In the comments at the Regarding the Proper Role for the Pulpit Minister post, a discussion has broken out regarding how old someone must be to have an understanding sufficient for the baptism to be effective.
This is not about infant baptism per se, but whether we should baptize a very young child who requests baptism.
For what it’s worth, I myself was baptized at eight. I knew the Five Steps of Salvation. The preacher insisted that I must recite this to prove my understanding. I knew what all the words meant. I knew I supposed to be good afterwards. Oh, and I believed in Jesus.
I should also add that I don’t believe that the “age of accountability” has to be the same as the age at which a child can have saving faith. There is no obvious reason that the age at which God holds you accountable for sin is also the age at which you may come to faith. I suppose you might argue that there’s no need for forgiveness in the absence of being accountable for sin, but being baptized is about more than forgiveness — and as important as it is, we manage to over-emphasize the forgiveness element in our preaching due to our Frontier Revivalism roots.
That is, baptism brings possession of the Spirit, regeneration, adoption by God as sons and daughters, among other things. It’s about much more than forgiveness.
Under the Torah, the age of accountability was 20. And yet sonship and covenant relationship with God began at birth.
(Num. 14:28-30 ESV) 28 Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the LORD, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: 29 your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, 30 not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.
(Deut. 1:39 ESV) 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.
There are other relevant verses, but these should suffice. God said that those too young to have “knowledge of good or evil” (plainly alluding to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2 and 3) would not die in the desert despite their parents’ lack of faith to enter the Promised Land. God also said that those under 20 would not die in the desert. The language is similar and parallel. That is, the Torah treated 20 as the age of accountability but not the age of covenant relationship with God.
This is surprising to those of us raised in the Church of Christ/Arminian concept of “age of accountability,” because we’ve treated this as also the age of eligibility for baptism — and we’re inclined to see this as being around 12 for most kids, although there’s no obvious reason to pick this age.
In fact, in the law, we treat those under 19 as unable to make contracts of any kind and hold them to far lower penalties for crimes. And they can’t buy cigarettes until they turn 19. They can’t buy alcohol until age 21. And they can’t be drafted until 19 — much as the Israelites treated age 20 as the age for military service.
Recent research demonstrates that our brains don’t fully develop until about age 20. Before then, we don’t have the brain-hardware to fully understand the consequences of our decisions. Those who’ve raised teens know what I mean.
So I offer these thoughts for your reflection.
And, no, I don’t know when a child is too young to have the faith required for baptism. But I do know that our treatment of the age for faith as the same as the age of accountability has left many parents of a deceased child needlessly agonizing over their dead child’s salvation.