When should someone pursue baptism?
We have come to understand that baptism,
Is commanded by Christ but it is not necessary for salvation.
Is an ordinance or sacrament of the New Testament ordained by Christ.
Is an ordinance to be administered by the church.
Has as its fundamental symbolism fellowship with Christ in his death and resurrection.
Is a sign of the believers union with Christ and everything that entails.
Is to be administered only to those who demonstrate a credible profession of faith.
It is to this last point that I want to speak.
There are two inherent issues within credobaptism, baptism upon credible confession of faith. The first regards the nature of the confession necessary in order to receive baptism. The second concerns how to determine whether or not the confession of a person is credible or not.
The first of these is, I think, fairly easy to answer - one must confess and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ articulated in the pages of Scripture. The second issue is harder to answer.
Scripture tells us that the church must baptize only true believers. But Scripture also tells us there are people who will appear to be saved, but are not truly saved. Some may have believed a false gospel (such as the prosperity gospel) but are convinced they believe in the truth. When confronted with the true gospel, they will be revealed for who they really are. These people are in fact damned along with the preacher. (cf Galatians 1:6-9) These types of people are, I think, fairly easy to detect if the church is faithful in its preaching and discipleship.
But there is another group Scripture speaks about that makes the necessity to baptize only true believers difficult. There will be some who will act and talk like believers but time and trouble reveal them to be unsaved. Some of these false believers will be almost indiscernible to the believing community for a time. (cf Matthew 7:21-23; 13:1-9; Hebrews 6:4-9; et. al.) Many of these types of people are those who have grown up in the church and have a faith they have inherited from their parents and the community at large. These people are not necessarily rebelliously trying to be wolves in sheeps clothing, they simply have not yet made the gospel their own. Yet, the Bible is clear - these people are not saved until gospel-confession becomes their own.
This latter situation is made more difficult for several reasons. The first is obvious. No person or community can truly see the heart. At best we are fruit inspectors, looking at the fruit of a person's confession and life as an indication of what kind of tree that person really is. It is also made difficult by the personal nature of faith and discernment. Everybody progresses in their faith at different speeds and it is often hard to determine if a person is not truly saved or simply immature in true faith or a struggling true believer. It is also troublesome in that there is often a great deal of emotion tied to determining another person's readiness for baptism. It is awfully hard to deny baptism to ‘little Johnny’ whom we have known our whole life and for whom we may have a great personal fondness. (Not to mention dealing with the pressure that parents can put on both pastor and child.)
These biblical instructions mean that the church must be exercise a great deal of discernment in who they baptize and who they do not. Mere confession of faith does not necessarily constitute true belief. (see the passages cited above). This seems to suggest that some time is needed between a person's confession of faith in Jesus and their baptism so that the community of God and the leaders of the church can see whether or not the seed of the gospel has fallen on the path or the rocks or among weeds, or has truly been planted in that person's heart. (cf Matthew 7:21-23) At its most basic, the church is to affirm in baptism that which God has already declared to be true of that person in heaven. This is not always easy and in most cases should not be immediate.
But what about the example of Peter and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40? Is this not an example of baptism upon immediate confession of faith? Well, yes. But that is not the question we should be asking. The question for us should be different - does this story provide a pattern that the church should follow in its practice. The answer to that question, I believe, is no. There is a long answer to this question that involves delving into hermeneutics, but let me give you the short, more broad answer for now. The examples in Acts are descriptive rather than prescriptive for us. Acts is a transitional and unrepeatable time in redemptive history between Old and New covenants so it doesn't really help us much. Scripture also gives us much more instruction after Acts regarding baptism. This means that regarding the proximity of baptism to confession or the age of the baptized (so-called ‘house baptisms’) or anything like that we are left to use our wisdom as we reflect on the good and necessary consequence of all of Scripture.
Let me deal especially with the difficult issue of when young people should be baptized. At CRC we will not consider baptism for anyone until they are between the ages of 13 and 15. (I know of one church that waits until a person is at least in their 20’s) Yet being this age is not a guarantee of fitness for baptism. Let me explain how we have come to this determination.
First, it has nothing to do with an “age of accountability” which is not biblically defensible. The reason why this age range has been selected is for more practical reasons. At this age a youth is beginning to formulate their own worldview, and are stretching their minds independently of their parents. They are also engaged with secular pressures as they move deeper into middle school and that will necessitate a resoluteness in their faith. It is also at this age they begin to be more active in personal discipleship with the youth leaders of the church and each other. Again, this age range is not perfect or absolute and reaching that age in the church is no guarantee that a person has ‘made it’ in their walk with Christ.
Second, we believe that discipleship and teaching is a central part of the believer’s spiritual life. (cf Matthew 28:19-20) Over time this kind of engagement reveals a great deal about a person's faith. These things cannot be rushed and thus neither should baptism. In short, and not an absolute, I think a person is ready to be baptized when it becomes evident to the community that they are. This will happen naturally in the life of the person and body.
Third, we recognize that the conversion of a child is complicated by developmental factors. Children and young people are often incapable of fully understanding many of the decisions they make, including their consequences. (Hence the need for parents to guide them.) We also cannot downplay the influence of our society which encourages shallow, short-lived commitments and the dodging of consequences. Relational factors also influence a young person's faith. These include, but are not limited to, their relationship with their parents and the ease in which they are influenced by others around them. Growing up in a church environment has a tremendous influence on a child. Having Christian and/or non-Christian friends has a strong influence. To be clear, many of these relational influences are good and commanded by God, but a child must make their faith their own before they become a true believer and thus before they are baptized. When and how this happens is dependent on the child and will reveal itself as discipleship and teaching progress in the family and the church at large.
Fourth, as we mentioned in our previous blog, baptism symbolizes a lot of things about our salvation and life in the body of Christ. It is important that the person being baptized is able to recognize the multifaceted dynamics of their faith and understand the implications. How much do they need to understand, and at what level of Christian maturity is this possible? Again, I think that depends on the individual.
Last, there is the personal aspect. What I mean is this. When I marry someone I am putting my stamp on their confession of love for each other. As God's minister, my participation in the marriage is evidence to them that God is also putting his stamp on the marriage. I take that very seriously and thus my standards for who I will marry and under what circumstances are very high. (To be honest, I wish I had always been this firm in my convictions.) I feel much of the same things as I reflect on baptism. If I am going to get in the water with someone and make the baptismal declaration from Scripture thereby affirming the covenantal promises of God to them, and if they are going to make the commitment publicly to faithfully follow God and his commandments and to participate in body life, I want to make sure that I am justified in participating in such on God's behalf.
In conclusion, I believe it is important for the church to take its time in baptism. While I think there are good reasons to baptize someone as close to initial confession of faith as possible, the dangers of doing so need to give us pause. There is no reason to rush into baptism. I understand that this may be of discouragement to some. It is not intended to be. It is instead an expression of our desire to avoid the “great danger of deception on the part of many who could be wrongly baptized at an age in which people are more liable to make decisions which are sincere, but ill-founded and too often short-lived.” (https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/ministries/children/baptism-of-children/)