Guest Post: Jonathan Leeman on Baptism and a Theology of Children

Andrew has graciously invited me to respond to Mark Jones' questions about a post I did on how to respond to a child who wonders if he or she is a Christian. Tom Chantry has already offered a few helpful thoughts. And Andrew then summarized the state of play.

The long and short of it is this: Jones’ objection to my remarks are pastorally driven, and utterly reasonable. They aren’t, however, about our differences over infant baptism. That, at least, is the gracious reading.

The UNgracious reading is that Mark Jones thinks that infant baptism saves. I could read him as saying, “As a Presbyterian who has baptized his children, I can tell my four year old that she is forgiven, and that she belongs to the ‘indicative’ of Pauline theology” (see esp. his second question), because of course belonging to the indicative in Pauline theology means being a regenerate Christian. Ergo, the advantage of being a Presbyterian—by an UNgracious reading of Jones’ post—is that infant baptism saves.

Chantry then asks the appropriate follow up question: “So you give your four-year-old the Lord’s Supper, too, right, Mark? I mean, why would you exclude a baptized believer and member of your church from the Lord’s Supper?” Good question.

Now, I understand there’s something of debate in Presbyterian Land regarding whether or not to speak to children of the covenant as if they were Christians. Let’s just say I side with those Presbyterians who say that we should NOT because, well, Deuteronomy 29:29 is in the Bible and we should not make assumptions about a person’s election based on the family into which they are born. We haven’t been given the passcode to the secret providence computer.  And more reasons besides.

Presbyterians generally believe, as I do, that baptism is “a seal of…our ingrafting into Christ, and of our union with Him, of remission of sins, regeneration, adoption, and eternal life” (PCA BoO, 56.4.b). The difference, of course, is that a Presbyterian would say that this seal is entirely objective (I’m taking from Sinclair Ferguson here), and not both objective and subjective, as a Baptist like myself would say. If Jones’ believes what Ferguson believes on the objective nature of baptism, then he would have no reason to assume that his children are Christians just because they are non-communing church members who have been sprinkled. But apparently he believes what I believe—that baptism is objective and subjective, except he applies it to infants, right?

No, of course he doesn’t. All that, as I say, is the UNgracious reading of Jones. I assume he doesn’t believe that infant baptism saves, even though that’s what his post effectively amounts to saying.

So I will proceed on the assumption that the differences highlighted in his post actually pertain to matters of pastoral practice, not to the differences we possess in matters of baptism. Assuming I’m an ordinary member of the PCA (Jones’ denomination) who believes the church benefits of non-communing members are given to children “with a view to their embracing Christ” (PCA Book of Order, 6.1), then, as a father of these children of the covenant, I’m still faced with the pastoral dilemma of when to affirm they are Christians. When they ask me why Jesus had to die at age 4 and appear very sad after my explanation? When they first profess at age 6? When they profess again at age 8 and really seem to mean it? However you answer that question, we’re dealing in matters of subjective assessment, whether you’re a Baptist or a Presbyterian. 

Three further thoughts about this:

1) My pastoral instinct might be off. That’s why I said Mark’s objection (if I construe it as a pastoral one) may be utterly reasonable. The point is, everyone is playing this game—making a decision at some point in a child’s development where we regard it as reasonable to affirm their profession of faith. You cannot get away from this. People will answer this question differently, but we’re all required to make judgments.

2) One point of my prior post is that it’s not actually a father’s job to grant formal assurance. It’s the church’s job. Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to the church for the purposes of giving such assurance (see Mt. 16:15-20; 18:18). Therefore I’d say parents should take care to let the church play it’s divinely-authorized part. They should follow its cue.

The PCA Book of Order, as I understand it, agrees. When children “have reached the age of discretion, they become subject to obligations of the covenant: faith, repentance and obedience. They they make public confession of their faith in Christ” (56.4.j). In other words, the PCA provides a mechanism for the church to hear and then affirm a child’s profession of faith by making them a communing, Lord’s Supper-receiving member. And at what age does that occur in PCA churches? I believe it’s in the teen years, no? Assuming that’s when Jones’ own church confirms children, ironically, his church’s practice is fairly close if not identical to my own. The only difference between us, I dare say, is that he is personally willing to get out in front of his church, whereas I’m not, which is why I use conditional statements. (Strange, then, that I should be called a crass individualist.)

3) Oh, friends, please show caution before you walk around handing out “Hello, I’m a Christian” name tags to children. Why do you think so many of our “Christian” children go off to college and abandon the faith? Why do you think America is filled with so much nominal Christianity? Why do you think Christendom has been characterized by so much nominalism for more than a millennia? There are a number of reasons, of course, but one of them has been that pastors and Christians have been too quick to pass out the Christian name tags. In Baptist Land, we’ve done that with emotionally manipulative altar calls and spontaneous baptisms. In Presbyterian Land, it’s been done through calling all the Sunday School kids Christians. The same goes for so many Christian schools where I hear teachers talk to all the kids as if they are Christians because their parents are.

Honestly, Mark, if you’re reading this, I’m grateful for you as a brother in Christ and partner in the gospel, but when I read your post, I thought to myself, “Well, let’s go ahead and shoot 9Marks in the head and close down the offices.” The work we’re trying to do, through the Baptists and Presbyterians and Anglicans (etc) who write for us, is to help the church be a holy, marked off people who are not unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). I trust you want the same. One way to do that, I propose, is to take more care than Americans and Canadians are accustomed to taking in affirming our children’s professions of faith. Instead we should talk to them and pray with them and answer their questions “with a view to their embracing Christ,” as your genuinely lovely book of order puts it. Then, when the church affirms their professions, praise God!

That’s enough from me. If you’re interested in how my church explains our position, here are a couple of key paragraphs. The whole text can be found here.

We believe that the normal age of baptism should be when the credibility of one’s conversion becomes naturally evident to the church community. This would normally be when the child has matured, and is beginning to live more self-consciously as an individual, making their own choices, having left the God-given, intended child-like dependence on their parents for the God-given, intended mature wisdom which marks one who has felt the tug of the world, the flesh and the devil, but has decided, despite these allurements, to follow Christ. While it is difficult to set a certain number of years which are required for baptism, it is appropriate to consider the candidate’s maturity. The kind of maturity that we feel it is wise to expect is the maturity which would allow that son or daughter to deal directly with the church as a whole, and not, fundamentally, to be under their parents’ authority. As they assume adult responsibilities (sometime in late high school with driving, employment, non-Christian friends, voting, legality of marriage), then part of this, we would think, would be to declare publicly their allegiance to Christ by baptism.

With the consent and encouragement of Christian parents who are members, we will carefully consider requests for baptism before a child has left the home, but would urge the parents to caution at this point. Of course children can be converted. We pray that none of our children ever know any lengthy period of conscious rebellion against God. The question raised by baptism is the ability of others to be fairly confident of that conversion. The malleable nature of children (which changeableness God especially intends for the time when they are living as dependents in the home, being trained in all the basics of life and faith) is a gift from God and is to be used to bring them to maturity. It should also give us caution in assuming the permanence of desires, dreams, affections and decisions of children. Nevertheless, should the young person desire to pursue baptism and membership in the normal course set out by the church, we will examine them on a case-by-case basis, with the involvement of the parents.

← Prev article
Next article →