Practice Charity, Pursue Credibility: How to Respond to a Child’s Profession of Faith
Imagine your five-year-old son playing with some friends from the neighborhood. One boy, from a Muslim family says, “I’m Muslim. What are you?” The boy from a Jewish family quickly responds, “I’m Jewish.” The boys then turn to your son and ask, “What about you?”
Your son, a bit puzzled, looks to you and asks, “Daddy, what should I say?”
For our paedobaptist brothers and sisters, this isn’t a hard question. They would gladly encourage their child to respond, “I’m a Christian.” After all, in their understanding, even unregenerate baptized children are part of the new covenant community, so the young child of a believer should consider himself a Christian unless he’s clearly rejected the faith.
But for credobaptists, this situation seems a bit trickier. Your son, quick to claim the Christian identity of his parents, may be a believer, or he may not. And odds are, at this point in his young life, he hasn’t been given the sign of belonging to the community of new covenant believers, namely baptism.
On the one hand, you don’t want to contribute to a false sense of assurance or a wrong understanding of the gospel. “Mommy and Daddy are Christians,” he thinks, “so that’s what I am, too.” Besides, if you think he’s a believer, why not baptize him right away?
On the other hand, you could staunchly declare, “Son, you aren’t a believer. You haven’t been baptized. You’re outside the covenant. You’re a pagan.” Not only is that option cruel, it could also be false.
But does commitment to believer’s baptism demand this kind of ruthless logic? How do we (Sam and Caleb) make sense of our children’s religious identity?
There’s something fundamentally different about their situation from any other non-church member or even from the child with atheist parents down the street, and we should acknowledge that. So how can credobaptists avoid the pitfalls above while still living faithfully with our theological convictions? More pointedly, do we have a way to account for the unique circumstances of believers’ children with our ecclesial commitments about who belongs in the covenant community?
A WAY FORWARD
Before continuing, we should briefly note that we’re not advocating that your church or any church adopt a specific “age requirement” for baptismal candidates. While pastors and congregations must make those judgments, we simply want to lay out some guiding theological principles. So, whether your church establishes an age requirement or takes each child’s profession on a “case-by-case” basis, our aim is simply to offer some general theological principles for how to encourage a child’s profession of faith while also taking seriously the requirement for a credible profession before baptism.
Two basic theological “rules” are essential for credobaptists as we think about our children and their relation to the church: the rule of charity and the rule of credibility. The first rule posits that we must always receive professions of faith charitably—operating with a hermeneutic of trust rather than suspicion. The second rule reminds us that Baptist churches like ours have historically reserved the church’s stamp of approval in baptism for only credible professions of faith—like our paedobaptist friends have for communion.
Rule of Charity
Scripture consistently teaches that not all those who profess faith have genuinely experienced biblical conversion (e.g. Matt. 13:18–23, Acts 8:9–24, 1 John 2:19). While the local church has been commissioned to identify and baptize anyone whose profession and life appears consistent with the gospel, sometimes the self-deluded or hypocrites still find their way into membership—a reality Jesus himself made provision for by granting the church authority to discipline. This is why the New Testament so frequently warns against the dangers of false conversions or denying the faith. Jesus himself reminded his disciples that even some who did mighty works in the name of the Lord will prove false on the last day (Matt. 7:21–23).
A church can respond to the reality of apostasy in a variety of ways. For instance, hyper-Calvinism suggests restricting baptism to only those we can affirm with “absolute certainty” as part of the elect. Besides being laughably impossible, this route harms many of God’s actual elect.
Instead, churches ought to take a more biblical route, guided by the rule of charity. Christians should always be willing to believe someone’s profession, as long as there is no clear denial of that profession by their life. If someone claims they have trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, we should be predisposed to believe them.
We should extend this same charity to our children, of all people! And so, if our child professes to trust in Jesus, we shouldn’t respond with unenthusiastic skepticism. We should celebrate with them, and rejoice that they are professing to trust in Jesus! We should disciple them toward maturity. If we see evidences of grace in their life, we should point them out. And if we see ways in which their lives are not conforming to the gospel, we should call them to faithfulness.
But does all this mean we should grab our kids and head to the baptistery? Not quite.
The Rule of Credibility
Even while we rejoice with our children when they profess faith in Jesus, we should also exercise discernment by doing what we can to protect them from false assurance. When they tell us they love Jesus at the dinner table, we should make sure they have a proper understanding of the gospel. Just like we do with grown converts, we can rejoice with our children even as we discern whether their profession of faith is indeed credible.
Christians can discern the credibility of a profession by observing whether a person exhibits (as Jonathan Edwards might put it) the distinguishing marks of the Spirit of God. Does the person’s life demonstrate a change from unholy living to one marked by holiness and repentance? With children who grow up in a Christian home, observing this kind of change won’t be as easy as it often is with adults, which means we ought to wait for perseverance in holiness and repentance to establish credibility of a child’s profession.
In other words, our children―precisely because they are the children of believers―are likely to profess faith whether or not they are converted. They’ve spent their whole lives in a “society” that’s socially and culturally favorable to Christianity―a Christian family. Because of this reality, the credibility of their profession simply will take longer to determine, as they’re far more likely to tell us what we want to hear, or what they feel as though they’re supposed to say—even without realizing that’s what’s going on.
To many, delaying baptism for any professing Christian just seems wrong. But we actually do it all the time.
Other situations similarly demand patience as we wait for evidence of credibility. Consider the situation where a young man starts attending your church because of his interest in a girl who is a member of the congregation, and soon after professes faith. His profession of faith may be genuine, or it might just be an attempt to impress the girl he’s after. Or consider the challenge many churches are facing with some Iranian and Syrian refugees who are using baptism and church membership as a way to procure asylum in the West. Discerning who is seeking baptism for the sake of faithfulness and not merely political asylum will take some time.
In every case, a church ought to be careful, weeding through words to attempt to discern the motivation behind a profession of faith―in other words, its credibility. This is not to say we treat these professors of faith as suspects—guilty until proven innocent—but that we should acknowledge that they have particularly strong, non-spiritual reasons to profess faith in Christ. And because of this, only time will tell.
How much time, you ask? It depends. We suspect it will be different with each child and every circumstances just as it is with each adult convert. We need to weigh every professor’s intellectual and emotional development, seeking to discern if their faith is indeed personal or merely an imitation of their parents. We need to take time to assess whether they understand the cost of discipleship, even while encouraging and celebrating their profession.
This posture of cautious celebration is what it means to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.
BACK TO THE PLAYGROUND
Okay, so what would I (Sam) tell my five-year-old at the playground?
Probably something like this: “Son, if you have trusted in Jesus to forgive your sins, believe that he rose from the dead, and affirm that he is the king of the world, then tell them you’re a Christian.” But does that mean I would immediately give him the assurance of baptism and membership? No. I would praise God for and encourage his profession, and then wait to see the fruit his profession bears.