In a booklet for people preparing for baptism I wrote:
Baptism is a dramatic way of declaring that we belong to Jesus. The only prop needed is a large quantity of water. The spectators are asked to imagine that this water is a watery grave. So when you go under the water, you will identity yourself with Jesus who died and was buried, as for one split second you will disappear, like Jesus, off the face of the earth (in most Baptist churches as you are baptised you will be taken backwards into the horizontal position of a coffin!). Then like Jesus, you will symbolically rise from death. In baptism then you will in effect be saying: ‘Yes, Lord, you died for me. Yes, Lord, you rose for me.’
Baptism is more than a dramatic statement of belief. From Paul’s declaration of the newly baptised as, rising to “live a new life” (Romans 6.4 GNB) it is clear that there are ethical implications too. As you go under the water you will be declaring your resolve to die to your old way of living and, as you rise from the water, you will be declaring your resolve to follow Jesus’ pattern for living. The implications for your attitude, for instance, to work, to money, to sex and to relationships are enormous. It is no exaggeration to describe baptism as a revolutionary act.
Yes, I know that there is more to baptism than this. Baptism is the place where God’s grace meets our faith – it is where the believer responds to the grace of God. In baptism God blesses us with his Spirit; through baptism we become members of Christ’s church. Baptism too is the moment when hands are laid on us and prayer is made that we may be filled afresh with God’s Spirit for witness and service. But in this blog the aspect of baptism I wish to highlight is ‘the cost of discipleship’. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
When Christ calls a man (sic), He bids him (sic) come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man (sic) at his call.
It is precisely because of this understanding of baptism that Baptist churches in the UK do not baptise children – although I gather that in parts of the USA some ‘Southern Baptists’ can baptise children as young as six or seven. Baptism is much more than simply saying ‘I love Jesus’; rather it is the great moment when we nail our colours to the mast and declare that we belong to Jesus, for now and for eternity. Baptism goes way beyond the Gospel truth of John 3.16: rather it is our response to the call of Jesus to deny self, to take up our cross and to follow him (Mark 8.34). Baptism is not just for believers, it is for disciples. Baptism is not for children who have no understanding of the cost of discipleship, rather it is for those who have begun to feel the weight of the cross.
It is this understanding of baptism which underlies the fact that in a small survey of retired Baptist ministers I discovered that the average age for baptism was seventeen. Over the years I have baptised hundreds of people – only rarely did I baptise somebody under fourteen years of age. I wanted to ensure that my baptismal candidates appreciated that to be a Christian is to go against the stream (see Romans 12.2).
Of the twenty people in the survey, thirteen had been brought up in a Christian home. I would imagine that for most – if not all – of these thirteen people there had never been a time when they did not love Jesus. Nonetheless they had to wait until they were older before they were baptised. I am glad, for instance, that although I ‘opened my life to Christ’ when I was eight years old, I was not baptised until I was thirteen. At eight I was not ready for baptism, for I had yet to become clear about the demands of Christian discipleship. By the time I was thirteen, as a result of living in Switzerland for two years, I was well aware of the thousands of Anabaptists who had been burnt at the stake. Indeed, I was baptised in Zurich only a stone’s throw away from the River Limmat where Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer had drowned hundreds of Anabaptist women on so-called ‘ducking’ stools (the men were burnt). I had non-conformity etched on my soul!
It would be interesting to do a survey of the ages of people being baptised in Baptist churches today. I have a feeling that the average age for young people could be significantly lower. Some argue that that if ‘the age of discretion’ is twelve, then churches should not hesitate to baptise twelve-year-olds – this, of course, is the age for a Jewish boy or girl to become a ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ of the law (bar or bath mitzwah). Others argue that even by the age of twelve children from Christian families are beginning to realise that following Jesus today is no soft option – certainly in terms of sexual mores twelve year olds are much more ‘savvy’ than many of us were. Or could it be that many British Baptists today have ‘dumbed down’ the significance of baptism? Waiting for a young person to reach their mid-teens could bring down the minister’s baptismal statistics!
One final thought: presumably the same arguments apply to the age when people should consider confirmation?