I’ve been mulling the question of when should you get baptized for the last few weeks, there have been a few things that have prompted this. One is Tim Challies excellent article “when should my children be baptized”. The other is a couple of requests for baptism of children that have come to me in the last 4 months (one of which came this week). One was to baptize a 13 year old whose family has been in the church for generations. The second, an 8 year old of a family that has been in the church for about a year and a half. The more i think about it, the more I am convinced that you should wait till the latter part of high school, and have really committed to a gospel shaped life with an adult mind (keep in mind that I am coming at this from a position of believers baptism, our infant baptizing brothers and sisters will disagree with just about everything I write, these things are attempts to think about baptism in a way that is consistent with believers baptism that I and my church hold as Baptists).
There are two reasons that I conclude this. The first reason is that I want to protect the child (even from themselves). All to often, we allow children to be baptized before they have counted the cost. And as parents, we encourage them to be baptized with the best of motives, because that’s what we do. But is the child ready? Really ready? Are they mature enough to make this decision?
Challies argues that:
Maturity displays itself in autonomy and in counting the cost. The mature person is autonomous in that he has the ability to make independent decisions. He is also one who counts the cost, who has seen some of what a decision may cost him in terms of relationship, prestige or suffering, yet still desires to proceed.
He goes on later,
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 “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.”
As I’ve thought about it, I think Challies is right in seeing something that I had concluded even before I read his article. All too often we baptize kids way to young. Personally, I went through that back and forth that Challies mentions. I prayed the sinners prayer at 5, and was baptized at 10, but I basically had checked out by 13 or 14, and it wasn’t until God grabbed hold of my rebellions unrepentant heart at 16 that I became a truly committed follower of Christ. I would have told you I was a Christian, but my heart was not committed to God. It did not love God or honor God. In fact, I once told my mother I had my fire insurance in place... it is by the grace and mercy of God that I am God’s child through Christ, nothing more. But I didn’t understand that. But here’s the thing, I know I’m not the only one. Which is why I have concluded that I want kids to wait until they have wrestled through their doubts and questions with a maturing mind, and are really ready to commit to the Christian life.
Now if a young man or woman is really ready to say with an adult mind (and by the time you’re in the latter part of high school you reason with an adult mind rather than a child’s mind), “I’m in, I believe that Christ lived the life I should have lived, and died the death I should have died, in my place and for my sins, and I want to live for Christ all the days of my life, knowing that the cost of discipleship is cross bearing, and Christ says, take up your cross and follow me, and it will be hard, but so worthwhile, Jesus is lord of my life and I want to live for him”, then by all means, I will baptize him or her with joy! But I don’t want it to be a child’s choice. They should be maturing (developmentally), committed follower of Christ. If not, we damage the child, because we short circuit their exploration of the gospel on its terms, and it becomes something they don’t truly understand but have theoretically committed to. The result is that rather than seeing the gospel with all its beauty and starkness, they are inoculated to it.
The second reason I conclude this is that I believe early baptisms damage the witness of the church, and I desperately want to guard the witness of the church. This comes from personal experience as well. I know far too many kids who were baptized in middle school and Jr. High, and even high school, and haven’t really counted the cost, and committed to live a gospel shaped life. Of the 30 or so kids I went to youth group with, I can think of 7 that are still following Christ. Most were church kids that were baptized as children. I know too many kids who grew up in church and were baptized and then flaked out in high school and college. They hadn’t wrestled with whether or not they believed, and then flaked out, and many of them still think of themselves as Christian, even though they deny core tenants of Christianity like the resurrection and substitutionary atonement, and argue for universalism, “saying all paths lead to salvation, there is no hell”… and they deny basic categories of sin, and they live with boyfriends and girlfriends and argue for homosexuality being OK, and ignore what scripture teaches on a hundred subjects and having slandered the name of God in public then say, “I’m a Christian in good standing”. Awhile ago, a young woman who grew up in church told me, "I would never marry someone I didn’t live with" (at the time she was semi-active). No amount of scripture would change her mind. All attempts to change her mind fell on deaf ears. In time (unsurprisingly), she drifted from the church, and as best I can tell, lives a life that denyies the gospel on a dozen levels. What’s that about? It’s a failure by the church to protect the child by making her really grasp the gospel, and the result is damage to the witness of the church. This person viewed themselves as a Christian that was living a “good Christian.” Church raised, Church Baptized, not a clue. By your fruits you will know them (Matthew 7:20)
What does that say to the world around? There is no difference. The result is damages the witness of the church, and slander to God’s holy name. For these reasons, I choose to wait until there is mature commitment. Does that make sense?