My seven-year-old has been asking, periodically for almost a year, to be baptized. I recorded this conversation from a car ride home after church in December:
Me: Gabe, so why do you want to get baptized?
Gabe: Because I do!
Me: Nope, not good enough.
Gabe: Because everyone else in our family has been baptized.
Me: Sorry, that’s not enough either.
Gabe: pause . . . “Um, because I like Jesus?”
Me: Mmmm, close, but . . .
How do you know when your child—or really, anyone—is ready to participate in believer’s baptism? First, we need to understand what baptism is and what must come before it.
What is Believer’s Baptism?
Believer’s baptism refers to the act of water sprinkling or immersion of those who have declared their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Because the person must believe, this would not include the practice of infant baptism (nor will we discuss immersion vs sprinkling here). It is considered one of the primary ordinances of the Christian faith (along with the Lord’s Supper). The New Testament shows frequent instances of new believers getting baptized quickly after declaring their faith in Jesus. Acts 8:12 –13 says, “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip . . .” This and other frequent references to baptism link it directly with belief or faith in Jesus.
What is Faith, exactly?
We exhibit faith every day, in almost every behavior. We sit in chairs, trusting they will hold us. We hop on elevators, trusting in the electronics and physics by which they were designed. We trust our vehicles to start when we turn the key (or push the button). Of course, not every object of faith is trustworthy: sometimes chairs collapse, elevators break down, and cars stall. But our faith is only validated by our actions. It’s not enough to say, “I believe the chair will hold me,” but not be willing to sit in it. We can’t claim to believe in a cause but not be willing to support it tangibly. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). So it is with our spiritual life.
“Faith” is translated from the Greek pisteuw, defined as “reliance upon and trust in God; belief,” “active obedience,” “confidence in God.” The verb form is translated believe. In the New Testament, pisteuw involves three elements: knowledge, understanding, commitment. Let’s think about our kids as we explore these three concepts.
Knowledge: Does the child know the facts about Jesus? Does he agree that Jesus is the Son of God who died to pay the price for our sins and was raised to life again? In John 6:69, Peter says, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (see also John 3:16). Biblical literacy becomes important for this stage of belief. Our children must know the gospel—the good news—and elements of the Gospels (and the Old and New Testaments) even for a basic foundation of true faith. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” is a wonderful place to start: who is Jesus, why does he love me, what’s the Bible, and why should I trust it when it tells me that? Teaching our children about God at home and encouraging their budding faith through a church family can provide a solid foundation to a life-long faith. But too often we stop there and hope they absorb faith through enough information. There’s more to it.
Understanding: Knowing about God isn’t enough. Even the demons know that Jesus is God’s Son (Matthew 8:28–32), but they are afraid (James 2:19). Similarly, children who grew up in church, who memorized and studied scripture and perhaps attended youth group, are no more automatically “believers” than I would be a marathoner simply because I dressed in running gear and taped a number to my shirt. As a child grows, his or her ability to grasp the finer points of theology will increase as well. They certainly don’t have to understand it all before baptism. But it is crucial that they understand depravity (sinfulness) and God’s holiness (his distinctive, perfect nature).
First, does your child understand and acknowledge his own need for forgiveness? A friend of mine shared this story about her daughter: “Do they know what sin is? Do they think they have sinned or are a sinner? (When we asked my daughter this, she said, ‘No, I don’t sin but [her brother] does.’ She wasn’t ready.” Trusting Jesus as savior requires an understanding that he needs saving!
Second, does the child understand that Jesus is the answer to her sin problem? If she needs a savior, why does Jesus qualify? So many verses could apply, but here are a few to look through: 1 Timothy 1:15, Acts 4:12, 1 Peter 3:18, 1 John 4:9–10.
When someone understands both her own fallenness and knows that Jesus has paid the price for her sin, reconciling her to God, commitment follows. It’s like sitting in the chair you believe will hold you—conviction is always followed by action. The Bible pairs belief with repentance (Acts 20:21; Mark 1:15). This is not “works”—doing things to earn grace—rather, true faith in Christ and acceptance of his forgiveness is exhibited in changed behavior—evidence of a changed heart. The Spirit begins to work in the person’s life, producing “fruit” (Galatians 5:22–23) that reflect Christ’s values and priorities instead of the usual self-oriented behavior.
What might that look like? Well, it depends upon the child. But keep your attention on their level of selfishness, their prayer life, their desire to know God better, their awareness of others’ suffering. If you’ve known a trouble area in their character, perhaps you’ll notice a pivot towards a more Christlike direction in that area. Typically, these changes come gradually, as with any person of any age.
Are They Ready for Baptism?
If you as a parent are convinced that your child truly believes—showing evidence of knowledge, understanding, and commitment—you can confidently allow them to be baptized. But the timing is negotiable. While it is an act of obedience, it is also a display of maturity. Allow your children to initiate that conversation instead of presuming or pressuring them to do it. Since baptism is “an outward sign of an inward reality,” as my pastors like to explain it, the most important part—the inner change—has already taken place, and the ceremony merely proclaims it to that person’s world—family, friends, and church body. Your child must understand that the act of baptism does not impart salvation—that comes only because of God’s gracious free gift in Jesus. If they can decipher the difference and know their baptism is an announcement of their allegiance and commitment to Christ, they are ready.
Practical Ideas to Consider
Creeds: In the early church, new believers were encouraged—even required sometimes—to attend catechism, or classes on the doctrines of the faith. Some denominations continue this practice formally or informally. For personal use, consider using the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to teaching your kids the foundational doctrines of Christianity. These are the truths they are signing up for when they profess faith in Christ—let’s introduce them early.
The sinner’s prayer: Just don’t. By that, I mean do not require them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” or fixate on a specific date of salvation. Many children, especially those who grew up in church, come to faith gradually and cannot pinpoint a specific day. There is no harm in confessing sin and thanking Jesus for forgiving them, but let’s avoid legalism in that area. And by all means, please strike the phrase “invite Jesus into your heart” from your vocabulary. Children think more concretely than adults, and this phrase often confuses them.
Involve other adults: Welcome other adults, such as a church minister or family friend, who can talk with your child about these issues. They carry less emotional weight with your child, who may feel more free to be honest with them about doubts or confusion or motives.
Celebrate: What a great event to celebrate! Make a big deal out of it. Let your child know that you rejoice in their willingness to publicly identify with Christ.
Don’t stop: Baptism is one step—usually, but not always, an early step— in a person’s faith journey. If your child has matured enough in his or her faith to be baptized, let that be a milestone on a lifetime of living for God. Keep discipling, modeling, and teaching them in the ways of Jesus. It’s not a “one and done” or “check that off my spiritual to-do list” event. Growth and maturity must follow as they grow in knowledge, understanding, and commitment to their Lord.