Last Sunday was a very happy day. We gathered at Charlesworth, baptised one of the students who has come to us this year, brought him into membership, and then sat down together around the Lord’s Table to remember the Lord Jesus.
I was especially glad that many of the children of the church could be there to watch and to listen. And I wondered how long it will be before some of these children are baptised and become members of the church.
How old must a child be in order to be baptised and to take part fully in the life of the church?
Our church’s constitution is perfectly clear on the question of church membership: “No person shall by reason of their age be debarred from membership or associate membership of the church or from exercise of the privileges of membership”. But it says nothing about the age at which a child can be baptised. Why not? Because the Bible has already answered the question. The Bible tells us that baptism is a vital part of becoming a Christian. It is the outward sign that a person repents and trusts himself to Christ. And the Bible tells us that we must urge people of all ages to do that. “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself…” (Acts 2: vss 38-39). We cannot rewrite that Bible command. Peter tells his hearers young and old that they must repent and be baptised in Jesus’s name. He stresses that this command is for “every one of you…” So if a person – however young he or she may be – is ready to repent and trust himself to Christ, that person is ready to be baptised. We do not practise “adult baptism”. We practise “believers’ baptism”. And we baptise all who are willing to believe in Christ.
So the real question is, “at what age can a child show that he or she is willing to believe in Christ?”
And again the Bible has already given us the answer. We read in the gospels of mothers who brought very young children to Jesus, asking him to bless them. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story, and they all emphasise that these were very young children, children who were still under the care of their mothers; children young enough for Jesus to take them in his arms (Mark 10 vs 16). They were not babies, too young to know what was going on. The writers make it clear that these children wanted to come to Jesus. Jesus said, “Allow the little ones to come to me. Don’t forbid them…” (vs 14). And he said that everyone who wants to enter the kingdom must receive it (vs 15) in just the same way as these children (vs 15). These children were not given the kingdom without knowing it: they received it – they accepted it; they grasped hold of it. Here we have very young children coming to Christ, grasping hold of the kingdom, and receiving Christ’s blessing.
The story assures us that very young children can be drawn to Christ and can trust themselves to him. And the story tells us that parents must actively encourage very young children to come to Christ.
And – to repeat myself – if anyone, young or old, comes to Christ, the appropriate way for this to be expressed outwardly is through baptism. That must be true for children, as much as for grownups.
So what signs do we look for in a child before we would baptise him or her?
Answer: exactly the same signs as we look for in a grown-up. Jesus says that grown-ups must receive the kingdom in just the same way as little children. There are not two ways of being saved – one for grown-ups, one for children. They receive the kingdom in just the same way.
So we expect to see in children firstly, some intellectual understanding. Can a child understand that there is one God, and that he is everywhere, and that he can do anything, and that he is supremely important? Yes, taught by the Holy Spirit, he can. Can a child understand that he himself is a sinner – that he has done wrong things, that he has a bad heart, that he has made God sad and angry? Yes, he can. A child understands that some things are good and some things are bad, that some things provoke a parent’s displeasure. If he can understand a parent’s frown, then he can understand God’s anger. Can a toddler understand that Jesus was God’s Son, that he came into this world from heaven, that he was very good, that he was punished for the sins of others? Yes, he can. Even a toddler understands what reward means and punishment. Can children understand that Jesus is able to forgive their sins, so that God can be their Father and smile on them again? Yes, of course they can. Very young children can understand repentance, forgiveness, restored relationships. They may not have the words to explain these concepts in clear ways. But they can still grasp them very clearly.
We expect secondly to see some emotional reaction. When God’s Spirit opens the heart of any person – old or young – to receive the truth, there will be an emotional reaction.
Anyone who really understands that God is supreme, and holy, and powerful, and present, will be affected emotionally. Children who take in that truth will become serious. As we talk with them at family worship about God himself, we’ll see them becoming quiet. The chatter, the giggling, the pushing and wriggling will subside to be replaced not by a precocious solemnity, but a real, open-mouthed reverence for God himself.
Anyone who really understands their own sinfulness will be affected emotionally. Children who take in that truth will be unhappy. I don’t mean by that, that they will become morbid, depressed children, incapable ever of enjoying all things bright and beautiful. But we will find that when they’ve done wrong, they’re upset, not just because they think we might punish them, but because they’re conscious that they’ve displeased God. When they listen to preaching about God’s holy commandments, we’ll sense that they’re troubled. Perhaps we’ll see tears welling up in their eyes when we ask them at bed-time whether there’s anything they want to say sorry to God for. Some would say it’s easy to create fear in children by threats of judgement and hell. But to create heartfelt sorrow for sin is the work of the Spirit alone. When we see it, surely we have reason to think God is at work in a child’s heart.
Anyone who really understands Jesus’s saving work will be affected emotionally. Children who take in that truth will respond with gladness and love. We’ll see their faces light up when we talk about Jesus and his willingness to receive sinners. We’ll see them singing “On Calv’ry’s tree, he died for me – that’s why I love him so…” And we’ll know that it’s true – that they’re singing from the heart about a Saviour whom they find wonderful. Their experience will be no different from that of any grown-up who hears the gospel and believes in his heart – they’ll feel it’s the best news in the world, and they’ll be thrilled by it.
And we expect thirdly to see the action of the will. If a grown-up really wants to be saved from his sins and to return to God, then it will show in the choices he makes. He knows he can’t change his own heart. But he will at least try to make a break with the outward sins by which he offends God. He will set himself to pray and to listen to Bible preaching. It will be evident to anyone watching him that he’s a man who is serious about finding God. Well, it is no different with a child. A parent who knows his child soon learns what the child really wants from the choices the child makes. “Is your little boy keen on football?” “Yes, he would miss anything to watch a game of football”. “Does your little girl really want to learn to ride?” “Yes, I know she does. She never buys anything with her pocket-money. She’s determined to save every penny towards riding lessons”. And when a child is truly seeking God, parents and others will know it. They’ll see that the child not only grieves for sin, but turns from sin. They’ll see that the child is not only affected by Bible truth, but wants to be there in Sunday-school, in church, at family worship to hear the Bible explained. They’ll see that the child’s will is being turned Christward.
Where we see these signs, we have every reason to think that our children are ready to trust themselves to the Saviour. And if they say to us, “I want to be baptised because I want to belong to Jesus”, we have no reason to say no.
Of course, we will be cautious
We know that where there seems to be intellectual understanding, there may only be a child parrotting words he’s heard from his parents and teachers. So we will try to test how much the child has really grasped. “Could you try to say that again now in different words?” “Can you tell me some of the bad things that you’ve done?” “So what’s the most wonderful thing the Lord Jesus has done for us?” We will not look for the child to use words that are beyond a child’s vocabulary. But we will look for words that spring from the child’s own mind and heart.
Again, we know that a child’s emotions are easily swayed. A child can cry one moment and laugh the next, and both can be forgotten in a moment. A child may shake with fear as she listens to the story of Red Riding Hood and then five minutes be running round happily. So we won’t assume that a child who cries because she’s been naughty has really been convicted of sin. A child may break his heart because his pet rabbit’s died. But by the next day, Bunny’s forgotten. So we won’t claim that a child who weeps at the story of Calvary is a child whose heart has been touched by the Holy Spirit. And yet, as time goes by, even a child’s heart is revealed by their outward emotions. Surely we will know if there is a steady reverence for God, a deep-set grieving for sin, a happy attraction to Christ. If these things are in a child’s heart, they cannot remain hidden.
And what of the will? Yes, a child’s will can be swayed very easily. My child may declare six months before his birthday that all he wants is a train set. A week later, all he wants is a cowboy outfit. Before his birthday has arrived, he may have nominated fifty different things which are “all he wants”. So a wise parent won’t rush out to buy the first thing the child asks for. But if the months pass by, and the child is still clinging to the same choice, never wavering, surely we will say, “this is his heart-felt desire”. And if a child says consistently, “I want to belong to Christ, I want to be baptised”; and if we see that child willing to put Christ before friends and fun; if we see that child anxious to break with sins, choosing prayer and God’s word and obedience to God’s commands – then surely we will reach the point where we say, “This child is choosing Christ – and the time has come for them to do it openly”.
It is usually easier to test how ready a grown-up is to trust himself to Christ. The hardened jailer of Philippi broke down in terror, crying “What must I do to be saved?”. He was ready to become a follower of a man crucified as a traitor by the Roman authorities. He was ready to stand with Jesus’s persecuted people. Nobody could question that God had touched his heart. The change in him was evident and unmistakable. He was baptised that very night. It was like that with the 3000 on the Day of Pentecost, or with the Ethiopian eunuch. It is not usually so with children. In most cases a child will need time to be sure of what he feels and what he wants. We will need time to assess the reality of the child’s experience. But where there is clear sign that a child is ready to come to Christ, we will obey Jesus’s words, “Let the little children come to me; don’t forbid them…”
As we baptise them into Christ, we will bring them into the membership of the church
We will expect them to be involved in the life of the church just like other members, praying, using their gifts, attending the Lord’s Table. Yes, we know that they may not be able to come to all the meetings. Christian children are still children who need to get to bed early! We know that there will be some members’ meetings where it will be better for them not to attend because the issues discussed need particular sensitivity. But they will still be full members of the family of the church, enjoying the privileges and sharing the duties of church membership.
Normally, if a grown-up is concerned about their spiritual position and thinking about baptism, I would spend time talking with them. I’d love to do that for any of the children too. But I know that for some I may not be the best person to do it initially. Youngsters who sit in James’s class or Paul & Susi’s may find it easier to talk with them. A young girl may find it easier to talk to one of the women of the church. But parents, if your child is spiritually concerned, please encourage them to talk to someone outside your own family. And please let me know so that I can pray.
And God grant us to see all our children saved.