First of all, let's be clear. Can young children come to faith in Christ? Absolutely! This post isn't about whether or not a 4-year-old can be saved. This is about whether or not we should be baptizing young children who profess faith in Christ. My argument is no. Here are 3 reasons why:
1. There is no admonition in Scripture to do so -
I don't mean to suggest this is the be all end all argument. But, if Scripture showed us an example or gave a command to baptize young children then the argument would be over and we would be compelled to baptize and let the Lord sort it out later.
Instead, we have clear instruction that Baptism is for Believers (Acts 2:41) and those who can appeal to God for a good conscience (1 Peter 3:21). We rightly say that babies can't do this but too often Baptists are willing to immerse a 4-year-old simply because she said yes to the right questions. This is not a healthy understanding of Believer's Baptism.
2. Children are super impressionable -
One of my own children could articulate some very good answers to salvation questions at the age of 3. Could he have genuinely been converted at such a young age? Well, it takes the same miracle of regeneration rather one is 3 or 93 but the real point is, how could I possibly really know? And that's the issue when it comes to baptizing young children. As a church, we've been called to baptize genuine believers.
Children desire to mimic their parents. If dad loves hunting, or football, or Jesus, the child will naturally be inclined to those things too. This is why an 8-year-old who says they love Jesus might not be ready for the baptismal waters. Do they love Jesus or are they just trying to mimic their parents? Children are impressionable, and will often say whatever is necessary to please adults. With this in mind, don’t be too hasty to admit them to the baptismal waters just because they’ve said ‘yes’ to the right questions. Continue dialogue with them. Look for fruit. We want to see the fruit of the Spirt in someone’s life (Galatians 5:22), not merely a modification in behavior.
3. The plague of false conversions in our day -
It's actually quite easy to get a child to repeat a sinner's prayer. The problem is, thousands (millions?) have done this at a young age and later walked away from the faith. Others have truly been converted later in life and had to be "re-baptized" (although the idea that Baptists 'rebaptize' is not true. Their first 'baptism' wasn't biblical baptism).
When we baptize children too early we are putting a seal on them that perhaps the Holy Spirit has not. As they go out into the world later in life many may still hold to their baptism as valid even though they are in love with the present world. It gives them a false sense of assurance and puts their blood on our hands. If we love our children and grandchildren, then we must exercise prudence and wait until they can give a credible profession of faith. A credible profession isn't saying the right answers only, but also being able to demonstrate a change in life. It's quite difficult for young children to demonstrate whether or not they are simply modifying behavior or if they've truly been born again.
So, how do we handle childhood conversion? We encourage it! We encourage children as soon as they can understand to repent and believe the gospel. We pray with them, we read the Bible with them, we catechize. But we don't admit them to the baptismal waters until we can have a true understanding of whether or not they love Christ. Frankly, that's very difficult to do if they are 7. So, this isn't to say that a 4-year-old can't truly be born again. But it is to say that we have no real way of affirming that happening until they are a little bit older.
Historically, many churches have waited until adulthood to baptize. There are solid Baptist churches around today who still hold to that practice. I'm not advocating that per se, but I am pleading with you to be more discerning about this subject. If we are serious about regenerate church membership we need to be cautious about baptizing children too early. I don't have a magic "age" I'm thinking of, but children under the age of 10 seem to be a bit premature. Again, however, this isn't to be a hard and fast line. Prudence should be exercised. If you were baptized at a young age, I'm not at all saying your baptism is illegitimate! But what I am saying is, that for every 1 legitimate baptism of a young child there are probably 10 or more illegitimate. How do I know? Well, in the SBC alone there are about 1/3 of people on our rolls actually meaningfully involved in the local church. The majority of the remaining 2/3's were baptized at a young age but have now left the church, thus showing their profession of faith, and subsequent Baptism, to be invalid (1 John 3:14).
Therefore, if we love Christ and we love His church and we love children, then we should not want to confuse them or place on them a false sense of security.
I'm not saying a church is in 'sin' by baptizing too early, but they might be. If the motivation for baptizing early is just to increase statistics for the year, then that's sinful. Or, if the early baptism stems from a complete lack of care to exercise discernment in conversion, then that is also sinful. If we care about being a Baptist church, then let us care about the very word that is in our name, i.e. baptism. It matters. Let us be diligent to think through these issues biblically as we seek to make Christ known among the Nations! To God be the glory.
If you've made it this far, I'd encourage you to check out a new project my friend and I are doing: The Rural Church Podcast...