This feature lesson examines an important question that all Christian parents should consider: How can I know when a child is ready to be baptized into Christ?
Douglas Hoff, a fellow gospel preacher and friend, has written an excellent article on a subject that all Christian parents should consider. I've included his article below (with a few minor edits) and included some additional comments of my own at the end.
Godly parents are rightly concerned for the spiritual welfare of their children. They want to see them saved so the whole family can be together in heaven when this world ends. Christians understand the importance of baptism in God's scheme of redemption. The Bible clearly teaches baptism is for the remission (i.e., forgiveness) of sins (Acts 2:38). Many other verses show baptism is essential to salvation (Acts 22:16; Rom. 6;3,4; I Pet. 3:21; etc.). For parents, the natural question that arises is, "When is my child ready to be baptized?"
HOW OLD IS OLD ENOUGH?
Unfortunately, there is no verse in the Bible that specifically addresses this issue. As a result, there are many varying opinions regarding this question. Some think newborns ought to be baptized to ensure salvation for their souls in case they die at an early age. Others believe children as young as five years of age are old enough to be baptized. Why? Because they "believe in Jesus."
Generally speaking, most people recognize there is an "age of accountability" at which time one loses his or her state of child-like innocence. Before this age the soul is not yet stained with sin because he is not accountable for his actions. In His teaching, Jesus used young children as an example of sinlessness (Matt. 18:3). If they were guilty of sin, why would the Lord say we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven? At what age then do children become responsible for their actions and thus accountable for sin? Some would say perhaps twelve or thirteen. This seems to be the age at which most children start showing an awareness of the loss of innocence. Observation bears out this is not true for everyone. The rate of maturation differs greatly among children and so some may become accountable as early as nine or ten years of age (though this is rare). On the other end of the spectrum, there are some for whom the proverbial "light bulb" does not turn on until the age of sixteen or even seventeen. While parents may want a specific age defined for them, the Bible does not give it. The reasonable conclusion then is that parents must know their children to ascertain when they are ready to make the vital decision to obey the gospel.
PARENTS SHOULD NOT PUSH CHILDREN TO BE BAPTIZED.
While parents want their precious offspring to be saved, they must realize the mere act of baptism alone does not procure salvation. Yes, baptism is a necessary condition but there is more to obeying the gospel than just being able to recite the five steps in the plan of salvation. The very phrase "obey the gospel" appears three times in the scriptures (Rom. 10:16; II Thess. 1:8; I Pet. 4:17). Clearly, obedience is of the utmost importance (Heb. 5:9). Simply going through the motions is not enough. Just as Christians are to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23,24) so baptism must be done the right way and for the right reason to please God. If it is not done by faith, the person gets wet but does not have his sins washed away (Heb. 11:6; Acts 22:16). God's word teaches one is saved only as he obeys from the heart the proper form of doctrine (Rom. 6:17,18). The word "form" used in Romans 6:17 literally means a pattern for the doctrine. God appointed the pattern and has revealed it in His word (II Tim. 1:13). Doctrine means teaching, so the soul desiring forgiveness must understand what the doctrine requires of him. When it comes to baptism, the right way is immersion--not sprinkling or pouring some water on the person. The right reason is in obedience to the Lord's command (Mark 16:15,16) with the knowledge and conviction it is to obtain forgiveness (Acts 2:38). One does not obey the gospel without understanding his lost condition and that baptism is the commanded action that brings relief from sin (John 8:31,32).
Christian parents watch their children grow up and yet they do not respond to the gospel call (II Thess. 2:13,14). Soon these young souls are twelve, thirteen, or perhaps older, and yet they do not ask to be baptized. This frightens some well meaning parents. They fear their child will not be saved, so subtle pressure may be applied. Coercing young people to be baptized does them a great disservice. The boy or girl may be immersed just to please Mom and Dad. However, such action does not result in the desired goal of salvation.
Sadly, some parents get upset--some quite upset--when it is suggested the child may not yet be ready for baptism. It is commendable that members of the church want to see their kids saved. This shows a spiritual concern. Why then might the parents get upset when the preacher or teacher suggests some further Bible study for the precious young soul? Most parents are confident they are good judges of their children's maturity and understanding. That is often true. However, some parents may not have a good grasp of what obedience to the gospel entails. Perhaps they were baptized at an early age because they could recite "hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized." When a preacher or Bible class teacher senses a lack of understanding in the youngster, he or she is showing concern and love for the child's soul. It is far better to wait and study some more and thus truly obey the gospel rather than just get wet.
What might indicate this lack of needed knowledge? Preachers will often ask those desiring baptism some basic questions to ascertain their understanding (or lack of it). Such questions are especially relevant when the child is very young. It is generally recognized most 8 year olds are not sufficiently mature to grasp the concept of sin. How can we determine if this is true? Ask them if they were to die where would they go? Almost without exception the answer is heaven. This reveals they have no personal awareness of sin. For slightly older children it might be appropriate to ask, "Have you sinned?" If the reply is "No," then this child does not need to be baptized. For even older children a suitable question might be to have them explain what repentance is. If they say it means to be sorry, then some additional study is called for. Children can be sorry without having sinned.
It is sad some parents resent their child being "quizzed." They feel the preacher is refusing to baptize their child as if he wants the child to be lost! Just the opposite is true. A child who is baptized without a proper understanding of what he is doing may feel that he is right with God later in life because of his baptism. This would be a false sense of security which may be hard to undo.
WHAT DOES OBEYING THE GOSPEL ENTAIL?
First, it is the complete submission of one's life to the absolute authority of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18-20). If one is unwilling to do all that Jesus commands, then by definition the person is not truly obeying (Luke 6:46). Obeying the gospel means keeping the vow one makes to the Lord at baptism (I Pet. 3:21). It is as important as keeping wedding vows, if not more so.
As was previously stated, there are five steps one must undertake in order to lay hold of God's gift of salvation. God has done His part, but we must respond to His grace through an obedient faith. Specifically, one must be old enough to hear and believe the gospel (Rom. 10:17). This obviously rules out infants and even toddlers. Next, one must repent of his sins. This is a change of will caused by godly sorrow (II Cor. 7:10). Confession should need no comment except to say it is not confessing sin but rather the belief that Jesus is the Son of God (I Tim. 6:12,13; cf. Heb 3:1). Finally, there is baptism which is done by faith in God (Col. 2:12; cf. Rom. 6:3,4).
Remember, baptism is not the only thing necessary for salvation. It is merely the fifth step (cf. Rom. 4:12) in God's plan to obtain the forgiveness of sins. If a person does not understand or do the preceding four steps, then baptism merely gets a person wet--whether he is a child or an adult.
Dear friends, as a supplement to Doug's outstanding thoughts, let me offer a few more points for your consideration. Anyone who is considering being baptized for the forgiveness of his sins--whether he is 9 or 90--needs to understand what it means to love God. Jesus stated in Matthew 22:37,38 - "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment." To be baptized into Christ opens the door to a new life (cf. II Cor. 5:17)--a life that must be lived for the Lord, not self. "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). To love God requires sacrifice and denial of self (Matt. 16:24). When we truly love the Lord, we will show it by doing what He has told us to do in His book, the Bible. After baptism, every day of life is a day to do God's will! Seeking first His kingdom and righteous living is the only way to be faithful to Him and truly express love and gratitude (Matt. 6:33; 10:22).
For further study, let me encourage you to get a copy of Am I Ready to Be Baptized? (a book written by Kyle Butt & John Farber and available via www.peacefulhousepublishing.com). This book goes into even greater depth on this theme and is written and illustrated in a way that will be understood and appreciated by children (as well as parents and Bible class teachers).
This particular book concludes with some helpful questions that can be discussed with a young person who is contemplating baptism. Here are a few of the questions, for example:
There are another dozen questions along these lines in the book.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.