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In a social media conversation with a highly respected brother with a baptistic understanding of the sacraments, following a post (of mine) I expressed my belief that the incidences of household baptisms in the New Testament were one of the evidences that children were baptised in the early church.  My friend dismissed this view (household baptism as a substantive argument) as ‘ridiculous’ – and asked me a series of questions, challenging my position.

Social media, of any kind, is not a good place to continue such a discussion, due to the inability to post lengthy discussion point, and it is always dangerous to reduce one’s theology to soundbites. Further, it is not beneficial for Christians to be discussing theological differences in a public forum, where the world is watching. Since neither my baptist brother nor myself will believe that baptism is a saving ordinance, the matter is adiaphora, and should be discussed between believers, in a reasonable and courteous manner, and in a place where unbelievers will not be spectators. For that reason, I have given my answers below, on this blog, and I hope that in doing so I presenting my understanding of the issue in a loving and gracious manner, understanding that Christians have disagreed on this doctrine for many years, (theologians and church historians who are more able than me) and that we will not resolve it on a blog post.

Having said all of that, here’s my friend’s four challenges to my argument, and the answers that I offer:-

Challenge 1. And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” [Acts 16:31 ESV] so either the jailer and his household had to believe in order to be saved OR the household were saved on account of the jailer believing. Which is it Bob?

What an excellent question. Which option shall I choose? Actually, neither! A simple, first-level, contextual examination of the text will help us to see exactly what was going on in the jailer’s house that day. Let’s see what we know for certain about the people in the narrative:

  1. The jailer made an ernest spiritual enquiry. 29And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The language used suggests that the had been aware of the conversation between Pail and the slave girl, earlier in the chapter, who under the influence of ‘a spirit of divination’ was crying out that Paul and the others were servants of the Most High God, who proclaim the way of salvation.’ It’s interesting that the jailer, like most ungodly people, thought that he had to DO SOMETHING in order to be saved. Paul and Silas corrected that, with their reply, And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” SO:-
  2. We know that the jailer was pointed to Christ as the only way of salvation, through faith alone.
  3. We know that the jailer was promised that through faith in Christ all his family could also be saved.
  4. We know that the jailer and his family heard the Gospel. 32And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
  5. We know that the jailer believed and was saved. There is the evidence of a changed life, for the man who once had ruthlessly and illegally cast Paul and Silas into the darkest deepest part of the prison, and placed them in stocks, was now washing their wounds and feeding them. 33And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; 34Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them.
  6. We know that the jailer was baptised, as was his house. and he was baptised at once, he and all his family.
  7. We know that the whole family rejoiced at what the Lord had done. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

BUT we do NOT know the spiritual condition of his family, other than the fact that:

  • They had been promised that through faith in Christ they could be saved.
  • They had heard the Gospel preached.
  • They had been baptised.
  • They rejoiced with the jailer at HIS conversion.

The wording of verse 34 is crucial. The ESV is very clear, and the account given by Luke in Acts is very precise. The jailer rejoiced, and his whole family rejoiced with him, because HE (the JAILER) had been saved. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. The phrase used in the Greek is πεπιστευκως τω θεω – he believed in God. πεπιστευκως is SINGULAR.

There is only one logical conclusion to be drawn from this, and it is that when the jailer believed and was saved, his household, (whatever the membership of that household was) was brought within the terms of the Covenant of Grace, and to seal that relationship, were baptised, as are our covenant children today, who have all the privileges of that covenant relationship enjoyed by the jailer’s family,

  • They are the inheritors of the promise of salvation, Acts 2,
  • They are brought under the sound of gospel preaching and catachesis,
  • They are brought within the worshipping, visible church, and taught the importance of reverence and worship
  • They are BAPTISED – to as a sign and seal of the covenant.

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 27, Q/A74. Are infants also to be baptised? Yes, for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God,(1) and through the blood of Christ(2) both redemption from sin and the Holy Ghost, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents,(3) they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers,(4) as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision,(5) in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed.(6) (1)Gen. 17:7. (2)Mt. 19:14. (3)Lk. 1:14-15; Ps. 22:10; Acts 2:39. (4)Acts 10:47. (5)Gen. 17:14. (6)Col. 2:11-13.

Bryan Chappell writes, “Paul’s words (Acts 16:30-31) do not mean that the rest of the household would automatically express genuine, saving faith in Christ, but his presumption was that the faith of the head of the household would govern the life and faith patterns of the rest of the man’s family. As a result the jailer’s entire family was baptised that night.” (Why we Baptise Infants, P&R, Page 18)

Derek Thomas writes, “As with Lydia… his household received the sign and seal of baptism, signalling once again a covenant pattern of baptismal administration.” (Thomas, DWH, “Acts” P&R, Page 470)


Challenge 2. …The word household doesn’t have to mean there were infants or young children in the family.
No it doesn’t. But it might! So that’s not actually an objection. Here’s why.

Firstly, we must be very careful not to make the mistake of seeing the biblical ‘household’ through modern culture. The Biblical family is not like your family or mine. We think in terms of a ‘nuclear’ family – a small unit of father and mother and children (if any) The biblical ‘household’ was much more extensive. When the covenant sign of circumcision was first applied in the Old Testament, the household included all of one’s living (resident) relatives, dependants, servants etc.

Genesis 14:14-16 When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.

Genesis 17:23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him.

Secondly, Jewish fathers were considered to be the ‘representative head’ of the family. This seems to be totally foreign to modern culture, where the secular notion of ‘equality’ has vilified and destroyed the concept of headship, even in evangelical circles. The presumption is that the head of a household is to lovingly teach and lead his family (to be their pastor) Ephesians 5:22-6:4, Colossians 3:18-21, 1 Peter 3:1-7; to be responsible to instruct his family in the faith, lead them in worship and set examples for them to follow. The faith of the father, the head of the home, brought obligation to exercise faith to the other members of the household.

These ideas of ‘household’ persisted right throughout two thousand years of OT history. It was a prominent part of Jewish culture and society, and there is no indication whatsoever that NT writers had any other perspective. The Jewish people of the NT would therefore have been appalled if the new covenant had excluded their children, and would have needed serious corrective doctrinal instruction. There is no evidence that such teaching was ever advanced or applied by the apostles


Challenge 3. If you want to go down the baptism/circumcision road then surely you could argue that all those who were born into the covenant people and commanded to receive the sign, received it. So in the new covenant all who are born again into the covenant people receive the sign. Birth and then the sign. Born again and then the sign.

You could. Except that your analogy breaks down because there were those in ancient Israel who received the covenant sign who were ‘visibly’ part of Israel, but who were far from being in a saving relationship with God through faith, in other words, were ‘heirs of the promise’ as opposed to ‘heirs of salvation’ Paul wrote, in Romans 9:6-8  But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

G I Williamson writes:

God commanded Abraham to give the covenant sign, which at that time was circumcision, both to himself and to his mail children. He also said that this command would continue throughout all generations. When Jesus Christ came, as the true Messiah of God, he did not abrogate the covenant that God had made with Abraham. That is why Scripture says, ‘If you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.’ (Galatians 3:29) The only difference now is that circumcision has now been replaced by water baptism (Col. 2:11-12) and is now applied to males and females. (Acts 8:12) Williamson G I, The Heidelberg Confession, P&R, Page 125

Further, to ask that question at all is to imply that baptism is only ‘an outward indication of an inward experience’ – a phrase that I have heard used by baptists to explain the chief purpose of the sacrament. It is a poor sacrament indeed that points ONLY to US rather than primarily to Christ. The Reformed view of the sacrament is that it is a sign that points us to Christ, and what He did for us on the Cross, shedding His blood to wash away our sins – not to our decision or experience. In that sense the recipients of baptism are passive, (like children!)

Heidelberg Catechism, LORD’S DAY 26
Q/A 69. How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?
Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water (1) and joined to it this promise,(2) that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away.(3) (1)Mt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:38. (2)Mt. 3:11; Mk. 16:16; Rom. 6:3-4. (3)Mk. 1:4.

Q/A 70. What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?
It is to have the forgiveness of sins from God through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us in His sacrifice on the cross;(1) and also to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, so that we may more and more die unto sin and lead holy and unblamable lives.(2) (1)Heb. 12:24; I Pet. 1:2; Rev. 1:5; Zech. 13:1; Ezek. 36:25-27. (2)Jn. 1:33; 3:3; I Cor. 6:11; 12:13; Heb. 9:14.

 Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 94 Q: What is baptism? A: Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,1 doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ,2 and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace,3 and our engagement to be the Lord’s.4

1. Matthew 28:19. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

2. 1 Corinthians 11:23. For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread… (see context)
3. Galatians 3:27. For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ.
4. Romans 6:3. Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptised into Jesus Christ were baptised into his death?
5. Romans 6:4. Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

Challenge 4. The new covenant is better in this sense that all those people in the new covenant receive the sign not just the boys.

The New Covenant is undoubtedly better, – but not for this reason.

But first, why was the sign of the old covenant (circumcision) restricted to boys only? There is one obvious reason of course, for circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the male. The effects of this was beneficial for both male and female, for the removal of the foreskin was a practical measure to promote cleanliness and prevent spread of disease in a land where personal hygiene was not easy, due to lack of water etc. The benefits extended to both sexes. (Female ‘circumcision’ such as practiced among Muslims was not for personal hygiene or disease prevention – it is in effect genital mutilation, and is usually performed for sexual purposes). Because of the practical importance of circumcision, the people of Israel would have been acutely aware of its spiritual significance as a sign of God’s favour.

Circumcision symbolised HOLINESS.
Circumcision symbolised DIFFERENCE from the ungodly nations.
Circumcision symbolised a BLOOD SACRIFICE which was necessary to be part of the covenant people of God. This was a foreshadowing of the blood shed by Christ at the cross for our sins, – the once for all sacrifice – as a result of which no further blood would be shed in atonement for sins.

So the sacramental sign, administered to the boys and men was a sign and seal for both male and female, and effective for both.

So, what makes the new administration of the covenant better? Not the extent of its sign and seal, but its reality!  We find reference to this in Hebrews 7.21-22 “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever.’” This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The new covenant is better because in it the shadows and types have become reality, – and so this covenant has a better priesthood, with a better High Priest. The old covenant was passing away, but the new covenant is better, because it is eternal!

A brief summary of Covenant Baptism from Pastor Randy Booth, who summarises the case for Covenant Baptism of Households as follows:

1. Covenant Theology. Throughout the bible, God relates to his people by way of a covenant of grace. Covenant theology provides the basic framework for rightly interpreting Scripture.
2. Continuity of the Covenant of Grace. The Bible teaches one and the same way of salvation in both the Old and the New Testaments, despite some different outward requirements.
3. Continuity of the People of God. Since there is one covenant of grace between God and man, there is one continuous people of God (the church) in the Old and New Testaments.
4. Continuity of the Covenant Signs. Baptism is the sign of the covenant in the New Testament, just as circumcision was the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament.
5. Continuity of Households. Whole households are included in God’s redemptive covenant.
(Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism, p. 8.)


Finally, I contend that it is unfair to label the ‘Household baptism’ argument ‘ridiculous.’   The number of serious reformed theologians who use this argument in their systematic theology, including Michael Horton,, Kevin DeYoung,, RC Sproule,, Louis Berkhof (among many others) would indicate that it is in fact a very substantive issue indeed.

One Comment
  1. Let me just make it clear my original comment was in response to the picture you posted that had written on it ‘No infant baptism, huh? I wonder what that ‘you and your household’ means then?’

    Challenge 1
    First of all, Bob, you say there is only one logical conclusion to this, that is, the jailer only believed but all his household were converted. This is based on the reading of the ESV. A broader look at the context again will cast doubt on your interpretation. Throughout Acts, up until chapter 16 baptism has always followed the individual coming to faith in Christ. There is no reference to people being converted and then bringing their household along to be baptised with them. Why? If this was such a momentous change from the boys being circumcised why is there no reference to this? Why change the order of things here in Acts 16? If you look at the NIV you will see it says ‘The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God– he and his whole family’ [Acts 16:34 NIVUK]. The NIV emphasises that all had come to faith in Christ before being baptised which is in keeping with what I have just explained.

    The Heidelberg Catechism points us to Col 2v11-13 – ‘In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins’ [Colossians 2:11-13 NIVUK] It begs the question, when are we circumcised in Christ? When did we put off the sinful nature? Was it not at conversion? So the connection is between circumcision and conversion.

    Challenge 2
    Thanks for the insightful look at the OT view of the Jewish household. Unfortunately, in the NT the covenant people of God are not just Jewish, but Gentile as well. Surely there would have been some clear teaching in the NT for the benefit of the Gentile believers that shows that infant baptism replaces circumcision. Where is it? Of course, the New Covenant doesn’t exclude the children of believers – they will be saved if they trust in Christ, just like their parents.

    Challenge 3
    The analogy doesn’t break down Bob. Yes, not everyone who was circumcised entered a living relationship with God, but nor does every child who is baptised!!
    I am not sure who you have been listening to, but as a baptist I have always taught and believed that baptism is an outward form of what the Lord has done for the believer. It points to Christ 100%

    Challenge 4
    Totally agree with you here, brother. But my point is also valid.

    No, it is because I do not see infant baptism taught in Scripture. If it was such a momentous shift from circumcising just the infant boys to baptising both boys and girls I would have expected more emphasis on it in the NT and it isn’t there.

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