One of the highest privileges of being a pastor is baptizing people who have come to faith in Christ. The Lord Jesus gave us baptism as the sign to announce our entry into his church by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and to be able to apply it to someone for the first time in front of an excited and grateful congregation on a Sunday morning is a tremendous blessing.
However, truth be told, when I first meet someone who tells me they want to be baptized I get a little nervous. I’ve learned it’s not as simple as putting under water everyone who comes forward, because doing so can damage their faith and the witness of the church. Deciding whom to baptize takes some discernment.
I’m in my twelfth year of serving as a pastor in a university town, and in that time I’ve had dozens of conversations with college students who were baptized when they were younger – five, six, seven, or eight years old. For some of them, it was a great experience. They believe they had been genuinely converted and their baptism was a “stone of Ebenezer” for them in their Christian walk.
But a majority of students tell me they did not really understand what they were doing when they got baptized, it led to confusion about what it meant to be a Christian as they got older, and now they wish they had waited. For not a few of this group, their early baptism was one factor that led to them doubting whether there was anything to the Christian faith at all. They were, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Edwards, “inoculated” against Christianity – they got a little taste of it and so developed an immunity to the real thing.
As a Baptist preacher, I firmly believe in baptizing only those people who can give credible evidence of saving faith in Christ. In other words, you need to have a testimony of how the Lord has brought you to himself and be able to explain it. Beyond that, though, how do we work through the process of deciding who should be baptized?
Those Who Are Very Young
The Lord can save people at any age. John Piper, a pastor whose ministry has been a great help to me, believes he was converted when he was four years old, though he can’t personally remember it and relies instead on his mother telling him about it.
Most of the time, though, it is hard to know exactly what is going on in the heart of a child. Sometimes the Lord has caused this child to be born again. Other times, the child wants to please his parents, pastor, or Sunday school teacher or be baptized because his best friend was baptized the week before.
Often parents have called me saying their child has started asking questions about Jesus – does that mean they need to be baptized? No, not necessarily. The child may be asking questions simply because he is a normal, healthy, and curious child.
Understandably, parents don’t want to “mess up” their children when it comes to the faith. They fear putting off baptism will somehow stifle their Christian growth, so they rush their children to the waters. I tell parents to relax – God loves their children more than they do, and they can’t kill the faith of a six year old by waiting to baptize. Far better than baptizing a very young child when the child can’t really explain the gospel or why they want to be baptized in the first place is to establish a household which is full of love for God, one another, and their neighbors. That will mean a family involved in the life of a local church and where the Bible is regularly, if not daily, read, sung, and prayed by all its members.
Those Who Are Older
The question of baptism gets simpler when the candidate is older. You can much more easily have a conversation with someone in high school, college, or beyond about who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for them. Further, while young children might be tempted to get baptized for the attention it will bring them, adults are typically much more reticent. For this reason, Baptists have historically waited until the late teenage years to baptize children who grew up in churchgoing homes. The two sons of Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest Baptists who ever lived, weren’t baptized until they were eighteen years old.
If the candidate can explain the gospel and is obviously glad he or she believes it, then let’s get the waters ready. The sooner we can baptize before the whole church the better. We shouldn’t make someone wait for months to be baptized: Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch within a few hours at the most of their first meeting (Acts 8:26-40).
Those Who Have Been Baptized Before
Something relatively new in the history of the church is people coming forward to be baptized even though they been through it once (or several times) before. Perhaps it’s because they’ve since had a powerful religious experience, or perhaps it’s because they aren’t sure if they really believed the gospel the first time (or second or third time) they went through the process. Should they be baptized again?
No, because baptism is not ultimately about us. Rather, it is a matter of obedience to Christ. Christians are commanded to be baptized (Acts 2:38), and that only once. We shouldn’t use it to shore up our faith after a season of backsliding, as it wasn’t given to us for that purpose. And it really doesn’t matter how much or how well we believed the gospel back then. A growing Christian will believe the gospel more firmly and understand it more comprehensively now than he has in the past. What is important is that we have been obedient in baptism and that we believe now.
Those Who Have Been Baptized in Different Ways
Many professing Christians attend our church who were baptized as infants, not as believers. Should we require that they be baptized by immersion before becoming members? Different churches have different answers to this question. Our solution has been to say we will not require immersion for membership.
At Grace we don’t believe the Bible mandates baptism by immersion for membership (though I do think it’s the best practice and the example of the first century church). Our rationale has been that since we don’t believe it’s commanded, and since we do believe we’ll have fellowship in heaven with professing Christians who were baptized differently, let’s not set up any obstacles now that aren’t absolutely necessary to fellowship on earth. Plus, Protestants have been fighting over this issue for five hundred years, and I doubt we’ll solve the problem in Oxford in 2017. Having said that, if a believer sprinkled as an infant no longer views that experience as a biblical baptism, we will gladly baptism her.
Baptism, like just about everything in the church, can be a source of division. It doesn’t have to be. Let’s be patient with children, clear about the gospel with everyone, and charitable with those who come from different church traditions. If we do, our baptisms will more and more be the celebrations and testimonies of God’s faithfulness that He means them to be.