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Baptism and Children


Baptism is not something that many Christians think about all that often. For many it has faded into the rearview mirror of their Christian experience. But for us at Redeemer Baptist it is regularly in view. Why is that? Mainly because of our practice of weekly communion. Men, women and children hear the words each Sunday – "If you have repented and believed the gospel and have been baptized, this table is for you." We hear that and it reminds us that baptism is our first outward step in becoming identified with the people of God. It reminds us that Christ has given us two sacraments (or ordinances), baptism being the initiatory one, and communion the ongoing. Regular observance of communion is commanded by the Lord Jesus himself (Luke 22:19). Paul summarizes the Lord's teaching in 1 Corinthians, saying, 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). So we seek to observe communion each Sunday, in regular obedience to the Lord. But as we do, we are frequently reminded of that first practice ordained by the Lord, baptism.

I have written on the theology of baptism before. See here. So I won't redo all of that right now. But before we get into my main purpose, let me give a bit of background on baptism. There is much that can be said, but really the Great Commission ought to be enough to go on with.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20).

Here we are commanded to go in the authority of Christ to all the nations making disciples – leading men, women and children to the Lord. And what is the first thing we do when they enter in? Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This word for baptize, is simply a transliteration of the Greek word baptizō, which means to immerse in water. It is modeled by Jesus himself in going under the water with John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13-17). And it is practiced immediately by the early church.

This baptism is both an initiatory practice for the new Christian as they join the people of God, and it is a symbolic act depicting that spiritual reality of entering the New Covenant. It is something that is commanded directly by our Lord. We read Peter say the same in his first sermon: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). We see here that while we are saved by faith and not by baptism itself – the early Christians treated it as a non-negotiable and a given. If someone has come to saving faith in Christ they ought to be baptized, it is simply what you do as a tangible expression of your faith and repentance.

So that leads us to this question – who should be baptized? And the answer is clear both by example and by precept: believers should be baptized. Those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Peter calls the crowd to repent and be baptized. And we read, 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41). The picture is of simplicity and speed. They believed, and so they were baptized. Baptism is not withheld from the Ethiopian Eunuch either, though he was a brand new convert. We read of him shortly after hearing the gospel from Philip say, "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him (Acts 8:37-38). We see it as well with Paul after his Damascus road experience (Acts 9:18).

This really is the pattern in the book of Acts. Take for another example Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles when they came to faith. We read, "Then Peter declared, 47 "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ." (Acts 10:47-48). Note the question, can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people. They believed and they showed evidence of the Holy Spirit's work, of course they should be baptized. We see this with Lydia, that seller of purple cloth. "The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well" (Acts 16:14-15). We see here as well a quickness and a readiness to baptize those who believe.

One last example should do. We see this simplicity and speed clearly with the Philippian jailer. After his scare with the earthquake and a potential jailbreak he asks Paul and Silas: "'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' 31 And they said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.' 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house" (Acts 16:29-32). And evidently they all believed, for we read:

33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God (Acts 16:33-34). Simple and speedy. Paul gives this entire family the gospel, they all believe, and so they all are baptized.

In all of these examples it is clear that the only prerequistite is faith. They believed and were baptized. Maturity is not required, nor is eloquence, nor is confidence with public speaking, nor does it seem a particular age is needed, just faith in Jesus Christ. Now we are getting to my point. My main goal in this article is to put this forward as an argument for baptizing people based on faith. And that faith is measured simply by gospel understanding and spiritual fruit. What I am saying is that biblically this is all that matters for baptism – not maturity, not competence – just faith displayed in gospel understanding and spiritual fruit.

And this leads us to the question of children. What do we do with the children? The simple answer: the same as any adult. We confirm that they have understood the gospel and believed in Christ, we discern some level of spiritual fruit as displayed in ongoing repentance, and then we baptize them. This will be discerned with the help of their parents and through conversation with the young believer. But it is simple. Here at Redeemer we have a 3 week baptism class to prepare candidates for baptism. This is both for the preparation of the new Christian and for the discernment of the elders. We want to hear each person who is baptized confess their faith and know what it is they are doing by being baptized. What we don't want to do is cause our children to doubt their faith for years and years, by viewing their profession's with a "wait and see" attitude.

Now some have argued that because baptism implies membership in the body, we need to wait to baptize people until they are 18 and have become good, responsible adults. We don't want someone too young to be a voting member in the church. But that seems to make a problem where there isn't one. Why not just exercise some wisdom and leave the decision making and voting to adult members? A simple solution would be to view baptized children as simply members under their parents authority, partaking weekly of the Lord's Supper, under the care of the church, but excused from the responsibility of church government until they are adults. That in my view is the right place for us to exercise practical wisdom, not in defining arbitrary age requirements for baptism. Why let the pragmatic concern regarding congregational church government stunt the spiritual growth of the young people in the church by holding them at arms length? If a young person believes the gospel, displaying understanding and bearing spiritual fruit, and then expresses his or her desire to be baptized, they should be baptized. Maybe they are 12, or maybe they are only 6 – the age is irrelevant, it is the faith that matters.

We sometimes forget that Jesus told the adults that they needed to become like children to come to him (Matthew 18:3); he didn't tell the children to become like adults. No, Jesus tells the children to come. "But Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14). And that is the problem with withholding baptism and the Lord's Supper from believing children, based on their young age. We are effectively withholding the means of grace without scriptural warrant. Jesus says let them come to him, why can't they come to the water? Jesus says let them come to him, why can't they come to the table? I see no scriptural reason to hinder them. The standard is faith – expressed in an understanding of the gospel and with discernible fruit of the Spirit.

As always there is more that can be said, and there are surely more questions to answer, but this is the principle of the matter. All who repent and believe the gospel should be baptized. Whether the person is an eloquent adult or cognitively impaired, whether they are 27 or only 7, if they have come to faith in Christ, we should let them come to the water, and then come to the table. As our Lord commanded us, let the little children come.

For deeper study see these articles by other Reformed Baptist pastors who have come to a similar conclusion:

This is from Joe Rigney at Cities Church in Minneapolis. A plant from Bethlehem Baptist Church (John Piper).

Cities Church also had a helpful Q&A on the topic:

This is from Robert Gonzales, a solid Reformed Baptist Pastor and Professor:

And lastly, here is a small book on the subject from Ted Christman in Owensboro KY. It is also really solid. Recommended reading if you want to flip over every rock and consider every angle to this question.

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Wednesday, 24 April 2024