I recently baptized our eldest grandson, Christian. He is nine years old and because of his age I had some hesitation before going ahead with his baptism. There are many examples in the Bible of people who were spiritually sensitive at an early age. Samuel was a young boy when called by God to serve as prophet (I Samuel 3:1-21); and it was said of Jesus as a boy that He grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52); and Paul, in speaking of Timothy, said that he grew wise to the point of salvation through his early knowledge of Scriptures (II Timothy 3:15).
These and others seemed to have not only the intuitive understanding of God's existence that children, not yet limited by adult cynicism and doubt, have, but also a natural ability to grasp the essence of spiritual ideas not yet mastered by those much older than themselves. Of course, not all children Christian's age have this ability but some do, and it is important that as adult believers we not too quickly dismiss their desire to be baptized when they ask for it.
In my experience I have found it helpful to ask four questions in order to determine if a youngster is ready to be baptized.
#1 - Why?
Asking why helps me understand what is motivating this child to ask for baptism.
The main reason, of course, is to be saved but the Bible uses a variety of metaphors to describe this experience. For example, in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus sends His Apostles to "make disciples" of all nations. In this passage salvation is described in terms of discipleship. In other words, the saved are referred to as disciples. Another example is found in Mark 16:15-16 where Jesus tells His Apostles that those who believe and are baptized will be saved. Here there is no mention of "discipleship," and the saved are those who obey His command to be baptized. In another passage Jesus speaks of the saved as those who are "born of water and the spirit" (John 3:5), a reference to those who have been baptized and received the gift of the Holy Spirit described by Peter in Acts 2:38.
The point I am making here is that any person, or child for that matter, that gives a Bible reason for wanting baptism (i.e. I want to become a disciple, I want to obey Jesus, I want my sins forgiven, I want to be born again, or as in Christian's case: I want to go to heaven) has the proper motivation to enter the waters of baptism. Conversely, if the reason given is not related to salvation objectively or thematically (I want to be baptized on my birthday, I want to do like my brother, I want to take communion, etc.) then this person needs more teaching before entering the water.
#2 - Who?
The basis of salvation is Jesus Christ. He earns it for us through His cross, and our faith in Him expressed in repentance and baptism is what saves us. A good test of spiritual maturity and readiness for anyone, including children, is to ask who they believe Jesus to be and what is the relationship between Jesus, our faith in Him, salvation and baptism. What is important here is not if they know this when you ask them. What is key is if they believe it once you have explained it to them! Even the scholar and debater, Apollos, needed to be taught more fully regarding this question (Acts 18:24-26). People, and that includes children, shouldn't be automatically disqualified from baptism because they need more teaching about the person of Christ and the nature of salvation. Some understand readily and accept as true immediately this critical teaching, others may take more time. Their response should guide the waiting time between requesting baptism and the actual receiving of this act.
#3 - What?
Another question I ask is, "What will happen when you are baptized?"
This query also speaks to motivation but from the perspective of need. What spiritual need is being met here? I use this question to lay out the benefits that one comes into when responding to Christ in faith through baptism.
For example, at baptism one's sins are forgiven (Acts 2:38), one enters the body of Christ, the church (Acts 2:39), at baptism one washes away sins and has a clear conscience before God (Acts 22:16; I Peter 3:21). This information helps the adult and child more fully appreciate what is taking place spiritually as they submit to the ritual in the water.
#4 - How?
How as in how will this be done and how long should one wait? Knowing what one thinks about this guides me in what to teach this person who may have the right reasons for wanting baptism but may not be familiar or mistaken about biblical baptism, and when is the appropriate time to receive it.
In Christian's case he knew the method, having witnessed many baptisms at the church where he attends with his parents, but he wanted to do it at Christmas time when his family came to visit us in Oklahoma from South Carolina. This told me that he had the right reason (...go to heaven) but needed instruction as to the difference between lost and saved.
This is why I flew to South Carolina and had a study with him explaining in more detail the difference between "lost" and "saved" in a way that his young mind could grasp the urgency of going forward once the proper reason and method for baptism were understood and accepted.
He was quite joyful on the day he was buried with Christ in baptism. He doesn't yet grasp all the spiritual gifts he has received from God by obeying the gospel nor does he fully understand the terrible consequences one would suffer by refusing so great a salvation, but his faith and obedience are as genuine as can be for one so young. His happiness and relief stem from the very real belief that he is now sure that he is indeed going to heaven to be with God, Jesus, and in his own words, "that Spirit person." Hey... he's only nine!!