““Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”” (Acts 16:31)
When Paul says these words to the Philippian jailer, what does he mean? I have faced this question a lot recently, and I thought it might be worth answering it as briefly as possible in our Covenanter this morning. In saying that, this post is considerably longer than normal. I apologize for this. Let me encourage you to work through it, even it takes several days. I trust you will find it helpful.
It would seem to me, there are 4 possible interpretations of Paul's words here: First, Paul might be making a statement of verbal prophecy. From the subsequent verses, it is clear that all the members of the Jailer's household did respond in faith to Paul's preaching, and perhaps God revealed this to Paul beforehand? This is possible, but in light of the presence of many other household baptisms in the New Testament, I think it is highly unlikely. Second, our Baptist brothers would argue that what Paul is saying is simply that all the members of the Jailer's household who come to share his faith will be saved. This is clearly true. But given the undoubted covenantal context of the rest of Scripture, I think there is more going here than just that. Third, it could be a promise that every member of every covenantal household will be born in a state of grace or will experience salvation at some juncture in their lifetime. Scripture, not to mention personal experience, are replete with examples to refute this suggestion (eg. Rom 2:29; 9:13). Fourth, the Jailer's faith in Christ brought him and his household into the covenant community where salvation is offered and bestowed. In other words, this household has moved out of the darkness, into the light, and the saving power of God experienced in the Church. Isn't this what Jesus said about Zaccheus' household (Luke 19:9)? As a general rule, down through the generations, we should expect to see this experience of grace bear fruit in the lives of the children of such a favored household. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the meaning Paul intends. I say that for a number of reasons. First, from the very beginning of the Bible, every covenant God ever made with man embraced men and their families.
To help you see this, let me give you a quick primer in Covenant Theology:
In many ways, the Bible itself, indeed the whole history of mankind, is a story of two Covenants: the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Works was made between God the Father, Adam, and all mankind descending from Him by ordinary generation. The Covenant of Grace parallels this Covenant and is made between God the Father, Christ, and the elect. I use the word “parallels” because the logic in both covenants is identical, the fate of each earthly member of the covenant hangs on the conduct of their representative head (Adam in the Covenant of Works, and Christ in the Covenant of Grace). We are saved and lost by the conduct of one man. This is clearly Paul’s understanding (See Rom 5:12-22; 1Cor 15:21-22).
Both these Covenants embrace men and their families. In the case of Adam and the Covenant of Works, I trust this is obvious: He sinned and all his children sinned in him and fell with him (Rom. 5:12ff). This is also why every human being is born on his way to the grave. This familial aspect of the Covenant continues into the Covenant of Grace (Gen 3:15). As this Covenant develops and expands throughout the Old Testament we see that the family is always its basic building block. Think of the covenantal expansion in the time of Noah (Gen 7:1), Abraham (Gen 17:7), Moses (Ex 20:5-6, 8-10), and David (2Sam 7:12-15). The promises of God were never intended merely for individuals, but also for their households.
None of this should surprise us; it all flows from the unchangeable character and being of God (Deut 7:9-10), not just the way God decides to act, but the way God actually is. He is a God who is gracious and merciful, who remembers His covenant to a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.
As the Old Testament stands on its tippy-toes and looks towards the New Testament, it looks forward to a day when God will continue this line of family blessing (Ezek 27:24-28; Is 59:21; Jer 32:36-41).
The Apostles clearly understood this (Acts 2:39; Acts 16:31ff; 1Cor 7:14).
In both the Old and the New Testament, children born to believing parents became members of the visible Church. In the Old Testament the visible church was contained within the mono-ethnic nation of Israel. In the New Testament, the Israel of Faith expands to become a multi-ethnic church embracing every nation tribe and tongue (cf. Paul's argument in Galatians 3, not to mention Romans 11).
To signify this membership, Israeli boys were circumcised in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament both boys and girls receive the sacrament of baptism.
What do I mean by the visible Church? Picture with me a room with a circular fire pit in the middle. There are people in the room. Some of them are standing in the fire. (It's a nice kind of fire that gives life though!) In one sense, everybody in the room enjoys the benefit of the fire. They feel its heat and see by its light. God invites everyone in the room to throw themselves into the fire, to experiencing the saving, cleansing, soul refreshing power of Christ by the Holy Spirit. Some do not respond to this offer or to these promises, and prefer instead to stand at a distance. In this illustration, the room is the visible Church. Only those in the fire are actually saved and have real communion with God (Theologians call them the invisible Church). Those standing round the fire enjoy many benefits and privileges, but ultimately they fall short of full salvation.
What does membership in the visible Church mean for the child? Well in the first place it does not mean that the child is automatically saved, or born into a state of grace. Paul makes this clear (Eph 2:11). Earlier in Ephesians 2, Paul testifies about himself that, just like the rest of mankind, he, too, was a child of wrath before his faith-encounter with Jesus Christ on the Damascus road.
What it does mean, however, is that the child of believing parents is born into a position of tremendous privilege and promise. They have a special relationship with God (1Cor 7:14). They are holy, Paul says, even while they remain in unbelief. Holy means they are no longer profane along with rest of the world. Instead they are set apart for God and enjoy a special (non saving) relationship with Him.
Furthermore, these children are given tremendous blessings: They enjoy more light than the rest of the world. 'What advantage, then, has the Jew?" Paul says in Romans 3, "Much in every way chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God!" On top of this, all of the promises of God belong to them (Romans 9:4-5). While they fall short of full adoption into the family of God (John 1:11-12), the adoption papers also belong to them-- if they will only sign them by faith. They also experience the power of the Holy Spirit and of the age to come (Hebrews 6:4-6). Even more spectacularly, in these verses the writer to the Hebrews says Christ has been crucified for them. I do not believe this in any way undermines the particular atonement offered by Christ for the elect. But could it be that the writer is telling us Christ's death is their birthright? Think of the Passover Lamb in the Old Testament. The Lamb was the peculiar property of the whole nation of Israel. It was available for them and for them alone to eat. What's more it pointed beyond itself to the Christ who would come and bear away the sins of the world. It was the Jews birth right to take this Lamb, to eat this Lamb, and to believe in the Lamb of God yet to come. Sadly, many of the Jews never experienced what it was to eat this Lamb by faith with the mouth of their souls. Thus, the Passover Lamb did them no eternal good. Is there an analogy of this in the New Covenant for mere members of the visible church? I think so.
Furthermore, with this privilege comes tremendous responsibility both for the parents and for the children in the household. Father’s have responsibility to raise their children in the fear and admonition of God. In God’s normal providence, this is the means He uses to bring salvation down into the lives of children. We see a clear example of this in the life of Abraham.
“For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”” (Genesis 18:19).
Do you see what God is saying here? His whole plan to send Christ into the world and to bless all the nations through Abraham's Seed (Gen 12:1-3) hangs on Abraham’s activity as a father! Of course, God’s grace won’t allow these good works to be neglected (Eph 2:10), but they must be done nonetheless. This principle holds true for us just as it did for Abraham. Men, don’t ever let God’s sovereignty encourage passivity. God’s covenant is with you, all of His resources are for you, all of His promises are yours, gird up the loins of your mind and take action to lead your children to God!
Children also have the responsibility to learn the lessons of grace contained in their baptism and to respond by faith and repentance. Once again, God will fulfill these conditions in the elect through the regenerating power of Christ. But, nevertheless, our children must hear the word of God, refuse to harden their heart (Psalm 95:7-8), and respond by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. It was exactly this understanding of covenant responsibility that encouraged God to say these words to David which Solomon quoted in prayer:
““Now therefore, O Lord, the God of Israel, keep with Your servant David, my father, that which You have promised him, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your sons take heed to their way, to walk in My law as you have walked before Me.’” (2 Chronicles 6:16, NASB95)
In all of this we see that there are conditions even in the Covenant of Grace. The blessings of the covenant are conditional upon faith, repentance, and obedience. In the lives of the elect, these conditions are fulfilled for us and in us by Christ. His perfect life and His perfect death for us fulfill the conditions necessary for our justification. He is the One who fears the Lord and Keeps His Covenant (Psalm 103:17-18). These are conditions Christ fulfills for us and apart from us in His perfect life, imputed to us and received by faith alone (Rom 1:16). We don't need to earn our own righteousness to stay in Covenant with God. Christ has done this for us.
On top of this, Christ is also at work in us to will and to do for His good pleasure. On this basis we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12-13), and make our calling and election sure (2Peter 1:10). All of this should serve to encourage our Covenant children to respond by faith, turn from sin, and to lay hold of the upward call of God pictured in their baptism.
Okay, so now we come to the lick log, as they say: When children forsake the covenant, whose fault is it? This is a very sensitive question. Even to ask it risks causing tremendous, even unbearable pain to the souls of Christian parents. How are we to respond? Well let me begin by saying, there are no easy answers.
Paul himself wrestles with this question in Romans 9-11. If you remember the context of these chapters, at the end of Romans 8, Paul has just set forth in glorious technicolor the security of God's people in Christ. This begs the question -- if we are so secure in the love of Christ, what about the Jews? How did they fall short of salvation? Did God forget to be faithful to them?
Clearly we have neither the time nor the space to answer this issue in depth. Paul gives an answer with 3 layers: First, he says the Jews were rejected by a Sovereign God (Rom 9) -- a God who chooses to whom He will extend mercy and whom He will harden. Second, the Jews failed to experience salvation because of their own prideful, rebellious unbelief, and their determination to attempt the hopeless task of working their own way into God's favor (Rom 10). Thirdly, the Jews were cut out of God's Old Testament Olive Tree (a metaphor for the nation of Israel) because God planned to graft the Gentiles into the Tree. In so doing He planned to provoke the Jews to jealousy which would in turn result in many of Abraham's physical seed coming back to God in faith through the ages (Rom 11).
When a child of the covenant turns his back on God, generally speaking, each of Paul's points play a part. God is the first cause of all things, and no one can come to the Son unless the Father drags Him (John 6:44). The child is also responsible for turning its back on God. God Himself experienced this kind of rejection at the hands of His Old Testament people (Isaiah 1:2). The brothers of Jesus lived most of their lives in rebellion showing great contempt for Jesus (John 7:1-7). Paul says they experienced salvation after Christ's resurrection (1Cor 15:7). But the Scriptures never attribute any blame for this unbelief to Joseph and Mary. To the contrary, there is every indication that Jesus' childhood home was full of godliness and faith. I say this because there are many "Job's Counsellors" who want to say it is always the parents fault when their children forsake the faith. How can we say this? Was God to blame for Israel's rebellion in the days of Isaiah quoted above? Were Mary and Joseph ungodly parents who failed to bring up James, Jude and the rest in the faith? Really? I don't think so. In the final analysis, the child is always primarily to blame for their own sin. They never have cause to echo Adam's blameshifting, "The parents you gave me made me reject You, Lord!"
Having said that however, we would not be true to Scripture if we did not point out the many instances in which parental unbelief, sin, and failure did bear bitter fruit in the lives of their children. Ishmael was the child of Abraham's unbelief. Esau too was Isaac's favorite, and his father seemed determined to reject God's desire to give the birthright to his younger brother, Jacob. We might say Jacob was saved despite this failure and Esau was lost through it! We could also mention Eli's sons, whom their father failed to restrain, or the connection between David's great moral collapse and the chaos in his home and the effect it undoubtedly had in the lives of Adonijah, Absalom, and Amnon). In the New Testament, as well, it is hard to escape the sharp edge of Paul's list of elder qualifications in Titus 1. "An elder must be a man having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion." How do you know a man presently gifted in shepherding sheep? Paul seems to be saying, "Look at the Sheep already under his care right now!" Just like the other qualifications, I don't believe failure at this point represents an eternal disqualification. These children are clearly young children in the home under his authority. I don't believe Paul's language speaks to adult children backsliding or apostatizing after they leave the home. I also believe that the father's repentance, growth in grace, development as a shepherd, and the passage of time can all serve to wipe the stain of old reproaches away from a man's character at almost every level.
What if my children do forsake the faith, or if yours already have? What can be done? Let me list several things in closing: First, cry out to God in prayer. Ask Him to search you? Say with the disciples in the Upper Room, "Is it me, Lord?" Second, if the Spirit reveals concrete areas of failure and sin, these must be confessed (to God and to the family) and forsaken in the confidence that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from each spot. Third, we should also pray for the child in question. Specifically, ask God to remember His covenant. Remind God, this child belongs to Him. Has He not said, When sin abounds, His grace does much more abound? Plead for regenerating grace. Unless the child is born again they are trapped in spiritual death (Eph 2:1-7, John 3:3-5). Fourth, seek for opportunities to reach out to your child in love. When appropriate evangelize them. I commend to you Joel Beeke's excellent little booklet, "Bringing the Gospel to Covenant Children." To help us grow in this regard, our own Eric Bolton plans to teach a class on evangelism (which will include this subject) in the fall of this year. Those of you wrestling with this issue will not want to miss it.
In the final analysis, take comfort. God's grace is greater than all of our sin. There is no pit so deep that God's grace and mercy are not deeper still. His mercy can cover and reverse all our failure. Never lose hope. The hound of heaven has a wonderful habit of catching up with his reprobate children. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked will turn from their evil way and live!