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On Sprinkling Infants, Baptizing Children, and Recovering Regenerate Church Membership

Associated Baptist Press recently reported that Rodney Kennedy, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, sprinkled an infant. The event was newsworthy because, by definition, a Baptist church does not baptize infants. To practice the latter is to forfeit being the former. Or at least it used to.

The article read as a congratulatory piece, as though it was one small step for a church, but one giant leap forward for Baptists everywhere—no doubt a leap away from draconian biblical and confessional markers of Baptist identity.

But one need not look to a CBF Baptist church to find believer’s baptism being renegotiated. At least a few conservative Baptist churches have adopted—or have flirted with adopting—some form of dual baptism.

While I have been blessed by the writings of many who practice pedobaptism, as one who is wholeheartedly Baptist, sprinkling infants—especially in erstwhile Baptist congregations—concerns me.

Closer to Home

What concerns me most, however, is not the rare “Baptist” church that occasionally sprinkles an infant; it is what’s increasingly passing as credo-baptism, or believer’s baptism, these days. Within Southern Baptist life, we have been on a steady march towards infant baptism, routinely baptizing children younger and younger in age.

As the Southern Baptist Task Force on Baptism reported, Southern Baptists continue to baptize a remarkably large number of young children, including those age five and under. This trend should prompt careful reflection, and should remind us of some of the potential dangers associated with baptizing young children.

As a convictional Baptist, it is hard for me to admit this, but when we baptize children too young to grasp the gospel and, as a result, whose hearts haven’t been affected by it, it is more troubling than a sprinkling an infant.

Why is this? Because when Presbyterians, for example, sprinkle infants, they anticipate the child will one day be converted. When we baptize young children we are testifying they have been converted.

This trend concerns me for biblical, pastoral, denominational, and parental reasons. Let’s give this closer consideration.

Biblically Speaking

To be clear, Jesus didn’t say children must become like adults to be saved. He said adults must become childlike. We are to encourage our children towards following Christ at every age, including the early years.

However, if we are not careful we can find ourselves routinely baptizing young children before they understand the gospel—or have been affected by it. Perhaps a subtle confusion over what conversion and baptism are lie at the heart of the matter.

As for conversion, we must remember it requires more than agreeing to facts about Jesus to be saved. Conversion is not merely intellectual; it is also affective. To be saved one must not only embrace facts; one must embrace Christ. One must not merely believe facts about Jesus; one must believe in Jesus. This happens through faith in Christ, repentance from sin, and submission of one’s life to him. The point is not that a child cannot be converted; the point is that we should do our best to make sure conversion has happened in our children before baptizing them.

And as for baptism, we do not believe in baptismal regeneration. Therefore, we should not feel an unbridled press to the baptistery. Being baptized is a profoundly essential step of obedience—one that is linked very closely with conversion—whereby one declares their allegiance to Christ, is baptized into the church, and depicts the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

For many reasons, including how closely conversion and baptism are linked in the book of Acts, I’m not for erecting age-based criteria, or adopting a programmatic, wait-and-see approach on baptizing new converts. Spurious conversions occur regardless of the age, and we are not called to wait them out before baptism.

Yet, a healthy understanding of conversion means we need not rush children to the baptistery, and a healthy understanding of baptism means that we shouldn’t. The effects of true conversion will not evaporate like the morning dew. When in doubt about as to whether a child is ready for baptism, it is best to give it time.

Pastorally Speaking

As a pastor, I have baptized many children over the years. But I also have met with more than a few parents and encouraged them to hold off on pursuing their child’s baptism.

For many pastors, especially those fearful of potential conflict, expressing reservations to a parent about baptizing their child can be stressful. Yet over the years I have had that conversation with parents many times. In all my years of ministry, I’ve never had a parent leave the conversation frustrated with me, at least having expressed that frustration.

Generally, parents have valued my concern and appreciated my forthrightness with them. Moreover, since parents know I’m willing to ask them to hold off, it has given them greater confidence—and joy—when in due season I’ve recommended baptism.

W.A. Criswell’s practice helped me navigate this issue. During Criswell’s half-century tenure at First Baptist Dallas, he encouraged young children—and older children who seemed to not grasp the gospel—to “continue to take steps toward Jesus,” but often instructed their parents to hold off on baptism. He winsomely affirmed the child’s interest in following Christ and encouraged them to that end, but he did so without granting them assurance of conversion or baptizing them straightway.

Criswell’s pattern is instructive for every pastor. You can joyfully and wholeheartedly press the accelerator on the gospel while tapping the brakes on the baptistery. That is not being duplicitous, that is shepherding the flock of God.

Denominationally Speaking

While the SBC has no mechanism (nor should we) for policing such matters, as a convention of churches we do encourage ourselves toward certain practices and expectations. Perhaps in our zeal for increasing baptism numbers, we’ve not always given enough scrutiny to whom we are baptizing. This has contributed, in part, to the plague of unregenerate church members.

As previously referenced, perhaps our trend of younger baptisms should give us pause. I’m reminded of the recent trend in Britain, where many adults who were sprinkled into the Church of England as infants are now formally renouncing their “baptism,” in partbecause they had no choice in the matter as a babe.

I sometimes wonder how many on SBC church membership rolls, who were baptized so young as to have almost no choice in the matter, would renounce their membership if presented with the option. Or, perhaps more accurately put, if they realized they were still on a church’s membership roll in the first place.

The challenge of unregenerate church membership is systemic within our convention. With some 16,000,000 members on our rolls, but only about a third of those in church attendance on any given Sunday, one doesn’t have to be exceedingly scrupulous to sense a problem.

This is one reason why I’ve invited Dr. Paige Patterson to be one of our presenters at Midwestern Seminary’s For the Church luncheon at this year’s SBC. He will answer the question: Why is recovering regenerate church membership one of the SBC’s most urgent needs? Baptizing children too young to understand the gospel and to submit their lives to Christ contributes to this problem.

Parentally Speaking

As the father of five young children, I more than understand the parental urge to see one’s children converted. I live with it daily, and strive to balance leading them to Christ without over-leading them into a premature profession of faith.

I sensed this tension in a personal way once while presenting the gospel during a VBS rally. It became clear to me I could get most every kid in the room, including my own children, to raise their hand, express their desire to avoid Hell, and simply to “repeat after me” to miss it.

My kids, like many who have been reared in the church, are well versed in the facts of the gospel and eternal realities. If conversion was merely getting them to recite a few facts, they would all have been saved since their earliest years.

Parents do not have to be theologians to discern these things. They merely have to be discerning parents. If the primary motivations in a child’s conversion is pleasing parents or avoiding Hell that may well be a sign the gospel is yet to fully take root.

In conclusion

Many of God’s mightiest men in church history experienced conversion at a young age. I do not question their conversion story—I thank God for it. Likewise, when a precocious young child understands the gospel, repents, embraces Christ, and reflects the fruits of conversion, we should celebrate that and baptize them as well. But if they lack any of these ingredients, caution and patience is key.

Let’s be quick to point our children to the Lord Jesus Christ, but lets be a bit slower to point them to the baptistery. The local church, our children, the integrity of baptism, and the witness of our denomination are all too precious for us to mess this up


10 Responses to “On Sprinkling Infants, Baptizing Children, and Recovering Regenerate Church Membership”

May 04, 2015 at 8:43 am, Kenneth Priest said:

Thanks Dr. Allen for your insight in this article. This is a concern that we should all take note of. I was thrilled when my nephew at the age of five genuinely excepted Christ. But even more affirmed, when he said he wanted to put off baptism until he was old enough that he is certain he would remember the act of identifying with Christ in the waters of baptism. Such maturity for such a young man. Three years later, he was baptized. And now six years after his baptism, he is certain of his salvation and his reason for waiting on baptism. As Baptists, our theology is immersion for those who believe and accept; thankful you are leading one of our training institutes and raising a bar of integrity in SBC life for one of the ordinances that distinctly makes us baptist.

May 04, 2015 at 1:02 pm, Jason Allen said:

Thank you, Mr. Priest, for the story of your nephew and for your kind comments. I pray God uses the article to strengthen our churches.

May 04, 2015 at 6:29 pm, Scaramoucho said:

This was a very good article and I appreciate the necessity of the person being baptized being able to reflect on the matter in a critical way. However, this opens up the conversation on whether or not adults also ought to wait for some specific class on what baptism means before proceeding with the act. My understanding after reading Scripture is that a person was baptized as soon as they were saved. There was no “wait and see” period. I know this redirects the article somewhat but I think the point is related to some degree.

May 18, 2015 at 1:57 pm, Mike Smith said:

> It’s not about “waiting to see” if a person (Child) shows evidence of salvation – that is between them and the Lord. It is more about making sure the child “truly understands” what salvation means and what being baptized represents.

I made a profession of faith at seven years old and was baptized at the urging of my parents only to come to a real understanding that I had not truly understood what I was doing. I wasn’t truly saved until I was in my 20’s, so this article really hits home with me.

The reason it’s not a “wait and see” as you mentioned above is because a person is continually being “sanctified” and convicted about things as their relationship with Christ grows. There are things I did as an early Christian that I would never do now because I want to bring glory to Christ in everything I do. We start realizing that as we sit under the sound preaching of God’s Word and personal study.

I didn’t mean to ramble on, but just wanted to throw in my two cents on why we shouldn’t adopt a “wait and see” attitude for a professed believer, but rather a “surety of understanding”.

May 05, 2015 at 6:04 pm, Russell Hale said:

Good words on a touchy subject. Children are so trusting, especially of authority figures, and can easily be manipulated, unintentionally, into making statements about what they believe. (Cf. the man in the red suit with reindeer) There does have to be a degree of intellectual or mental assent in order to believe. It would seem, at least to me, that this is the harder of the two to discern in children, i.e. cognitive vs. affective, as children, especially those under the age of seven can be so well behaved/polite/conforming, etc: it is so difficult to make any type of assessment of affective change in their lives. (Unless of course they are my nephews and the change would be so dramatic that the WMU would host a special dinner-on-the-grounds)

May 06, 2015 at 6:10 pm, Eric Benoy said:

I was not aware of that event in Ohio. That is another un-Baptist thing Baptists have started doing to add to my list to watch. This is a thoughtful article — thanks for posting and sharing. Sort of reminds me of all those teens who make professions as groups either at camp or at church; trying to sort out the true conversion and the ones just wanting to fit in or be a part. In our church we do not baptize immediately, regardless of age. Since their salvation does not depend on the act of being immersed but of their decision for Christ, there is no hurry. Granted, we are a very small church and baptisms are not frequent. I take time to talk to each person to make sure that he or she understands what they are doing. With children, I have the parents come in as well. And there have been times that we determined together that no, the child was not really ready. The parents may have been hoping so, but they saw in our time together it was not really the case. And when it comes to baptism, the whole service is built around it, celebrates it, teaching about it, emphasizing its meaning and importance, and ends with a celebratory reception at the the end of the service. Blessings abundant upon your ministry and service!

May 06, 2015 at 7:15 pm, Adam Kane said:

Thank you for this article. As a fellow Baptist I would gently, assertively challenge our traditional classification of baptism as merely “a token of regeneration” (Strong, Systematic, 931). If we look through the (very helpful) lens of law and gospel, we see that we tend to see baptism as purely law (something we do in obedience over against something God does for us and in us), and this tends to be related to our separatistic history. I would propose not so much reticence about bringing young children to the waters of baptism, but rather a shift in our baptismal theology altogether. Baptism seems to be spoken of as more of a gospel gift; as something involving God’s gracious act of incorporation into Christ, whether before, during, or after the initial act of faith unto salvation. When seen in this light, even a five-year-old’s baptism carries gospel weight. If he years later says he was never truly saved and wishes to recommit himself to Christ, what stops us from celebrating the initial act of baptism as being linked, atemporally, by God to his salvation? I did a much better job of writing about this in a recent seminary paper, which I posted at – and I will understand if the blog owner wishes to censor this link – yet I encourage a read as a counterbalance to this article. (All in the Baptist family brothers and sisters!)

May 06, 2015 at 8:31 pm, William Walton said:

Can we really judge whether a person—regardless of age—is converted? When instructing Nicodemus on this, Christ himself said conversion was like the wind, “…you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Church history records much futility in this pursuit. That said, it seems to me Christ instructed us to make and baptize disciples, not converts…and our children are addressed as disciples: “your children…bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”. Perhaps discipleship is what we should primarily be concerned with regarding our children, not baptism?

May 07, 2015 at 8:36 am, Jason Allen said:

Thank you, all, for the comments. I’ve tried to kickstart a needed, and, I trust, fruitful conversation in Southern Baptist life.

May 07, 2015 at 1:26 pm, Larry Baker said:

I have thought this same thing for over 30 years. But the startling aspect of the article was the number of children under 5 being baptized.

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