October 14, 2021
Posted by Bobette Hatteberg, Children’s Ministry Director
All Christian parents long for their children to trust in Christ and to then make this profession of faith public. It is not surprising that children raised in Christian homes sooner or later may ask a parent “When can I be baptized?” or “When can I take the Lord’s Supper?” How does a parent know when it is appropriate for a child to take part in these important and vital ordinances of the church?
A Different Question to Answer First
Let’s start with a different question, which must be answered first: Can a child place saving faith in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen on their behalf, and if so, how does a parent assess that?
Can a child be saved? Absolutely! Is every child who prays a prayer of salvation or who says they love Jesus as their Savior truly saved? Undoubtedly not! So how does a parent assess saving faith in the life of their child? There are some specific manifestations of faith that a parent should consider.
Manifestations of faith
- Affectionate love for Christ and His Word (I Cor. 16:22) – If we are going to believe a child is truly saved, we should see evidence of sweet fellowship and delight in God and an interest in His Word. This affection and interest would be initiated by the child, not by the parent prodding and the child responding
- Determination to obediently follow Christ (Luke 14:27) – A person’s saving faith will be evidenced by true determination to face challenges and make choices that honor the Lord. Often children do not face enough meaningful life-changing choices for us to have confidence that they are capable of choosing seriously to follow Christ. While obedience does not save, it is a manifestation of a regenerated heart.
- Humble repentance (Matt.3:6) – Repentance is a crucial element of saving faith. Confession and sincere self-admission of sin is necessary evidence of conversion. The danger is to assume that a child whom a parent leads to confess their sin is truly doing it out of faith versus out of obedience to the parent’s suggestion or desire.
- Ability to articulate a simple knowledge and understanding of the Gospel – It is important to assess a child’s understanding of the Gospel (as well as the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism). Their ability to articulate a basic knowledge of the Gospel (whether independently or with some prompting) is a vital manifestation of faith. What is sin? Who is Jesus? Why did Jesus come? Why did Jesus die? A child’s thinking is generally simple; therefore, we must be cautious in receiving his expression of commitment concerning anything, including a commitment to Christ. A child who has been transformed by the gospel will be able to relay a sound, though likely simple, understanding of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
- Maturity – There are many life events that should be associated with maturity. Baptism and communion are two of them. Maturity should be marked by leaving behind his childlike dependence on his parents while beginning to make more and more of his own choices. Such independence and maturity will allow the child to relate to the church directly, and as an individual, rather than primarily under the authority of ones parents. A young child may have interest in things of the Lord, and even voice a desire to place faith in Christ as their Savior. However, one real danger in a young child is they are highly impressionable and often do things out of pleasing others or to get something in return. By the time a child approaches the teen years, they often begin thinking more maturely. That is a time it is more likely that they are embracing decisions and commitment they make as their own. It is not uncommon for children who profess salvation at a young age, or who are baptized at a young age, to feel a need to do it again when they are older. That is usually because they do not have a strong recollection of what they understood at the earlier age. Therefore, it makes sense for parents to encourage their child to hold off on being baptized or taking communion until a time when they fully embrace the commitment behind a profession of faith.
Participating in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are significant commandments to be obeyed in the life of a believer. Therefore, they should be approached with an attitude of privilege and anticipation. It is good for a young child to watch the older children and adults around them participate in these ordinances with a sense of anticipation of the day when they will one day join in these precious events. By delaying baptism and communion until a more certain credible confession of faith has taken place, esteems these acts as something that should be done only when one is truly a Christian.
Once a parent answers the salvation question to the best of his or her ability, the answer to the baptism and communion questions become easier.
A child should be taught that this ordinance of God was given to the New Testament church as a command to be obeyed, and to symbolize that the recipient had died to sin, been buried, and is now raised to new life in Christ. Acts 8:12, Acts 9:36, and Acts 16:29-34 show the pattern that baptism follows a credible profession of faith as it is a public profession of that faith.
A child needs to be taught what communion is, why we practice it, and who is invited to the Lord’s Supper. It is open to those who trust in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of their sins but is not open to unbelievers. Therefore, children are welcome to participate in the Lord’s Supper when they have given a credible profession of faith in Christ and have consciously chosen to follow the Lord in obedience. They should also understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper, something parents should seek to teach and explain prior to allowing their child to participate in the Lord’s Supper. First Corinthians 11:27 warns of the dangers of eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner” and challenges us to examine ourselves. A parent should never be guilty of saying yes to a child just to satisfy the child’s desires when the child does not understand the purpose behind the bread and the cup.
The Wisdom of Fences
The term “fencing the table” is sometimes used to define who is and who is not welcome to partake in communion when it is passed. I think the analogy of fencing applies to many things in the life of children. Parents wisely fence a yard in order to keep a child safe until they are mature enough to venture outside the yard alone. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two biblical privileges that parents should wisely fence. Just like a parent must assess when a child is old enough to play outside without a fence, so a parent should discern when a child has matured to the point of making an independent profession of faith. Should a child be allowed to participate in one ordinance before another? It seems that baptism is a natural response to placing saving faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it might make sense for a child to first be baptized and then to begin participating in the Lord’s Supper. It is important that a certain age is never the criteria because one child can differ greatly when they have met these spiritual milestones. These decisions don’t have to be made alone but may include counsel from spiritual leaders such as a pastor or elder.
Just because a child is not ready to participate in the ordinances, they can still be a significant experience in the life of your child. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper give opportunity for ongoing conversations about confessing sin, examining themselves, and remembering the Lord’s death. Each time the church celebrates baptism or the Lord’s Supper it is an opportunity for parents to talk about these ordinances in the life of the church. They are opportunities for unbelieving children to clearly see the glorious Christ put on display. Our prayer is that children will know the sweet fellowship of the living Christ and experience for themselves the life-changing, soul-satisfying work of God in their hearts.
There is no exact test or exercise that will establish a child’s readiness. Parents essentially have to decide for each child when they fit the above criteria. Delaying baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper does not mean we should consider childhood conversion invalid. But instead it shows a desire for there to be substantial evidence of true conversion so that we do not promote the possibility of self-deception. Rather than rush them toward baptism or communion after a first profession of faith, would it not be wiser to take advantage of the ongoing opportunity to interact with them and wait for more maturity that proves the commitment to be sound and past reasonable doubt, for more evidence of a true commitment?
Ongoing Communication Between Parent and Child
As your children approach you with requests to partake in baptism or the Lord’s Supper why not encourage them by saying, “It is good to hear you talk that way! I hope you love the Lord, and if you really do, from the heart, it will become clearer to you and to us as well, as you walk by the teaching of Scripture and grow in Christ. Let’s pray together!” Prayer is no doubt crucial as we wait on the Lord to do the work that only He can do in the heart of a child, or even an adult. Challenge them by impressing on their conscience the perspectives of passages like Matthew 10: 37-38 – that coming to Christ results in a lifetime commitment of faithfulness to Christ from which one does not turn back, even if others cease to follow Him. Challenge them to grow in God’s Word on their own by reading and applying the Word of God, reminding them that real conversion in a person of any age always includes a change in the heart. Explain to them that true conversion can be a very difficult thing to recognize, especially in a child, and rather than worrying about making a profession public, they should instead concentrate on pursuing Christ will all his heart.
A parent should not dismiss a young child’s profession of faith but should also not sit back as if the job is done. Instead, a parent should continue to teach about salvation, obedience, ongoing repentance, and what it means to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As their child matures it will become more obvious if the profession of faith was genuine. Do not be shocked when God saves His people at a young age! But do not assume the first agreement a child gives to the gospel is evidence of saving faith.