Give Them Time: How to Protect the Assuring Nature of a Child’s Baptism


I have a confession to make. It’s very possible that I am an unbaptized pastor of a Baptist church.

Now that’s not as scandalous as it may sound. I grew up in a Southern-Baptist-church-going family in the Deep South where the gospel was preached and decisions for Jesus were urged. By first grade, I knew I didn’t want to go to hell, and I believed Jesus died for my sin. So on a Sunday evening service (fewer people, so less scary), I walked down the aisle, shook the preacher’s hand, and professed faith in Christ. A few weeks after that scary walk, I had the scarier experience of being baptized one Sunday morning with a bunch of other people. I was officially saved.

Life went on, and I never doubted the things I’d been taught or the things I’d professed. Until high school. That’s when I discovered girls and girls discovered me. By the time I went to college, I was ready to walk away from Christianity as a relic of my childhood. And I tried—hard.

But one night freshman year, the Holy Spirit brought me under severe conviction. I tried to cut a deal with God, but God doesn’t cut deals. I poured out my heart to the only real Christian I knew. He explained the gospel to me and connected me with others who did the same. I repented, submitted to Christ’s lordship over my life, and like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, my burden rolled away. I tried to get baptized, but the church I attended assured me that my earlier baptism counted just fine.

Now if that story were unique to me, I’ve just wasted your time. But it’s not. I’ve heard a version of that story more times than I can count. Sometimes, people decide they were really converted as a child. Sometimes not. But in almost every case, the assurance that baptism is meant to provide is muffled. Like baseball players from the steroid era, my name might have an asterisk next it on the rolls of faith.

How should we think of the conversion of children? And what should it mean for our practice of baptism, admission to the Lord’s Supper, and church membership? The only person whose age we’re told at baptism is Jesus himself, and waiting until you’re 30 seems unreasonable.

On the other hand, many Baptist churches are baptizing children who aren’t old enough to pick out their own clothes, which Presbyterians do as well as infant baptisms. As one pastor observed, while “the theology of the grounds of baptism might remain different, the place of baptism within the discipleship of that child, who may grow up unable to remember their baptism, will be practically identical.”

Since Jesus didn’t give us a minimum age for conversion and baptism, I’m not going to either. But I do think there are some biblical principles that should guide us, some clear dangers to avoid, and some implications for our life together in local churches.

Biblical Principles

Children are Capable of Conversion

Even very young children. John the Baptist was anointed by the Spirit from the womb (Luke 1:15). Samuel was exceedingly young when the Word of the Lord came to him (1 Sam. 3:4). God may regenerate whom he will when he will. We’re told Timothy knew the Scriptures from a young age (2 Tim. 3:15). Jonathan Edwards describes the conversion of Phoebe Bartlett at age four during the Great Awakening.

The Role of the Family, Especially Parents, Is Nurture and Admonition (Eph. 6:4)

There’s positive instruction, building them up in a knowledge of the Scriptures. And there’s negative correction, disciplining them in love (Heb. 12:7). It would seem this responsibility falls on us as parents by virtue of our natural relationship. Non-Christian parents will be held accountable for not teaching their children about God. But there’s a special responsibility upon us as Christian parents.

Paul points to Timothy’s grandmother and mother as faithful examples (2 Tim. 1:5). Deuteronomy 6:7 tells us, “Repeat [my words] to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” In other words, all the time. But while we nurture and admonish, we can neither convert them nor assure them of salvation. The former is God’s job, the latter is the church’s job.

The Role of the Church Is to Assess and Assure

In Matthew 16, Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to Peter and the apostles, and in Matthew 18 he extends that to the local church. How do we exercise the keys? The church assesses whether someone is making a right profession of faith and living as a right professor of faith. We do this through baptism initially and the Lord’s Supper continually. The church’s role is to affirm or deny the credibility of someone’s profession. That’s true for children as well as adults.

The Nature of Children Is to Imitate; the Nature of Adolescents Is to Individuate

God not only created us, but he created the developmental process. There is a reason the saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is generally true. Children learn much, if not most, of the important things in life through observation and imitation of their parents. From language to values, from personal habits to worldview, God designed children to absorb and reflect what their parents teach and model. This is why parenting is effective. Parenting is hard, but can you imagine what it would be like if children were developmentally hard-wired to resist their parents, rather than seek their approval by imitating their example?

In adolescence, those same children begin to orient away from their parents, toward those outside the family. It’s called individuation. They’re figuring out what they’re going to keep and what they’re going to reject from their parents as they become independent adults.

For our purposes, that means it’s generally more difficult to discern conversion in a child raised by Christians than it is in an older adolescent or young adult who’s begun to individuate. It takes time for the heart to reveal itself. How do we know if we’re looking at a good kid or a regenerate kid? The one thing we know for sure is that time will tell.

Dangers on Every Side


When we’re considering whether to delay baptizing a child or young adolescent and thus delay publicly affirming their profession of faith, we need to take seriously the possibility of discouraging a young believer. And that’s especially the case given what I just mentioned—children are designed by God to want the approval of their parents and other authority figures. When that approval, in the form of baptism and church membership, is withheld, we could unintentionally introduce doubt into the child’s mind.


The command to baptize believers is clear in Matthew 28:19, and in one sense, it’s the easiest command Jesus makes. In general, the omission of a duty is just as much a sin as the commission of an offense. To the more sensitive conscience, being denied the opportunity to obey Jesus in baptism could be understood as being forced to sin. By the same token, the church and its leaders could be in sin for withholding baptism from someone who already has the Spirit.

Two-Tiered Membership

There are also dangers for the church itself. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership go together. When someone is initiated into the fellowship of the church through baptism, they are not only admitted to the Lord’s Table, but they also share with the rest of the congregation the exercise of the keys of the kingdom. That means participating in decisions regarding membership, church discipline, doctrine, and leadership. It doesn’t take long to realize that a twelve-year-old isn’t competent, nor is it wise for them, to deliberate on whether to discipline their friends’ parents for an unbiblical divorce, or to evaluate whether their friend’s father is qualified as an elder. Either formally or functionally, we create a two-tiered membership, which undermines its meaningfulness.

Divided Authority

Children are commanded to obey their parents and to submit to their authority (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). Church membership introduces the authority of the elders and the gathered church into the member’s life. Neither parents nor the church are allowed to abdicate their authority through delegation. That’s not an issue when we’re dealing with an independent adult, and much less of an issue for an older adolescent. But the question is which authority is best suited and designed by God to operate in a child or younger adolescent’s life? There’s a real danger to the child in bringing them out from under their parents’ sole and direct authority too early. And there’s a danger to both parents and church, that their authority in their rightful sphere will be sidelined or undermined.

False Assurance and Presumption

Finally, there’s the danger of giving false assurance to someone who’s not really saved, encouraging the sin of presumption. Presumption is when a person assumes she’s right with God when she’s not. Lots of things lead to presumption: false teaching, legalism, and self-righteousness. But when the church assures someone of salvation through baptism when they’re not, it’s like we’ve given them a vaccine against the gospel.


Quick to Encourage, Slow to Assure

We should be quick to celebrate and encourage any and every sign of faith in our children. And then we should continue to explain that a Christian isn’t someone who prayed a prayer, but someone who repents and believes and continues to do so. We should teach our children to “grow in the graces of evangelism, service, and love of neighbor.” We should encourage them in their service within the church. We should give them a positive vision as they prepare for the day they’re ready to take on the responsibilities that baptism and membership bring, just like we encourage teenagers to prepare for the responsibilities of marriage.

But we should be slow to publicly certify their salvation through baptism. We should be slow to assure them of their salvation through membership and admission to the Table. We want them to see, we want to see, and we want the watching world to see clear and tested evidence of grace. We want them to count the cost; resist the world, the flesh, and the devil; and follow Jesus. That takes time, and we should allow them that time, rather than rush them because of our own fear.

When I look back at my own baptism, I can take very little direct encouragement from it. I’m forced to trust that the adults around me knew what they were doing. How different is the experience of my own children. All made a profession around the age of five, as I did. But we delayed baptism. To pick one example, my son Christian is the one kid that I would have baptized at age twelve. Compliant, kind, could explain the gospel clearly. Not rebellious. By fifteen, all of that had changed. His high school years were marked by immorality and rebellion. His freshman year in college, the Lord changed his life. He was baptized a few months later. When did he become a Christian? Age five or nineteen? But it’s clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s following Jesus now, and his baptism marks that out clearly for him.

Context Matters

Adolescents demonstrate independence at different times and in different ways. It’s easier for the church to observe a teenager counting the cost to follow Jesus in a public high school than a home-school. A sixteen-year-old, single, teenage mom from a non-Christian background who converts is a more likely candidate for baptism than the same-aged-homeschooled elder’s son who quietly professes faith while living at home. The issue isn’t whether they’re both saved, but whether we can tell.

Our View of Membership Is Too Low

Baptism is not a private moment between you and Jesus, any more than the Lord’s Supper is a private meal between you and Jesus. Baptism is an ordinance of the church. It not only publicly declares your allegiance to Christ. It also proclaims the church’s affirmation of your profession and establishes your relationship with God’s people in the fellowship of the church.

Parents and church alike, the question we need to ask is not simply, is this child ready to be baptized, but is this person ready to take on the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of church membership? Are they competent to take on the covenant obligations of the people of God? In 1 Corinthians 6:3, Paul says, “Don’t you know that we will judge angels—how much more matters of this life?” If someone’s not mature enough for the obligations of marriage, or a full-time job, or driving a car, all of which are lesser responsibilities than church membership, why would we think they’re mature enough to be entrusted with the obligations of the visible church, the keys of the kingdom of God itself?


Recently we had the opportunity to baptize quite a few of our young adults who grew up in this church. After one of those baptisms, one of the mothers came up to me. When I arrived over a decade ago, she had not been thrilled at my reluctance to baptize her children. And she’d gotten grief from the grandparents over it. But she came up to me to say thank you. The intervening decade had demonstrated that she would have baptized the wrong kid. Just as importantly, she could see how significant the baptism of her child that day really was, not just to her, but to her adult child.

Conversion is God’s work. Time will always tell. Perhaps one of the best things we can do for our kids is to put our fears aside and give them the time they need.

Michael Lawrence

Michael Lawrence is the senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon.

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