God. As far as she can tell, she’s always been a Christian.
But she hasn’t been baptized.
My wife and I have had many conversations about when we should encourage her to get baptized. Those of you who are from traditions that baptize infants may not appreciate the significance of this issue. But those of us who believe that baptism is for those who have made a personal confession of faith, it gets a little tricky.
What is faith?
What makes it personal?
How do you know?
Questions like these defy easy answers.
And as we’ve wrestled with them over the years, we’ve changed our minds a bit. Earlier, we felt that most children should wait at least into their teen years to get baptized. And that probably stemmed from my experience as a youth pastor, watching so many students struggle with a faith they inherited and a childhood baptism they didn’t understand, students who now felt like their faith was a mask handed down by their parents, one they wore to keep everyone happy, but one that was now foreign and uncomfortable. Walking alongside those students through these struggles, and knowing that so many Christian teenagers wrestle with the same issues, I resonated with the argument that we should wait until they’ve worked through these issues before getting baptized. After all, that’s when their faith is really theirs.
But now I wonder. I still understand the legitimacy of those earlier concerns, but now we’re leaning in the other direction. Why should the fact that my daughter might struggle in her faith later prevent her from being baptized now? I’ve gone through many such challenging times, and I probably will in the future. Does any of that call into question the legitimacy of my faith? Of course not. As far as I can tell, doubt is part of the human condition on this side of the Fall. If my present and future doubts don’t preclude my own baptism, why should they hers?
And I’ve long worried about the implications of this focus on a sincere faith. Striving so hard to make sure that her faith is real and personal, don’t we risk raising questions when she faces later in life those times when her faith feels neither real nor personal? Having based her baptism on these things, will she not question them on that same basis?
None of this changes how I view the essential nature of Baptism itself. I remain convinced that baptism is for those who express a personal faith in Jesus Christ. But it does remind me that we Baptists need to do a better job of grounding baptism on the grace of God rather than the sincerity of our own faith. Only then will that which baptism signifies — our incorporation into Christ, dying and rising with him, participation in the body of Christ, and entrance into the blessings of salvation — be secure from the vicissitudes of life.
A Different Perspective
In his new book Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Gregg Allison offers a very nice summary of the arguments for/against baptizing children (see pp. 360-361). And he comes to a slightly different conclusion than I have. So, for the sake of balance, I thought it would be good to present his arguments below.
First, Allison makes clear the indissoluble link, in his view, between baptism and a credible profession of faith.
The prerequisite for baptism is a credible profession of faith that flows from haring and understanding the gospel. Given this emphasis, the question of the proper age for baptism is secondary to the question of what constitutes a credible profession of faith.
Then, after briefly mentioning those who think that any profession of faith qualifies for baptism (even for children as young as three or four), Allison summarizes why many think that such a profession of faith would not qualify as “credible.”
For other credobaptists, such a profession cannot achieve an adequate level of credibility, for several reasons. Children cannot understand the abstract concepts of sin and grace, of Christ and hid each in the place of sinners and his resurrection; thus, they cannot grasp the gospel at such a young age. Moreover, children are designed by God to be responsive to their parents and others who exercise authority over them and instruct them. Thus, when a four-year-old responds to the prompting of her parents or the encouragement of her Sunday school teacher to accept Jesus into her heart, her positive answer pleases her parents or her teacher and is the proper reaction to their encouragement, but it may do little in terms of constituting a credible profession of faith.
Allison then goes on to summarize a couple of historical arguments against the practice:
Furthermore, in terms of the specific administration of baptism by Baptists, they have historically baptized people when they were in their twenties. A case can be made that the lowering of the typical baptism age has contributed to the carnality of the church and its unregenerate membership. Correlatively, delay in the baptism of children should help to reduce professions of faith that later prove themselves to be false.
Finally, Allison argues that none of this means we should denigrate a child’s faith or even the child’s relationship to the church.
This view does not mean that children should not be evangelized and encouraged to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ until they are older or almost adults. Nor does it mean that children cannot become genuine Christ-followers. Also, the position does not mean that because they are not baptized, children are not to be held accountable by the church. Indeed, the church has a sacred responsibility toward them in terms of praying for them, discipling them, equipping them for ministry, explaining the purpose for baptism, and so forth. But the position does insist that a credible profession of faith be offered before the church administers baptism.
For Allison, then, we should normally delay baptism until such time as the child is able to make a credible profession of faith. Although he makes room for exceptions, he thinks it would be wise to normally wait until at least the early teen years before administering baptism.
To be sure, Allison’s arguments are close to my own. Both of us believe that the biblical pattern is to connect baptism to an individual’s profession of faith. And we’re both concerned to ensure that we’re taking that connection seriously, not just accepting any verbal utterance as an expression of faith. And we’re both inclined to see evidence of such a profession of faith at a younger age than has tended to be normative in the baptist tradition, which often delayed baptism into the late teens or early twenties.
Nonetheless, my position has gradually slid toward the younger end of this spectrum. Maybe we’ve tried to load too much into the “credible” aspect of a child’s profession of faith. And maybe it’s time to emphasize more strongly that we are all saved by grace, and that our subsequent baptism into the community of faith corresponds to professions of faith that, as important as they are, will always be plagued by the doubts, flaws, and fears that are part and parcel of life in this fallen world.
Perfection eludes us, grace does not. Praise be to God.