By John Mark Hicks
What is the relationship of our children to the kingdom of God?
Within the Restoration Movement we have historically held that children are safe (without sin) until they reach the “age of accountability,” at which time they own their sin and become sinners (guilty). At that point, as I generally understand the theology, children are not only unsafe but also outside the grace of God. They do not belong to the kingdom.
Consequently, children (ranging from ages 9-13 generally) are instructed about baptism, their sin, and their need for Jesus. As a result, Restoration Movement churches usually reap a baptismal harvest from among their children between the ages of 9-13. (I was 11 when I was baptized by my father.)
This approach assumes that children move from safe to lost and then are saved when they are baptized. (I was baptized so I would not go to Hell.) The tricky point, however, is how to identify the exact moment, time, and circumstance when they move from safe to lost. Existentially this is an important question. If an unbaptized child dies at the age of 10, is the child safe or lost? What if the child is 13 or 15? It is a harsh question but a living one.
I would hope we might all have the grace and mercy to say the deceased child now experiences the embrace of the loving Father covered in the mercy of Jesus. But on what theological or biblical grounds do we say that, if we also believe that children within the church move from safe to lost at some point that we cannot identify? Do we live, then, with ambiguity?
Safe and Saved
When I baptized my daughter at the age of 11, I can say with absolute certainty that if she had died the night before, I would have “preached her into Heaven” (as the saying goes). In my mind, at least, my daughter was not baptized to move her from lost to saved.
So what do we do with this theological impasse? I suppose one could argue that my love for my daughter blinded me to her “lostness.” I suppose one could suggest she was not ready for baptism if she was not lost, and perhaps she was baptized too early. But I question the theological underpinnings of the notion that our children move from safe to lost to saved (once baptized).
My daughter always believed in Jesus. There was never a time when she did not believe. She always believed according to her capacity to believe. Her faith developed through various levels of understanding and discipleship, but her faith was present throughout. From her first singings of “Jesus Loves Me” to her confession of faith at her baptism—faith was a constant in her life.
What do I do with that? I believe that through faith she was not merely safe but saved, that is, living in communion and relationship with God as her faith developed and her discipleship matured. As our children grow up in faith and live within a faith community, they enjoy relationship with God through family, community, and their own childlike faith.
An Act of Faith
Their growth in faith is marked throughout their family and communal life. Some faith communities have rituals to mark the various moments of faith—something as simple as reciting the Lord’s Prayer or as dramatic as a “graduation into the youth group.” The most dramatic, biblical, and initiatory ritual is baptism.
When our children who have been nurtured in faith and have expressed their faith in a multitude of ways come to baptism, I do not believe they come as lost people. Rather, they come as children of the church, children of the faith community. They come already belonging to the kingdom of God—they are neither lost nor safe, but already in communion with God.
They come to baptism to declare their faith. They come to publicly embrace their discipleship. They come to become full participants in the life of the faith community through owning their own faith and committing themselves to following Jesus to the cross. They follow Jesus into the water in order to follow him to the cross.
Baptism for our children is a climactic act of faith. It dramatically initiates them into a life of discipleship that they have now owned within the community.
The Example of Jesus
The baptism of Jesus is a model for this. Jesus did not come to his baptism as one who was lost. He came to his baptism to declare his discipleship—a follower of the Father who intended to do the will of the Father, even to the cross. His baptism began his public ministry, his public life as a disciple.
But he had been a disciple long before his baptism. Joseph and Mary had nurtured him in faith. He had been taught at the synagogue, and he had celebrated Israel’s redemption at the Passover. In effect, he had matured as a disciple through his first 30 years and owned his mission at his baptism in obedience to the Father.
Our children do something analogous. Family and community have nurtured them. They have walked a path of faith and discipleship throughout their years. And when they come to their baptism, they do not come as lost little people. They come as believers—people who have lived in relationship with God since their birth—ready to own their discipleship, declare their allegiance to the Father, and commit to the way of the cross as followers of Jesus.
A Higher View
This view of baptism is a bit higher than just moving from lost to saved. To convince a child he has done bad things and he needs forgiveness is a much simpler task than to wait for him to own his discipleship and commit to the way of the cross.
Perhaps if we thought our children lived in communion with God through faith, we would not rush them to the water as soon as they become aware of some distinctions about good and evil. Perhaps if we thought our children were saved by God’s grace through faith, we could patiently wait for the moment when they are 14 or 16 or even 18 for them to declare their discipleship and take up the mission of Jesus.
I am not suggesting a particular age for baptism. I do not know what that should be. Every person must decide for himself. What I am suggesting is that it is misguided to pressure our children into baptism in order to soothe our own worries and fears about their salvation.
While I do not know if David Lipscomb, the famed (or infamous?) editor of the Gospel Advocate in the late 19th century, would agree with what I have written above, he did believe a child was sufficiently prepared for baptism if she believed she was acting in obedience to the Father whether she believed she had sinned or not. I offer a statement from his pen not only for historical perspective but for careful reflection as well.
When one reared in the training and instruction of the Lord like Timothy desires to enter Christ, his case is divine inspiration to guide him. The little girl’s wish to be baptized because Jesus wanted her to be is as much the direction of the Spirit of God as for the murderers of the Lord to “be baptized into the remission of sins.” Those desirous to learn and do the will of God while children cannot be oppressed with a heavy weight of guilt, but find direction into the body of Christ, where all evils are banished and all blessings abound. Were one as faithful as the Son of God to be found, it would only be necessary that he be baptized to fulfill the will of God (David Lipscomb, “A Summary. No. 2,” Gospel Advocate 56 [1 January 1914] 11).
John Mark Hicks serves as professor of theology at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee.