A scholarly minister writes, “I am leading a study this summer with five other families, all having children who have expressed an interest in baptism or a desire to be baptized. The children range from seven to 13 years of age. What are your thoughts on this subject?”
* * *
I was discussing the topic of Christian baptism several years ago with the late Professor F. F. Bruce, whom I admired immensely and who kindly contributed forewords to two of my books. The most likely path to accord on the action of baptism, surmised the great commentator, will not be through focusing on the mode itself but rather by reflecting on the meaning of the rite. Baptism’s meaning also provides the best light regarding the appropriate age for baptizing children of believers, it seems to me.
The New Testament specifically reports the baptisms only of repentant believers. Those who baptize babies say they are not surprised, since the New Testament records only first-generation converts. I consider it significant, however, that Jesus connects baptism to the Gospel (Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16), and that the apostles and first evangelists regularly relate it to repentance and faith, which the gospel intends to elicit (Lk. 24:47 with Acts 2:38; Mk. 16:16; Acts 8:12-13; 10:43, 48; 11:17-18; 16:14-15; 16:31-34; 18:8; 22:16; Gal. 3:26-27; Eph. 4:5; Col. 2:12; Heb. 10:22).
If one sees baptism as expressing personal repentance and faith, by that act acknowledging and personally claiming the good news that Christ died for sinners, one tends to conclude that baptism is for persons who are old enough to experience and to express those heart responses. All that Scripture says on the topic seems consistent with that understanding and I know nothing in Scripture which rules it out.
Add to that the fact that repentance and faith are God’s gifts, fruit of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work in one’s heart, and the plot thickens, as the old saying goes. Children do not automatically believe at a particular chronological age — which we sometimes call “the age of accountability,” but which the Bible never mentions anywhere. We look, therefore, not for certain birthdays but for evidence of God’s activity.
When a child feels conviction of sin, expresses a need for Christ, and declares trust in Jesus’ atonement for personal redemption and forgiveness, we may conclude that the girl or boy is prepared to be baptized. A catechism class might draw out such comments, or even suggest or encourage them, but it might also convey external expectations or generate peer pressure which substitute for God’s work in the heart. That does not mean such a class is inappropriate — only that it is not a perfect solution.
In the end, nothing can take the place of Christian parents who model faith and nurture it in their own dear children. Such parents, who pray regularly with and for their young, and who discuss spiritual realities in the course of daily life, will not have difficulty recognizing saving repentance and faith when it appears. When that occurs, they can guide their children to express these heart-responses to the gospel by baptism in water, in obedience to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on whose atoning accomplishments we totally depend from first to last.