No Problem Passages
As I was coming around to the paedobaptist position several years ago, many of the arguments I read for it tended to shy away from relying heavily on the household baptisms of Acts 16. Those arguing for the credobaptist position seemed to hold a trump card on those passages with a simple dismissive, “Yeah but, the text doesn’t saaay that there were babies baptized.” It has struck me as odd that these passages are not one of the primary starting points for arguing for the peadobaptist position.
I’d like to show why the household baptisms of Acts 16 really are foundational in setting the precedent for infant baptism. This passage doesn’t need to be avoided in defending the paedobaptist position. It gives clear scriptural warrant for infant baptism.
First off, we must begin by establishing some OT background. The sign of the covenant which was given to Abraham, to signify the promise which God had made to him and to his seed, was the circumcision of all the males of his household. God promised––and throughout Abram’s story reestablished and expanded on that promise––to bless all the nations by Abram’s Seed, and that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the heavens and the sand on the shore (Gen. 12:3, Gen. 15:5). This is what Abram believed and what God counted as righteousness to him (Gen. 15:6). After the Ishmael episode of Gen. 16, God comes again to Abram, changes his name to Abraham, and gives the sign of the covenant: the circumcision of his entire household. This was to be performed on every male of Abraham’s household (whether slave, servant, steward, or son); and from then on out, every male child which was born into his house was to receive this covenant sign (Gen. 17:1-14).
The sign signified that God would bless all nations by Abraham’s Seed. The sign established an eternal covenant between God and Abraham and his seed, that they would possess the land and He would be their God. Paul insists that the singular of “in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen. 22:18)” refers to Christ (Gal. 3:16). In other words, Christ received the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and now in Christ God continues that promise by blessing all nations with the Gospel of His Son’s universal reign of planet earth. The earth belongs to Christ, and He is now administering His reign of justice and peace. His reign shall bless the whole world, and of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end.
As you can see, paedobaptism cannot be extricated from its postmillennial context. As an autobiographical aside, for me it was the postmillennial vision which captured my imagination first, and its best friend paedobaptism came obediently along as well. It was also around this time that my first child was born, and I remember as I held her in my arms, thinking something like, “Darn it, I’m a paedobaptist.”
Now, Back to Acts
Since we’re Christians who believe the Bible, let’s look carefully at the text which presents the household baptisms of Acts 16. First we need to set the textual stage. What important episode preceded these accounts of entire households being baptized?
The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:4-5).
What happened there? To summarize, Jewish and Gentile believers were trying to iron out the sign of the covenant. Was it circumcision as given to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ (as the sect of the Pharisees were insisting––Acts 15:5), or was it now exclusively baptism as given by Christ to the whole world? If the former, then Paul and the Gentile believers were concerned about the yoke being placed on Gentile believers in coming to Christ. Were they really “in”?
After “much disputing (Acts 15:7)” , the Apostles Peter and James deliver the verdict. The Jerusalem Council, by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, decreed “to lay upon [the Gentile believers] no greater burden” than abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols, eating blood, things strangled, and fornication (Acts 15:28-29). In short, circumcision was not necessary for these Gentile believers. They were “in” in full. They were counted as stars in the constellations of Abraham’s faith. They were grains of sand on the seashore of the people of God. By the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ the believing Gentiles were as saved as the believing Jews (Acts. 15:11). God had already made it clear to Peter that the Lord intended to take out of the Gentiles a people for His name (Acts 15:14).
Immediately after is Paul’s dispute with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41), which centered on John Mark, who was likely sympathetic to the Judaizer/circumcision argument. Paul is about to take the Apostles’ letters to the Gentile believers, informing them of the good news that circumcision was not required, and he refuses to bring along someone (John Mark) who could likely be contentious about the circumcision issue. Paul and Barnabas separate and Silas goes with Paul instead.
But just because God likes to mess up our categories, Acts 16 kicks off with Paul, of all people, circumcising the young man Timothy because his mother was a Jewess (Acts 16:1-3). While at first blush this might seem like we’re dealing with a different Paul, this is actually an important component to the whole issue I’m defending here. Paul had no issue with giving the sign of circumcision to a young half-jewish boy, because he had been born into a covenant home. Timothy should have been circumcised as an infant on the eighth day. This having not been done, Paul––seeing the gifting which God had placed on Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14)––circumcised Timothy so that he’d have no impediment to ministry amongst the Jewish community of his hometown of Lystra.
Again, this is all setting the stage for the disputed household baptisms later in this chapter. but notice that a circumcision based on the household’s covenantal status starts this chapter.
Get Them Gentiles Wet
As Paul proceeds on his missionary venture, he preaches the Gospel to some women by the riverside (Acts. 16:13); one of whom was a wealthy woman named Lydia. She attended to the gospel which Paul preached (Acts 16:14), and then the consequence of her faith was the baptism of her entire household (Acts 16:15).
Shortly thereafter, Paul lands himself in trouble, as he is wont to do. To abbreviate the story, after being thrown in the slammer, and being delivered by the Lord sending a midnight earthquake, Paul preaches the Gospel to the Philippian jailer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house (Acts 16:31).” The jailer brings them to his home, and “he and all his” were baptized straightway (Acts 16:32-33).
A Tale of Three Households
This chapter has three households receiving a covenant sign. The first is a Jewish home being put in order by ensuring that the son received the covenant sign. The next two are Gentile households (very likely including slaves and children) receiving the covenant sign of baptism, in accordance with what the Jerusalem Council had recently decreed. Paul administers circumcision in one household, followed by baptism in the next two.
Remember Abraham. God gives him a promise, and then a covenant sign of the promise (i.e. circumcision), and then the story tells us that what follows is Abraham’s obedience to circumcise his entire household (Gen. 18:23-27). So, when the Apostles determined that believing Gentiles need not receive the sign of circumcision, we are immediately confronted with, whaddya know, households. One is a Jewish home, where a Jewish boy has not received the sign of the covenant given to Abraham. This home was a godly home, and in this matter, Paul saw to it that they obeyed what God had commanded His people, the Jews. In the next two households, Paul and Silas do not hesitate to baptize entire households so that they too might be obedient to all that Christ had commanded (Mt. 28:18-20).
Notice that the Jerusalem Council didn’t decree that Jewish believers should desist from circumcising their children, and in fact Paul’s circumcising Timothy would indicate that sons and daughters of Jewish believers should not think of themselves as on the outside looking in. But what we have is that Jewish households who believe in Jesus as the Christ and Gentile households which believe in Jesus as the Christ are members of Abraham’s household of faith. Paul administers a covenantal sign to a Jewish boy who should have been circumcised in infancy; and then proceeds to administer the covenant sign (just like Abraham had done in obedience to God’s command) to entire households.
The complaint that is raised against using these passages as a defense of the practice of household baptism is that infants are not expressly mentioned. To such arguments peadobaptists all too often acquiesce, and scurry over to other passages. All of those passages certainly support the argument for infant baptism (1 Cor. 10:1-2, Eph. 6:1, Acts 2:39, etc.). But Acts 16 is a smoking gun. The bullet may not be there, but that ringing in your ears and that tang of smoke you smell is the bullet that went flying out yonder.
Yes, the explicit description of the Apostle baptizing babies is not present. But to complain of such an absence in light of the narrative’s structure is like complaining that Tolkein neglected to describe who all was present when Aragorn led his army to the Black Gate.
The Apostles’ decreed that Gentile believers (children of Abraham by faith) need not receive the OT sign of the covenant (i.e. circumcision). In obedience and application of this decree Paul goes out and applies covenantal signs to three households. In the two Gentile households of Lydia and the Phillipian Jailer (and earlier with Cornelius in Acts 10) we have echoes of Abraham’s call, reception of the covenant sign, and then obedience in applying it to the entire household. All of this is done in the light of the decree of the Apostles’ council in Jerusalem: Gentile believers need not receive the Abrahamic covenantal sign (circumcision). But like Abraham, they should bring themselves and their whole household to walk in obedience to the Lord of heaven and earth.
Thus, as we are told of the Phillipian Jailer’s household, he and all of his were baptized, and then they shared a family meal with Paul and Silas with rejoicing, and “believing in God with all his house (Acts 16:34).” We’re not told whether every last member was fully tracking with what was going on, but we are told that this former pagan was now enjoying a Christian feast and brought his whole household along with him in receiving this sign that he belonged at Abraham’s table, he belonged in Abraham’s house, and his whole family could come too because they were baptized into Christ Jesus whose Gospel proclaims: “whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God (1 Jn. 5:1).”
Again, this is not the complete argument for paedobaptism. My point here is that the story being told in the Old Testament story of Abraham is the same story which is recapitulated in Acts 16. The story of God bringing individuals, families, cities, and nations from the four corners of the world into His kingdom. Acts 16 is just one thread in the argument for paedobaptism, but it is a thread which need not be avoided just because somebody teased us presbyterians about it one time. It is a story of God sending an Apostle to set households in order by obedient faith in what the covenant signs signify.