Families and churches face several complexities when it comes to navigating the conversion and baptism of children. For those who follow the biblical order of requiring testimony of saving faith before baptism, it’s not always clear when genuine faith has been experienced. I’ve heard of churches baptizing hundreds of children after events like VBS simply because they raised their hands after being asked if they wanted to go to heaven with Jesus. Of course, they do! Conversely, I also know of churches putting an age requirement on baptism and cautiously forbidding any children from coming. Both responses err on opposite sides of the issue. God can and does save children, but the church must use Spirit-given discernment as we lead them to the water of baptism.
On the front end of baptism, we must, to the best of our ability, ensure that children understand the gospel. Do they know why Christ came and why he had to die? Do they understand that they are sinners who deserve judgment? Have they repented? Have they believed? Do they understand that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone?
Dealing with a child’s profession of faith in Christ is a tricky endeavor. In fact, interpreting anyone’s profession of faith is tough. The human eye can’t see the regeneration of the heart or the Holy Spirit’s presence. Saliva on a test strip doesn’t reveal recipients of the new birth. To complicate matters more, Jesus tells us that many will have superficial responses to the gospel that fall short of genuine saving faith (Luke 8:4-15). Momentary excitement may not last. Genuine faith will always persevere to the end, but perseverance to the end requires making it there.
When dealing with the heart, we are dealing with invisible mysteries and must tread carefully. However, we should steer clear of placing extra-biblical requirements on anyone. Jesus never said, “Pass this theology test and you’ll be saved.” Likewise, we can all rejoice that he doesn’t make us clean up our own lives as prerequisite. Otherwise, both the church and heaven would be empty. Transformation is the fruit of Christ’s work in us, but never its cause.
My own children started expressing interest in Christ and baptism at early ages. Well aware that they had been raised in the church and surrounded by Christians from birth, I tried to be cautious. Motivations for children can vary from innocently wanting the cracker and juice they see others enjoying to wanting to be a part of the community everyone they love has already joined. I’ve tried my best to make sure their faith was centered on Jesus. I’ve lost count of the number of late-night conversations focused on explaining these matters.
For kids raised in the church, it’s wise to emphasize the sacrifice of following Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man [or woman or child], he bids him come and die.” Jesus taught, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). We are saved by grace alone. However, following Jesus costs us everything. We are no longer in charge of ourselves. When we believe, we gladly transfer ownership of our lives over to him. In baptism we declare, “Jesus is Lord,” and we must mean it. Jesus doesn’t visit us as Savior unless we also recognize him as King.
Emphasizing the cost of discipleship cuts through ulterior motives. For most of my life, identifying as a Christian has been culturally rewarded. I grew up in the Bible Belt where virtually every respectable citizen went to church somewhere. We prayed before football games and mastered the lingo of Jesus-speak. If you wanted to be somebody in South Alabama, you needed to occupy a pew somewhere on Sunday morning.
We no longer live in such a world. Our kids’ public schools and universities no longer roll out welcome mats for Christians. Church attendance has been dropping steadily for decades now. Public identification with Christ now puts you at a cultural disadvantage because it identifies you with values the culture no longer celebrates. Being a Christian in such a context will be increasingly difficult. Asking for hands to be raised after VBS prepares no one for that challenge. When our children choose to follow Jesus, they’re signing up for every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3), but they’re also signing up to be hated by the world (John 15:18). Let’s make sure they understand what’s at stake before baptism.