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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Children and Baptism: At What Time Should It Occur?

        In order to discern the correct age of baptism, infant or believers, specifically children’s baptism, New Testament texts are examined, writings and lectures of various theologians are reviewed, and a survey of ministers are conducted.  In Matthew 28:18-20, Christ commands His apostles to go make disciples and baptize them.  Baptizing people is what all Christian churches do because of Christ’s command though the timing of baptism differs and is a divisive issue between Christian denominations.  Some churches believe infants should be baptized while others believe only professing believers should be baptized.  Of the latter, there is a segment which believes that, if the new believer is young, he or she should wait to be baptized, which is found to be a common practice by South African pastors.  The research shows that anyone, regardless of age, who repents and believes in Jesus Christ as their Savior has received God’s gift of salvation and is to be baptized immediately, as shown in the New Testament.
            Matthew 28:18-20 clearly states Jesus Christ’s command to His disciples before His ascension into heaven, to go make disciples and baptize believers; this commissioning of His disciples becomes the hallmark of the Christian church.  For the Christian church, baptism, a visible testimony of regeneration, is one of the sacraments or ordinances of the church, which sets it apart from all other religions.  In His command, Jesus says, “Go then and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, Amplified Bible). This command of Jesus sparks a revolution for the Jewish nation and the Gentile world.  From this command, His disciples go forth and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, that of salvation from sin and life eternal with God, the Father, for those who believe in Jesus, the Son of God, as his or her Savior.  Mark also records this event in his gospel when he quotes Jesus in saying, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16, Amplified Bible).  It is from Jesus’ last command that the believing church was born. 
The Bible records many baptisms of believers.  The Bible, in these records, shows the formula, if you will, of salvation through Jesus.[1]  Beginning with the two scriptural accounts above and continuing through the New Testament, the people are recipients of the gospel taught to them.  They choose to believe that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah and repent of their sins.  Their belief enacts God’s grace gift, salvation, in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “For it is by free grace that you are saved through [your] faith. And this [salvation] is not of yourselves but it is the gift of God; not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, Amplified Bible).  The book of Acts records the majority of the baptisms during the apostles’ ministries.  In it, the salvation formula is iterated and reiterated.  Acts 2:38 records Peter telling the crowd at Pentecost how to be saved, “repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of and release from your sins” (Amplified Bible).  Farther in Acts finds Philip having preached in Samaria and the people “believed the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ…they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12, Amplified Bible).  In verses 36-38 of Acts 8, Philip teaches the Word to a eunuch and then baptizes the new believer.  The book of Acts records six more instances where the salvation formula is followed.  Hebrews also shows this salvation formula in chapter 10, verse 22, “Let us all come forward and draw near with true hearts in unqualified assurance and absolute conviction engendered by faith, having our hearts sprinkled and purified from a guilty conscience and our bodies cleansed with pure water” (Amplified Bible).   It appears this definition of salvation is where the disagreements begin to arise in the history of the church after the apostles.
            From the beginning of Christianity, salvation is seen to be for believers though some churches believe infants should be baptized while others believe only professing believers should be baptized.  Roman Catholicism sees baptism differently than the apostles; baptism conferred God’s grace of salvation for Roman Catholics.[2]  Roman Catholics and other denominations have instituted infant baptism so they would be saved from original sin should the infant die before he or she could make a faith decision for him or herself.  There is no explicit verse in the Bible that speaks of infants and small children being baptized but there are a multitude of passages speaking of believers being baptized as an outward sign or testimony of their faith.  Historically, though, research finds Tertullian speaking against the baptism of infants in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century.[3]  The beginning of Roman Catholicism in history occurs in the early 3rd century.  Augustine, in his wrestlings with theology and practice, is an early patristic father who felt compassion for the parents of infants who die early and have not received God’s grace.  Origen is one of the early church fathers to support infant baptism.  In Roman Catholicism, the command of Jesus to baptize believers becomes a sacrament which confers God’s grace, salvation, to the child who is baptized.  For them, it removes original sin from their young lives.  Since then, this practice is perpetuated in the Episcopalian, Anglican, Methodist, and Lutheran churches.  Scottie May state that the sacramental tradition sees infant baptism as “the means to remove the effect of original sin.  The administration of this sacrament begins the process of salvation.”[4]   
In the covenantal tradition, baptized infants are seen as a part of the new covenant because they have been born of believing parents.  The parents, by their professions of faith, are the “seed” of Abraham and are, thus, a part of that covenant.  They state, in essence, that their child is part of the new covenant which ties them to the Abrahamic covenant. God requires circumcision to be a part of His grace with the old covenant.  He now requires, it is believed by covenantalist, baptism to be a part of the new covenant.[5]  The new covenant, as Jeremiah states in 31:27-34, is for after the captivity of Israel; it requires each man to bear responsibility for his own spiritual condition before God in a new way.  The new covenant that Jesus heralded, they purport,  requires something of the inner man and also something outward, baptism, a sign of a person’s promise to God.  To be a part of the Abrahamic covenant, a man has to meet a physical requirement and become identified with an outward nation.  Believing parents have their infants baptized to affect the new covenant in their child, to confer God’s grace upon them.[6]
 Covenantalists, like Roman Catholics, baptize their infants to confer God’s grace.  To support infant baptism, sacramental and covenantal theologians refer to the household baptisms of Acts 16 and 18 (see Hammett, Malone, Davis, Grenz).  In Acts 10:44, readers encounter Cornelius and his household and find that “the Holy Spirit fell on all who were listening to the message” (Amplified Bible).  Further, in verse 48, after the Holy Spirit caused Peter’s hearers to speak in unknown tongues, Peter orders that they be “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Amplified Bible).  Likewise, in Acts 16:14-15, Lydia and her household come to faith.  Because of their faith and due to Paul’s preaching, she and her household are baptized.  Other household baptisms, that of the Philippian jailer and his household in Acts 16:30-34, Crispus and his household in Acts 18:8, and Stephanus and his household in 1 Corinthians 1:16, as well, are used by sacramentalists, like Roman Catholics, and covenantalists as proof that children and infants were baptized and should be baptized still.  They argue that there must have been small children and infants in the household.  Though these passages do not explicitly state that infants were baptized, to them infants are not excluded and, thus, their non-mention does not assume that children are not baptized.  Gerhard Forde, in “Something to Believe,” states that “Faith must have something to believe, something that happens in the living present to which it can cling in all adversity.”[7]  He further states “that the promise and sign from without comes first, and only then the internal, the faith that receives it comes second.  The fire of faith within is always kindled by the flame of the external event.”[8]  Covenantal and sacramental theologians hold to infant baptism, paedobaptism; whereas, Baptists hold to believer’s baptism, credobaptism.
Baptist theologians, such as John Hammett, Stanley Grenz, Fred Malone, and Ronald Davis, hold to a purely believer’s baptism approach; any person who is able to hear the message and respond with repentance and belief, as per the formula noted above, can be saved.  They believe the Bible does not specifically state that infants are to be baptized and their inability to reason, listen, and respond in faith precludes them from being baptized.   It is believed that small children and infants do not have the cognitive ability to understand these concepts of belief and faith, sin and salvation; therefore, they are not at an age of accountability.  They can, however, in a few years do just that, hear, respond and believe that Jesus is the Christ and, thus, be baptized at their own request.  Baptists firmly stand upon the interpretation of the New Testament about believer’s baptism and have since their founding when they were called “the baptisers.”  Two extraordinary papers presented by two Baptist ministers provide a very strong defense against infant baptizing and a statement of support for all those who are looking to join a New Testament church.  Dr. Fred A. Malone, a trustee of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a pastor in Louisiana, and Dr. Ronald E. Davis, a professor at the Cape Town Baptist Seminary, both make solid points about believer’s baptism. 
Davis states that John’s baptism of Jesus brings the Abrahamic covenant to its conclusion. “Jesus fulfills the moral demands of God’s will.”[9]  Davis states that baptism is not the sign of the new covenant like circumcision is the sign of the old covenant.  According to Malone and to the apostle, Paul, Jesus is the fulfillment of the old covenant; Jesus is the Seed of Abraham.  “God does not say, and to seeds, as if referring to many persons, but, and to your Seed, obviously referring to one individual, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16, Amplified Bible).  Believers of Jesus as the Savior become adopted children of God.  They are not a part of the new covenant like as being a part of the old covenant, by external physicalities; they are part of the new covenant by hearing the Word, repenting and believing.  This belief can occur at any point in their lives, from young child to senior adult.  There is not a time frame requirement except it be at a time they can understand for themselves and make a profession for themselves.
The controversy of the timing of children’s baptism comes through history from the time of Tertullian.[10]  If one is a sacramentalist or covenantalist, baptism automatically occurs in infancy.  During the apostles time and then from the Reformation period by the Baptist Protestants, another understanding for baptism is used.  They choose to baptize only confessing believers, based on their interpretations of New Testament passages, not infants.  The earliest known writing beyond the apostolic period, the Didache, which was written about 100AD, includes seventy rules for baptism and none of them mentioned infant baptism.[11]  This fact plus their interpretation of the New Testament by the early church fathers and Reformation Baptists, leads current credobaptisers to assume that believer’s baptism and not infant baptism was taught by the apostles. 
At what time, then, should children be baptized?   Many different church leaders, writers, and theologians, such as May, Dever, Lane, and Bampton, coming from several denominations have come to the point where they believe that children should be baptized when they repent and believe, not in infancy and not at a future time after their profession of faith when they are more “mature.”  Looking from a 20th and 21st century perspective, theologians from Anglican, Episcopalian, Congregational and Baptist churches are finding that baptism upon faith and repentance is more meaningful and lasting for children.  They find that those who were baptized as infant, unless they are raised by a Christian parent, tend not to come to make the faith into which they were baptized their own personal faith.[12] [13] In addition, their looking at the apostolic time finds that people who are saved are baptized immediately after their acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  In none of the New Testament passages about salvation is baptism delayed for any significant amount of time.  Vern Poythress, in “Indifferentism and Rigorism in the Church: With Implications for Baptizing Small Children, states that leaders of a church who examine baptismal candidates “need not make infallibility sure of the genuineness of this faith…Nor should examiners try to detect infallible traces of the work of the Holy Spirit at the moment of regeneration.”[14]  Poythress continues by saying,
When we look at children, we naturally hope that their intellectual apprehension of God’s truth will grow and their faith come to maturity…But if we equate intellectual maturity with the essence of faith, we change salvation from a free gift into the property of those with proper intellectual credentials.  And then we contradict the gospel…Many of us don’t believe [the children are Christians] because we demand adult or quasi-adult maturity first.[15]

This is seen in the New Testament also; baptism is not just for those with mature, tested faith but for those starting out on their walk with Christ.  You see this with the stories of Lydia and the Philippian jailer.  Lydia’s hearing of the message stirs her heart to have saving faith in the God she already worshipped and leads her to be baptized.  The jailer’s seeing of Paul’s integrity and faith acted out while in jail, makes him want to know about Paul’s God which then leads the jailer to be baptized.  Jesus does not limit Himself to teaching and calling adults.  He calls children as well, as seen in the New Testament.  In the synoptic gospels, there is a passage with the disciples arguing who would be the greatest disciple.  Jesus uses children to teach the disciples a lesson.  In Matthew 18:1-10, Jesus calls the child (padion), to come to Him.  Malone says, “Jesus’ call, proskalamenos (having called to Himself), is the same verb used in Acts 2:39 which has the condition of receiving God’s promise and believing and repenting.  This means the child was not an infant but was old enough to understand and be accountable for his or her actions.”[16]  We do not see a baptism occur after this passage but know from other New Testament passages that baptisms occurred soon after professions of faith. 
In all of Acts, Davis says, “baptism accompanies the belief of individuals as the primary expression of one’s commitment to Christ both to themselves and to the body of believers.”[17] Poythress expresses frustration with Baptists who do not baptize children immediately.  He states, “Why do you [Baptist] not baptize them?  The delay in baptism is hypocritical…Your words say it, but your actions deny it [their Christian-hood and being a member of the Family].  Withholding baptism says in action that they are not in the family of God.”[18]  Poythress continues by saying,
that baptism marks the inception of life with Christ and the joining of the church; that the credible profession of faith rather than the infallible evidence of regeneration is required; that credible profession must be appropriate to the age and gifts of the person; that faith consists primarily in trust in Christ rather than intellectual mastery, precise verbal articulation of the truth, or self-conscious, autonomous decision-making.[19] 

Additionally, the writer of Acts states that the gospel is for children, “For the promise is for you and your children and for all that are far away, even for as many as our God invites to come to Himself” (Acts 2:39, Amplified Bible).  Timothy George states,
Believer’s baptism must be practiced alongside a proper theology of children…children of believing parents do stand in a special providential relationship to the people and promises of God…who by prayers, instruction, [and] example will undoubtedly educate them in the true faith of Christ.”[20]  

George continues by saying “We should always be sensitive to the evidences of God’s grace in their tender years.”[21]  Other theological writers hold to the necessity to baptize children upon profession of faith as well.  Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May state that Jesus does call children to Him.  There is no age limit; you do not have to be 20 when Jesus calls you to believe in Him, repent and be saved.[22]  Mark Dever comments that “the normal age of baptism should be when the credibility of one’s conversion becomes naturally seen and evident to the community of the faith.”[23]  He further states, “Scripture does not directly address the age at which believers should be baptized.  The command to baptize does not forbid the raising of questions about the appropriateness of a baptismal candidate’s maturity.  The credibility of a confession of faith must be weighed and often, if the child is too young, they do not really know what it all means.”[24]  We must keep in mind, though, that “rigorism” in determining if a person, child or adult, is a true Christian does not mean perfection, but a believable willingness to follow Christ on the road of progressive obedience and sanctification.[25]  If the leaders of the church want to wait until they know someone might not fall away, they are faced with a dilemma that even the apostles did not face.  Poythress suggests, “we treat them as Christians unless and until they prove themselves otherwise by apostasy.”[26]  Hammett believes “God can save a child whenever He chooses but baptism is a decision of the church in which it endorses the reality of the child’s decision.”[27] He says that children mature at different rates so each child must be considered individually, like adults.  He does recognize, though, that for Jews the age of accountability is 12, when a child assumes adult spiritual responsibilities.  Age 12 is also the time Jesus’ call was manifest and it is the time when confirmation occurs for those who were baptized as infants. 
Davis states, “The experience of baptism should be understood as an expression of saving faith and as evidence of commitment to follow a life surrendered to God.”[28] Readers of the Bible today, just as the believers of the early church, do not find that the baptizing of adults is delayed until his or her works or words confirm his or her regeneration.  The believers in Acts are baptized immediately.  This is so that the believer can make a visible presentation of his or her testimony, to follow the ordinance of Christ, and to become a member of a community of believers.  The other side of being baptized into a believing community of faith is that mature members nurture and educate new believers and hold them accountable for their actions, even more so children; nurturing children in all areas of life is what is inherent for adults to do. 
There is a segment of credobaptistic churches which believes that if the new believer is young, he or she should wait to be baptized until a later time; this includes many South Africa churches.   A person, usually a child, can wait months or years before being baptized after an initial profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  It is understood that this occurs so a church’s minister can see if the profession of faith is genuine or to see maturity.  It is also done so that children will not become mini-members of the church and have voting privileges before they are able to understand the situations which made the need for a vote.  Each of these reasons seem genuine; however, this is not found in the New Testament.  In the New Testament, the reader is shown a person hearing the Word, repenting of sins, professing of faith in Jesus and salvation being imparted.  After which, baptism occurs almost immediately.  Of the 40 surveys sent out to Christian minister in South Africa, only 6 are answered, yet they each have similar results.  The returned surveys come from Baptist, Congregational and non-denominational pastors in Cape Town and all state they believe children should be baptized when they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Asked if they belong to a church which has this policy, two reply that they do not.  It is seen then, through this small sample, that ministers in Cape Town do believe children should be baptized upon belief.   In practice, though, other things must occur first.  The minister and/or church might require a child to go through faith classes with a minister, wait until they are older, or wait until they can make a serious confession of faith via testimony before the church.  In Ephesians, Paul talks about growing up in the faith.  No one is mature in Christ when baptized but when put into the body of Christ, each grows into full maturity and is built up in the body with love.
Let our lives lovingly express truth.  Enfolded in love, let us grow up in every way and in all things into Him Who is the Head, even Christ.  For because of Him the whole body, closely joined and firmly knit together by the joints and ligaments with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, grows to full maturity, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16, Amplified Bible).

Do leaders in churches really mean to be teaching young believers that obedience to Jesus is not mandatory as it appears when delaying baptism?  Do ministers want to say to these young, na├»ve, and impressionable children who have given their hearts to Jesus that they are not righteous enough?  Paul’s letter to Titus about works of righteousness for salvation states, “He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but because of His own pity and mercy, by the cleansing bath of the new birth and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, Amplified Bible).  Do ministers want to tell children that they have to do more than believe in Jesus and repent of his or her sins?  Surely, they do not want to imply that they must work to be good enough to be baptized.  Surely they do not want to imply that the giving of their hearts to Jesus Christ is not good enough.  Paul states in Romans that “we [Christians] are discharged from the Law…so now we serve not under obedience to the old code but under obedience to the promptings of the Spirit in newness of life” (Romans 7:6, 24-25, Amplified Bible).
            Malone, Davis, Poythress, Hammett, Dever and other theologians in this research agree on what the Bible says, any who repent and profess Jesus as Lord and Savior are saved.  They also agree that these believers should follow Jesus’ command to be baptized.  The surveyed ministers in South Africa agree with these writers, though may not follow it due to church policy.  Other baptistic ministers agree with the salvation formula; however, they put a hitch into the process of getting baptized, the hitch being a “maturity” clause.  Through all the New Testament passages noted above and others not mentioned, believers are baptized immediately upon their profession of faith.  Large multitudes do not stop this from occurring.  Acts 2 records 3000 people who believed and were baptized.  Water scarcity does not stop believers from becoming baptized.  Acts 8:26 and 38 shows a eunuch in a chariot going through the desert who believed, and when came to water, asked to be baptized by Philip.  Being non-Jews does not stop believers from being baptized.  Acts 16:16-39 tells of a Philippian jailer and his household being baptized.  Circumstances do not dictate salvation and baptism.  Age does not dictate salvation and baptism.
The research shows that anyone, regardless of age, who repents and believes in Jesus Christ as their Savior receives God’s gift of salvation and are to be baptized immediately.  The New Testament writers, inspired by God through the Holy Spirit, do not ever say or act out that children cannot be baptized upon belief; on the contrary, each speaks the gospel and does as Jesus commanded, baptizes believers.  The salvation formula found in the gospels is always followed; people repent of their sins and believe in Jesus as Savior for salvation and are, then, baptized as a testimony of their faith.  Since this is what was stated as being required and acted upon so to become the model in apostolic times, why should Christian churches deny baptism to children?  Are the leaders of our modern churches more profoundly inspired by God than the apostles to know that baptism should be withheld from children?  No, believer’s baptism, as established by Jesus and commissioned by Him for His disciples to act upon, is just that, baptizing all believers.  Jesus, in Scripture, does not say to baptize only adult believers.  “Baptism is the public display by which a believer demonstrates the new-found faith, confessing the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ so as to commit themselves, in the presence of the community, to die to self and to live in Christ.”[29] As a church, baptism is not all about the one being baptized.  The church makes a statement when they recognize someone as a believer; they show they are willing to follow Christ as a part of the universal Body of Christ, the faith community.  Baptism is for believers of all ages.


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Bampton, T. A. “The Sacramental Significance of Christian Baptism.” The Baptist Quarterly.
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Keathley, Ken. “Baptism.”  Lecture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2011.
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[1] Ronald E. Davis, “Why Baptize? The Function of Baptism in the New Testament,” The South African Baptist Journal of Theology, vol. 12, (2003).
[2] David Wright, ed., Baptism: Three Views (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009).
[3] Ken Keithley, lecture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC, 2011).
[4]Scottie May, Beth Posterski, Catherine Stonehouse, and Linda Cannell, Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005) 57.
[5] Wright.
[6] Ibid.
[7]Gerhard Forde, “Something to Believe: A Theological Perspective on Infant Baptism,” Interpretation 47/3 (July 1993),
[8] Ibid.
[9] Davis, 89.
[10] Keathley, “Baptism”.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Martin B. Copenhaver, “What’s Confirmation For?” Christianity Today (June 2, 2009).
[13] May, Posterski, Stonehouse, and Cannell.
[14]Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Indifferentism and Rigorism in the Church: With Implications for Baptizing Small Children,” Westminster Theological Journal 59/1 (1997),
[16]Fred A. Malone, “A String of Pearls Unstrung: A Theological Journey into Believer’ Baptism,” Founders Press (1998), 
[17]Davis, p.94.
[20] Timothy George, "The Reformed Doctrine of Believer's Baptism," Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 47 (July 1,1993), 252.
[21]George, 252.
[22]Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May, Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2010), 104.
[23]Mark Dever, “The Church,” A Theology for the Church (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Academic, 207), 789.
[24]Dever, 788.
[27]John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2005), 17.
[28]Davis, 95.
[29]Davis, 97.