When to Baptize Our Believing Children

I have a confession to make: I’m Joe the Baptist, and I practice covenant childrearing. When it comes to church polity, I’m a congregationalist who believes a profession of faith is essential for baptism.

And when it comes to raising my children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, I could happily answer “yes” to infant-baptist Mark Jones’s four helpful questions:

  • I do assure my sons of God’s forgiveness when they repent
  • I do encourage them to forgive because Christ has forgiven them
  • I do teach them to sing all of our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
  • And I do teach them to pray to God as their heavenly Father.

And I do this despite the fact that my sons (ages four and six) have not been baptized, and I don’t plan to baptize them until they are older.

So how do I square my believer-baptistic understanding of the church with the covenant childrearing of my unbaptized-yet-believing children? Is it just rank inconsistency?

Should We Baptize Very Young Believers?

Some of my fellow Baptists may think this inconsistent. Many argue that we have no warrant for withholding baptism from our believing children, even when they are young. Therefore, they encourage the baptism of young children based on their sincere, childlike professions of faith.

And they do so for good reasons. Like me, they have a pastoral aversion to the “we’ll see” approach to shepherding our children. They worry, as I do, that refusing to embrace the childlike professions of our children is not teaching our children to believe, but teaching them to doubt. In my judgment (and experience), this can easily make faith in Jesus impossible for our children to conceive, let alone exercise, and sets the stage for the tormenting doubts that wrongly plague many Christian teenagers. And as a father and a pastor, everything in me wants to encourage and strengthen the seed-like faith I see in my boys, and everything in me abhors looking at their childlike professions with skeptical eyes.

And yet I remain unconvinced. The practice of baptizing very young children seems to me to be functionally no different than infant-baptism, as Vern Poythress argues. And I remain a committed Baptist. So then, am I at an impasse? Must I simply live with the inconsistency?

Happily, I don’t think so. I believe it’s possible to wait to baptize believing children until they are young adults while also shepherding our children from infancy in a way that in most respects would be indistinguishable from the best infant-baptist childrearing.

Credible vs. Mature Professions

For me, the solution came through thinking more carefully about “credible” professions of faith. I think we Baptists should move away from the language of a “credible” profession of faith when it comes to our children and teens, and instead speak in terms of a “mature” profession of faith before baptizing.

The difference lies in this: A credible profession means simply a believable profession. But when my young sons confess their sins, when they profess faith in Jesus, when they sing our hymns in church, I believe them. I think they are as sincere as six- and four-year-olds can be. Thus, I cast no doubt on their professions of faith.

When they say that they believe in Jesus, I say, “Awesome!” When I correct their behavior, I tell them, “We Christians don’t hit our brother in anger.” When they pray to God, I tell them to address him as “Father.” And when they ask for his forgiveness, I assure them that he is faithful and just to forgive their sins because of what Jesus has done. In other words, I treat my young sons as responsible moral agents who are obeying their parent’s instruction about who God is and what he’s done for them.

I give them the judgment of charity and, as their father, believe (find credible) and honor their professions while continuing to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. In other words, based on the evidence before me, I think it likely that my boys have been born again.

Why, then, as their pastor, do I withhold baptism? Because while my sons have indeed made credible professions, they haven’t yet made mature professions. A mature profession is one made by a responsible adult. Why require a mature profession? Because, as a Baptist, baptism is the entrance into church membership. Baptized members, in a congregational polity, must be qualified to rule the church. They must be able to stand in the assembly of saints on their own two feet. This means that they must be ready to both submit to and administer church discipline. That is why maturity is required for baptized members. They must be able to judge and be judged.

Think of it like this: My young sons have already given what I regard as a credible, childlike profession of faith — one that I, as their father, accept, embrace, and encourage. If they sin, it is my responsibility as their father to correct and discipline them. They are under my jurisdiction, and any authority the church has over them is mediated through me and their mother.

When they are baptized, they will come under the church’s authority directly. Then the church will have the responsibility to correct and discipline them for their sins. Thus, in my view, we should wait to baptize until children are ready to assume that mantle of responsibility. (Baptist churches, with a congregational polity, that baptize young children are inconsistent on this point, since many of them don’t allow children to vote or participate in church discipline.)

From Childhood to Maturity

A full biblical defense of this distinction is beyond the scope of this short article. Suffice it to say, many of the standard arguments for believer-baptism would still apply. On the maturity question specifically, Galatians 4 is helpful in giving us a window into how Paul and other biblical authors thought about childhood and adulthood. (I’m not arguing that Galatians 4 is a direct argument for withholding baptism till adulthood, but that it provides clear, New Testament evidence for a distinction between childhood and maturity, and that this distinction is relevant for thinking about our own children.)

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. (Galatians 4:1–2)

Here we see a clear distinction between childhood and maturity, between the time when we are under guardians and the time when we inherit the promises. In terms of the present question, our hope, prayer, and (dare I say) expectation is that our children will inherit the promises of God. That’s why God has put them in our homes. But until that time, they are under the tutelage of the gospel in Christian homes, until they arrive at maturity and are ready to inherit.

What is perhaps even more suggestive about this passage is that Paul is explicitly connecting the movement from childhood to adulthood with the movement from the Old Covenant to the New. The Old Covenant was the childhood covenant. It was oriented toward the coming seed of the woman that would crush the serpent’s head, the seed of Abraham in whom the nations would be blessed. Because it was oriented toward a male offspring (seed), the covenant sign involved the symbolic cutting of the male sexual organ, in order to acknowledge that God must do what we cannot. Likewise, as the “childhood” covenant, the covenant sign was (normally) applied to male children.

The New Covenant, however, is the adult covenant, the mature covenant. This is when the people of God inherit the promises. The male offspring has come (Jesus), the Old Covenant has been fulfilled, and thus the sign of the Old Covenant has come to an end (no more requirement to circumcise).

The New Covenant is not about seed; it’s about harvest. It’s about bringing in the sheaves, gathering the nations into the people of God. Thus, the covenant sign is no longer only applied to men, but now includes women as well. And as the mature covenant, the sign is applied to adults, to those who are competent to stand in the assembly of saints, who can both judge and be judged.

Embrace the Professions, Wait on the Water

I close by highlighting that this distinction between credible profession and mature profession allows us to do two things in relation to our children and our church. First, it allows us to shepherd them well, to encourage and affirm their incipient faith, to teach them wholeheartedly to believe, to speak to them and treat them like Christians so that they become Christians (which is what I think Ephesians 6:4 means), to discipline them according to biblical standards and to use language that includes them in the gospel (“we believe in Jesus” and “he forgives our sins”), and to do so without overly scrutinizing their hearts or qualifying our assurances of pardon when they repent.

Second, it enables us to honor the biblical witness about the requirements for baptism and congregational church government. It helps to maintain the purity of the church, and rightly teaches both our children and our members about the weighty responsibility of being the assembly of saints.

So, as for me and my house, we’ll embrace the professions, but wait on the water.