Baptism: How Early?

This post is for (or about) credo-baptists, or for those who don’t practice infant baptism, and are discussing at what age a person can be baptized. That is, at what age does a person become responsible enough to be baptized?

Traditionally, many baptize at “the age of accountability,” which often means about 12 or so. Or when a child/person professes Christ and seeks baptism and offers a credible witness of personal faith. This leads to regular discussions about whether a child/young person is mature enough to be making his or her decision or whether that decision is the result of parental education, church education, parental pressure or church pressure.

My own theory is this: for credo-baptists, baptism should not happen until a person has individuated — that is, has begun to form his or her own self-identity. This puts me at odds at times with those who will baptize a four or five year old because they have made some kind of expression of faith. This especially puts me at odds with some parents who think I’m questioning the salvation of their child, etc. But here’s the point: if you believe a person should not be baptized until they have made a credible confession of faith, then that shouldn’t happen until that person adequately understands what he or she is getting into. The best expression of credo-baptism in the history of the church was the Anabaptists of the 16th Century, for whom baptism was (deadly) serious.

This post was provoked by a letter from a reader who was responding to a post by Tim Challies.  Here is that letter:

I thought you might be interested in reading this post from Tim Challies


that discusses whether or not we should baptize children professing to be Christians. In your book the King Jesus Gospel you say that there are three responses to the gospel we must make, namely, repentance, faith and baptism. Many of the baptists presented in this article believe there should be a waiting period (either by age or maturity) before baptizing a child.

Is it just me or does this fly in the face of what the new testament teaches on this subject?

Have a good one!

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  • Mark Edward

    While my initial reaction is to agree entirely with you, one common reaction from those who disagree is to pull up something like Acts 16.33, where it says of the jailer in Philippi that ‘he and all his family’ were baptized.

    Should we assume that ‘all his family’, including any children, understood the faith commitment they were making when they were baptized? That they had ‘individuated’? Their whole-family conversion doesn’t seem to be frowned upon in the context of Acts, but what /if/ the children were young children, did not understand the commitment, and were simply baptized because it was common tradition for the whole family to commit to the same religion as the family head? (Well, I’m not entirely sure on that last part. I recall reading it someplace, but now I can’t think of where that was.)

  • i have often wondered, too, what the credo-baptists would say about children who have Down’s Syndrome or other mental disabilities that would prohibit someone from making a clear “decision” or faith statement. i don’t ask this to provoke, but because i know of families who have struggled with this question. can their son/daughter be baptized if he/she cannot make a statement of faith? it may seem as though the answer is obvious, “of course! God’s grace is surely enough for him/her!”

  • MikeK

    Thanks for posting on this topic. I wonder…if this topic would benefit from asking how our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the worldwide church are responding to this question. I, for one, don’t know what answers would be received.

    I do know from conversations with African and Asian Christians, that what passes for identity and relationship in the West continually gets anchored in individual: not in community or family. Judging by the churches cited by Challies, they simply don’t have any genuine reference to how the baptismal candidate is related to the church: save the summary from Capital Hill Baptist. The whole conversation is about what an individual has to say about their personal conversion.

  • Blake

    The problem about mental disabilities is an important and difficult one for credo-baptists. I believe it needs to be seriously wrestled with by each congregation, family and believer. Wrestling with it may give them greater perspective on the ways in which they may do things better with able bodied people.

    That said, the difficulty of exceptional circumstances should not distract from the great need for more careful thought towards more common circumstances. I strongly identify with Anabaptist ecclesiological views regarding baptism and find it very problematic the relative lack of consideration given by many Protestant churches towards the meaning of baptism and joining the Body of Christ. The Bible has much to say about what kinds of behaviors and virtues are expected of believers.

    – ability to do miracles and speak new languages (Mark 16:16-18)
    – present their bodies as a sacrifice, resist conformity to the world, ability to test and approve what the will of God is, think with “sober discernment,” use the gifts God has given us, uplift one another, bless those who persecute us, live in harmony with each other and do not neglect associating with the lowly, and overcome evil with good (Romans 12)
    – be united with other believers in mind and purpose (1 Corinthians 1:10)
    – the ability to discern all things (1 Corinthians 2:15)
    – ability to not be captivated by empty, deceitful philosophy (Colossians 2:8)
    – admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, always rejoice, constantly pray, stay away from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22)
    – reject myths (1 Timothy 4:7)
    – do not lay hands on anyone hastily (1 Timothy 5:22)
    – do not abandon meeting together (Hebrews 10:22-26)
    – share what we have (Hebrews 13:15-18)

    I think what is needed is some criteria that doesn’t get bogged down in setting an age threshold. Personally, I use the following criteria, which I feel is both Biblical and is basically in line with the practice of the early Church:

    1. They have heard a full gospel presentation. ‘Full’ meaning something that takes a significant investment of time to go over all the basics, the facts and purpose of Christ’s life, an exhortation to living holy lives and what that means in the context of their being in the body of Christ, and ended with an invitation to “count the cost.” Such a presentation will take much more than 30 minutes.

    2. They have considered the cost of following Christ and have demonstrated this consideration to other Christians.

    3. They give an account of their belief in Jesus Christ and his work on the cross in terms not only of orthodox propositions but also in what it means for how they will live and make the medium of their life fall in line with the message of the Gospel. Other Christians should be able to attest to a clearly discernible shift happening in their life towards mirroring the Gospel.

    4. They covenant themselves to the Body of Christ and acknowledge their accountability to it and willingness to give accountability to its members in an effort to make good on the exhortations found in scripture.

  • Paul W

    “. . . if you believe a person should not be baptized until they have made a credible confession of faith, then that shouldn’t happen until that person adequately understands what he or she is getting into.”

    I was amazed when I read those words. I just can’t hardly imagine linking the credibility of one’s confession of love, trust, or faith to having somekind of “adequate understanding.” Really.

    Perhaps my incredulity comes from hearing the phrase “Faith seeking understanding” so often. But also I think of my personal family life. I don’t think that my little boy had a very full (adequately?!?) understanding of what he was getting himself into when he first starting providing expressions of love, trust, and family belonging.

    Really though, how old do you think he would have to be before my wife and I would consider such ‘confessions’ to be credible? How old does one have to be in order to love and trust?

    I’m inclined to answer such questions with the Psalmist’s language:

    For you have been my hope, Sovereign LORD,
    my confidence since my youth.
    From birth I have relied on you;
    you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
    I will ever praise you. (Psalm 71:5-6)

  • As a pastor for several years this has been a very real issue that I have struggled to honor the Lord in. My position has wavered around but ultimately it landed on whether the person could make a credible explanation of the object of their faith. I did not look for dense, rich theology; but I did not allow for a minimalistic theology either.

    I would ask, and continue to ask them to explain to me what it is that they have done (trusted in Christ) and then what that means. By asking open ended questions it becomes very evident when a person, young or old, is still coming to grips with what it means to follow Jesus. When that happens I tell them that they should wait and continuing hearing, reading and praying and that we can revisit at some time in the future when they wish. I have never had anyone angry (sometimes they are more relieved, especially when they realize they have a hard time answering very basic questions) and it has been a joy to have them return later and give a confident, robust testimony of faith in Jesus.

    Short answer for me, each case is unique and I treat it that way. I have baptized as young as seven and as old as….well, old.

  • scotmcknight

    chad m, I agree with Blake that those cases are to be handled through the discernment of the local church and its leaders. And I like Blake’s fourfold breakdown.

    MikeK, I’d like to hear what is done in other parts of the globe.

    PaulW … well, we probably disagree, but confessions in the early church entailed understanding and commitment to certain “propositions,” including that Jesus was Messiah/King, Lord, Savior and that one believed he had been raised from the dead …

  • Thank you for the invite, Scot.

    For biblicists who believe in an “age of accountability” I sense a contradiction. (Name being that one can’t find it in the bible…except perhaps by pulling from here and there, and then trying to formulate something that doesn’t seem awful about damnation and all that.)

    The biggest problem (from my vantage point) perhaps lies in how does one somehow know when someone else has a meaningful understand of sin and the need for salvation. How meaningful must it be? Where does one being?

    My daughter is quick-as-a-whip gifted. At 3 she had it locked down. My son is 12, is disabled and has a much harder time with the abstracts of salvation. He can’t tell you what he knows. Is he ready for baptism? I don’t think so, unless you consider it as a Sacrament. A physical representation of what is unseen. In this case: baptism. The work and grace of God. Even then, I will not have it, until he prefers it. He does not at this time. Yet, I see the consecration of baptism having it’s valid points, particularly with the disabled.

    In disability studies the problem of when to baptism does get bigger, esp with severe intellectual disabilities. Amos Yong might be the go-to man for this one.

    It seems that if we what to focus readiness for baptism on understanding, then a readiness should be assessed in a most basic way. “I know I do bad things. I want God to be my best friend. God loves me so much. God forgives all my bad things. I want to love him.”

    Getting pickier than that, starts to undermine some very important things in the fundamental tenants of Christianity, the nature of God, and his Grace (ontologically and functionally).

    Do we want litmus tests thereby starting this slippery slope? I hope not.

    (I cover disability studies at my blog. You can find related thoughts there, if you are inclined.)


  • Eric

    Proponents of infant-baptism always point to the ‘household’ passages to strengthen their arguments. Are there any passages in the NT where we see a family postponing baptism for their child until a certain age or a specific time when they can demonstrate their understanding of the faith?

  • Everett Fergusson published a fantastic book on Baptism in the last two years that is a fantastic resource on questions like this, Baptism in the Early Church. It is about 900 pages of in depth research that cites just about everything and everyone imaginable on this.

    For what it is worth, I have summarized his take on the traditional supporting arguments for infant baptism here –

  • Ferguson, not Fergusson

  • Brian

    In comparison to our mighty God, aren’t we all a bit like mentally handicapped children, unable to gain the full understanding of our decisions, the world around us, and our God?

    I don’t mean any ill-will at all towards those with disabilities (my family has 3 children that are disabled), but it begs the question, “Do any of us truly ‘get it’?”
    And can we be held responsible for the decisions we make as “normal” human beings when, in reality, we aren’t normal at all.

    For instance, I was a Children’s Pastor for 10 years. Far too many parents wanted their children (0-10) baptized out of fear of hell, so I’d say that the parents had a very skewed and limited understanding of God. How should they be “judged” for their misconceptions and misunderstanding of God? They may have made an adult decision, but under what pretenses?

    All of that aside for one moment, I’ve heard Pastors use the story of the Promised Land, and who does/doesn’t enter, as a possible place to look for the “age of accountability”, which would put it at 20, or so.

    If baptism is for salvation, let’s dunk everyone asap. If it’s a symbolic act that is a signpost in my life of the grace God has poured out for me, it’s my hope that everyone will eventually participate, but judgement withheld for those who don’t, and judgement reserved only for those who willfully choose self-righteousness as the key to life.

  • scotmcknight

    Lisa, for me the disability theme is an entirely different matter and has to be handled by the leadership (and I don’t mean by one pastor all on his own).

    You say this: It seems that if we what to focus readiness for baptism on understanding, then a readiness should be assessed in a most basic way. “I know I do bad things. I want God to be my best friend. God loves me so much. God forgives all my bad things. I want to love him.”

    I see baptism in the NT administered on a different basis: a non-messianic Jew can get baptized according to this framing of things. The NT frames it as a confession of who Jesus is, a realization that we are wrong/sinful, a comprehension of what has happened to Jesus for our salvation, and a public declaration that “I am on his side.” That is where God’s grace is displayed for the Christian.

    Eric, in short none. We also don’t see anyone discussing what I am discussion, so this is a matter of discernment at the local church/denominational level. And in my years I have had numerous pastors talk to me about this very issue, and almost always because some parent wanted a child baptized and the pastor wasn’t convinced the child was ready.

    Matt, we had an extensive review by Marius Nel on Ferguson’s brilliant book.

  • T

    Scot & Blake,

    I grew up on this side of the fence, but I think I’m on the other side now. But this question comes to mind: What of the children who have clearly “received the holy spirit” in the same way Peter witnessed concerning the first gentile believers? I’ve seen kids well under ten have the Spirit come upon them, which was followed with them praising God and even healing the sick, not to mention a grin tattooed on their face for days, and all the fruit of the Spirit to boot. Do we respond as Peter and ask if anyone has any objections to them being baptized, since Jesus has seen fit to baptize them with his Spirit? What is water baptism compared to the Spirit, or our knowledge of the people involved compared to his?

    I don’t mind the 4 criteria Blake raised, but it seems a little light on Spirit and a little heavy on mental ability, especially compared to the NT stories. And I’m not just talking about gifts, but also fruit, especially given all the times Jesus talks about that as the marker of his followers.

    It just seems like a test is being built here that many of the NT converts wouldn’t have passed as they were clearly converted to Christ and even had been baptized with God’s Spirit. For me, if God sees fit to baptize with his Spirit, what basis can there be for not baptizing in mere water? Further, if the Jesus Creed is the main thing Christians are supposed to be able to “do” upon believing, I’m having a hard time with the first part of Blake’s analysis, which shapes the rest. Finally, what of Paul’s initial message to Corinth:

    “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature.”

    So Paul’s initial message was simple and accompanied with demonstrations of God’s power, so that our (initial) faith would not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power, which I think takes a lot less mental ability to understand. Paul does get into greater wisdom, among the mature. If we combine this with Jesus’ own statements about how one enters the kingdom, and a host of related statements about whom God is pleased to reveal himself, the “how young is too young” question starts to look wrongheaded.

  • PaulW,

    There is a difference between “expressions of love, trust, and family belonging” and NT repentance, which is an “I’ve counted the cost” pledge of allegiance/loyalty to a particular person and a dangerous way of life.

    In the NT, no matter the age of the baptismal candidate, repentance always precedes the immersion.

    I find it troubling that the household baptism passages are used in these conversations in clear violation of one of the simple rules of interpretation – “let the clearer passages inform the understanding of the more difficult ones, and not vice versa.” The interpretation of the household baptism passages relies wholly upon the presuppositions about baptism that one brings to those passages – they are not clear enough to support assertions on their own.

  • As a Mennonite, one of the inherators of Anabaptism, this has been a sticking point for me and my wife. Our church generally does not baptise before the age of 12 or 13. And yet, my daughter (now age 11), at age 10 professed belief and a clear understanding of her own position in the gospel. As parents, we can see this is not just her making “mommy and daddy” happy but a clear choice on her part. And yet me home church is withholding baptism

    And my other daughter, age 9, is also clearly professing Christ. Both girls are manifesting giftings in keeping with the Spirit (not speaking in tongues but definitely spiritual awareness and exercise). So, to use Peterson’s paraphrase of Peter’s words, “Do I hear objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.”

    Baptism is a SERIOUS and solemn thing and not to be taken lightly. Our girls know that. We’ve read some of the stories of the faith from The Martyr’s Mirror and told them more recent stories…as well as my own famiy’s personal history in the 18th century in Tracheswald Castle.

    So, why aren’t they being allowed to be baptised? This, IMO, has become a point of legalism for my home church and bothers me.

    Thank you, Scott, for opening up the doors for this discussion.

  • Thomas McKenzie

    It seems like you have to do a lot of mental gymnastics when you make baptism about you: what you know, how old you are, what disabilities you might have, what your preferences are today, etc. When baptism is about grace, given whether the person is a baby or child or adult, as it has always been practiced by most Christians throughout most of time throughout most of the world, things become much more simple. Baptism becomes about God’s work, not ours.

  • MikeK

    I can’t help but note the theme persistent in the comments: it’s all about the individual reciting their respective experience in the Gospel/Spirit, etc.

    Hey: This a uniquely Western perspective on human person. Where’s the folks from outside of NA to lead the way on family and community?

  • scotmcknight

    MikeK, not so sure that critique can stick, however fashionable. The NT baptism is almost entirely of individuals who make confession. So, it is first of all a person confessing. OK, “and his household…” and if you know exactly what to make of that, and what it looked like, …. and baptism that we know was a personal, individual thing into the 2d and 3d centuries (I’m following Kurt Aland’s famous debate with Oscar Cullmann).

  • Part of the issue is, I think, that in practice, we credo-baptists have seperated it from repentance. We preach repentance, instead of ‘repent and be baptised’ as the NT generally does. In practice we often make baptism something further down the track that we ‘feel led’ to do, perhaps when we’re a bit more mature in the faith, or have overcome some habitual sin.. but that to me is a distortion. It should be an act that we can look back to as a reminder that we were saved by grace through faith, not anything else. And we certainly shouldn’t be making a kind of two-tiered spirituality out of it.
    But yeah, the age thing does become difficult for children who grow up knowing Jesus..

  • “Baptism becomes about God’s work, not ours.”

    Baptism… all of salvation, in fact… is not merely about God’s work — nor is it merely about our work.

    It could have been – God doesn’t seem to have been required to create things the way He did. But as it stands, God’s purposes in creation have always been rooted in His partnering with humans to reflect his glory and enact His kingdom.

    Salvation, just like everything else, is about what WE – God and us – do together.

  • Karl

    In my observation from spending time in both traditions, there are a lot of similarities between the ritual of confirmation in churches that practice infant baptism, and the ritual of baptism in churches that practice credo-baptism.

    Whether it’s formally codified or not, in both instances a lot of pressure is brought to bear upon young people between the ages of roughly 11-14, to either make a profession of faith and get baptized (credo-baptists), or to go through the confirmation process and make a public confession of faith (paedo-baptists).

    In many/most instances kids go through whichever of these is expected of them in their tradition, out of a sense of duty or desire to please their elders, or fear of damnation if they don’t, or a desire to fit in among their peers who are all doing it. They jump through the hoops required in order for them to be considered fully “in” – and the pressure for kids to say the prayer and get baptized in a credo-baptist church can make the process of getting baptized and giving a “testimony” before the congregation every bit as much a rote going through the motions for them, as any obligatory “now that you’re 12 years-old” confirmation class. Of course in both instances, I beleive some very real and very sincere and very life-changing stuff can also happen, in individual cases.

    But I don’t think a lot of hand wringing is necessary over the age or order of the hoops jumped through. We over a lifetime make decisions about whether and how we will live into the promises we made and actions we took regarding our participation in the Kingdom and submission to the rule of the King – and those promises and actions that were made and taken for us. As for “knowing what one is getting into” I agree but only to a point. Some level of understanding of the basic gospel message as presented within one’s tradition is necessary (if you’re a credo-baptist) but I’d put the bar pretty low. Who among us REALLY knows what we’re getting into when we say “yes” to the rule of God in our lives?

  • Your position on this has been mine over the years, Scot. I have met some incomprehension along the way, but the full meaning of baptism requires that we take it seriously as well as joyously. Baptism of persons who have established in some measure their own individuality fits well with a gospel that underlines God’s purpose for each of us to grow into the fullness of Christ. Baptizing very young children is consistent with a “salvationist” theology that emphasizes getting saved and into heaven. It isn’t bad to ask families to wait patiently for the season to which baptism belongs.

  • PS – I like your expression “credo-baptism”! Did you invent that? Either way, thanks for putting it out there. I’ll likely be using it.

  • Sally

    “Who among us REALLY knows what we’re getting into when we say “yes” to the rule of God in our lives?” I’d agree with that to a point, but I think there is a world of difference between a 5 year old and a 15 year old as far as knowing what they’re getting into. A young child has no idea of what saying yes to Jesus, and therefore no to sin, really means. A teenager, who is much more in the throes of peer pressure and awareness of all the possibilities that exist for a person, is making a much more informed decision, and is capable of counting the cost in deciding to live their life in a kingdom-oriented fashion.

    Our kids are somewhat young now, and they have been taught that they are not to raise their hands and ‘accept Jesus into their heart’. We’ve opted out of doing Awana because the pressure there for kids to ‘get saved’ was just so high. I’ve had several people give me strange looks when I tell them that, as if we’re keeping them from God. But I think it’s possible to teach kids about God, and introduce them to Jesus, and inspire a love for Him in them, so that they will want to live a kingdom-inspired life.

    I’ve never seen a theologian think the same way I do on this issue, so I really, really appreciate this post.

  • Charles McLean

    If emotional individuation and understanding are the requisites, one may need a thorough psychological evaluation before he can be baptized. “What hindereth me to be baptized?” “Well, we haven’t gotten your Minnesota Multi-Phasic or your Wechsler scores back yet…” Shucks, the more I study the scriptures, the more I realize how much I don’t fully grasp the nature of faith and what it means to be in Christ. And I desire above all to die and live only in Christ who lives in me. (Talk about your lack of individuation!) With these criteria, the time I am eighty, I may be ineligible for baptism myself.

    I wonder what underlies the concern that a child might be baptized at the wrong time? That his baptism will later be found invalid at the resurrection and he will be damned for the offense of “living with an invalid baptismal certificate”?

  • TJJ

    I have long been concerned with the practice of many evangelical churches of encouraging “accepting Christ”. “inviting Jesus into my heart” type conversons of young children (ages 8 and under for sure, and perhaps under age 12).

    My concern and fear is that the church, or parents, or well intentioned people in ministry, are telling young children they are christians, are going to heaven, have Jesus in their heart, etc., and make it all a done deal, with a salvation they cannot lose, when in fact no such conversion has really happened.

    And the false belief/assurance that they are Chrisitans then serves later when then they are older toactually hinder or misdirect those same children from truly converting to Christ, because they think they already are Christians, because their church or parents have told them they were from a very youg age.

    I have six children, I know I could have had all of them “accept Jesus in their heart/lives” when they were 5, or 6, or whatever. But what would that really mean and signify?

    I always raised and enouraged my chldren to be sensisitve and responsive and receptive to God and the Holy spirit and to Jesus, and to love God and seek to please and live for God. But I never sought a “conversion” experience from them until they were into their teen years.

    I have never refused parents who wanted their young chilren baptized based on a prayer their children prayed, but I do caution and gently discourage it.

    I realize often this is more about the parents, and their fear of children being “lost”, and going to hell, than anything. They sleep better the sooner their children pray such a prayer and make such a profession. So I have baptized children knowing full well it was really for the parets peace of mind, etc., and not so much about what really had happened in that childs life.

    And It is also not up to me to judge who is ready, who it not, who has really and truly been converted, or who has not. That is a game I have never wanted to play. If a child wants to be baptized, and make a coherent profession of faith, yes, I will baptize. and at the very least thereby encourage and affirm the child in taking another step of obedience, openess, receptivenss, responsiveness to God and their parents. But I don’t necesssarily think or beleive a true “conversion” has therefore, or thereby occured.

  • scotmcknight

    Charles, I see your response to be an argument ad absurdum.

  • TJJ

    Continuted from post #26

    But I also hope and pray that by baptizing a young child, or is in fact not “ready”, that I am not thereby doing something that will inhibit or discourage that child from making/experiencing a true and authentic life changing conversion when they are older.

  • TJJ

    ****post 27**** not 26.

  • Karl

    Sally (#25) you make a good point re. a 15 year old’s understanding of what she’s getting into being far beyond that of a 5 year old. I’m not necessarily suggesting 5 year olds should be baptized in a credo-baptist setting. But I would also say that at age 41, my current understanding of “what am getting into” by choosing to follow Jesus is at least as far separated from my understanding of it at 15, as my 15 year-old understanding was separated from my 5 year-old understanding. That’s why I’d set the bar pretty low re. what level of understanding we require in credo-baptist churches.

    These problems created by a test or set of requirements to be met in a credo-baptist setting, are the reason I now favor infant baptism seen through both a covenantal lens (i.e. NT equivalent of circumcision/setting apart) and sacramental lens (not salvific but impartation of some measure of spiritual marking/presence/protection on/in the life of the baptized one), until she is able to decide for herself over time whether or not she wants to live in and for the Kingdom.

  • Larry S

    Maybe churches should skip baby dedications and have some sort of child ‘dedication’ to Jesus at around the 5 – 7 year mark with the view to baptizing in their teens after their hormones have surfaced.

  • Percival

    I wonder if being baptized more than once is really so bad. Once in child-like faith. Once again as a young individuated person and then as often as needed. (I am joking, I guess, but I can’t figure out why I feel this is amusing.) I was christened as a baby and splashed at confirmation. I still feel they were both legit in different ways. Still if I were to become a Baptist, they would insist on dunking me. If I joined the Salvation Army, what would they do? I’ve been filled with the Spirit more than once. What does that say about the water issue?

  • Sally

    “But I would also say that at age 41, my current understanding of “what am getting into” by choosing to follow Jesus is at least as far separated from my understanding of it at 15,”

    True, but I see that as more of a maturing of the faith. I don’t think the bar needs to be set ‘high’ per se, but I think you have to have a good understanding of what the bar is. You don’t need to have a degree from seminary to be ‘saved’/baptized, but you should have a clear understanding of what the call to follow Jesus means.

    A couple of weeks ago my kids’ SS curriculum (Group) had a lesson on ‘following Jesus’. The preschool worksheet said ‘I’m proud to follow Jesus’ and the K-2 worksheet said ideas for following Jesus: pray, read Bible, tell someone about Jesus, do something nice. And then ‘write down all the ways you follow Jesus.’. I don’t want my kids understanding of following Jesus reduced to knowing and reciting a set of facts, and doing or not doing a list of actions.

    I think when the aim is for kids to become saved, then that’s what it has to be reduced to, because they can’t comprehend what living a kingdom life is like. They’re still trying to figure out just the basics of how to live in general!

  • Let me say that I really do not like the “age of accountability” language. That having been said, I raise these questions: Why do we not allow persons to buy and consume alcohol until age 21? Why do we not allow a person to vote until age 18? Why do we not allow persons to drive a vehicle until age 16 (or later)? Why do we have very strict separations between crimes committed before age 18 and crimes committed after age 18? The answer to all these questions – because we know that a pre-teen mind is simply incapable of processing certain issues and the results of certain decisions. Now, I am not completely equating professing faith with the desire to buy a six pack of beer, but I do find it very difficult to justify an eight year old understanding the meaning of baptism and yet telling her she will be too immature to vote for another 10 years.

    At some point we have to deal with this (in my mind) blatant hypocrisy. If a child can profess adult faith at age 5, 8 or 10, why can they not get married, buy some champagne, and drive off in their new Hummer? After all, isn’t maturity one and the same?

  • T

    Paul (35),

    I see your point, but you are assuming the point that needs to be made. Does one need to be “mature” to form a real relationship with God and his church? In what sense? We are “born” into the new life; we don’t graduate into it. The NT is explicit in several places that many are immature *in Christ* and that others are mature in him. Is baptism for the mature, or the babes? If it is for the immature in Christ, how much maturity are we going to require?

    Again, all your examples point to activities that require a level of maturity for the safety of all concerned. A better comparison wouldn’t be to baptism, but to being given a position of responsibility in the Church, as in teaching or even being a deacon. But if we look at the instances where the NT discusses someone coming into the faith or the kingdom initially, I fail to see this high bar of understanding or maturity.

  • I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone — adult or child — who truly or adequately understood what they were getting into when they were baptized. I was baptized 44 years ago and even now I think I’m still just starting to scratch the surface of what it means to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. I’m not sure that cognition is a biblical requirement for baptism.

  • TJJ

    Brab Wrote: I’m not sure that cognition is a biblical requirement for baptism.

    Well, then what is the requirement, and what is the point/purpose of it?

  • Karl

    Sally #34 – I completely agree with you. That’s why I no longer hold to a “believer’s baptism” view as I mentioned in #31. It’s a lot easier and more natural for me to talk with children who have already been baptized into the family of faith about what it means to live as a member of that family the way Israelite children were taught what it meant to be born into that covenant community, than it is to pressure them(or figure out when to pressure them) to “get saved” and be baptized.

    But since Scot’s post asks us to assume credo-baptism, I didn’t/don’t want to derail the conversation into a debate over infant baptism. Assuming credo-baptism I’d rather NOT pressure kids to “get saved” or be baptized at an early age for the very reasons you state. But neither would I tell an intelligent and well-instructed 9 year old who understands the gospel as well as an intelligent kid that age could be expected to, that her desire to be baptized and declare herself a follower of Jesus was premature because she couldn’t possibly understand all that it was going to require of her in her late teens or adult years.

    I kind of go back to what I said about the similarity between infant baptism/confirmation, vs. infant dedication/profession of faith+baptism. On the ground, in both instances, pressure is often brought to bear on kids between the ages of 11-14 or so to jump through their tradition’s “hoop” be that confirmation or baptism. It sounds like we both are against such pressure and would rather see a child’s faith allowed to grow organically along with her understanding.

  • Deb

    Hmmmm… Well my great-grandparents were in a “Primitive Baptist” church. They only baptized the “adult” believer who was “fully mature.”. No lie – average age was 30… And no they weren’t hobbits. 🙂

  • bw

    dr. mcknight — i feel the force of the argument you’re advancing here. but when my almost 5 year old asked why i hadn’t baptized her when i was supposed to, i asked her when i was “supposed to.” apparently, it was at a baptism ceremony the year before when she said she knew, “i wanted to be with Jesus forever.” it was true that she had been a conscious, professing believer for some time, even at that tender age. as i contemplated my reply to her, i could hear the voice of Jesus ringing in my ears: “let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” and “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” we baptized her shortly after that.

  • T, the only safety issue involved in my examples might be the driving. But, if alcohol is consumed at home what safety is involved? What danger is there is allowing a spiritually mature 5 year old to vote? Punishing a 16 year old murderer or rapist in a adolescent treatment facility and then releasing them upon his or her 18th birthday has nothing to do with safety, but rather that the “adolescent” brain is simply incapable of comprehending the severity of the act of taking a life. I am not making this up. This is the accepted jurisprudence of the land.

    The issue revolves around the theological question of the purpose and meaning of baptism. If the act is simply to be a sign of spiritual inquisitiveness, then by all means baptize a five year old. But, if baptism marks the end of one way of life and the beginning of a new, radically different way of life (hence “credo-baptism, or confessional baptism), then there must be a cognition of some level of conversion or transformation. I believe that baptism is an adult surrender to the Lordship of Jesus for the forgiveness of one’s sins, and it is inconceivable to me that God would hold a 5 or 10 or even 15 year old responsible for their sins if their mind is incapable of discerning the significance of that sin. This, to me, answers the question of the Down’s Syndrome child or equally challenged person. God will not punish or hold accountable someone who cannot comprehend their accountability.

    When is one old enough to receive the grace of baptism? Are they old enough to understand their separation from God? Are they old enough to understand and to accept the “pledge” that baptism communicates? You can’t put an age on this – some teens would be, some twenty-somethings might not. But a pre-teen??? It would take a unique child.

  • MikeK

    Scot (and #41…stay tuned…),
    Thanks for your reply. I think I’m a bit derailed, then, by your latest reply. In your theory in the post, you expressed it as “for credo-baptists, baptism should not happen until a person has individuated — that is, has begun to form his or her own self-identity.”

    That’s what originally caught my attention, and I want to come at this from two sides here.

    First, I’m sure- like #41- that some children or youth, not all, have some kind of genuine encounter with Jesus that convinces them of his graciousness toward them. No way can we at the same time assert that bw’s almost 5 year old daughter has self-individuated.

    The second/other side is where I started from in the beginning, and I’ll admit that I’m not too familiar with the 16th C Anabaptists here: but your theory seemed to rely more upon human development as a way to determine when to baptize: not the confessional data that you and others leaving comments are looking for. Which, if I understood you, means we’re back to bw at (41.).

    I need to track down the discussion between Aland and Cullman. And, I’m with you: that text in Acts 16 makes this discussion all the more difficult! 🙂

    I don’t have any contemporary notes on churches around the world, but- beyond what’s fashionable- my sense is that the kind of baptism that takes place beyond NA embraces much of the understanding of the Gospel that you have written about in One Life and the King Jesus Gospel.

    I’d put a similar way: it’s a baptism that includes the personal benefits but sets that within the context of a community of the reign of God through Christ, participating in the renewing and healing the creation. And: please (in advance): I’m not endorsing a return to Cyprian’s edict. I’m sure we all benefit from a better ecclesiology, but the edict is too stark. 🙂 Thanks again for your earlier reply.

  • T

    I understand the reasoning behind giving minors all kinds of limitations and protections, both for their safety and because of their lesser capacity to comprehend. But as you say, the issue is the meaning of baptism, or better, what is required to begin following Christ or to enter the kingdom?

    You ask several questions about what a candidate can understand but it seems at least as appropriate to ask how well a candidate can trust themselves to another. On this front, the young, as Jesus pointed out, aren’t at a disadvantage at all. In fact, those who want to enter the kingdom need to have a faith *like theirs*. As long as our faith, at the core, is about trusting ourselves to a Person, I have a hard time discounting the faith of children.

  • Tim Leech

    Your principle of individuation seems to me sound and insightful.

    Following the links back through Tim Challies’ posts, the article from Bethlehem Baptist Church is in a similar vein, but offfers several related perspectives.

  • T, I appreciate the conversation. But you make a distinction that I cannot make. You must believe that either (1) baptism is *not* for the forgiveness of sins, or (2) that children are somehow *outside* of the kingdom of God and therefore must enter it through baptism. I believe that both statements are false and are extra-biblical. That is to say I believe before he or she is old enough to comprehend that his or her acts are in rebellion to God and therefore share in the sin of Adam, a child is ALREADY in the kingdom of God and need not fear his judgment. Likewise, I believe that once that congnition arrives, and with it the ability to process what faith really is, that baptism remits those sins and places one into God’s kingdom, a place where they were before they rebelled against Him.

    I have absolutely no doubts that my daughter loves Jesus and wants to be with him for eternity. But I am also absolutely convinced that as a five year old, if she were to die she WOULD spend eternity with Jesus. Does she know right and wrong, good and bad? As far as a five year old can, yes she does. Has she “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?” Not a chance. She is an innocent child.

    To me, either original sin and therefore infant baptism is correct, or original sin is false and adult baptism is necessary – but baptizing a child is a weak, un-biblical compromise.

  • T

    On the first point, I don’t see baptism as necessary for God to forgive people. I see the association of baptism with forgiveness (and many other good things, including the Trinity and the Church), but I don’t say “no baptism, no forgiveness” as a rule. If you feel that way, I understand some camps do, but I see scripture making both the point and counterpoint pretty clearly. Again, some in the book of Acts had received the Spirit before being baptized in water, so that is evidence enough for me of God’s acceptance, pre-water baptism. In baptism, many things are being communicated, but one of them is that the Church is publicly affirming connections that have presumably already begun in a significant way.

    The second issue is related to the first. Because I don’t see baptism as necessary for forgiveness or as entrance to the kingdom (but associated with both), I don’t necessarily see all unbaptized people, let alone unbaptized children, as necessarily outside of the kingdom. One of the scriptural focal points for me regarding baptism is the great commission, in which the disciples are commanded to make disciples of Jesus, baptize them, and teach them to do everything Jesus commanded. Now, based on that, I wonder if I will ever more truly fulfill that command than with my own children. If we set baptism aside for a moment, will I ever teach anyone more than I teach them to follow Jesus’ commands? Will I ever ‘disciple’ anyone more deeply, more often? Will anyone ever “follow me as I follow Christ” more than they will, for good or for ill? So, I think baptism is something that disciples of Jesus do to other disciples of Jesus who are learning to do everything Jesus commanded (from other disciples and from the Spirit). Children of believers often fall into that camp. Their trust of Jesus, in fact, can often surpass that of adults, even if they would pass few theology tests, and so I see no reason they should not often be baptized *as disciples*, though I am not (as if their eternity rested on the date) anxious about it. I trust Christ to judge, not the timing or appropriateness of anyone’s baptism.

    My larger issue is the conflation of mental understanding and faith. Surely, understanding assists faith. Very little faith of any depth is blind. But they are not synonymous. Further, the focus of our faith is a Person. The question for me is how much about that Person do we need to understand to trust him in the way God seeks? You seem to be saying that one must understand some degree of atonement mechanics for someone to trust Jesus in a way that matters. But this is precisely where Jesus’ own teaching about faith and children becomes difficult to synthesize if that is the case. Children (not adults) tend to have the kind of faith that Jesus asks all to place in him. We can have faith that seeks (more) understanding but still have genuine and even great trust of Another with limited understanding of Him. The focus I see in the NT is not how much a person understands about Jesus or about soteriology or guilt or what have you, but how much someone trusts him based on what they do know. On this score, many children can truly lead the way.

  • Evelyn

    On the point of, when does someone get it …

    (Like in nr.13 above I don’t mean any ill-will at all towards those with disabilities (my family has 3 children that are disabled), but it begs the question, “Do any of us truly ‘get it’?”
    And can we be held responsible for the decisions we make as “normal” human beings when, in reality, we aren’t normal at all.)

    We’re denominational mongrels, and our kids do a Catholic First Communion although we attend a Protestant church. Of course they don’t ‘get it’ (who does?) but that shouldn’t in our view stop them becoming members of God’s family / the Body and growing in faith and understanding from within.

    Why can’t there be a public confession of faith without baptism, with the church helping those individuals grow in faith until a young adult baptism?