When is my child “ready” to get baptized?

The perennial question of the Baptist parent: when is my child ready to get baptized?

And, once you’ve asked that question, you begin to wonder, what does it even mean to be “ready” for baptism? Was I “ready” when I got baptized? Then, if your brain isn’t fried yet and you haven’t decided just to ignore the question and go watch a movie, you might even ask, What is “baptism” anyway and how does it relate to things like “faith,” “repentance,” and “salvation”? If you’re not careful, you might accidentally end up doing theology.

I can almost hear the TV calling.

Whether we should baptize small children (not infants) is the question that John Starke addressed recently. Specifically, he’s responding to Trevin Wax’s post arguing that there are good reasons for delaying the baptism of small children until they’re ready. Starke understands the concerns, but he thinks they’re misguided and offers 4 reasons for baptizing young children without delay:

  1. The regular pattern in Scripture doesn’t give any indication of a probationary period.
  2. A probationary period seems to imply that there is something more than faith we need to do in order to be a Christian.
  3. Affirming belief in the gospel is never false assurance.
  4. The New Testament pattern is reactive rather than proactive concerning conversion.

You’ll have to read the post to get his full thinking on the subject, but I think he makes some good points. I’m particularly concerned about the second point and the suggestion that we need to wait until a child “owns” her faith or has a sufficiently “mature” faith before getting baptized. The first concern seems to rise directly from our rampant individualism and the idea that if the community (or family) serves as a shaping force in a person’s faith development, their faith no longer belongs to them in some way. And the second implies that you’re not really converted until your faith reaches a certain level of maturity, as though my salvation depended ultimately on the quality of my faith.

One of these days I’ll finally get around to writing my own post (it will probably take more than one) explaining how I view baptism and how my wife and I are approaching it with our daughters. But for now, just read Starke’s post and see what he has to say.

Update: Nathan Finn also addressed the issue this morning, with an interesting reflection on how his views on the subject have changed slightly over time.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on February 25, 2011, in Sanctification, Spiritual Formation, The Church and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Like these posts you’re doing, Marc. I still vividly remember your razor-sharp questions and comments when we talked about baptism over dinner in New Orleans a couple years ago. Your students have a gift in you.

  2. Interesting, this is something we have been working through ourselves. With a 10 yr old daughter and 7 yr old son, both little Christians; but neither ready to get baptized yet. I mean our daughter is just not comfortable with it yet. When she’s ready, she’s ready. Every now and then I bring it up with her, just to let her know that when she’s ready there’s space for her to make that decision.

    It is an interesting discussion, though; esp. for us Baptist types. 🙂

  3. What does it mean to say your children are Christians but not baptized?

    • Pat,

      Not to be too terse, but it means that we are plain old credo Baptists. 🙂

      I mean that both of our kids have received Jesus to be their Savior. That they both bowed their knee to Christ out of the vicarious faith of Christ by the Spirit. And like Billy’s comment below, it now becomes a matter of obediently following Jesus in the waters of baptism; when the “time” (whenever that’s right) arises.

  4. I remember being so frustrated when I was younger that my church wouldn’t baptize me becuase they weren’t sure I was ready. I was a Christian, knew it, and wanted to get baptized.

  5. @Matt – I thought we agreed that what happened in New Orleans would stay in New Orleans!

    @Pat – I’m assuming that you were directing that question at Bobby’s comment, and I’d like to see what he has to say about that as well.

    @Jen – That’s tragic. We really do seem to put kids in a different category and expect them to “prove” that their faith is legitimate. How exactly are they supposed to do that?

  6. Marc – yes.

    But…I will ask you a question. You mention that in a future post you might explain how you and your wife are handling baptism with your daughters. Did you omit that your pastors are part of the conversation also, or are they not a part? (unloaded question)

    • Great question. Yes, the pastors are an important part of the conversation. But, I do think baptistic churches tend to be weak in this area (at lease those I’ve been a part of). There’s little intentional effort to encourage children and families to take baptism seriously. (I think this is again a result of our ambivalence regarding the conversion of children.) Pastors are supportive when it comes up, but they tend to get involved only after the family has decided that it’s time. For example, my youngest just turned 5 and I don’t think the question of her baptism has ever been raised by any of the pastors.

  7. I see benefit in both. I was baptized when I was 7, after professing my faith in Christ, and now wish I would have waited until being older and understanding the significance of baptism. This does not take away from the importance of baptism in my own view. Every person who has professed faith in Christ is commanded to be baptized. It’s not an option, but a matter of obedience. I don’t see a command that is must be immediately after professing faith, only that it must be done. Not everyone should wait, I just wish I had.

    • Thanks, Marc. Presbyterians are often weak on this, too. But the issue doesn’t present itself with baptism, but the LS.

      Billy: I’m not sure I understand why you wanted to wait, Billy. Would understanding the significance of it have made it efficacious, more efficacious, or better?

      General question: In a baptist view of discipleship, does baptism come up not as a reference point for sanctification? In other words, do pastors/teachers talk about the role of baptism for the one who has already been baptized? (e.g. Paul uses baptism as a teaching point pretty regularly in exhorting Christians to Christlikeness, holiness, self-understanding, etc.).

      • Pat: I would have to say, No. Waiting until I understood more fully the implications of my baptism would not have made it efficacious, more efficacious, or better. Just as my coming to salvation at age 7 would not have been more efficacious had I waited until I understood salvation more clearly. I only say I wish I would have waited because the implications of baptism (identification with Christ, new creation, raised to new life) were not realities I really understood till about the age of 20. Call it poor discipleship or training (on my own part as well as those who discipled me), but at 7 I was told to do it so I did. I agree with Marc, that this is part of the Baptistic downfall of “symbolism.” As I”m studying baptism this semester, I think we baptist do not emphasize it as we should.
        As for using baptism as a point of reference for sanctification, I don’t think I have ever heard that mentioned in a Baptist church, other than as initial act of obedience.

  8. Correction: In a baptist view of discipleship, does baptism come up as a reference point for sanctification?

  9. Talking with a Presbyterian friend a while back about baptism, I was struck by a number of similarities between a Baptist view of baptism and a Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper (unless you’re into paedocommunion, of course).

    In response to your general question, I’d say no. This is again limited to my experience, but I’d say that Baptist pastors are far more likely to use your conversion than your baptism as a point of reference for sanctification. Remember that in your standard Baptist view, baptism is just a symbol; it doesn’t really “do” anything. Since on this view conversion is the truly transformative event, it gets more attention.

    • Reformed folks, especially those in the Puritan strain, do the same thing (conversion as reference in sanctification). And I can understand why there is this deference to the conversion experience, because it is more immediate, personal, and (ironically) seemingly less abstract.

      But whenever people’s past is brought up by the NT writers, the focus is more on emphasizing the difference between who they were and who they are now in Christ, e.g. remember how you used to be. you aren’t that person anymore. see you’ve been baptized. united to Jesus by faith, etc.).

  10. I would say from a Baptist Evangelical Calvinist perspective, both justification and sanctification are inseparably related — personally — in the vicarious humanity of Christ. So, by virtue of union with Him by the Spirit, we become immediate participants the second we are baptized by one Spirit into His body (I Cor. 12.13). [see Calvin’s teaching on “double-grace”]

    My perspective might be cheating a little; it may not be thoroughly Baptist, but I did grow up as the son of a Conservative Baptist preacher man 😉 .

    • To be clear, I take the baptism “by” the Spirit to be the moment someone calls on the name of the Lord to be saved; or the moment of profession, of fiduciary trust in the salvation of Christ.

      • Bobby – thanks for your reply. You can’t cheat – I’m just curious about your view. You sound like vanilla Reformed folks (e.g. Ferguson in “Holy Spirit,”) who believe that all the benefits of Christ (just, sanct, adopt) are given to the believer as a package deal (instantaneously, simultaneously, eschatologically, etc.). Good Calvinism.

        But I don’t see how from I Cor. 12:13 you can parse out a meaning of baptism that doesn’t have something also to do with water being applied. Or, where is there baptism by the Spirit when baptism by water isn’t coordinated with it?

        If it is the case that there is this baptism by Spirit that is the “real” baptism (private, invisible, personal, immediately perceived, the moment of conversion) why even bother with the wet one (material, objective, public)? Or at least why not delay it until shortly before death, like a kind of seal of completion?

      • Pat,

        I assume you’re referring to David Fergusson, right? The good Scottish Calvinist?

        I think the way that we approach Calvinism is somewhat distinct from other versions of Calvinism; esp. in re. to WCF style and in particular a doctrine of God (but that’s for another thread).

        I think the “wet” one reflects the reality of the “spiritual” one (which there is a passage in Mk, I think 10 where baptism is used by Jesus in reference to His death). I wonder though, why when in the context of “body” as metaphor for participants in God’s life through Christ (in the context of I Cor 12); why “baptism” has to have a “wet” reference? When just prior to our vs. vs. 13, in vs. 11, the Spirit is said to give gifts to who He wills. If the gifts that are given by the Spirit reference spiritual realities, why should we suppose that what’s going on in vs. 13 (done by the Spirit) is in reference to any thing other than his creative placement of someone into Christ (ref. Paul’s “in Christ” theology)? I’m just not convinced, from the context, that I Cor 12 is talking about water baptism. Clearly I have my own a priori commitment to some theological stuff informing my interpretive thinking . . . I’m just not a Presbyterian is what it really comes down to; even though one of my favorite theologians was 😉 (but he’s not “classical” either, so he’s not your typical Westminster kind of Calvinist, he’s Evangelical).

      • No. Sinclair Ferguson the good Scottish Calvinist.

        Why is “body” a metaphor? It is a real Jesus. A real people.

        Maybe are you are using the word spirit in two different ways? Spirit (relating to the Holy Spirit) and spirit/spiritual (non-corporeal, affective, relating to the inner man). You write:

        “If the gifts that are given by the Spirit reference spiritual realities, why should we suppose that what’s going on in vs. 13 (done by the Spirit) is in reference to any thing other than his creative placement of someone into Christ (ref. Paul’s “in Christ” theology)?

        I don’t disagree with that. Gifts are given by the Spirit, hence Spiritual realities and tangible. Isn’t baptism a gift? Doesn’t baptism place someone into Christ’s body? (cf. Romans 6; Gal. 3; Col. 2)

  11. Oh. Yes, he’s a good Scottish Calvinist too 🙂 .

    I don’t know how to respond to your question on “body” not being a metaphor. Jesus certainly had a body (physical), yet we are called His body; which I don’t know how else to take that but metaphorically.

    Yes, I would agree that being immersed into Christ — or union with Him, which is an ongoing spiritual union and reality by the Spirit is what water baptism expresses. But I don’t see water baptism as an ingressive which serves as entrance into Christ; instead, I see the response of Spirit imbued, Christ’s mediating vicarious faith as the ground and point wherein “Spirit baptism” (the “fire kind of baptism”) taking place.

    We could spend a lot of time discussing those other salient passages you bring up, but I have a feeling at the end we wouldn’t be any closer to agreeing than where we are now, Pat 🙂 .

    • Maybe not. My main concern is that baptism be seen as a real gift that communicates Christ and His benefits to us. If seen that way, regardless of whether we believe in covenantal baptism or credo-baptism, we would want to see it as something that we don’t unnecessarily delay.

      Vern Poythress wrote about this, from a different angle, a few years ago in WTJ. But he was making the case for child (not infant) baptism.

  12. I’m not sure when the right time is… My brother, sister and I all got baptized on the same day, one right after the other, when we were teenagers. It was on our last Sunday before we left the US for the mission field. Not sure if it was some type of salvation-insurance, but I am glad we did it then. Looking back the timing is rather amusing.

  13. @Pat – “My main concern is that baptism be seen as a real gift that communicates Christ and His benefits to us.” Amen. A failure to recognize that is, I think, the real weakness of the traditional Baptist view of Baptism. Since that approach views baptism as “just” a symbol, it therefore does not see it as a gift that communicates any real benefit (beyond the benefit of obedience). That’s unfortunate, and I don’t think it’s necessary to the Baptist perspective.

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