When Should A Person Be Baptized?
by Douglas Hoff
The scriptures teach baptism is necessary for salvation (1 Peter ). Thus, baptism is correctly emphasized by those who respect God’s word. The important question is when should a person be baptized? The simple answer would be “As soon as possible.” However, this is only true when baptism is appropriate.
Some teach babies are born in sin and therefore ought to be “baptized” to have their sins washed away. The Bible does not teach this though. However, it is interesting to note that infant baptism shows a belief that baptism is essential for entrance to heaven. Typically though the babies are not truly immersed; instead, they have a little water sprinkled or poured on their foreheads.
Just as babies are born in a state of innocence, young children are also without sin until they become accountable. The scriptures teach this in principle (e.g., Isaiah ; Matthew 18:3). Sin is the transgression of law (1 John 3:4). It is something which is committed, not something inherited from parents (James 2:9).
How can one ascertain when a person becomes responsible for his sin? First, the candidate must be able to believe the gospel (Mark -16). This rules out infants since they are incapable of such learning (Matthew ; John -32). Occasionally well intentioned young children want to be baptized. Should a five year old be baptized? One wanting to be baptized must have sins to be forgiven. This author has not yet encountered a child who really understood what sin is. Even if an older child can define sin in some elementary way, it does not follow that the youngster has committed sin. To obey the gospel the soul must also know what repentance is (Acts ). Before one can truly obey the gospel he must realize the significance of the commitment to the Lord (Luke ). Baptism is the answer of a good conscience toward God (I Peter ). This requires a degree of maturity in thinking (John ). Paul said it this way, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11; NKJV). Clearly then, Christians are expected to act in a responsible and mature way (1 Corinthians ).
Before children have come to the age of accountability (as it has often been called) they are not ready to be baptized. However, just because a person has attained that age does not necessarily mean he is ready for the baptistry. What is necessary to be ready? Just the desire? No. How can a person obey the commands if he doesn’t even know what the words means? Repentance is a command of God (Acts ) yet many incorrectly think it simply means to say “I’m sorry” (cf. 2 Corinthians ). On one occasion Jesus told his audience to “Go learn what the scripture means” (Matthew ). Tragically, some are afraid to ask (Mark ) while others hear but do not understand (Matthew 13:13-19; Matthew 15:15-17). Some just need a guide to help them understand (Acts -35). Adults who embraced a lot of religious convictions that are not in harmony with the scriptures need to unlearn false doctrine and learn the truth. They have “weeds” in their thinking that need to be pulled out to allow the truth to properly grow (Jeremiah ; Matthew -14; 16:6, 12).
How then can a person know if he is ready? Some say whenever a person asks to be baptized. Some also say no one should ever be turned away from being baptized. Is this right? John told the Pharisees they were not ready for baptism because their hearts were not right with God (Matthew 3:5-11). Paul found twelve disciples who had been baptized for the wrong reason and needed to be re-baptized (Acts 19:1-7). Theirs was the case of not being taught properly and so received John’s baptism when it was no longer valid. Likewise, there are people today who are not taught correctly about baptism and need to be re-baptized to put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:27).
Well meaning brethren often assert it would do no harm to baptize someone when he is too young or if the person isn’t really ready yet. They affirm it is better to “get it done” while the seeker shows an interest otherwise he may never obey later. After all, as the argument goes, they can always be re-baptized later, right? Again, is this true? What about kids who “get wet” because they see an older friend being baptized and don’t want to feel left out? They may go for many years trusting in that immersion yet if they had not “obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine” then they are still in their sins (Romans 6:16-17; John 5:24). Thus, it could do a lot of harm. It is far better to be saved and be certain of it than to take a chance that one might really be obeying the gospel. There is no such thing as accidental obedience.
Someone may well ask, “What requirements must a person meet before being scripturally baptized?” When Philip was teaching the Ethiopian eunuch; that man desired to be baptized. When he asked, “What hinders me from being baptized?” Philip said to him, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” (Acts -37). While we are not told all that transpired in that chariot Bible study perhaps the Ethiopian sensed some reluctance on the part of Philip to baptize him. Alternately, it could be that the eunuch was simply wanting to make sure he was ready to be baptized. After all, his salvation was at stake. This is the attitude that ought to characterize everyone desiring to be savedl
Clearly then, belief is a necessary condition for baptism to bring about forgiveness of sin. What if the eunuch had not believed with all his heart? That is, what if he had doubts that Jesus is the Son of God. Should Philip have baptized him? No, of course not. Belief is not the only the requirement for salvation. For years, gospel preachers have correctly taught there are five steps one must take to obtain salvation (hear, believe, repent, confess & be baptized). One needs to study the New Testament to learn the truth on this vital subject. One passage alone is not sufficient to learn all the steps involved.
Who decides when a person is ready? The preacher? Occasionally, brethren have accused preachers of standing in judgment on potential converts when they ask some basic questions to determine if the person is truly ready. In a way this is true. Philip wanted to be sure the eunuch was ready. What if a preacher knows (or learns) a person has no intention of quitting a particular sin? That person has not repented and thus is not ready for baptism. Immersing such a person to appease a family member will only result in a wet sinner — not a new born child of God. Preachers generally ask those who respond to the invitation a few questions to determine if they know what they are doing. This it especially true when the one coming forward is young. There is no sense in baptizing a child who has no awareness of his sin. There is also nothing to be gained in submerging an adult because he once heard baptism is necessary. Without at least a basic understanding, this only results in people having a false hope.
The baptismal candidate must be converted to Christ or he will not truly be obeying the gospel. When an unconverted person is rushed into the baptistry his sins will not be washed away (Acts ; ). One who wants to put on Jesus in baptism (Galatians -27) should understand it is a commitment as serious as marriage. Becoming a Christian means that soul is added to the body of Christ (Acts : Ephesians 1:22-23). Paul said Christians are the bride of Christ (Ephesians -32). As such, becoming a Christian is just as serious as getting married. It is to be a lifetime commitment to the bridegroom Jesus (Matthew 19:6).
While there should be a sense of urgency in saving souls, we must be careful not to encourage anyone to enter the baptistry before he is ready. Baptism is not some magical charm. Obeying the gospel (1 Peter ) is more than being baptized. It is the start of a new life to be lived “faithful until death” (Revelation ).
So, when should a person be baptized? Whenever he is truly ready! Just because a person desires baptism “for the remission of sins (Acts )” does not mean he is ready.