Next Sunday morning in our worship services, I will baptize my son, Jim. He's six years old.
It is an action that will bring down upon me (spoken or unspoken) the suspicion or scorn of others, all of whom I count as brothers in Christ and some of whom I count as friends. Some would delight in accusing me of being a paedobaptist. Some would wring their hands that such baptisms erode the regeneracy of the church. Some would argue that, even if there is no theological basis for waiting to baptize Jim (who stands in stead for others like him), there is ample pragmatic cause in the modern state of the churches.
If they are close to me at all, and if the topic has ever arisen between us, then they know of my longstanding (long before I had children) resistance to humanly devised age thresholds governing the Christ-ordained institution of baptism. Because few topics are as important, and because this is a dialogue worth having as Southern Baptists, I offer here my own convictions that lead me to baptize Jim next Sunday morning. I gather my thoughts around three primary questions.
- Is there a mandatory minimum age for being converted?
- What is the basis of eligible candidacy for baptism?
- Who has the authority to set qualifications for baptism?
Is there a mandatory minimum age for being converted?
Certainly there are mandatory capacities that a person must master before being able to experience conversion. Repentance accompanies conversion; therefore, any person who is not yet capable of appreciating his own sinfulness before a Holy God, experiencing the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and demonstrating contrition and repentance—the person incapable of these things because of infancy is not yet old enough to experience conversion. Faith accompanies conversion; therefore, any person not yet capable of knowing the facts of the gospel and receiving them by faith is not yet old enough to experience conversion. In this sense, I affirm that there is a mandatory minimum stage for being converted.
If illness or other developmental incapacity caused a person not to acquire these capabilities until far into physical maturity, such a person could be ineligible for conversion until quite advanced in years, I believe.
But the question concerns not so much a minimum stage of conversion as it deals with the idea of a minimum age of conversion. To put it bluntly and specifically, would any argue that no six-year-old could possibly have experienced genuine conversion? I have not yet encountered anyone so bold as to make this argument. I would make it with regard to a six-month-old—no six-month-old exists, or ever has existed, who could possibly have experienced genuine conversion. But I would not make this claim with regard to a six-year-old. Would you?
You might think that I would take this question too personally to discuss it, since we're talking about my son here. You'd be only half right. I do take it personally, but not because of my son. I take it personally because of me. I was not six, but five years old (almost six) when I was converted. I testify today, God bearing witness with me, that I at that age understood that I was a sinner, understood that my sin was against God, understood that damnation awaited me for my sin, understood that I could not save myself, understood that Christ had died for my sin on the cross as my substitute, understood that Christ had risen from the dead after three days, understood that Christ wanted me to repent of my sin, understood that I needed to place my faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of my sins, and understood that I must confess Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord. I consented to all of those things at that time.
What's more, I did all of this under the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit. If that was not the Holy Spirit dealing with me in conviction when I was five years old, then I have never known His voice—not in my dramatic calling to preach when I was eleven, not in the many stirrings and reproofs and blessings that have happened since then. In my experience, that was the time when I met the One who has walked with me through so many mileposts along the way in my life.
So, if you would argue that no six-year-old could possibly have been converted, then I suggest that you bring your best game. You're going to have an uphill climb convincing me.
If not, then I'll be glad to enter a conversation with you about how frequently God births again human beings of various ages, as well as means that God might use to secure those earlier, less frequent, conversions when He so chooses. Certainly I do not believe that God converts every six-year-old, nor do I believe that every six-year-old is capable of conversion at that time. I would not even argue that the majority of six-year-olds are in a position to comprehend or experience all that conversion entails. I am merely advancing the point that there are some people even as young as five years old who genuinely do experience conversion.
What is the basis of eligible candidacy for baptism?
Along with most formal statements on this point from Baptists, I confess and believe that only "a believer" (BF&M Article VII) is the rightful candidate for baptism. The basis of candidacy for baptism is conversion, and only conversion. Churches hear the testimony of professed believers and baptize those who are (to employ the Puritan language here) "visible saints," or who appear to have been converted.
We argue for conversion as the basis of candidacy for baptism against the paedobaptists, who argue that, at least for some people, a milestone of physical development (i.e., birth) is the basis of candidacy for baptism. Those eligible for baptism are those, irrespective of whether they have been born again, who have attained to at least the age of zero. The historic Baptist idea (if not perfectly the historic Baptist practice) has not been to argue that paedobaptists have merely found the wrong age for at which to baptize people (zero rather than, say, thirteen, for zero is just too young), but rather to argue that age is the wrong basis entirely for baptism, which must be extended to all and to only those who have been born again.
When we credobaptists say that we will not baptize any younger than eighteen-year-olds, it seems to me that we have wandered away, yes, from our Baptist theological underpinnings, but so much more importantly, from the New Testament theology of baptism that makes the new birth the sole criterion adjudging whether one be eligible for baptism. "If you believe with all your heart you may [be baptized]." (Yes, I believe that Acts 8:37 belongs in the Bible).
So, to make it all specific and personal, if my son has legitimately experienced conversion, and if our church nonetheless were to forbid him to be baptized (or if I were to do so as his father), then by our actions we are stating that the new birth is not the basis of candidacy for baptism. At best, we are saying that new birth plus something else is that basis. In which case we need to amend all of our confessions of faith and start being more honest about our beliefs with regard to baptism.
Who has the authority to set qualifications for baptism?
Ultimately, this is a question for churches rather than for individuals to address, but I do not believe that even churches have been authorized by the Lord to make requirements for baptism that are not made in scripture. We have from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, a positive command in scripture that we are to baptize disciples. To determine that there are disciples whom we will not baptize, or will not baptize yet, is to set our own terms for when we will and when we will not be obedient to Christ's command.
Our theology of the Lord's Supper as expressed in the Baptist Faith & Message (that baptism is pre-requisite to participation in the Lord's Supper) is based upon the presumption that it is a matter of unrepentant sin for any genuine believer in Christ to persist in an unbaptized state. I say this not to open the argument in this thread with regard to the proper extent of communion (for we'll have plenty to discuss in the main point of this post, I imagine), but merely to attempt to demonstrate that Southern Baptists have indeed considered unbaptized believers (apart from some unavoidable incapacity such as faced the thief on the cross) to be persisting in sin.
If this be granted, and if my son has genuinely been born again, then for me to refuse him baptism for a decade is nothing more and nothing less than for me to obstruct his obedience to Christ. That's serious business. For one thing, that's not the lesson that I want to be teaching to my son. For another thing, I don't want to answer to the Lord for such an action. He has commanded baptism, and I do not believe that I have the authority to countermand his instructions. Nor do I believe that our congregation has that authority, even with all of the unique authority that the congregation has.
I think we have every reason to examine carefully candidates for baptism in order to be earnest about determining whether they have been born again. Frankly, I've baptized some 40-somethings who gave every appearance later on of being false professors. We Americans live in a spiritual terrain noted for rocky soil, if you get my drift, and it is a good thing that we want to be more circumspect about whom we baptize. Setting a minimum age for baptism is, in my opinion (and saying it as charitably as I know how without sacrificing clarity), an unbiblical, cheap, cop-out substitute for the difficult work of seeking evidence of genuine conversion in those who profess to have been born again.
The very young who profess conversion? Push back and resist them. (We have!) Make them persist adamantly in their profession. (We have!) Make them give you a testimony of conversion in their own words. (We have!) Cut absolutely no theological corners in making sure that they understand the gospel. In fact, none of those things are a bad idea for adult professors either, are they? But none of those reasonable actions require setting up arbitrary man-made barriers that negate what is one of the simplest and most evident truths in scripture: Those who have genuinely been born again have an immediate obligation to obey Christ's command to be baptized.