When should a child be baptized?
The simple answer is that a child should be baptized after they become a believer in Jesus Christ. Baptism is for those who have turned from their sins and put their faith in Christ. Baptism is for believers (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:47; 16:30-34).
That seems easy enough - right?
In his book, Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem says: "Baptism is the sign, administered by the local church that shows that a person has given sufficient evidence for truly being a believer."
I mention Grudem's statement because it gives us cause for pause when he adds that baptism is for those who have "given sufficient evidence for truly being a believer." This statement should create a healthy and contemplative tension for us that causes us to ask: "What 'sufficient evidence' should we look for that would let us in good conscience baptize a child?"
After all, we don't want to rush a decision for several reasons. First, we don't want to give false affirmation or assurance that a child is saved. Second, if a child has a believing parent who lives and tells the gospel, then more than likely the child is going to want to be a Christian, and may say they are a Christian and do the things a Christian does-just like mom and dad. Children want to be like their parents. Parents are the heroes of their children and children can be like parrots, repeating exactly what they have heard. A child saying the right words is a reassuring start, but it does not mean that they are saved (Matthew 7:21-23).
Parents have a very important responsibility when it comes to evaluating whether or not a child should be baptized. I believe it is a great idea for parents to have their child meet with a pastor, but the pastor is at a disadvantage because he is not as intimately acquainted as the parent is with the child's spiritual vernacular and at-home behavior. Certainly, those things don't save a child from their sin, but they most assuredly give crucial evidence as to whether there is sufficient evidence for a church to baptize a child and, therefore, affirm whether or not the child is biblically born again and saved.
So what "sufficient evidence" should we look for before we affirm and celebrate the baptism of a child?
This is not an easy question to answer. It is complicated, and I think it is complicated by the complexities of adulthood just as much as it is by the simplicity of a child's willing and teachable heart. I'll do my best to explain this in a moment, but here are some truths that a child must understand to be saved so that they can then be baptized as a believer:
A child must understand that God is holy and righteous. They must understand that God is perfectly sinless. How does a person know that a child understands and grasps this? To begin with, I don't think I fully grasp the pristine holiness of God, but I do recognize that God is completely different from me in his powerful ability and moral perfection. A child must also see that in their sinful nature-state they are morally deficient and hopelessly unrighteous (Psalm 14 and Ephesians 2:1-3). Unless they understand that God is perfect, they will not understand the second truth they need to know and feel.
A child must understand that they are a sinner (Romans 3:9-18; Romans 3:23) and must show a Holy Spirit empowered conviction concerning their sin. This one is especially difficult to discern about a child because sometimes we expect a child to act like an adult. In other words, if their behavior is acceptable then we might mistakenly see that as the evidence that validates that they are being convicted of sin and following Christ. However, is it possible that we are not seeing the Spirit convict, but instead witnessing behavior modification that is the result of seeking parental approval? For instance, is it necessarily conviction of sin if a child sorrowfully cries for punching a sibling? Does sorrow or remorse always equal conviction and repentance? What do we need to look for that shows a child understands that they are a sinner in need of Jesus the savior? What does the conviction of sin look like for a child? Here are a few questions to ask that will help evaluate whether or not the Spirit lives within a child, showing they are a believer:
- Do they come clean when they have not been caught? Does conviction bring them to admit on their own that they have sinned?
- Do they confess sins that they know they could have gotten away with?
- Do they hurt for others without being told they are to do so?
- Are they sensitive to the needs and pain of others?
- Do they take the initiative to do kind things for others?
These questions are beneficial to keep in mind because they show that a child is doing more than reacting to behavioral consequences. If a child is responding to something internal, perhaps it is the conviction of the Spirit instead of the wrath of mom and dad or societal expectations. This seems to me to be the kind of evidence that we could credit to the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is waging war within the child against the flesh. One last question: do they see their sin as being against God, or only against people? This goes back to the first question. If it is only sorrow for actions against people then they may not have grasped that their hurtful actions against people are really sin against God (Psalm 51). All sin is treachery against God, and a Christian child should be able to recognize this Christian reality.
A child must understand that only Jesus can save them (John 14:6; John 17:3; Acts 4:12). Has a child confessed with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, the only way to God the Father, and believed in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead? Do they have a child appropriate understanding that Jesus lived a perfect life that we should have lived, and because He was perfect, only Jesus could die in our place to absorb the wrath we deserved? Jesus is the only hope any child has, and they must grasp that.
Minimally, I believe it is reasonable for us to observe these three signs as evidence that a child is truly born again.
If you can answer yes to all three, then it might be time to celebrate the obedience of baptism with your local church.
With this in mind, here are a couple of takeaways. First, a child must believe the same things that an adult must believe to be saved. Second, a child must know the facts of the gospel and understand the application of those facts. The rub is this: How does an adult see the work of the Spirit in the life of a child?
This provides a teachable moment for adults. Do we know God's word well enough to know the person of the Holy Spirit? Do we recognize the handiwork of the Spirit in our own life well enough to recognize it in the life of our child? Additionally, do you we know our child well enough to know that there is something supernaturally happening in their life?
At this point, someone might claim that I have provided little or no help since I have suggested that the evidence we need to look for is the same evidence we would look for in an adult. So here are three concluding thoughts that might help define the three necessities above.
If a child gives evidence for all three, it doesn't hurt to wait a while before they are baptized. Don't rush a child through the baptismal waters. Be patient and see if they persevere in periodically asking about when they will have a chance to show people that they are believing in Jesus. If God has saved your child, there will be a persisting yearning to obey. One of the defining marks of the Spirit is perseverance in obedience to the faith. A child may not ask about it every day, but they will bring it up consistently over a period of time.
Warning! Don't wait too long. The danger of waiting too long is that obedience gets minimized or portrayed as not urgent and important. I want to avoid my son or daughter saying to me: "Daddy, why don't you believe me?" Just make sure that you take the time to explain to your child why you are waiting while you are waiting.
Finally, remember that this, like everything, is an opportunity to trust God and see the Spirit work in your own life. God knows what He is doing even if you don't. Pray like both are true. Baptism is incredibly important because our obedience as saved people is important (John 14:15; 1 John 2:3), but baptism does not save you or your child. God saves by his grace through faith in Jesus and in Jesus alone.