Eventually I came to what I believed was the crux of the debate about baptism. The crucial question I asked myself was: Is it likely the apostles understood baptism as a household rite and ceremony, like circumcision was, or is it more likely they understood it as something only meant for individuals—specifically believers?
The Baptist in me saw a clear case for baptizing individual believers: the Bible speaks to baptized men and women as if their baptism meant something to them personally—as if it went hand-in-hand with their conversion. Baptist and paedobaptist alike recognize that baptism in the New Testament is coupled with conversion. But going back to our crucial question, I asked myself: Was conversion to the faith something only individuals did, or was it something for whole households as well?
The Covenant with Abraham’s Household
The Bible is full of covenants, solemn agreements between God and specific groups of people. A foundational covenant God established between Himself and His chosen people is the Abrahamic covenant. God’s first promise to Abraham has profound implications for us:
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
God would spend the rest of Abraham’s lifetime spelling out the implications of these promises and building on them: a promised land, a promised family and nation, and a promised blessing. God would later ratify these promises through a formal compact or covenant (Genesis 15:18; 17:1-14; Exodus 2:24).
There are many aspects to this covenant, but three observations are relevant to our discussion of baptism.
1. The Abrahamic covenant is still binding for Christians today. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul recalls the promise of Genesis 12, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In this, Paul says, God preached the gospel to Abraham, promising that someday all families, not just those of Abraham’s lineage, would enter into Abraham’s blessing (Galatians 3:8).
Christ came, born into Abraham’s line, and as the Messiah he is the ultimate “offspring of Abraham” (v.16), the true and final heir of Abraham’s family. And in his mercy, Christ shares these blessings with the nations: “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (v.14); “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (v.22). As Christians, we too are a part of Abraham’s covenant.
2. The Abrahamic covenant calls its members to faith. God came to Abraham in a vision and promised that, although he was childless, someday his very own son would be his heir. He then brought Abraham outside under the night sky, saying, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5). The author of Genesis tells us that in that moment Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (v.6).
Three concepts are worth noting here. First, Abraham was a man of faith. Though Sarah’s womb was barren and she was well past child-bearing years, and although Abraham himself was old and unfit to sire children, “he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20-21).
Second, God justified Abraham in his sight because of his faith. Paul writes that had Abraham been justified by personal merit, he would have had something to boast about. But this was not true: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'” (Romans 4:3). Abraham was counted as righteous, but not because he had merited righteousness.
Third, Abraham serves as a model of justification by faith. Paul points out, we receive the Holy Spirit not by works of the law but by hearing with faith, just as Abraham did (Galatians 3:5-6; Romans 4:5). “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:9). The same was true in Abraham’s day: he served as a model of faith and obedience for his own household (Genesis 18:19).
3. The Abrahamic covenant was with Abraham’s whole household. God promised Abraham he would be God to him and to his offspring after him (Genesis 17:7). As I’ve explained in previous posts, the world of the Old and New Testaments was patrilineal: the father was the patriarch who represented his entire household. When God made a covenant with Abraham, his whole household was included.
God gave Abraham’s household “the covenant of circumcision.” This special mark was given to all males in his household, from the infants eight days old, to the slaves, to Abraham himself. This mark was a sign of the covenant between Abraham and God (Genesis 17:11). It was a sign that symbolized a call to inner cleansing and served as a ceremonial consecration to God. It was a mark that guaranteed to Abraham and his descendants the genuineness of God’s covenant: it was God’s signature of promise and his mark of ownership.
Faith and Family Solidarity
Still the question remains: If Abraham’s covenant was a covenant of faith, why then was the covenant sign (circumcision) applied to those who did not yet make a profession of faith?
This is where the principle of headship is important. Family solidarity was more strongly experienced in the ancient world than today. Joachim Jeremias calls this a “corporate personality,” explaining:
“People felt the solidarity, the mutual responsibility and the unity of the group. All important questions were decided by the father of the household and his decision was binding on all. In particular in its relation to God the household was a unity. Correspondingly it was normal for the ancient mind to regard the faith of the father of the household as decisive, if a household broke away from the old religious community and embraced a new religion.”1
This is why Paul could say that children in the home of a believer—and even an unbelieving spouse—are “holy” before God (1 Corinthians 7:14).
As circumcised children grew up, Paul says circumcision served as God’s seal of the promise of justification by faith (Romans 4:11). It was a visible pledge from God, a reminder and guarantee that God will honor his covenant with Abraham’s people. And what was his pledge? To justify those who have faith. The mark served as a reminder to each Israelite that they would be counted righteous like Abraham if they, too, had the faith of Abraham.
In other words, it did not matter to God that the timing of circumcision in the life of an infant did not coincide with a profession of faith. Circumcision was a household sign that sealed to all its members both the blessings (justification) and conditions (faith) of God’s covenant. It was a sign, first and foremost, of the covenant itself, a covenant embraced primarily by the head of the home, and then secondarily by others.
Jewish Proselytes and Household Baptisms
In Jewish culture, was the representative principle applied only in circumcision, or did this get carried over into other religious rites and ceremonies?
Before the coming of Christ, when a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism they would often undergo a ceremonial baptism. Proselyte baptism was administered as a bath of purification upon conversion. Joachim Jeremias convincingly shows that the oldest evidence for proselyte baptism can be dated as far back as the second century B.C. In fact, in the century before Christ, the great Jewish teachers Shammai and Hillel debated about the timing of baptism, but both assumed it as a normal practice for Gentile converts.2
More importantly for our discussion, Jeremias states, “when Gentiles adopted the Jewish faith it was completely taken for granted that at the same time the children also, including very young children, should be received into the Jewish faith.”3 If they were present, children—even infants—were baptized right along with their parents.
Baptized into Moses
Jewish theologians searched the Scriptures to find some precedent for proselyte baptism since it was, admittedly, not commanded by God in the law of Moses. In the first century, the famous Rabbi Gamaliel I from the school of Hillel pointed to the Red Sea crossing as a sort of “baptism.” Just a Israel’s immersion into the sea separated them from Egypt, so a Gentile’s baptism separates him from his former life and inducts him into a new life.4
Paul, who was trained at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), echoes this same line of reasoning in order to give his churches a sense of connection to their spiritual forefathers. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, Paul writes, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
While Paul is not talking about the details of Christian baptism here, it is noteworthy that he presupposes a type of “baptism” which is shared not just by professing believers, but an entire community—including all its children.
Household Baptisms in the New Testament
Of course, this does not prove that Christian baptism was influenced by proselyte baptism practices. Rather it provides for us a cultural framework for understanding the New Testament. When we read the New Testament, do we find the church mirroring this model of household baptism, or was baptism reserved purely for individuals expressing personal faith?
In the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) and the New Testament the words oikos and oikia can be translated “home,” “house,” or “household.” These works can refer to a place of residence, a place of worship (“the house of the Lord” or “my Father’s house”), or a collective reference to a group of people (“the house of Israel” or “the household of God”).
Keep in mind, in the Greco-Roman context of the first century, a household consisted not only of husband, wife, and children, but even grandparents, extended family, married offspring, in-laws, slaves, and other beneficiaries. Of course each household was different, but a household could be a large and diverse group.
In the New Testament the words oikos and oikia are used in reference to a number of household baptisms. These include the households of Lydia (Acts 16:15), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:32-33), Crispus the synagogue leader (Acts 18:8), and Stephanus (1 Corinthians 1:16). Cornelius’ household was also baptized, although the term oikos is not used in that context (Acts 10:28; 11:14).
These texts indicate that the apostles understood baptism not just as a rite for believers, but also their households.
Countering My Baptist Objections
The argument seems cut-and-dry. (1) The Jews embraced the notion of family solidarity when it came to faith and worship, as seen in the rite of infant circumcision. (2) By the days of Christ, baptism of converts was already understood as a household rite. (3) The New Testament gives multiple examples of household baptisms.
But the Baptist in me had several objections:
1. But there aren’t any infants mentioned in these texts. True. If there were, there would be little room for debate about this.
Sinclair Ferguson wisely states that while an infant would of course be included as a member of a household if one was present, this is not even the point. The point is that baptism of an entire household echoes the pattern governing circumcision in Genesis 17:11-14. “The use of the concept of ‘household’ itself,” Ferguson argues, “bespeaks a deep continuity between Old and New Testament covenantal understanding of the family before God—with all that this entailed in faith and expectation.”5
In other words, even if the apostles never baptized an infant, they did follow both the covenantal and cultural pattern of household baptism, which would have set a precedent for baptizing infants.
2. But would the apostles baptize someone in a household who obviously didn’t believe? Some Baptist theologians think paedobaptists have overstated their case. What if the Philippian jailer had several teenage sons, or a slave, or an elderly parent who expressed great reservations about being baptized? Would Paul have baptized them, too?
We don’t really know the answer to this question. We do know there were mixed households in the first century church (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Jesus made very clear that as strong as the principle of family solidarity was, it should not trump allegiance to the kingdom of God. His coming did not bring peace, but a sword, dividing households at times (Matthew 10:34-39).
However, we do know, despite the split of households, in other instances whole households were baptized, maintaining a sense of family solidarity. In the instance of the Philippian jailer, for instance, Luke writes that “all” of the jailer’s household was baptized (Acts 16:33). The adjective “all” is an emphatic word because it is redundant. The word “household” is already inclusive enough, so the addition of the word “all” adds emphasis.
Bryan Chapell clarifies the implications of this representative principle for Christian parents: “Scripture does not contend that an adult who has turned from his parent’s faith can presume to receive the eternal salvation promised through Abraham’s covenant, but, while children remain under the authority of a believing parent, they are represented covenantally by that parent’s faith.”6
3. But the emphasis in these texts is on those who heard the word and rejoiced. It cannot be denied that the New Testament, by in large, was written in a missionary situation. When baptism is mentioned, what takes center stage is the reception of the gospel. Even in the case of these household baptisms, the obvious emphasis of the text is Jews and Gentile embracing faith in Christ.
However, the account of the Philippian jailer’s household is instructive for us. Luke uses singular nouns and verbs to describe who believed the night of his family’s baptism. Paul and Silas promise the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v.31). They came to his home and presented the gospel to his entire household and all were baptized. “Then he brought them [Paul and Silas] up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced [singular] along with his entire household that he [singular] had believed in God” (v.34). As Bryan Chapell states, to claim that everyone in the Jailer’s household must have believed “does not take notice of the careful distinction that Luke makes between those who actually believed and those who were baptized.”7 The jailer believed. His household was baptized.
The Conclusion of the Matter
Paedobaptist theologian J.I. Packer succinctly summarizes where the case for infant baptism rests:
“The case for baptizing believers’ infants (a practice that the New Testament neither illustrates nor prescribes nor forbids) rests on the claim that the transition from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ form of God’s covenant that was brought about by the coming of Christ did not affect the principle of family solidarity in the covenant community (i.e., the church, as it is now called). Infants were therefore to be baptized, as Jewish male infants had previously been circumcised, not to confer on them covenant status, but to attest the covenant status that by God’s sovereign appointment their parentage had already given them.”8
Covenantal family solidarity: this is the grounds for infant baptism. It is a principle firmly laid down with Abraham and affirmed by the apostles. Jeremias says, “The way in which the solidarity of the family was taken for granted explains further why no reason was found for emphasizing or justifying especially the baptism of children.”9
Packer’s parenthesis is worth noting: infant baptism is neither illustrated nor prescribed nor forbidden in the New Testament. This admitted silence is at times used a one of the great arguments against infant baptism. But what I have come to believe is this silence is actually one of the strongest arguments for it.
When the apostles called men and women to belief in Christ and baptism in His name, their hearers would have assumed, given their covenantal framework and their cultural background, that their infants and small children would be baptized right along with them. Had the apostles had a principled objection to this, might we not expect some statement forbidding the baptism of infants? Had they wanted to give the message that baptism of infants was wrong, might we not expect them to categorically avoid the pattern of family baptism? This is exactly what we do not find.
To me, it is a silence that speaks louder than words.
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Read all the posts in this series:
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1 Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (1962), p.22
2 Jeremias, p.28
3 Jeremias, p.37
4 Jeremias, p.28,32
5 David F. Wright, Baptism: Three Views (2009), p.56-57
6 Gregg Strawbridge, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, p.13
7 Strawbridge, p.21
8 J.I. Packer, “Baptism: This Rite Exhibits Union with Christ”
9 Jeremias, p.23