Household (Infant) Baptism? (Part 1)

Does the Bible teach infant baptism? Depends on who you talk to. Certainly no text of Scripture prescribes infant baptism. Yet in Catholicism, and some Reformed circles tremendous effort is expended to justify the practice. In Reformed circles, baptism is given no link to salvation. Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and others are careful to point out that baptism doesn’t wash away sin, that baptism isn’t required for salvation, and that while it is a rite of initiation of sorts into a formalized relationship with Christianity it has no magical powers.

Romanism takes a different direction. In Catholicism baptism ‘purifies of all sins’ and is the rebirth. Salvation, in their minds, depends on baptism. For lack of a better, more accurate, descriptive term the waters of baptism are magical. Baptism is magic in Catholicism.

Infant baptism in ‘Reformed” circles. Obviously, the Reformed view described above still allows those who embrace it to remain within biblical, orthodox Christianity. The Catholic view, connecting baptism with regeneration and a means of being born again (justification), is sub-Christian and falls outside Christianity. From Jesus to the Apostles, there is no instance where baptism is prescribed in order to be saved or born again and no instance where the baptism of infants is prescribed.

Yet Catholicism and some streams of the Reformed faith make a case for infant baptism. Lacking any clear Scriptural warrant there is a reliance upon “tradition” and reading infant baptism into a phenomenon erroneously labeled “household baptism.” The interpretive process (hermeneutical and exegetical praxis) that gets them there entails reading into the text of Scripture one’s bias rather than reading from the text of Scripture (eisegesis rather an exegesis). Consequently, both have to look for a narrative rather than didactic passage (teaching passage) and force infant baptism upon it.

The baptism of the Philippian jailor and his family—is this infant baptism? The key passage employed tends to be the passage of the conversion of the Philippian Jailer and his family in Acts 16. The problem with the passage is ignoring the passages that point to the mass conversion of those who hear the gospel preceding their baptism. This is instructive because it shows the danger of taking a verse or a sentence out of context (proof-texting) which both Catholic and Reformed adherents to infant (or household) baptism must do to make their traditions appear sound. Let’s look at Acts 16:25-34.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. (Acts 16:25-34)

What is this passage about? The passage is not a lecture on theology. It’s not so much about how to be saved (although Paul does explain “how” to the jailer) or who is to be baptized—or what baptism is or is not. Think of it as a video clip of sorts from Church History in the book of Acts. It’s about Paul and Silas and their ministry to the Philippian Jailer. Understand that Acts is “history” not editorial. It’s about the spread of the Gospel through the witness and preaching of Paul and Silas.

The passage is also about the salvation of the Philippians jailer and others. The focus of the passage is the Jailor’s question (What must I do to be saved?) and Paul’s answer—and the results of Paul’s evangelism and witness. Paul answers the jailor’s question as follows, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household (Spoiler alert: you might want to pay attention to that last phrase).”

The jailer is told that salvation will come from believing in Christ. The Jailor is told “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household (v 31).” What happened next? Paul and Silas (“they”) spoke the word of the Lord to him and all who were in his house (v. 32). In the same hour of the night… he was baptized at once, he and all his family (v. 33).” Notice, all heard the gospel, the message of salvation—the jailor and all who were in his house (v. 32). And he was baptized as was his family (v. 33). Why? Because they responded to the Gospel. When were they baptized? They were baptized after hearing the gospel. Why? Presumably all in the household---hearing the gospel, like the jailor, responded to the gospel, the call to “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household (v. 31).” He and his family believed and were baptized (v. 33). A celebration followed. The entire household celebrated that the jailor had come to salvation (v. 34):

30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. (Acts 16:30-33)

Let’s ask and answer a few questions. Does Paul suggest that baptism is necessary for salvation? No he does not. His answer to that question (“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”) is “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” There is no condition added such as “believe and be baptized.” Notice the appeal is made to the Jailor for his salvation as well as the salvation of those under his roof, including his family. Here’s where people attempt to cling to the closing sentences of the passage while ignoring the opening sentences which provide them context. The command to believe in the gospel (i.e. the message /word)—"you and your household.” Was Peter saying that infants and toddlers were to believe? Does he say this explicitly? Or, does he say, ‘household?’ Nowhere does the text that commands the household to believe and be saved suggest the inclusion of infants, toddlers, and children. The household would pertain to those who could listen, comprehend, and exercise faith (belief).

Here’s where people do violence to the meaning of the passage and the text. People want to take phrases like you and your whole household or your family and impose baptism on all of them apart from salvation. Catholics and many in the Reformed Faith point to this narrative that is descriptive and like to pretend it is prescriptive. No mention is made of the baptism of children or infants. Nor is there any insinuation that having servants and paid help baptized is suggested or prescribed. If this were true and this passage prescribed household baptism in such a sense, then one’s employees would be included. What about unbelieving visitors or house guests? This would go well beyond family and children, or infants.

Is it possible that infants and toddlers were in the household? It’s possible? Is it possible that infants would be expected to believe? It’s improbable and unlikely—if not impossible?

Let’s ask and answer a few more questions about our passage and what it describes. Is it possible that infants and toddlers were not present in the household? It’s possible. Is it probable? It’s likely given what Paul said about the jailor and the household being saved by faith (believe… you and your household). Does Paul mention that baptism (infant or adult) is necessary for salvation (vv. 25-34)? No. The passage indicates that salvation follows baptism but salvation requires belief.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household (vv. 30-31).”What follows is instructive and enlightening: “32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house (Acts 16:32).”

Should we make a case for household salvation from this passage (believe, you and your household)? That would be illogical. Salvation is an individual exercise of saving faith. It just so happens that those who heard believed. In fact, people celebrated the jailor’s belief as his belief induced him to have Paul and Silas speak to the whole household.

Should we make a case for household baptism from this passage? No, that would require something akin to household salvation by relationship to the Jailor rather than Christ. Some would have us ignore the exercise of saving faith on the part of the individuals present in his household for the sake of pushing the idea of household baptism (including children, infants, servants, etc.). The reality is, based upon what the text says, that household heard the message and they believed and were baptized, including the jailer’s family as part of the household. The household believed. The household was baptized in accordance with Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20.

It is possible the household did not believe but was merely baptized as a group? Baptism in the New Testament always follows someone ‘coming to Christ.’ There is no record of knowingly baptizing unbelievers of any stripe. There is no command to do so. If the household did not believe, why did they celebrate the jailor’s belief in a foreign God that contradicted their state religion (emperor worship and the worship of the Roman Pantheon and Greek Pantheon of gods)? Why did Paul baptize the household? He did so because they embraced the gospel and Peter was obeying the command of Christ to make disciples, baptize those disciples and teach them to do all Christ commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). Paul was obeying Jesus.

Is a command for household baptism explicitly given in this passage? No, it is not. The passage is narrative (description) rather than prescriptive. No, you have to read that agenda into the text because it cannot be found within the text.

What can we explicitly know from this passage? The household believed; the household was baptized. The household celebrated the conversion of the jailor. Baptism, in the New Testament, follows conversion. Yet not everyone is baptized after conversion. And this lack of baptism does not affect their salvation. Think of the thief on the cross. He is told he will be with Christ that day in Paradise—without being baptized.

Regeneration, justification, conversion, and salvation always precede baptism. Baptism does not convert, justify or regenerate. Furthermore, New Testament baptism is “believers baptism.” Infants cannot exercise saving faith—they can’t even talk or understand the Gospel message—or know to take care of themselves. Believer’s baptism is the practice of the New Testament. From the Ethiopian Official to Lydia. Her salvation came this way: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul (Acts 16:14).” Her household was baptized as well (like the Philippian Jailor); however, no mention is made of her family and it appears she was not married and had no children. We do well to remember that Jesus taught that baptism follows conversion. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) we find the baptismal formula coming after the making of disciples, not before (as would be the case with children):

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

This passage (Matthew 28: 18-20), unlike the passages above (in Acts) is prescriptive. We have Jesus prescribing conduct. To that end, Paul in his letter to the unruly church at Corinth, indicates that baptism was not essential in that, in Paul’s view, it was not his priority:

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)

Consider the implications of what Paul is saying. He implies and indicates that he neither came to baptize nor impress with eloquent speech “lest the cross be emptied of its power.” Christ sent Paul to preach the gospel first and foremost. If baptism resulted in justification or conversion—if it washed away sin, then it is unlikely the Holy Spirit speaking through the pen of the Apostle would have given us 1 Corinthians 1:17.

Let’s talk about next week. In part two, next week, we will consider the narrative of the conversion, then baptism of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10:30-48). You may wish to read and familiarize yourself with this text between now and Thursday. As you read, try and read from the text rather than reading things into the text (like infant baptism or baptismal regeneration—salvation through baptism). As yourself three questions:

1. What does the text say?

2. What does the text mean?

3. What then shall I do or how shall I think?

See you next week! Click here for the conclusion.

Keith Crosby