We live in a day in which the church often views doctrine in terms of, “If it is not essential for salvation then it is not important.” Perhaps one area where this is increasingly the case is the area of baptism. I believe there are some explainable reasons for this.
First, we are seeing a healthy ecumenicalism as many true gospel-passionate believers are coming together for the gospel. Therefore, whether Baptist or Presbyterian, believers are enjoying a wonderful Christ-centred unity. And in an attempt to maintain such unity (whether consciously or subconsciously) potentially divisive issues are politely ignored.
A second reason is that, since there is often so much gospel confusion in the church, many evangelicals, concerned to guard the truth that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, minimise baptism to avoid adding to the confusion.
Perhaps a third reason is because the average Christian is not sure himself about what the Bible teaches, and so it is far easier to simply ignore the matter and to relegate it to the sphere of the peripheral.
There are probably other reasons but these three perhaps encompass the major ones.
Since we at BBC take the Bible seriously, we believe that it is necessary to give due weight to the importance of this doctrinal issue, for there are serious and weighty matters related to it.
For one thing, how we view baptism will affect how we view church membership: who is in and who is outside. This is very much related to the issue of the practice of baptism. This has been a subject of much discussion amongst our elders in recent times.
Further, how we view baptism will affect how we view the matter of the lordship of Christ when calling people to repentance and faith. In fact, the majority of the Scriptural references to baptism are in connection with this matter of repentance (see, for example, Acts 2:38).
In other words, taking the above into consideration, how we view baptism may have a lot to do with how we define saving faith and what this looks like. (In the book of Acts, it is quite clear that five realities attended conversion: repentance, faith, confession of Christ, receiving of the Holy Spirit and baptism. But more on this later.)
A final observation, and one that we will emphasise in our study, is that how we view baptism can have an immense influence on how we raise our children for Christ. Here, I am speaking with particular reference to the subject of infant baptism as it is practiced in evangelical churches, as well as the issue of the baptism of our older children upon their profession of faith.
No Straw Man
The Roman Catholic Church, along with other heterodox groups, teaches baptismal regeneration. Most churches that hold to this error teach that regeneration takes place when the infant is baptised. (The Campbellites, also known as the Church of Christ, teaches baptismal regeneration of adults.) This is so far removed from the Scriptural teaching that we will not spend our time refuting it.
My concern is rather with the teaching of good and godly evangelicals who, while denying the heresy of baptismal regeneration, at the same time open the door for false assurance when it comes to salvation through the practice of infant baptism. This is often referred to as the danger of “presumptive regeneration.” This is a very real concern, and one that presents many challenges. In fact, Charles Spurgeon saw infant baptism as one of the major sources of a weakened church in his day.
Having noted this, let me make some further observations that are related to this subject.
The challenge here is one of nuances, which grow a life of their own. That is, though these evangelicals reject baptismal regeneration, it is nevertheless also true that their doctrine and practice of infant baptism often leads to aberrant thinking, such as, “My children are definitely going to be saved,” or, “Since I was baptised as an infant I don’t need a conversion experience.”
Note also that both paedobaptists and credobaptists affirm a strong conviction that God wants to save households, but the baptism issue complicates the discussion.
We are also faced with the challenge that though we are “covenantal” in our theology, nevertheless those who teach household infant baptism see a greater continuity than do we who are baptistic.
When it comes to disagreeing with our brothers and sisters who practice infant baptism, we tend to shy away from a debate because we have profound respect for them in many areas. Related to this is the potential intimidation by such brilliantly godly men. After all, who wants to argue against the “logic” put forth by Douglas Wilson in favour of infant baptism?
Nevertheless, if we will be faithful to the biblical principle of sola Scriptura, then we must be willing to declare “thus says the Lord” even before those who also think that they are speaking for Him! Charles Colson wrote a book many years ago called Who Speaks for God? and his conclusion was that God does—through His Word.
I emphasise this because those in the evangelical church who argue for infant baptism will often admit that the Scriptures are completely silent in terms of a direct reference to infant baptism. Nevertheless, they justify the practice by, in the words of Professor John Murray, “the category of good and necessary inference.” I would simply respond by asking, does it? Is there any justification for binding people’s consciences where Scripture is silent?
In this study, I want us to examine the texts of Scripture (particularly in Acts 16) which point us the reality of household baptisms. They did occur. And they should continue to occur. But the question is, who were the recipients of this baptism? And therefore, who in our day are legitimate recipients of baptism? Still another vital point to be addressed is, by what mode was the baptism carried out?
This study will not answer all the questions and will not be the final word on the matter (though it could be!). However, I do want you to be convinced from the text of Scripture that baptism is important, and that it is important for it to remain the privilege of those who have demonstrated faith in alone in Christ alone as their Lord and Saviour—and that such are to be baptised by immersion.
We will address this subject several headings.
The Revelation of Household Baptisms
There are two household baptisms mentioned in Acts 16, and at least two others mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament.
The first reference is in vv. 11-15 of our text, where Lydia “and her household were baptised” after they had heard the gospel preached by Paul and his company. This is followed soon after by vv. 25-34, where Paul and Silas preach the gospel to the Philippian jailer and his household, with the result that “he and all his family were baptised.”
Earlier in Acts, we read of the conversion of Cornelius and his household, and though there is no explicit reference there to a household baptism, the text seems to imply it. Luke introduces us to Cornelius as “a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (vv. 1-2). God appeared in a vision to Cornelius and instructed him to call for Peter, who would preach the gospel to him. When Peter arrived in Caesarea, he found “many who had come together” to hear him (v. 27). Cornelius welcomed him and added, “Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.” The apostle grabbed the opportunity to preach the gospel, and
while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptised who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptised in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.
And so, while Luke does not specifically say that the entire household was baptised, he nevertheless emphasises throughout the text that many had gathered to hear, and it would seem that it was then those who were baptised.
The other example in Luke’s account is found in Acts 18:8, where we read, “Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptised.” Paul later makes reference to this in 1 Corinthians 1:14-18, where he also mentions having baptised “the household of Stephanas.”
It would further seem that the New Testament mentions believing households, though without referencing their baptism (Romans 16:10-11; Philippians 4:22; 2 Timothy 4:19).
We must then make some clear observations. It is clear that households were baptised in the New Testament. There is no record that any of those households included infants or children, and it is far from a necessary inference to conclude that they must have. Households in New Testament times included servants (Acts 10:7).
The leader of the household apparently wielded great influence. With respect to this, listen to the words of Harrison, “Conversions of groups were quite common in the early days of the church, and the church in the house had a cohesive strength because it was not merely an aggregation of individuals who happened to gather periodically in a certain house; rather, it involved many who had already been associated but now found that association deepened by the transforming power of the gospel.”1
The church was thus in the house, and the home was intimately a part of the church. Wonderful! We should take encouragement here that the head of a household can wield much influence for Christ (though, importantly, of course, much depends on the credibility of the head).
The records consistently indicate that the Word of God was spoken and the people—that is, the members of the household—heard what was spoken (see Acts 10:33, 44-46; 18:8). It is hard to imagine how an infant can in any significant sense be said to hear the Word of God preached. Further, the implication of 10:27 is that these people willingly gathered together, rather than being carried (as infants) to the event.
Simply put, the records consistently reveal the emphasis that those who were baptised were actively engaged in responding to the message. They were not passive recipients of baptism, but were actively engaged in the rite.
Furthermore, there is frequent reference to repentance, belief, confession and receiving of the Holy Spirit preceding baptism.
For example, Acts 10:44-48 speaks of those who heard having the Spirit “poured out” on them, an evidence to which Peter again bears witness in 11:15-17. In Acts 16:14, Lydia’s opened heart was manifested by faith and confession. In Acts 18:8, the verb “believed” is clearly one that describes the household, not only the head of the household.
And so, again, it seems to be the consistent testimony of the New Testament that repentance, belief, confession of receiving of the Holy Spirit preceded baptism.
Once more, in none of these texts is there any mention of infants. In fact, the frequent mention of recipients of baptism rejoicing seems, in my experience, quite unlike what is experienced at infant baptism!
Paedobaptists often argue that new covenant Christians familiar with old covenant theology would have assumed without being explicitly taught that baptism was the new covenant form of circumcision, and since circumcision was administered to infants under the old covenant, so baptism was to be administered to infants under the new covenant.
However, one wonders what concept the Philippian jailer, a Roman pagan, would have had of the Jewish covenantal family. Would he automatically have drawn the inference that baptism necessarily replaced circumcision, without Paul and Silas having explained it to him? Would he have assumed that any infants in his household (and, again, the text mentions no infants in his household) must necessarily be baptised because old covenant Jewish infants were circumcised?
Nowhere in Acts, or anywhere else in the New Testament, do we have any record of the apostles teaching the church that baptism is the replacement for circumcision. Doubtless, there is some continuity, but there is also much discontinuity for, as Dever has said, “baptism with water is expressly said in the New Testament not to be analogous to physical circumcision but to circumcision of the heart (Colossians 2:11-12).”
The conclusion that we can draw from these revelations of household baptisms is that those who were baptised we baptised because they had repented and believed the gospel of the grace of God. Further, it would seem that those who baptised them were persuaded that their confession of faith was credible.2
The Explanation of Household Baptisms
I trust that some of the explanation of household baptisms has been evident from the above, but I must emphasise a few issues at this point.
First, baptism is biblically nonnegotiable. It is clear from these texts (as well as those of Acts 2:38-41; 8:12; 8:35-39; 9:17-19; 19:1-6) that baptism is the expected response of those who have repented and believed the gospel. Those who have received the Holy Spirit are to be baptised (Romans 8:9).
The only evidence of baptism in the New Testament is believer’s baptism, and the assumption is that believers will be baptised. We dare not minimise or be dismissive of this requirement for professing believers.
Second, we need to take seriously the assessment of the credibility of one’s profession of faith. We need to look for the marks that characterised those who were baptised as revealed in these passages: repentance, faith, confession, and the Holy Spirit.
There are great implications in this for parenting. Wise parents will take the opportunity to explain baptism to their children when their children witness baptisms in the local church. When you have just witnessed a baptism on a Sunday morning, it is a great opportunity to sit with your children around the lunch table that afternoon and to talk about what took place at church. Explain to your children the significance of baptism, and use it as an opportunity for evangelism.
Third, the mode of baptism is important. Every indication in the Scripture points to immersion as the proper mode of baptism. Whether or not this was done by effusion or pouring may be debatable but there is no good textual, evidential reason to justify sprinkling.
It should be noted on a practical note that if it is accepted that Scriptural baptism is by immersion, this makes the practice of infant baptism less palatable. After all, few would consider immersing an infant.3
Note some evidence for baptism by immersion.
First, the Greek word for “baptism” means “to immerse.” There are other Greek words that could have been employed to describe sprinkling, but the writers of the New Testament did not use any of those words.
Second, John’s baptism was clearly by immersion, and there is no reason to assume that this changed with the inauguration of the new covenant.
Mark 1:10 speaks of Jesus “coming up out of the water” after He was baptised. Further, John baptised “in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there” (John 3:23). Notice that: He chose his place of ministry because there was much water there. Much water would not have been required for sprinkling, but it certain was required for immersion. Further, baptism, both under John and Jesus, speaks of “washing,” and so sprinkling just does not seem to fit the symbolism.
Third, the book of Acts highlights immersion as the proper mode for baptism. When the Ethiopian eunuch was converted, he did not pull out a bottle of travel water and ask Phillip to sprinkle him. Instead, he observed a body of water and said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptised?” (Acts 8:36). When Phillip agreed to baptise him, they “both . . . went down into the water” and “came up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39). Phillip did not merely take a handful of water to sprinkle the eunuch.
Neither Lydia nor the jailer were baptised at home, and particularly with reference to the jailer it appears as if he and his household went somewhere to be baptised and returned home afterwards. I assume they went to a place where there was sufficient water (see 16:33-34).
The point is that this matters. And, once again, baptism by immersion would seem to indicate that infant baptism was never the practice of the early apostolic church.
And since this matters, I am of the conviction that “open membership”—whereby believers are accepted into the membership of the church on a credible profession of faith, even if they have not been biblically baptised—is not a healthy move for the local church. After all, if the Bible clearly reveals both the candidates and the means for baptism, then this should be a requirement for church membership. We can’t improve on Scripture.
The Expectation of Household Baptisms
This has been somewhat of a polemical study, but let me draw things to a close on a more pastoral note.
I trust that we are now persuaded both of the biblical requirements for as well as the biblical mode of baptism—neither of which allow for infant baptism. In that sense, the Bible does not encourage “household baptisms.” However, it is clear at the same time that these texts in Acts were biblical household baptisms, and as such we should be greatly encouraged to expect the same thing in our day.
We should expect that those who live in our homes will come to faith in Christ when they are old enough to understand the gospel.
We should expect that those in our household, under the gospel’s influence, will repent, believe and confess Christ as the result of the Holy Spirit giving them a new heart. And then, as a consequence of this, we should expect that they will be baptised.
I have made this point before, but it needs to be restated: God delights in saving households. And there is every reason to believe that the record of these household baptisms is revealed by God for the purpose of encouraging us that He desires to save your household as well. He is desirous that households will be baptised because of households being saved. He delights to save sinners—believe that!
Practically, then, use the baptisms to winsomely preach the gospel to your children.
Let us be committed to practically labouring so that we will have more baptismal-preaching opportunities in our local churches!
Build such cohesiveness in your family relationships and in your home that you will be salvifically influential. I am convinced that Lydia and the jailer, as heads of their households, had sufficient credibility with their families that they gained a gospel hearing.
We must be both wise and trusting. That is, while we certainly want to look for a credible profession of faith in those we baptise, baptism should perhaps be far more immediate than we have customarily practiced. And, again, this has implications for parents who are discipling their children and perhaps wondering about the issue of baptism for those children.
I trust that you have come to appreciate that baptism is not a minimalist issue, but rather an important doctrine, and therefore it should be seen as an important practice to be guarded in the local church.
May the Lord bless us in the years to come with more and more household baptisms.
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 268. ↩
- It is this idea of credibility of profession that sets apart credobaptism from paedobaptism. ↩
- While immersion makes infant baptism less palatable, it does not make it entirely so. I once spoke to a member of a Greek Orthodox Church who told me that his church practices infant baptism by immersion. I didn’t ask for details! ↩