Earlier this week we talked about how to approach the topic of When A Child Says They Want To Follow Christ, you can find that article here. You might want to read that one before this, though it's not a precursor.
One of the most common questions I receive as a Kids Pastor is, "How do I know when my child is ready to be baptized?" coupled with, "How do I know that my child really understands?"
I have a simple answer in both cases: "You're asking the wrong questions."
Since we believe that any person is ready to be baptized once they have been born again and placed their faith in Jesus, the first question should be, "Has my child been born again and placed their faith in Jesus?" Similarly, as we are not saved by our level of understanding but by faith, the next question is not, "How much do they understand" but "Do they trust Christ?"
This might seem like splitting hairs, but making these distinctions reframes the way we approach the issue. Every Christian parent should agree that a person can have very little understanding of the Gospel and still be saved on the basis of their trust in Christ. In fact, we see this illustrated for us time and again in the Gospels (Luke 23:41-43, Luke 7:36-50). Many of the people recognizing Jesus as the Messiah had no idea what that entailed. They had no idea that He would go to the cross as a substitute and rise from the dead in victory. Yet they were saved because they trusted in the Messiah, to whatever degree they understood His work on their behalf. We could also consider the Old Testament saints of Hebrews 11, who were all saved by faith in a Gospel that had only been partially revealed at the time. The condition upon which their salvation rested was not how much they understood but whether they trusted the revelation God had given them. Of course, some level of understanding is required in order to trust. We need to know what we are trusting. My point is that true faith in Jesus saves and that the genuineness of the faith, not the depth of understanding, is the determining factor.
However, accepting this truth and applying it in our parenting are two different things. We may confess this as true, but when it comes to our children, we act as if it's not. Instead of looking for signs of rebirth and heartfelt trust in Jesus to confirm baptism readiness, we look for the correct answers to theological questions. We look for an awareness of sin and for works of repentance from children whose lives may not have had time to outwardly manifest much sin in many cases.
We say that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, yet we act as if that's insufficient for our children. We equate baptism readiness with the ability to articulate the meaning of baptism. We equate salvation with the ability to understand and communicate the work of Christ on the cross. But are these Christ's requirements or ours? Jesus said that no one can come to Him unless the Father draws them and that the one who comes will be saved. The revelation of Christ by the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit as Jesus is presented in the Gospel, and the subsequent trusting in that Jesus, is what saves a person. In a sense, the Father says, "Here is my Son who died for you; place your faith in Him." and the person wholeheartedly says, "Yes, I do place my faith in Him." It is that simple. If an adult recognized their need for Jesus and received Him, then was quizzed on the substitutionary nature of the atonement, or the human depravity that made it necessary, or our spiritual union with Christ in His resurrection, and was utterly unable to explain any of those doctrines, would we conclude that he was not saved?
Of course not. We would conclude that he has exercised a child-like faith in Christ and now needs to be discipled. We need to teach him all that Christ has done for him.
Now, what if we replayed the exact same scenario, but our subject was a ten-year-old? Would we conclude that the child is not yet saved? Many would act as if that is so.
Why the inconsistency? I would argue that while there are many factors, most are rooted in fear; primarily fear of false conversion. This fear is warranted, but is our reaction to it warranted? I don't think it is. I believe that preventing children from obeying Christ and publicly proclaiming their allegiance to Him is not how we navigate this fear. We do need to be diligent and cautious when it comes to baptizing children but fencing, or blocking, the waters on the basis of unbiblical stipulations is not the answer. So what is the answer? We fence the waters on the basis of biblical stipulations. Has this child been born again and placed their faith in Christ? If yes, then they are a qualified candidate for baptism.
That's not to say that understanding is unimportant. It is vitally important, especially in the current cultural moment. Our kids absolutely need to understand depravity, substitutionary atonement, and union with Christ. Not only that, but they are capable of doing so. My intention is not to lower the already too-low bar when it comes to the theological education of our children. By no means! My point is that this understanding is not a requirement for trusting Christ, and trusting Christ is the only prerequisite for baptism.
Allow me to bring this out of the abstract for a moment. I had a baptism conversation with a fifth grader recently. I know this boy well, and I believe that I have seen the fruit of regeneration in his life. I believe that he knows and trusts Jesus. During the conversation, I asked him a question about good works and their relationship to salvation. I was trying to lead him into a discussion of "faith alone." If an outsider had heard his answers, they likely would have concluded that he believes in a works-based Gospel and therefore is not saved. He said something to the effect of, "We have to obey God to be saved." He also answered other questions correctly, acknowledging that we can do nothing to make ourselves good enough and need Jesus to save us. Knowing him and the recent lessons that he has been taught in church, I knew what he was trying to communicate. He was trying to navigate the reality that true faith produces good works and that while our obedience doesn't make us acceptable to God, He requires it nonetheless.
Other questions I typically ask in baptism conversations are meant to draw out signs of a personal relationship with Jesus. I try to discern whether or not Jesus is someone they know and believe in or just a concept they know and assent to. This fifth grader answered all of those questions with confidence. He spoke of Jesus as if He were his friend. Now, what did I do with this? He seems to misunderstand how the Gospel works and how obedience and faith are related to one another, yet he genuinely seems to know and trust Jesus. Do I take his word for it? When he says, "Pastor Nick, I want to be baptized because I love Christ and want to show everyone that I am His." Do I believe him? Or do I doubt his profession based on a misunderstanding that even many adults would be hard-pressed to explain?
Here is how I typically handle these situations. If the child seems to show evidence of being born again, if they seem to know and love Christ, if there is a desire to worship Him, if there is an affinity to His Word, and a passion to please Him, I prioritize that over their theological acumen. I then continue helping the parent disciple the child by getting their understanding caught up to their experience. Before they enter the waters of baptism, I do want them to be able to communicate the Gospel accurately, not to prove that they are saved, but rather to give a verbal testimony of the inward reality pictured in baptism. In our church, we have a process designed to help with that.
We don't wait until the child is "ready" to be baptized to begin the conversation. We encourage parents to start an open-ended conversation with us as soon as their kids begin asking about baptism. We don't use the typical "meet, quiz, stamp, schedule" confirmation method. In the initial meeting, we review some questions about what salvation means, what baptism means, etc. But the goal of that meeting is not to determine a yes or no on baptism but to get a sense of where the child is in relation to Christ.
After that, we send them away with a workbook we require them to complete before meeting again. The workbook isn't about baptism; it's about the Gospel! Through this, the kids who have trusted Christ learn how to understand and communicate what He has done for them, and the kids who have not yet trusted Christ are inundated with the Gospel message in hopes that they would.
We coach parents on what to look for while the child is in this process. Here are the indicators of faith in Christ that I mentioned above:
- Do they have a personal knowledge of Jesus?
- Do they talk about Him like someone they have a relationship with or like a concept?
- Do they love Him?
- Do they desire to please and obey Him?
- Are they drawn to the things of God?
If so, you can be pretty sure the child has been born again. These are not descriptions of the natural state of man, according to the Bible (Rom. 8:7-9, Eph. 2:1-3). They are, however, descriptions of someone who has been made new in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17, Luke 6:43-45, Eze. 36:26).
We began by saying that knowing when your child is ready for baptism is about asking the right questions. These are the right questions. These are the indicators of being born again and having faith in Christ. If your child has been born again and placed their faith in Him, they are ready for baptism. Everything beyond that is discipleship.
Nick Judd is the Kids Pastor at The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN. He is also the co-host of the "Everyday Apologetics" podcast. Nick is passionate about growing people in their knowledge of the Word of God and in their ability to defend it in the midst of a culture fighting against truth.