In this brief essay, I’m making several assumptions. The first is that baptism is rightly administered only to professing believers. I don’t intend to engage here with arguments for paedobaptism. The second is that baptism is a strongly ecclesiastical ordinance. Baptism is not a mere personal devotional experience; it is a public profession of faith, made before a group of believers so that they might hold you to your profession.
But even among those who share these presuppositions, contentious differences remain. Among the most difficult, for reasons both of theology and practice, is the question of the baptism of children who profess faith in Christ. By children, I especially mean those from, say, 5–12. They are of sufficient maturity to understand, explain, and presumably believe the gospel. And yet they are young enough that legitimate questions can be raised about the fullness of their understanding, particularly their ability to count the cost of a lifetime of discipleship.
The inability of young children to grasp the significance of what they profess is evidenced in the high percentage of such children who later become apostates. And so some who share my assumptions argue against baptizing children or even forbid it outright.
I do not believe that this is the correct solution. What follows is one argument against forbidding the baptism of children, and one argument for baptizing children who profess faith in Christ.
Those who forbid the baptism of children do so because they believe that baptism is important and shouldn’t be administered wantonly. This is admirable. But forbidding baptism for children inadvertently reinforces the trivial view of baptism so common in evangelicalism today.
Baptism, rightly understood, is the normal way that a Christian publicly professes faith in Christ. In evangelical circles, this purpose of baptism was largely displaced by the altar call. Charles Finney made this substitution intentionally:
“The church has always felt it necessary to have something of the kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles baptism answered this purpose. The Gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ were called on to be baptized. It held the precise place that the anxious seat does now, as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians.”
Whatever one thinks of the utility of the altar call, such a substitution is manifestly unbiblical. But because it has been so popular, baptism has been demoted from its proper place to a “first act of obedience” or something of that sort. This results in the unquestioned acceptance of the unbaptized Christian.
To be sure, there are regenerate people (children and adults alike) who have not been baptized. And there are extraordinary circumstances in which baptism may not be possible. But unbaptized Christians are decidedly out of order, and it should not be the case that our practice encourages us to accept the profession of faith of the unbaptized.
But this is precisely the result of forbidding baptism to children. Are we seriously to think that children who have convincingly professed faith in Christ—but yet have been refused baptism—will be considered by their families, and sometimes even by their churches, as anything other than converted souls? And so the very policy that was intended to highlight the importance of baptism has now diminished it. Unbaptized Christians are normalized by refusing baptism to those who credibly profess the faith, even if they are children.
That is my argument against refusing baptism to children. My argument for baptizing children follows.
Those who refuse baptism to children cite the prevalence of apostasy among those who profess faith as children. But are our children more likely to continue in the faith if we refuse them the ordinary discipline of the church, the very means that our Lord has appointed for the perseverance of his saints? When a child is baptized and added to the membership of the church, that church has taken on itself the obligation to care for the faith of this young brother or sister.
Laying aside man-made ceremonies of child dedications, the church has no such responsibility to unbaptized children in the church. To be sure, we ought to take interest in the spiritual health of the children in our church, as we would to anyone, converted or not. But we have a covenantal obligation to care for those who are members with us in our churches, especially to provoke them to love and good works.
And so if we baptize our young people as they profess credible faith in Jesus Christ, we ought to expect that our Lord will use his church in the way he has commanded to help those children continue to follow him. Certainly, this will not happen infallibly; it does not happen infallibly even if we restrict baptism to adults. But it seems quite self-defeating, for fear of seeing a child profess faith and then walk away, to deny him the discipline that might save his soul.