This is a frequent question from godly parents and we wonder about it for all the right reasons. We all want our children to want to be Christians. We want them to want to follow Jesus all of their days and so we are excited that they think about this decision at young ages. We don’t want them to wait until there’s a lot of regret and baggage to come to the Lord. At the same time, we want them to have both their hearts and minds engaged in what should be the largest of life’s decisions. Often, the subject of the discussion is a six or seven-year-old who is insistent on being baptized.
The first thing I must say is this: I surely do not have all of the answers. Given the gravity of the situation, the fact that I do not always even know the children involved and the varied developmental rates among children and then adding to these factors my own fallibility, I would never presume to tell parents the answer to this question. But having given it some thought, I do have some suggestions that might be useful to some.
First, Kyle Butt has done some thinking, too, and has written a book called “Am I Ready to be Baptized?” If your child is very young and thinking about baptism, it might be very productive to say, “Let’s take some time each night and study through this book,” as we try to decide if you are ready to make this big decision in your life. I also think it is good to make the book of Acts your curriculum for your family Bible time for a few months when this decision is being made. Some have said, “My child is too young to be interested in the text of Acts.” If this is the case, my advice would be to wait until your child is old enough to be interested in the accounts of conversion—the text. After all, if he/she wants to be a candidate for membership in the church, he/she should want to understand its origin and its significance in the scheme of redemption.
Second, there are critical questions that can give parents windows into the hearts of their children. Questions like. “Why do you want to be baptized?” and “What kinds of things will you be promising to do when you are baptized?” and “ Can you tell me about the Lord’s Supper and what it means to you?” and “Do you know why baptism is a burial?” are all good things to discuss. But the most important question, in my judgment is “ If you died today, would you go to heaven?” Many times children, when too immature for baptism will answer “Yes, of course!” If that is the answer, then, obviously the child is not ready and would be immersed for the wrong reasons.
But, thirdly, you may get all the right answers and still have strong doubts about a sufficient maturity level. In other words, the child may academically know the gospel, but he/she may not yet be capable of a love and commitment that is with all of the heart, soul, strength and mind. Emotionally, the ability to “tie into” Christianity for all of a lifetime, though developing, may not yet have ripened. Allowing a child to be baptized void of proper commitment (a strong yearning to please God for all of his life) would be a mistake that could have negative ramifications when the ability to commit to long-term projects has processed into completion. Perhaps an examination of other commitments might help you decide. Are there multiple projects that your child was very excited to begin (perhaps a building project, a sewing project, piano lessons, etc…), but soon abandoned due to lack of interest? When a child is ready to commit to Christ, there should be at least some ability to complete long-term projects. This is not to say your child should always complete every venture (How many of us do?), but there should be some propensity for perseverance in your child’s character when making this most monumental commitment.
Next, you may want to ask your child if he would like to wait until Sunday or next month to be baptized? You will find out something valuable when you ask this question. If your child is willing to wait, then he/she is likely not ready. The urgency of salvation combined with the necessity of baptism for salvation are concepts that your child needs to be unmistakably sure of when contemplating baptism. Remember, you are not asking this question to trick your child, but rather to obtain information about his thinking process as it relates to an eternal issue. If your child answers this in the “wrong” way, then assure him or her that this answer is not a “bad” answer, but it is something that you think is important to examine from scripture. (If your child is all about doing it with a friend, is overly excited about cameras and grandparents and celebrating with others, this is a sign that you need to wait a while.) This is a great time to launch into the study of Acts together. The very fact that you are willing and excited about studying through this as an important family process will make your child look at this decision as something that is “big” and wonderful to your family. It will tighten the spiritual bond in your home as you work to decide this together.
Next, whenever you decide it is an appropriate time for baptism, it is a great idea to have your child write down, in her own hand, the decision she is making—“Today, I am being baptized into Jesus, for the remission of sins. I will be added by the Lord, to his church.” I am doing this for the following reasons. Then have her list those. It’s okay to discuss the reasons being listed, but not to “give” the reasons (or the initial statement) from your perspective. This document should be fully “owned” by the child. Assuming the document is composed in a mature and sound manner, you should make a couple of copies and put them in places of safe keeping. Often, this is very valuable to reassure these young Christians, later on, that their baptisms were valid and resulted in salvation.
Next, if you are unsure, take your child to mature elders and have them discuss this decision with them. They are seasoned and wise and may pick up on attitudes or thoughts that you, as a less objective party, have missed.
Next, remember this: Baptism is unnecessary and is a mistake when there is no sin. Just because your child is capable of rebelling against your will, telling an untruth, or disobeying does not mean he is yet capable of sinning. A child that is yet blissfully unable to feel the guilt of sin, who is unfamiliar with the torment of godly sorrow, is not a candidate for baptism. Sometimes we may be very sure of a child’s belief, but not as attentive to the process of repentance. An innocent child has nothing of which to repent—and, without repentance, there can be no scriptural baptism. Perhaps this lack of emphasis on repentance comes from the “ask Jesus into your heart” doctrine of denominations around us. It seems so simple and child-like to “ask Jesus into your heart.” And we hear of four and five and six-year-olds all the time who are “asking Jesus into their hearts” in denominational families around us. But may I suggest that there is a world of difference between “asking Jesus into your heart” in that denominational sense and in having sins washed away in the blood of the Lamb? While we do not want our children to wander into the life of the prodigal son in the far away land before baptism, we must also be aware that accountability for sin is required before repentance and baptism are needed. Knowing exactly when that accountability and guilt is a reality in the life of a child who has always been taught about God is not always easy. But it is important to wait until there is a need for a washing before immersion takes place; otherwise the significance of the need is lost in a useless formality. It becomes “symbol without substance”.
Finally, be sure your children are hearing you pray daily for their souls. Always. Pray privately for them individually and specifically. But be sure they also hear you pray for them. When they do, you are building a trust that will help you navigate this time during which you will make the biggest decision of their eternal lives. You will be building in their minds and hearts the import of the decision well before they actually are faced with it. And that preparation will be huge in their ability to shoulder the great responsibility that comes with becoming His child. Your very parenting is a bridge over which they will easily pass as they become children of THE Parent.