I recently wrote up a review of Justin Peters’s book, Do Not Hinder Them: A Biblical Examination of Childhood Conversion. The short book is an excellent, critical treatment evaluating the practice of leading children hastily through a Gospel profession and the waters of baptism.
My review generated a bit of discussion among my acquaintances on Facebook. A few of them were bothered by Justin’s comments near the end of his book where he stated that if he was a pastor, he would rarely consider baptizing anyone under the age of twenty, . My dissenting friends explained that his perspective is nowhere taught in the Bible. He is saying a person under 20 years of age can comprehend military service at 18, and even marriage in some cases, but not the seriousness of a decision for Christ. His view comes across as an overreaction.
Those are fair criticisms, so allow me to offer three thoughts.
First, Justin’s book is evaluating a troubling practice deeply rooted within the larger, evangelical community. Parents and pastors believing that children who make some outward profession of faith are now true converts ready for believer’s baptism. Granted, the practice really has more to do with a watered-down, shallowly presented Gospel message than it does with children misunderstanding that message. That is a problem on the part of parents and the church, not so much the children. If a pastor routinely presents a message of easy-believism that merely requires a person to raise a hand in response to a sermon and walk the aisle in a church to pray a prayer, how exactly did that person misunderstand the content of the message? A badly presented Gospel will produce many false converts. Justin’s book does address that problem, as well as offer solutions to it.
And I should note that childhood false conversions are not exclusive to evangelical Baptists. Reformed paedobaptists encounter the same problems as well, though they may manifest in a slightly different way. People relying on their infant baptism, and who were catechized throughout their childhood, will easily develop a false sense of assurance. They will remain false converts if they do not walk entirely away from the faith.
Secondly, I did not take away from his book a legalistic command to withhold baptism from children and teens until they are 20 years of age. Perhaps we can quibble that his perspective is an overreaction, but Justin makes it clear that such would be his personal preference. Overall, nowhere in his book does he lay out his preference as a directive for all parents and pastors to follow. In fact, he writes that we cannot be dogmatic on a certain age because the Bible never gives one directly.
Thirdly, and I would imagine Justin would probably agree with me here, but ultimately the decision to lead children in a prayer of repentance and faith in Christ that eventually leads to their baptism falls to the parents exercising careful discernment. That would mean parents need to step up their game with discipling their children. Only parents who are actively engaged with their children can deterime whether or not a child is genuinely saved and ready for the commitment of baptism.