Infant Baptism in Acts?

Sunday I preached from Acts 16, the account of the Philippian jailer’s dramatic conversion.  As an aside, I noted that many of our paedobaptist friends (those who baptize infants) use this text to support infant baptism, though it in fact supports a credobaptist position (the baptism of those who profess faith in Christ).  At Table Talks that evening, this was the one thing college students wanted to discuss.  So let me offer a brief consideration of the text.

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 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. 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.  But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 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. 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

All of the instances highlighted in blue are occurrences of some form of the Greek word “oikos,” which is translated in the familiar language of the KJV as “household.”  Those who support infant baptism call this “the Oikos Formula” and argue, “The jailer was saved, and on the basis of his new covenant relationship with Christ, his entire family, including infant children, was baptized.” 

But is that what the text says?

First, let me point out that this view carries several unsustainable presumptions:

1.  Even if I conceded for the sake of discussion that the jailer’s “household” was baptized on the basis of the jailer’s relationship to Christ (I don’t concede this, but even if I did), the paedobaptist is presuming that the household contained infants.  That is not only impossible to prove, but it seems unlikely from the text.  The jailer was a man in position of authority. The jailer was in a position of authority. Normally, such positions do not come to us when we are young, but when we are older, and hence when our children are older, too. Thus, if we should begin with any presumption, it would be that the jailer’s children were not infants. That surely fits the context better, explaining what is meant by Paul and Silas speaking the word of the Lord “to him and to all who were in his house.”

2.  The second unsustainable presumption is that the jailer’s “household” was baptized on the basis of the jailer’s relationship to Christ.  The text doesn’t remotely hint at such a thing. In fact, if we simply digest the sentences in which the term “household” occurs, the most natural reading of this passage is:

  • The jailer and his household were told to believe on Christ to be saved (v. 31);
  • The good news was explained to the jailer and his household (v. 32);
  • The entire household was baptized … (v. 33);
  • Because the entire household believed on Christ (v. 34).

 By the way – I disagree with the ESV translation above which says “he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”  A literal translation is “he rejoiced with all the household having believed God.”  And I’m not alone in this understanding.  The KJV says the jailer “rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.” The NIV says “he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family.” The NLT renders it this way: “He and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.”

So, far from proving the validity of infant baptism, Acts 16 supports baptizing those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved.

A second major flaw with the paedobaptist interpretation is that the passage proves too muchHere’s what I mean: this passage does not say that infant children should be baptized on the basis of a parent’s faith.  If we’re going to apply that line of reasoning consistently, the text says that children will be saved on the basis of a parent’s belief.  Read it again: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  Isn’t it obvious that the phrase “you and your household” does not modify who will be saved, but to whom this command is extended?  In other words, this does not mean “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you and your entire family will be saved,” but rather “You and your entire family, believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”

This is consistent with all of the similar passages which speak of “households” being baptized: 

1.         Cornelius’ Household:

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Acts 10:45-48

This is Peter’s own account: “[Cornelius] told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’ “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” Acts 11:13- 18

Why did Peter order Cornelius entire household to be baptized?  Because that entire household had heard the good news about Christ, God had granted them repentance, and they believed the message they heard as verified by God’s giving them the Holy Spirit.

2.         Crispus’ Household:

Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized. Acts 18:8
Do I even need to comment on that? J

3.         Stephanas’ Household:

Paul writes: “(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.).” 1 Cor. 1:16 (NIV)

“Now,” you say, “that verse doesn’t say anyone else in Stephanas’ household believed.”  Ah, but let’s let Scripture interpret Scripture.  Read what Paul says later in the same letter: “You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints.” 1 Cor. 16:15.  Not “Stephanas was the first convert” (singular) but “his household were the first converts” (plural).

So, what we see uniformly throughout the Scriptures is that entire households were baptized because entire households believed and repented.  Would to God that we pressed the need for entire households to believe and repent now, rather than stopping short of this and calling for a parent to believe and then baptizing their infants.

I would also point out that this is the only consistent application of “the Oikos Formula.” 

Do you remember the royal official who begged Jesus to heal his son?: 

The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed. While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.” Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed. John 4:49-53

Do you see it?  The “Oikos Formula” does not apply to baptism, but to belief!

Or what about Peter’s sermon at Pentecost:

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.Acts 2:38-39

Now that passage might confuse us a bit, because it seems to be saying “Be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of your sins.”  That is a misunderstanding created by the preposition for.  “For” can mean “in order to receive” (e.g., “I washed his car for $10.”).  But “for” can also mean “because you already have received” (e.g., “I jumped for joy.”).  In this case, it is clearly the latter.  Peter very clearly says, “Repent, every one of you, and then be baptized to show that you have received forgiveness of your sins.”  So, yet again, baptism is for those who have repented, whose sins are forgiven.

Paedobaptists sometimes refer to this passage and say, “But Peter says ‘the promise is for you and your children.’”  True, of course.  But what is the promise?  The promise is that those who turn from their sin (“repent”) and turn to Jesus (“in the name of the Lord Jesus”), will be forgiven of their sins and receive God’s promised Holy Spirit.  Then and only then are they to be baptized

Any other interpretation quickly becomes nonsensical.  In other words, if you argue from this passage that baptism is for children apart from their personal faith, then you must also argue that baptism is for “all who are far off” irrespective of their personal faith.  As a friend of mine in South Carolina used to say, “That doesn’t even make good nonsense.”  Clearly, what Peter is saying is that God’s promise of forgiveness for sins and the blessing of His Holy Spirit for those who come to Christ extends to “all whom the Lord our God will call”—you, your children, even those in the remotest part of the earth.

gkr1996 posted at 2010-2-23 Category: Theological