Baptism of Children and Youth
By Pastor Errol Hale
There are differing opinions among Christians about both mode and timing of baptism. At Grace Bible Church, we practice believer’s baptism by immersion, rather than infant baptism by sprinkling. Though we hold these convictions, we do not find fault with those who practice a different mode of baptism. The Bible commands that Christians observe baptism as one of the two ordinances or sacraments of the church (the other being the Lord’s Supper). However, the Bible does not clearly prescribe the only correct mode of baptism. For more on why we believe in believer’s baptism by immersion, please see my pamphlet entitled, “Why We Believe In Believer’s Baptism.”
This pamphlet deals with the question, “At what age should a child or young person be baptized?” There is no appropriate age. However, I will attempt to describe a level of understanding and spiritual maturity at which I think baptism is most appropriate. I will also explain why I believe that baptizing children or youth before they have reached the appropriate level of understanding and spiritual maturity can be detrimental.
Baptism is a serious step. In pagan cultures, it is when a person receives Christian baptism that they begin to experience the greatest persecution. Why? Because even non-Christians recognize baptism as a serious step of commitment to Jesus Christ and Christianity. Baptism is a public proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ, a renunciation of the world and a commitment to live a Christian life. Those desiring baptism need to have the understanding and spiritual maturity to perceive how serious baptism is.
Baptism does not save anyone. It is an act of obedience that saved people are commanded to take. Therefore, a child or youth who has not reached the desired level of maturity is not any less Christian.
It is important to understand what you are doing. In Matthew 28:19 our Lord commissioned us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Some may argue from this passage that in our Lord’s command baptism precedes teaching. While this is true, baptism is listed after the person is said to be a disciple. I conclude that while a degree in theology is not needed to be ready for baptism, a person should be a disciple. Baptismal candidates should understand the following basics about baptism before being baptized:
· Baptism is not a means of becoming a Christian. (Romans 4:9-12)
· Baptism is an act of obedience commanded by Jesus Christ and His apostles. (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38)
· Baptism is a symbolic cleansing from sin. (1 Peter 3:21)
· Baptism is symbolic of one’s association with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. (Colossians 2:11-12)
· Baptism is a public testimony of one’s commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
I believe that those who are not able, in some measure, to grasp these concepts should postpone baptism until they are able.
Spiritual maturity is also important. Childlike faith is precious in the eyes of the Lord. However, many people have a childlike faith when they are children, only to reject that faith, either in part or in total, when they are introduced to adult-sized temptation and sin. It is relatively easy for youngsters to say they want to forsake their sins and follow Christ for the rest of their lives. The cost is only measured in terms of such things as not stealing cookies and remembering to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ However, which of us has not found that adolescence brings with it a whole new set of temptations and sins — sins, about which, we had no idea when we were children. It is for this reason I believe that those who have not faced this tumultuous period of human development should postpone baptism until they have, and are still committed to following Christ.
Some would argue that even adults make decisions they do not understand. Many adults are baptized and then turn away from following Christ. This is true and unfortunate. We cannot predict with absolute certainty that a person’s commitment to Christ will be life-long, even if they are adults. However, there are far more children and young people who turn away after being baptized, than there are mature adults who do.
What problems do premature baptisms potentially present? Although there is no prohibition in the Bible disallowing repeated baptisms, baptism, unlike the Lord’s Supper, is usually considered a one-time event in the life of the believer. Many who decide to be baptized before they were ready to make a mature and life-long commitment to Jesus Christ, fall away from the faith before making that decision later in life. These people often struggle with the question, “Should I be re-baptized?” Some choose not to be re-baptized, but they often do not have the sense that their baptism was as special as it could have been if they had possessed greater understanding and maturity. Others decide to be re-baptized. They frequently say their previous baptism meant little or nothing, because they did not really understand what they were doing.
Since waiting until a person possesses greater understanding and maturity robs them of nothing, and since a great number of those who are baptized prematurely either choose to be re-baptized, or struggle with the validity of their early baptism, waiting makes good sense.
What advantages stand to be gained by postponing baptism? Let it be said first, that if a person has the ability to understand, and is old enough to count the cost of discipleship, to postpone baptism is wrong. But concerning those who do not possess the understanding and maturity, there are several benefits to postponing baptism until they do:
· They will appreciate and remember their baptism with greater meaning.
· They will avoid the unrest with questioning whether they should be re-baptized at a later date.
· They will not have the empty feeling that they were baptized, but that it did not mean much to them.
· They will be better able to testify of their commitment to Christ at their baptism.
· The child or young adult who is waiting will have baptism as an important step in his or her spiritual development to look forward to.
Spiritual counsel is important. Children and youth should speak with their parents before being baptized. If the child or young person does not have Christian parents, a trusted spiritual leader in the church, such as an elder, can assist. Parents, or spiritual leaders, should seek to determine the level of understanding and spiritual maturity their child or young person possesses. If the child or young person is not ready, the parent should do the following:
· Assure him or her that baptism is not a means of becoming a Christian, and that if he or she believes, and continues to follow Christ, he or she is a Christian.
· Counsel him or her to grow in understanding and spiritual maturity so that he or she will retain the desire for baptism when he or she is ready, and that it will be sooner, rather than later.
When the child or youth has reached a level of spiritual maturity and understanding, he or she should be baptized.