Last Sunday, we started a sermon series on the doctrine of baptism. To address this doctrine and the related issues fully would require many weeks. In order to keep the series to a manageable length and still answer as many questions as possible, I’ll be addressing some of the minor issues here on the blog.
In the last message, I made the statement that there are no examples of an unbeliever, adult or infant, being baptized. Some paedobaptists might concede this point by adding the word explicit. There are no explicit examples of an unbeliever being baptized. They would hold, however, that there are several possible implied baptisms of unbelievers, specifically, infants.
In the book of Acts there are numerous narratives in which households are described as being baptized. These include the households of Cornelius (Acts 10:48), Lydia (Acts 16:15), Crispus (Acts 18:8), and the Philippian jailer (Acts16:32-33). If it is recorded in Acts that “households” were baptized, is it reasonable to assume that these households included infants? And if there were infants in these households, is it reasonable to assume that they were baptized as well, thus supporting the concept of the baptism of infants (unbelievers)?
One of the four household baptisms is quite detailed and helps us a bit with this issue. The baptism of the household of Cornelius does give us reason to believe that the baptism of a household does not imply the baptism of unbelievers or infants. The first clue is in 10:2, which tells us that Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.” What is important here is how the word “household” is being used. The “household” is presented as fearing God, just like Cornelius. This is crucial because it tells us that either there were no infants in the household since infants do not have the capacity to fear God, or if there were infants in the household, the word “household” is not intended to refer to literally every soul in the home.
Later in the chapter, when Peter and the other men came to Caesarea, “Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends” (Act 10:24). So, these people and Cornelius’ household were present for the rest of the narrative in Acts 10, which concludes with these verses:
44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Act 10:44-48)
Who is the “them” commanded to be baptized in v48? They are give four descriptions: those on whom the Holy Spirit fell (v44); those who heard the word (v44); those who were speaking in tongues (v46); and, those who were extolling God (v46). All of these descriptions would seem to apply only to someone who is a believer, but at the very least they would not be things that could be true of infants. This makes it extremely doubtful that we are intended to understand that infants were included in this household baptism.
It becomes even clearer in ch11, where Peter relates this story to the circumcision party in Jerusalem, saying that Cornelius “told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household’” (Act 11:13-14). Again, the use of the word “household” is crucial. Either this household did not include infants, or “household” is not intended to mean literally every soul in the home. Whatever the case, we cannot be expected to understand “household” to mean “everyone including infants” since none of the things explicitly attributed to this household could be attributed to an infant.
But what of the other three passages concerning household baptisms? The baptism of the Philippian jailer and his household also demonstrates that “household” should not be understood to include infants. The jailer asks Paul and Silas,“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” (Act 16:30-31). Are we intended to believe that if the jailer alone believes, he and his entire household will be saved? Of course, not. The intended sense is that if the jailer believes, he will be saved and if his household believes, they will be saved. Again, this tells us that the word “household” applies to those with the capacity to believe, i.e. not infants. The rest of the narrative supports this idea: the jailer and his household heard the word of the Lord (v32), were baptized (v33), and rejoiced in his salvation (v34).
The baptism of the household of Crispus continues the theme: Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized (Act 18:8). As with the previous narratives, either there were no infants in this household, or “household” is not intended to mean “every soul in the home.”
Only one instance of a household baptism does not give us this kind of information. Acts 16:14-15 tells the story of Lydia: (Act 16:14-15 ESV) The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us. This passage says nothing to indicate that Lydia’s household believed before they were baptized. Please note that what we have here is silence, not explicit evidence to the contrary. The question then is, should we allow that one instance of silence to overcome all the other explicit teaching in Acts and the rest of the NT that baptism is exclusively for believers? Or should we use all those other passages to help us interpret this one?
I would suggest that we use the same interpretive principles here that we do everywhere else. We should use Scripture to interpret Scripture. If we do that, we cannot use this or any other household baptism as support for the baptism of infants or any other unbelievers.
There is another household baptism outside of Acts, but it does not help the paedobaptistic argument. In 1 Cor 1:16, Paul says that he baptized the household of Stephanas. He later writes, the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints… (1 Cor 16:15).
The evidence then is that we should not assume that these “household” baptisms included the baptism of infants. Rather, these cases are consistent with the NT teaching that baptism is for believers only.
Posted by Greg Birdwell