To baptize or not to baptize?

Helpful advice for pastors and parents who are thinking about baptizing children.

In Jesus last few moments on earth he said the following to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18b-20).

We know this statement to be the Great Commission and one of the core components of the Great Commission is baptism.  At Mercy Hill we celebrate baptism because it marks in the Christians life a definitive and public stance to follow Jesus.  Quit simply it is an outward expression of an inward reality (not original with me).

But is it simple if we turn our discussion about this ordinance towards baptizing children?  Every Christian parent longs for the day when their child professes Christ and makes a public declaration of his or her faith.  But is that public declaration for a child participating in the act of baptism?  Since baptism is an essential step of obedience for the follower of Christ we as parents and as pastors have to wrestle with this issue.

In answering this question there are two essential questions that we have to tackle and through them I hope to provide some very practical insight to frame our thinking on this issue.

Question #1 – Is your child a Christian?

I know this might seem like an obvious question but it’s worth camping on for a moment.  The reality is that all children are highly impressionable.  Therefore, when dealing with a matter as important as a child’s faith it’s vital to keep in mind the fact that a child desires to please his parents (or any authority figure for that matter).  So if mommy and daddy are Christians it would follow suit that a child would desire that as well.

This is not all bad – in fact as parents we hope to model the Christian life for our children in a way that they would desire that for themselves (see Deuteronomy 6) – but we never want to use our parental (or pastoral) influence to sway a child towards believing in Jesus because it will make us happy.  So then how do you know if your child has made a genuine profession of faith?

One my favorite pastor/writers Brian Croft provides five clear and practical insights into this question.  As a pastor and parent he says we are to look for…

1)  A growing affection and need for Jesus and the gospel.

2)  A heightened understanding of the truths of Scripture.

3)  An increased kindness and selflessness towards siblings.

4)  A greater awareness and distaste for sin.

5)  A noticeable desire to obey parents.[1]

Parents and pastors alike ought to be working in conjunction – using these questions as a rubric – to help discern a child’s commitment to Christianity.  If and only if a parent and pastor have carefully ascertained that a child has indeed made a genuine profession of faith can we address the second question.

Question #2 – Should we baptize young children?

Most opinions on this question tend to fly to either side of the debate.  Some would say “no” because at an early age (let’s say anywhere between the ages of 5 and 10) a child cannot cognitively understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  Therefore, it is a mute point to talk about baptism since we cannot effectively discern a child’s commitment to Christ as such an early age.[2]

Although I understand the cautious nature of this approach we have to hold our caution in tension with texts in Scripture like Matthew 18:3 or Luke 18:17.  There Jesus is teaching his followers what it means to humble oneself as a citizen of his kingdom.  And in the process Jesus uses a tangible illustration by pointing out the children sitting in their midst and saying, “ Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Here Jesus commends the position of a child and this certainly to a degree relates to the faith of a child.  If we are commended to have faith like a child how we can’t be quick to throw out the faith of a child.

The other side of the debate would say, “certainly”.  It is not as if caution is thrown to the wind in discerning a child’s faith but age would not necessarily be an automatic disqualifier[3].   As a church, we would tend towards this view on baptizing children.  Looking out at the landscape of our congregation we do not see children versus adults but rather we see Christians.  And the primary public response for any Christian is baptism.

This is a very personal issue for even our own pastoral staff as pastor Andrew was baptized at age six and therefore we want to be biblical and wise in our approach.  That means that any child who expresses a desire to be baptized will spend time with his or her parents and one of our elders discussing their understanding of the gospel and its implications upon their life.

If we feel like that child has clearly understood and grasped the gospel and placed his or her faith in it we see it as our responsibility to baptize them.  That being said we hold fast to Jesus words in Matthew 13:24-30 where Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and tares.  Our commitment is to use godly wisdom to counsel a child who desires to be baptized but we leave it up to God to ultimately discern on the day of judgment whether that profession of faith was true.

Although our approach as a church might not be yours we hope that we can all agree that God has given us a great responsibility to teach the gospel to the younger generations.  At Mercy Hill, we work hard to provide a place where children can learn to see how great the gospel is and grow up from a young age following Jesus.

[1] – I would highly recommend placing Croft’s blog Practical Shepherding in your bookmarked files.  He is incredibly practical and wise in each post.

[2] Wax wrote a very helpful blog that takes a highly cautious approach on this issue.  Although he would not say “no – never” he does advise parents to wait.

[3] – here’s a great article that takes a distinctly affirmative approach to baptizing young children who have professed Christ.

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