Justin Peters – Do Not Hinder Them: A Biblical Examination of Childhood Conversion
“But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. It represents over 50,000 cooperating churches with a combined membership of over 15 million. The membership rolls of the SBC have been steadily declining. In the past decade, nearly one million members have left their pews, which have, for the most part, remained unoccupied.
But, by looking carefully at the trends of baptisms in the SBC since 1970, a curious and, for author Justin Peters, most troubling trend may be seen: the explosive rate of growth for child baptisms.
In the SBC, from 1970 through 2010, baptisms of pre-schoolers reflects a 96% growth rate. Considering summaries from the voluntarily reported Annual Church Profile provided by cooperating SBC churches, the data from 2013 shows that a full 60% of churches baptized zero youth between the ages of 12-17 and 80% reported either one or zero baptisms of young adults (ages 18-29). But, as reported by a special Pastors Task Force, “the only consistently growing group in baptisms is age five and under.”
AGE. FIVE. AND. UNDER.
If you were to skip over to the SBC’s “About Us” website page, you’ll find this statement: “We use the phrase regenerate church membership to emphasize that the starting point for everything related to a Southern Baptist Church is each individual’s personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of their lives.” (Emphasis original)
The rather orthodox phrase “regenerate church membership” should be pondered carefully in light of the baptismal practices reported by SBC churches. The practice of the SBC almost seems a covert plan to populate its emptying pews with toddlers and young children, a maneuver which might offset membership declines and, perhaps, create a vested population of future givers to its Cooperative Program.
But is this practice Scripturally valid or logically responsible? Does it seem remotely possible that a FIVE-year-old (or UNDER) could reasonably explain what “regenerate” means from a theologically sound Scriptural standpoint? Does it seem reasonable to presume that a pre-schooler can accurately explain what “Savior” or “Lord” means? Is it not highly likely that the five-year-old baptismal candidate who can correctly provide prompted answers to “have you asked Jesus into your heart?” might not also give an affirming answer to the query, “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”
It is precisely this practice so egregiously exemplified in the SBC, but rampant throughout the broader evangelical church, that is the focus of Justin Peters’ book, Do Not Hinder Them: A Biblical Examination of Childhood Conversion. Peters addresses the increasing tendency of the evangelical church to baptize young children purely on the basis of a correctly answered, but simplified Bible quiz. His desire is to see the church “return to the authority of Scripture for all our beliefs and practices.”
Peters’ book is primarily geared towards pastors who must carefully and wisely counsel parents about baptizing their children in a dutiful, Scripture-informed manner. It is also written for parents who are seeking to raise their children biblically but, given the consistent lack of evangelical discretion in the matter -if not the implicit endorsement of the practice of child baptism- often find little helpful, Scriptural guidance on it.
“This work is intended to lay out a biblical and theological case that though we are to raise our children in the ‘discipline and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:14), we should wait to baptize them until they are no longer children. The nature of children, the nature of genuine conversion, the biblical and historical record, and simple observation all argue strongly that baptism should be reserved for those who have demonstrated an adult level of both comprehension and appropriation of the Gospel.” Justin Peters, Introduction
Acknowledging that his book’s premise is “completely foreign to probably upwards of 95% of evangelical churches,” Peters proceeds to astutely and biblically defend his assertions. “The baptism of young children is, in my estimation, one of evangelicalism’s most tragic departures from sound doctrine.”
In the opening chapter, Peters lays the groundwork establishing the common reality occurring in much of the church today – the propensity to eagerly, and early, baptize children that, more often than not, creates generations of false converts. This practice of premature and pre-juvenile baptism is being driven by an evangelical church in which the tenets of “easy-believism” merely require one’s verbal assent to a few key components of the Gospel in order to not only be baptized but to be declared “once saved, always saved.”
But, as Peters describes by way of the book’s fictional child example, when Billy is prematurely baptized as a child, he will likely grow into adulthood as a church-attending unregenerate or as a church-abandoning one, for the fundamental, Biblical condition of salvation is not verbal assent to a simplified Gospel, the repetition of a magical sinner’s prayer, or the trip as child through the baptistry.
“Billy is just another of the millions of false converts created by baptizing a young child who simply made intellectual assent to a few basic Bible facts without ever having truly repented of sin and been made alive in Christ.” While many might declare otherwise, in light of the grown-up Billy who either shuns church altogether or else attends church yet lives a lifestyle more aligned with culture than Christ, Peters points out that Billy is not “backslidden. Billy is lost.”
It is the minimizing of the Gospel and authentic, Biblical regeneration which not only plagues the modern church but which has also served to create “child evangelism” programs and resources that must make even more simplified the Gospel message. These techniques and resources not only must juvenilize the language for comprehension by a child, they also water down the gospel by reducing, or eliminating, the emphasis on such things as “sin, God’s wrath, repentance, grace, faith, and justification.”
Peters polemically points to one example of this dangerous trend, the popular children’s book, Lola Mazola’s Happyland Adventure: My John 3:16 Book. In it, writes Peters, “Heaven is presented as a fairytale place full of fun and excitement, the entrance to which is secured by simply reciting a prayer. There is no mention of self-denial, repentance, or counting the costs of following Christ.” Should the child who was “converted” by the Lola Mazola procedure find themselves later in life questioning the validity of their “membership in Happyland,” they need not to do as Scripture commands and “examine” themselves; they need merely to “recall filling out that commemorative certificate when he was between five and eight years of age.”
In attacking what he describes as a Roman Catholic-like elevation of evangelical church tradition to the status of authority – that of childhood baptism being a “we have always done it like that” accepted practice – Peters is not arguing that parents and Biblically-informed teachers should not carefully and consistently explain the Gospel to children. Neither is he arguing that childhood conversion does not occur. “God can and does save whomever He wishes.”
However, it is in light of the rampant biblical illiteracy so pervasive in the modern church that has focused Peters’ attention on this issue in this book. It is this woeful lack of sound doctrine, coupled with the countless examples of those baptized as children only to forsake the church later in life, that prompts Peters to “make the argument that God is not saving children as often as our baptismal records indicate.”
Do Not Hinder Them proceeds from the theological position affirming credo-baptism, or believer’s baptism, in which baptism has no salvific value, but is done in obedience to Scriptural commands and is to occur following repentance, belief, and genuine conversion. The book explains “that the nature of salvation calls for great care to be taken before baptizing a person of any age.”
But Peters points out that “the nature of children calls for particular care and caution before baptism.” The book examines the practice of child baptism from Scripture, giving careful exegesis to oft-cited proof texts that presume to validate the practice. Peters also looks at early church history which “gives no indication that children were ever baptized, much less that it was the common practice it is today.”
Peters deftly addresses the most common concerns about children and salvation. He explains the Biblical teaching on infants and children who die and offers insight from Scripture about God’s disposition towards children. (Peters affirms, along with Dr. John MacArthur, that “the compendium of biblical teaching argues strongly that they [infants and children who die] go immediately to heaven. This is not a position based upon mere feelings, but upon sound biblical doctrine.” *) The issue of an “age of accountability” is considered from the record of Scripture which merely hints – and does not prescribe – when that age might come. Though no age may be applied uniformly to all children, given the varying growth in maturity among them, Peters suggests that “the accountability of Jewish boys to the moral Law beginning at age thirteen is instructive.” But he notes, “I would say, though … that this would be the earliest time…” He later states, “If I were a pastor, I would rarely consider baptizing anyone under age twenty,” not because God isn’t saving people younger than that, but because “it is extremely difficult to tell whether the response is an emotional one or an effectual one.”
The book goes into detail regarding the common sense approach that is frequently lacking when childhood conversion is considered. The indisputable difference in the nature of children versus adults ought to dictate caution regarding too quickly pressing a child for a decision (i.e. repeat this prayer) or for prematurely baptizing them. “It seems in practically every area of life,” writes Peters, “we have no trouble understanding that there is a sizable gap between children and adults in their reasoning abilities, maturity levels, and responsibilities – except when it comes to the Gospel.”
Whether from Solomon in Proverbs – “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15) – or from the Apostle Paul – “When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11) – Scripture speaks to the natural, developmental immaturity of children.
Add to this other valid concerns about the nature of children – their desire for instant gratification, their inability to think abstractly, and their natural inquisitiveness, for example – and it seems evident that a child’s capacity to adequately understand conversion, baptism, and the tenets of the Christian life is naturally, developmentally lacking. They are simply incapable of comprehending their moral accountability before a Holy God.
“If it is true that babies and children are safe in the arms of God in the event of their deaths, they why exactly are we baptizing them?” Justin Peters
The inquisitive nature of children may often prompt the Christian parent to believe that their child’s occasional questions about God, Jesus, the Bible, or heaven might indicate the working of the Holy Spirit in their child. Yet, given the very serious and very adult aspects of Biblical regeneration, as Peters helpfully discusses, it is highly unlikely that a child who may believe babies come from storks is actually capable of understanding the fullness of the Gospel message and its demands.
“Yes, children can have an interest in the things of God and the Bible. That is good and it is how it should be for a child raised in a Christian home. This interest should be encouraged and nurtured.” But, according to Peters, “Nonetheless, this interest is not necessarily indicative of a real working of God’s Holy Spirit. Not yet. Wait on their baptism.”
In light of the author’s advocacy for parents to encourage a child’s interest in the things of God, Do Not Hinder Them includes a sorely needed, and plainly stated, exhortation to men. An entire chapter entitled “Heading Our Homes” outlines how critically important is a man’s spiritual leadership in his home. While the tragedy of scores of baptized – yet unregenerate – children could be easily blamed on the church, Peters points to the actual source of the problem. “But, the churches are not the primary cause of this failure. The churches are the secondary cause. The primary cause lies at our feet, men.”
“It should be obvious to even the casual observer that most of the children being baptized in evangelical churches do not grow up to lead lives commensurate with their childhood professions of faith. Some may maintain a casual relationship with ‘Christianity’ and church but their lives are not markedly different from their unsaved peers. On of the primary reasons for this is that few men are fulfilling their God-given role as the spiritual leader.” Justin Peters
Though this book is written primarily for pastors and parents, Do Not Hinder Them is a valuable resource for any and every believer. Particularly helpful is the book’s chapter “Looking For Fruit: How to Know When Salvation Has Come.” Since the evidence of salvation in a child will look the same as the evidence of salvation in an adult – as Peters puts it, “A young person who gets saved does not receive a junior Holy Spirit” – a clear understanding of the fruit of regeneration is helpful for all believers.
Peters here gives practical, Biblical guidance for parents who are diligent in teaching their children, because, he says, “No Christian parent would knowingly baptize his child before regeneration has been wrought in his heart.” How to know when that conversion has come can only be known by the outward evidence of the internal change wrought by the Holy Spirit.
The book details eleven “hallmarks of being regenerate” that accompany genuine salvation. These include an evident change in ones’ life, Godly sorrow, repentance, fruit of the Spirit, Godly affections, increasing personal holiness, steadfastness in persecution, a hunger for the Word, increasing discernment, a love for the brethren, and obedience to the commands of Christ.
“A person who has been baptized into the corporate body of Christ by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit will demonstrate not one, two, or even most of the above fruits, but all of them. Every. Single. One. There are no exceptions to this. None.” Justin Peters
The book concludes with an insightful look at key verses of Scripture that are often cited as a validation for baptizing children. These include Mark 9:42, Matthew 18:1-5, and Luke 18:15-17. Peters carefully exposes the errors in citing these as pro-child-baptism proof texts. He also responds to the examples of Samuel, Mary the earthly mother of Jesus, Paul’s protege Timothy, and John the Baptist who are often used as a justification for baptizing the young, but actually are not. Peters examines the historical record of the church’s practice, or lack thereof, of baptizing children. “The fact of the matter is that there is a wide gulf between the pattern recorded in the New Testament of the early church and that of the modern evangelical church,” says Peters. “The evangelistic tactics so common in today’s churches and Vacation Bible Schools has no precedence in Scripture.”
In his conclusion, Peters acknowledges that the book’s approach to child conversion and child baptism decidedly go against the prevailing thought and practice of the typical evangelical church. “The threshold for baptism laid out in this book seems like a very high bar. It is. But so is salvation.”
The risk of pursuing too young the baptism of children is far greater than the risk of waiting. “We do our children a disservice of incomprehensible proportions when we tell them they are saved simply because they have made intellectual assent to the basics of the Gospel.” Far too often, he says, stating what should be obvious to all, these children grow up to “never examine themselves to see if they are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5) and never see a need to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).”
Not only do we do our children a disservice by baptizing them too young, and by pronouncing salvation where it can likely not be verified by regenerate fruit, “we are also doing the Gospel itself a disservice,” says Peters. Instead, he encourages diligent, responsible, Christian parenting and pastoral shepherding of parents and children so that, “When, by God’s grace, the Light does transform their hearts, their subsequent baptism truly will be a meaningful event that will beautifully adorn the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Do Not Hinder Them is an incredibly helpful resource. Its use by pastors, elders, and Sunday School teachers is highly recommended. The clear, concise teaching from Scripture on a topic generally left to silence in most churches makes it a must-have tool for every Christian parent. But it is also a tremendous resource for a believer of any age and of any scope of parental responsibility. The issues plaguing the modern church, and particularly how they are reflected in children’s ministries, should be of concern to any believer.
As John MacArthur wrote in the Foreword:
” … Justin is uniquely qualified to write on these issues. I’m very grateful for this book, which I know will be a great help to parents, a welcome encouragement to everyone who ministers to young people, and a wonderful resource for adults and young people alike who want to make certain their faith is real and their grasp of gospel truth is accurate.” John MacArthur
Publication Date: Dec 26, 2016
ISBN/EAN13:1541097696 / 9781541097698
Page Count: 114
Binding Type: US Trade Paper
Trim Size: 5.5″ x 8.5″
Color: Black and White
Related Categories: Religion / Christian Ministry / Pastoral Resources
[Contributed by Bud Ahlheim]
( * A very helpful resource on infant/child death, cited in Do Not Hinder Them, is the book Safe in The Arms of God, by John MacArthur. Coupled with Justin’s, it helps provide a well-rounded, Scriptural understanding of God’s affection and grace towards children. I see these two books as must-have resources for the pastor, parent, and believer. B.A.)