What About the Baptism of Young Children?

How old should a child be before he is allowed to be baptized? Are we immersing some who are too young? What are some of the guidelines by which responsible decisions can be made?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

A young child (in this case, seven years old) wants to be baptized because he heard his mother say that those who are not baptized cannot go to heaven. He is an intelligent little boy with a wonderful, pure heart, and he cried when he heard his mother say what she did. He is serious about this issue and keeps bringing it up. When he is not in a serious mood, he acts like a typical seven-year-old kid, getting into anything and everything. How should a child like this be counseled on this subject?

This is a very thoughtful and serious question.

In many cases like this, it isn’t easy to provide a definitive answer simply because there are many variables to consider in the case of youth baptism.

Be Biblically Accurate

First of all, it is a mistake to generalize and assert that “all who are not baptized” will be forbidden entrance into heaven. There will be many in heaven who never were baptized.

For instance, thousands upon thousands of infants and young children die before reaching an age of accountability. They will not be lost nor enter into “limbo” as alleged in Catholic theology. Many others are mentally disabled and thus do not need God’s pardon.

Young, innocent children must be assured that God loves them and that they are in no danger of being lost. Mothers and fathers should be cautious with their language to prevent problems encountered in this area.

That aside, we need to raise some thought-provoking issues for serious reflection.

Baptism Is for the Accountable

Exactly when does a person become accountable to God for his conduct?

This question cannot be answered with chronological precision. Children mature at different rates. Genetics, environment, education—all these factors contribute to one’s spiritual development. Even Jesus grew in intellectual awareness (Lk. 2:52). No one can “x-ray” another person’s soul and precisely determine their level of responsibility.

Our children should be taught the word of God from their very earliest days. However, they must be allowed to mature sufficiently so that they can make an independent commitment to Christ of their own will. This decision must be based on their adequate personal comprehension.

It is not uncommon for parents to nudge or pressure their children into making decisions they are far too tender to appreciate. Remember this: becoming a Christian is the gravest, most consequential decision a person will ever be called upon to make.

Baptism Is for the Lost

No one needs immersion unless they are lost, and, therefore, in danger of hell.

Baptism is not simply a ritual for sincere, tender, or devout people. It is for condemned people—folks who will spend eternity separated from God if they die without forgiveness.

Being intellectually qualified to obey the gospel entails far more than being able to recite the elements of the plan of salvation, which many children can do. It involves more than a tender little heart telling Mom he wants to “get baptized,” like other children. It involves more than feeling guilty for sneaking a cookie that had been denied.

It means the person is lost! Could you let this point sink in?

One of the most influential arguments an atheist could make would be to call attention to the sweet youngsters that some accommodate with baptism, and then charge: “These people believe that hell is full of these children; otherwise they would not be immersing them for the forgiveness of their sins.”

Do we actually believe that a seven-year-old child will be separated from God forever in the event of his death?

Baptism Is for the Responsible

No one is amenable to the gospel of Christ who is incapable of assuming the responsibilities connected with conversion.

Jesus taught that those who wish to follow him must be willing to separate from loved ones—even parents—if necessary. He must be daring enough to forfeit his life if it should come to that (Mt. 10:37; Lk. 14:26; Rev. 2:10).

How could a small child possibly be held accountable to such a rigorous standard? Is a young child physically, emotionally, or socially capable of accepting such a challenge?

Baptism Is for the Committed

The New Testament symbolizes our union with Christ as a “marriage” (see Rom. 7:4; Eph. 5:22ff). One’s relationship with the Son of God is the most important commitment one will ever make.

Why is it that some parents, who would never dream of allowing their small children to enter into a physical marriage, will, nonetheless, permit them to “get baptized” simply because they are afraid that disallowing that urge would discourage the youngster from developing spiritual interests in the future?

When we tell our immature children that they are “too young” to date, do we entertain the illusion that such will deter them from ever wanting to marry?

When a youngster prematurely asks for baptism, if his parents handle the matter gently and compassionately, the child will not be damaged spiritually.

Baptism Is for One Who Understands

The respected Gus Nichols used to point out that belief in Jesus, as the virgin-born Son of God, is essential to being baptized in a scriptural fashion. He would then observe that one cannot endorse the concept of the virgin birth unless he comprehends the process of a natural birth.

His central point was this. Becoming a Christian depends upon being adequately taught, understanding what is taught, and being committed to a threshold level of very significant doctrinal truths. This goes beyond a mere recital of specific oft-rehearsed phrases.

Finally, I’ll conclude with some points that should be emphasized.

Be Careful with Arbitrary Conclusions

The younger a person is when they are baptized, the more likely they may not be mature enough to be morally accountable. However, sweeping generalizations about another’s baptism based on an arbitrary age are ill-advised.

Whether or not someone else sufficiently understands the deeper issues of life, sin and salvation, and moral guilt requires carefully probing the conscience. Drawing a line at an arbitrary age (e.g., 13 years old) as the marker before which someone can’t be baptized or beyond which they should be baptized is not biblical.

Far too often, though, adults who were baptized at a very tender age have questioned whether or not they understood what they were doing or were accountable. Some have chosen to remove all doubt by submitting to the command again—with a complete understanding of what they are doing. Safe is better than sorry.

Occasionally, a minister will encounter a case in which a child appears to lack the moral responsibility he believes is required. In such a situation, he may strongly feel that he cannot, in good conscience, participate. No one should be pressured to become involved in a baptism that violates his convictions.

Be Prepared with Gentleness

There is no doubt that small children will occasionally request baptism—when it is readily apparent that they do not comprehend the gravity of the situation.

A little boy once responded to the invitation after a church service. In his conversation with the minister, he said he wanted to be baptized and ask Jesus for a new pair of roller skates! The minister put his arm around the little fellow, commended him for his sincerity, and told him they would study more as he grew older. The child was delighted with that recommendation.

We should not fear lovingly restraining immature children from making the grave mistake of going through the motions of something they neither need nor truly understand.

We must also remind ourselves that it is just as serious to practice semi-infant baptism as it is to practice outright infant baptism.

To baptize someone who is not lost is to do them a severe injustice that could have eternal consequences.