By Pastor Tedd Mathis
This is part two of a three-part essay to help parents think through when or if their child should be baptized. You can read part one here and part three here. This was originally written for the members of Pueblo West Baptist Church.
Is it possible for a person to be baptized when he is still dead? Consider the following.
A study of adult baptisms (over 18 years old) in Southern Baptist churches found most adult baptisms (60%) could be called rebaptisms. Some were baptisms of those who had previously been baptized as infants, but 36 percent of these adult baptisms were of those who had experienced believer’s baptism in Southern Baptist churches. When asked why they were seeking rebaptism, many said it was because they had not been regenerate believers when they were first baptized. They were spiritually dead the first time they were baptized. *
I rejoice to hear these people were genuinely born again and were baptized as adults. Sadly, other studies report far greater numbers of people who live in an unregenerate manner yet can assume they are on the narrow way to life because of a childhood profession and baptism. **
These essays are written to encourage parents and us as a church to wait until our children are at least young adults before they are baptized. It is my hope that as you consider what I present, you will not immediately dismiss what I write because of your experience, but rather consider if my views honor Christ and His Church according to what is revealed in His Word.
Before There is a Baptism, there is a Circumcision
Under the Old Covenant Israelite parents circumcised their male sons at eight days as a sign of being part of the earthly covenant people of God (Genesis 17; Leviticus 12). Today, God’s people are under a different covenant, one that identifies them with His Son Christ Jesus, His sinless life, His sacrificial death, His burial, His resurrection, His lordship, and His return (Romans 6:1-14; Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 3:1-4).
Under this New Covenant, there are no commands for religious rites to be performed upon infants or children. Being part of the New Covenant begins with a ‘circumcision made without hands’ performed by God (Colossians 2:11-15; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-32).
This circumcision happens in the heart and mind of the sinner. It is invisible to the human eye. It occurs when the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of God’s Word, impresses on the mind of the sinner the knowledge of who Christ is and what He accomplished on the cross. The truth about Christ and His cross ‘cuts away’ any confidence the sinner has in anything or anyone else but Christ and His substitutionary death (John 1:12,13; John 3:1-21; Acts 16:13-15; Romans 10:17; Ephesians 2:1-10; James 1:18; Titus 3:3-7; I Peter 1:22-25).
Prior to this circumcision, God considers the sinner as dead; incapable of contributing to his salvation (Ephesians 2:1-5). By this work of God, the sinner is raised up with Christ through faith (Col. 2:12). He has been made to utterly despair of everything but Christ for his righteousness and salvation. This right understanding is the beginning of a new life ‘in Christ’ (Colossians 3:1-11; Romans 7:24-8:1; I Corinthians 1:30-31).
Others will know of what God has done when the sinner voluntarily confesses his faith in Christ and in honor and love of Christ takes steps to live a life pleasing to Christ in communion with the people of Christ. It is that person who is baptized (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 10:9-10; I Corinthians 1:2-30; Acts 2:37-42; 16:14-15; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:10).
Just as physical circumcision was a permanent physical mark on the Jewish male, this spiritual circumcision is permanent. The believer is assured that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). The order then is as follows: circumcision made without hands, faith in Christ, confession, baptism.
Advice for parents
Does God at times perform this circumcision in a child? Yes, and praise the Lord that He does! However, it is difficult for the church community to determine if this has occurred in a young child. A child saying the right things is often a matter of him saying what his parents or adults want him to say or do. Parents, with good intentions, coach their children to say the right things. That is what makes it difficult to determine if this is a work of God.
Below is advice for parents from Pastor Tim Challies*** who has come to the same understanding I have.
It is wise to wait to baptize a child until he has reached a certain level of maturity.
I believe that a person should be baptized when the credibility of his conversion becomes naturally evident to the church community. This will normally be when the child has begun to mature toward adulthood and is beginning to live more self-consciously as an individual. At this time, he is able to understand that there will be a cost to being a Christian; he is able to anticipate this and to count it all joy. At this time, he is also developing autonomy. In the process of leaving behind his child-like dependence on his parents he begins to make more and more of his own choices. Such independence and maturity will allow him to relate to the church directly and as an individual rather than being primarily under the authority of his parents. I believe that such criteria typically correspond to the teen years, and more typically, the mid-to-late teen years.
Delaying baptism does not mean we should consider childhood conversions or baptisms invalid.
While I believe it is best to delay baptism until a child’s knowledge and maturity offer substantial evidence of true conversion, this by no means negates the possibility or likelihood of childhood conversions. Neither does it render invalid the baptisms of those who are baptized as young, believing children.
What are the benefits of waiting to baptize children?
Delaying the baptism of children who profess faith offers several benefits:
- It allows membership in the church to proceed logically from baptism so that every baptized believer can immediately serve as a fully functioning member of the church. This avoids the confusion of whether young children can be members of the church or whether they can be baptized but not members.
- It accounts for the uncertainty that may attend childhood conversions. Often a child professes faith, then retracts or doubts his profession, and then affirms it again. This model allows the child to proceed through much of this turbulence before he is baptized, thus preventing doubt about whether he was truly saved before his baptism.
- It calls on parents to lead their children and to understand that their children are not being disobedient in waiting for baptism. Their obedience in this area comes in submitting to their parents and the elders of the church.
- It esteems baptism as a one-time act to be anticipated as a public, credible, mature profession of faith.
* Phillip B. Jones et al., A Study of Adults Baptized in Southern Baptist Churches, 1993 (Atlanta: Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1995), p. 5. Cited in Hammett, p. 112
***Pastor Challies’ full essay can be found here: When Should My Children Be Baptized? | Tim Challies