Baptism: Safe for the Whole Family?

The Book of Acts recounts the story of the apostles of Christ. They are portrayed as ambassadors who went throughout the world proclaiming the good news that Jesus is both Lord and Christ. According to the Lord’s command, the apostles “disciplized” the nations by administering water-baptism to all who received the gospel by faith—and their households—and by teaching them to obey the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.

While “there are relatively few instances of actual baptism recorded in the New Testament”[1] the fact remains that the Book of Acts contains the earliest historical record of Christian baptism. And that record shows that covenant household baptism was part and parcel of the ordinary apostolic practice. As John Murray notes:

It is quite illuminating that at least three of these instances refer to household baptism. Every consideration would point to the conclusion that household baptism was a frequent occurrence in the practice of the church in the apostolic days.[2]

There is nothing extra-ordinary or exceptional about covenant household baptism from Luke’s perspective. He simply mentions it as a matter of fact and moves on. Since covenant household baptism is no longer an ordinary part of baptismal practice(s) among many evangelicals, it is necessary for us to take a closer look at a few of these early stories in order to develop a more substantive biblical-theological understanding of covenant household baptism.

Pentecost and Beyond

On the Day of Pentecost the Lord Jesus Christ poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh. The apostle Peter stood up before a crowd of Jewish worshipers and proclaimed the gospel of the person and work of Jesus Christ. He concluded his message by charging everyone in the crowd to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Those who received his message believed and three thousand were baptized—including men, woman, and children. After all, Peter explained to the crowd that the promise of the gospel “is for you and your children”. (Acts 2:39)

What does that have to with covenant household baptism?

Peter explained that the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit was a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel. Luke records only a small portion of Joel’s prophetic word, but a closer reading of Joel reveals something quite interesting. According to Joel, God would call the whole community of his people to gather in a solemn assembly to hear the word of God:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders;
gather the children, even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her chamber.[3]

The point is that everyone—from the eldest to the youngest, “even nursing infants”—was called to assemble together for the solemn assembly. No one was exempt from the sacred gathering.

According to Peter, Pentecost was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy; it was the solemn assembly that Joel predicted (Joel 2:15; Acts 2:16). Peter spoke to a Jewish crowd concerning the good news of Jesus Christ. When the Spirit circumcised their hearts (Acts 2:37) they wanted to know what the Lord Jesus required of them. Peter said to them:

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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2:38-40)

Peter had already declared that this was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. So when he declared “every one of you” and “the promise is for you and your children” and “every one whom the Lord calls” he was simply echoing God’s word through Joel the prophet. The point is that the apostle Peter and the prophet Joel agree that the promise of God is for every one of God’s people: you elders, your children, and even your nursing infants. Like their forefathers, they were thinking generationally and covenantally (Gen 45:10; Deut 30:2; Josh 14:9).

The Jewish worshipers who were “cut to the heart” as Peter preached did not need to be persuaded that God deals with individuals and families covenantally. They were already convinced by the Scriptures and by their experience as God’s covenant people that God deals with his people in this way. Peter simply re-assured them that God is faithful and his promise was still in effect for them and their children according to covenant grace. In his book Children of the Promise Robert R. Booth makes a keen observation:

The fact that Peter addressed heads of households in this sermon at the inauguration of the new covenant demonstrates that first-century Jews, like their Old Testament predecessors, thought and functioned in terms of households. Individualism would have to wait until the time of the Renaissance.[4]

Peter’s inaugural sermon on the day of Pentecost was instrumental in establishing the practice of covenant household baptism in the early church. One reason so many were baptized on that day is because both individual believers and the members of their households were baptized into Christ—whether male or female, adult or child.

Clearly, according to the Book of Acts, the apostles of Christ preached the gospel and practiced covenant household baptism.[5] On the one hand, the apostles and ministers baptized individual converts like the Simon the Magician (Acts 8) and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8). On the other hand, they also baptized whole households like the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-45; 11:17), the household of Lydia (Acts 16:15), the household of the Jailer (Acts 16:31-32), the household of Crispus (Acts 18:8), and the household of Stephanas (1 Cor 1:16).

Covenant household baptism was not an apostolic innovation; it was simply an application of the principle of covenant household formula already set forth in the Old Testament. Joachim Jeremias argues that covenant household baptismal formula was an adoption of Old Testament religious language and “that Paul and Luke could under no circumstances have applied the oikos [ = covenant household ] formula if they had wished to say that only adults had been baptized.”[6]

The principle of covenant household is rooted in the Old Testament narrative, but it was not simply “baptized” into the church by the apostles in order to appease Jewish converts. Rather the covenant household principle was “baptized” into the church by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and it was applied across the board to Jewish and non-Jewish Christian households alike.

Notably, after Pentecost there is not a single story about the baptism of a Jewish household in the Book of Acts, yet there are several stories about the baptism of Gentile households throughout Luke’s historical narrative. Why? Luke wanted his readers to see that what Peter (the apostle to the Jews) made implicit in his ministry (Acts 2), Paul (the apostle to the Gentiles) made explicit in his ministry (Acts 16 and 18).

The point is that both Jews and Gentiles were becoming Christians, according to the same gospel of grace, by means of the same sacrament of baptism, one family at a time.

The promise is for you and your children.


[1]               Murray, John. Christian Baptism. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1980. p 65

[2]               Ibid, p 66

[3]               Joel 2:15 (ESV)

[4]              Booth, Robert R. Children of the Promise: the Biblical Case for Infant Baptism. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 1995. P 125

[5]               Dual-practice baptism is discussed more fully in Part Four: Pastoral Applications.

[6]               Quoted in Strawbridge, p 81