Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Ben writes in to ask: “Is it right to baptize my severely autistic friend? If so, how can I explain the difference to infant baptizing friends and family?” This is a question we get on occasion, Pastor John, and it’s a question our friend John Knight has asked me to address on APJ in the past. John is a dear colleague of ours at Desiring God. So Pastor John, with severe cognitive impairment in those in our churches (young men and women who cannot articulate a testimony), what’s the threshold a credobaptist church would hold to in deciding whether or not to baptize such an individual?

I am really glad Ben have sent this in. I am glad John Knight underlined it for us. It gives me a chance to just say a little bit about a wider picture. So let me start general and get right down to the specific of a, say a child or an young adult who is mentally disabled and... well, we will get there. Here we go.

I want to say, first, that a church that is about to tackle this and either baptize or not baptize a person with cognitive impairment needs to teach widely on baptism, faith, disability so you don’t spring this on your congregation. It shouldn’t come out of nowhere. This is a golden opportunity for a pastor to bring the sorrows and the joys of these families before the church and put the whole question in the bigger context of God’s sovereignty and his goodness and his ability to take the hardest situations and show his all sufficiency in them. So that is the first thing is I would say is: Put this issue in the bigger context of disability and God’s sovereign goodness in your church. And then the second thing I would say is: Deal with believer’s baptism before you would try to deal with a marginal issue in believer’s baptism.

We believe, we Baptists believe that before Jesus inaugurated the new covenant in his blood, the people of God were identified through a physical line of Jadishness and, therefore, it was fitting that the sign belonging to this people, the sign of the covenant belonging to this people was given to their physical children, the Jews. And that sign was circumcision. But with the new covenant God’s saving focus is no longer on any ethnic group, but is defined, most essentially, by identification with Jesus the Christ through faith. And, thus, the new sign of this new covenant is no longer circumcision, but baptism and no longer give to physical descendants, but to spiritual descendants, that is, to those who have faith. That is the fundamental picture of believer’s baptism. And here are two texts if people are not... this is not an APJ about baptism mainly, but about what about these kids. But here are two texts for people to think about. 1 Peter 3:21. Baptism, which corresponds to this, the flood, now saves you... sounds kind of dangerous. It sounds like baptismal regeneration. But listen. It saves you not as a removal of dirt from the body. So I am not talking about saving you by the effectiveness of the water, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So Baptism is pictured here as an event in which the baptismal candidate is making an appeal to God for a good conscience through submitting to this water baptism symbolic of his death and resurrection with Christ. And so that is a conscience act of the candidate and, hence, we don’t do it to children who can’t make that little infants who can’t make that appeal.

Or here is one other text, Colossians 2:12. Having been buried therefore with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith, that was so big for me when I was in Germany trying to battle with these Lutherans in all my classes. I was the only Baptist in the group and this text was hugely important for me. Having been buried there with him in baptism, in baptism, in which, in baptism you were raised with him through faith. So it is through faith that we were raised with him. So those are two texts that point me to believer’s baptism.

Now which leaves us asking: What about those with sever cognitive impairment, both the ability to... inability to, say, grasp ideas at the front end and the ability to express them at the back end. And I think the first thing we should do is make clear that if a family moves forward with baptism it is not because these young people belong to a Christian family, either by birth or adoption. That would signify a wrong theology, namely connectedness by flesh, is spiritually saving. So if you are saying that the reason this baby should... I mean, this child should be baptized, this 18 year old should be baptized is because he is in my family and I am a Christian, that is a bad theology. We are not saved by belonging to families.

Another thing to make clear is that we don’t believe that someone who for reasons beyond their control is not baptized would therefore be lost. The thief on the cross was not baptized. And Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” because there was an extenuating circumstance. And so we shouldn’t communicate that we have got to get this person baptized because if they are not baptized they may not go to heaven. That would be a wrong view of why we might want to move with these young people towards baptism.

So here is my counsel, very practical. And I can imagine godly, biblically informed pastors taking a different approach than me. So I am not absolutizing this. I would say if the child or the young adult gives evidence that he is perceiving the love of God in Christ, if he is sensing in some way his own sin and need and responding with some signs of humble gladness because of Christ, it would be fitting to trust the perceptions of the mature believers closest to him and baptize him or her. If I were the pastor, I would give serious thought and preparation to the liturgy, the words that will be spoken over he child so that everyone knows how seriously this has been considered and how it is being understood. And then I would say, finally, if the child is so impaired that the child or the young adult has no perception of spiritual things, no perceptible signs of response, I think those who are responsible for him should not pursue baptism, but the mindset of the parents or the caregivers should be this—and this is very important—should... they should say: It is not because he is not saved. Don’t say it is not because he is not saved. Rather, it is because the integrity of baptism would be preserved rather than giving the impression that it is a magical ritual. Well, you have got to be baptized even though there is no evidence. In this case it seems to me we would not be upholding baptism if we didn’t baptize him, but we would be upholding grace. The parents should continue to bathe the child, the young adult in word and prayer and trust that God in his mercy will work savingly in ways that no one but he can understand.

Yes, excellent, thank you Pastor John for those thoughts. Disability is a central topic for us at Desiring God and we produced an ebook on the subject titled, Disability and the Sovereign Goodness of God. You can download the ebook free of charge right now at desiringgod.org. Click on the tab that says “books,” and look for the title: Disability and the Sovereign Goodness of God. … We will be back tomorrow with another episode in the Ask Pastor John series, and were talking about God, Guns, and Biblical Manhood. Specifically is it necessary for a Christian man, in his divine calling to protect his wife and children, to own and be willing to use a gun? Hmm. That should be very interesting episode. I’m your host Tony Reinke, see you tomorrow.