Views of baptism greatly vary among professing Christians. Why people are baptized, how they are baptized, and what they believe baptism does for them–all these answers vary among different people. Baptism is a very big issue for most all religious people. For Roman Catholics, to Lutherans and Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and independent Christian churches, baptism is a central issue among churches and denominations.
Though great variety exists in the various views of what baptism accomplishes and what it means, one specific aspect seems very important to the issue. If a person has professed to becoming a true Christian and desires to be baptized, it is right to withhold that person from baptism until a later date? Certainly the church of Jesus Christ has been authorized to make disciples and to baptize them. In response to the hearer’s question in Acts 1 about their personal response, Peter said, “Repent and be baptized unto the remission of sins.” So how much time should pass before the new Christian is baptized?
I know of baptistic churches that hold the particular view that no one should be baptized until they are eighteen years old, without exception. So if a young person becomes a true Christian at age fourteen, they have to wait four years to be baptized, regardless of how credible the young person’s profession of faith is. I suppose the reasoning behind the position is that the church wants to insure the validity of the person’s conversion and require accurate understanding before baptism. So they want to make sure the teenager is truly saved and has a correct view of baptism. No other justification can be given beyond this reason.
But is it valid to withhold baptism from a young adult teenager if they give every evidence of being a true believer? And does it take years or even months for assurance of their conversion to be accomplished? The answer is a resounding no, for several reasons.
Reasons why withholding baptism from younger believers is wrong–
1. Withholding baptism is unbiblical
There is no example or teaching in the New Testament where a new believer’s baptism is to be delayed for months or years. Never is baptism seen in the Scriptures as being put on hold to look for more maturity, eligibility, or evidences of an advanced level of understanding. Never do we find such an example in Scripture. The fact is that in every NT case where an individual’s baptism is mentioned, they were baptized immediately upon their profession of faith in the Lord Jesus. In Acts, the cases of Lydia, the Philippian jailor, and the Ethiopian eunuch, are clear proofs that baptism was done immediately. There are no examples in the book of Acts where baptism was delayed for even good reasons.
Is is proper to exercise caution in some cases? The answer is yes. Children or young people, and even adults for that matter, should be thoroughly questioned and properly examined to make sure their professed conversion is genuine. It is proper to have real caution in baptizing children to make sure, as much as possible, that they have truly been converted and that they do have a basic understanding of what baptism means. But nowhere does the New Testament give any encouragement, either by example or teaching, that it is right or even wise to withhold the ordinance of baptism from a new believer once true faith in the Saviour and basic understanding is evident.
Believer’s baptism is not like getting your driver’s license or arriving at the legal age of drinking, where society judges you are ready for the responsibility. Baptism is not a measuring stick for how mature one is or the spiritual legal age of spiritual maturity. Rather, baptism is the badge and mark of being a new, true follower of Jesus Christ. It is the very first act of obedience that a Christian is to follow. To the waters of baptism we are to go! It is certain and clear that the New Testament never hints at the possibility that believer’s baptism is only for older adults. It is for all believers and if we hinder a new believer from following Christ in baptism in a timely manner by over-restriction which the Bible never encourages, then we are not being biblical at all.
2. Withholding baptism is inconsistent with obedience in other areas
Would a pastor or elder ever tell a new young Christian, “You can’t yet begin consistent church attendance, or daily times of prayer, or regular Bible reading until we see that you are ready for it. You will just have to wait until you are older.”
But such is the action of withholding baptism from teenagers, which is inconsistent as to their present obedience to Christ. Why inconsistent? Because we would tell the new young believer to obey Christ in every other area of spiritual discipline. But for some reason, they can’t be baptized yet and partake in the Lord’s Supper? So we are telling them to both obey Christ and disobey Him, that is it important to worship, read the Bible, and pray, but God wants you to put off your baptism for several years.
How can any pastor, in good conscience, withhold one ordinance from a new Christian, and yet tell them that they ought to obey in all other areas? Indeed, any true pastor would encourage these practices. But to withhold baptism and the Lord’s Supper is the same as saying, “You can obey Christ, who has saved you, in every area except two areas, and in these two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, you can’t do these for several years.”
3. Withholding baptism is not spiritually beneficial, but is confusing and spiritually detrimental.
Why would a church withhold baptism for months or even years? What reasons are given? The rational behind such a position is somehow supposed to protect and honor the doctrine of conversion. “We don’t want to baptize false converts, as young people often prove to be. We want to make sure they are truly saved and have an accurate understanding of what they are doing in baptism before we baptize them. So we will wait until they are several years older to insure their baptism is valid.” Such is the viewpoint of those who hold this position. But the fact is that withholding baptism does not insure the validity of the person’s conversion. There are cases in the New Testament where even the apostles and the churches of the New Testament baptized people who later proved to be false converts. Even the apostles could not perfectly know all baptismal candidates were genuinely regenerate.
Ultimately, what possible spiritual good can come from keeping a new young Christian back from baptism for a long period of time? Long delays for baptism do not confirm the certainty of a person’s conversion, simply because church leaders cannot know for sure who is truly converted and who is not. To withhold baptism from a true believer so there can be a long period of time to make sure of the person’s salvation is contrary to the New Testament and cannot be justified in any way. It is only ecclesiastical philosophy that causes a church to take such a position. How can you tell a sixteen or seventeen year old, who gives every evidence of being a true believer, that they cannot obey Christ in one of the most important points of obedience for a new Christian? It does more damage than good to take such a position. At best, it is confusing and potentially detrimental to their new faith.
Think of a sixteen year old, who gives a very clear testimony of their trust in Christ and their life evidences a regenerate heart and true conversion. This young person has their family and fellow Christians rejoice with them in their salvation. The pastors and elders are then told of the new salvation of the teenager, who for months evidences a true walk with Christ and consistent growth. The young person also now sees the important of baptism and has a clear understanding of what baptism means and that every Christian is to be baptized. If that young person asks their minister, “Pastor, I truly want to be baptized in obedience to Him”, what could he possibly say that would be a valid reason for denying baptism? Such a view ought to be abandoned by any pastor or church that is loyal to the teaching and spirit of the New Testament.
One evangelical scholar and historian comments–
“To withhold baptism from anyone who gives biblical evidence of being a Christian cannot be right. Age 18 [or any arbitrary age] is a purely artificial age at which to draw the line. In the NT there is plenty of evidence of baptism following immediately upon professed conversion. This is not consistent with any time lag for evidence of a settled change.
If we say credible evidence of conversion is needed–[a changed life, spiritual brokenness, humility, spiritual hunger, and even a right understanding of the theology of baptism]– then the question is, how long a period does that require? And there is no one answer, since cases of conversion vary widely.”
One young person, after their conversion, realized they now have to wait four years before their church will baptize them at age eighteen. This new believer later heard one of their pastors say from the pulpit, “If you are a believer and attend our church regularly, but have never been baptized, then you are sinning by not obeying the command of Christ to be baptized.” The young person then turned to their mother and said, “Mom, am I sinning by not being baptized? I want to be, but my church won’t let me. Am I sinning?”
This is the worst position concerning believer’s baptism I have seen and is far from the teaching, example and spirit of the New Testament. We should let the New Testament control our view and practice of baptism and not ecclesiastical logic. It seems to be only the wisdom of men that produces such a view and not the wisdom of God.
The essential principles regarding baptism are as follows–
1. Baptism is for believers only, those who have evidenced repentance and genuine saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. Baptism is by immersion and is to follow conversion as soon as the candidate has been counseled by their pastor and elders, who ought to have confidence that they are ready for baptism.
3. Baptism is for every new Christian, whether they are young or older; any age distinction is artificial. The one guiding factor should be that the pastor or elder body who is providing their pastoral care should have credible evidence from the new convert that their conversion truly appears to be genuine and they understand the basic meaning of baptism, whether they are six years old or sixty.
The bottom line regarding the timing of believer’s baptism is this–If Christ commanded baptism for the new believer, what right do we have to withhold it from them? None whatsoever, if they profess sincere and dependent faith in the Saviour. We cannot nullify or delay a command the Saviour has given to every disciple, regardless of their age.
— Mack Tomlinson