September 2020 Feature
Question: “We frequently say the phrase “when one is saved, the whole household is saved,” and examples like the Philippian jailer & his household, and the salvation of Cornelius’ household are often cited. It is often taken as one of the promises that God made through scripture. Is it accurate to take it as such?”
Household salvation is the assertion that the saving of an entire family can be accomplished through the faith of one member of the family. At times, it is more specifically framed as through the faith of the leader of the family that the whole family is saved. The most common scriptural verses cited as evidence for this position are Acts 11:14 and Acts 16:25-33. Hence, it is important for us to examine carefully these Bible passages to see if they support this assertion.
In Acts 10, a Gentile by the name of Cornelius was described as having a vision in which he was told to go to Joppa and bring back a man called Simon Peter. While there was no mention of household salvation in Cornelius’ own account, in Peter’s later narration to the believers in Jerusalem (Acts 11:14), it apparently included this promise: “He (Peter) will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.” The assertion here is that Peter’s visit to Cornelius would result in his conversion to Christ as well as that of his household. This seemed to be the case, since, by the end of the episode, Peter himself accepted that the entire household had believed by receiving the Spirit and ordered that they should be baptised (Acts 10:48).
Prima facie, this text does seem to suggest that the conversion of Cornelius not only brought about his own salvation but that of his family. However, was Acts 11:14 really a promise of household salvation? By examining the previous chapter, we notice that when Peter arrived at the house, Cornelius had already been expecting him and had gathered his relatives and close friends to listen to him (Acts 10:24). This means not only Cornelius but also his entire family received the message that Peter subsequently preached about the crucified Christ. In other words, all of them had heard the gospel and believed the message. For that reason, everyone in Cornelius’s household was then baptized (Acts 11:15-18). Hence, this text does not support household salvation for the members of Cornelius’ family were not saved because he believed but because they themselves heard and believed.
The second passage often cited as supporting household salvation is Acts 16: 25-33. In this passage, Paul and Silas had been jailed in Philippi after Paul had cast out a spirit from a fortune-telling slave. When her owners realized their means of making money was gone (Acts 16:19), they accused them before the magistrate who threw them into the local prison. While there, around midnight, a violent earthquake caused all the prison doors to fly open, and loosened every prisoner’s chains. This so alarmed the jailer who thought he would be punished by death for their escape that he was about to kill himself. However, Paul stopped him and assured him that none of them has escaped (Acts 16:28). Hence, the jailer asked Paul how he could be saved. In reply, Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). The next verses then described how the jailer was baptized, and “he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God” (Acts 16:32-34). Like the previous passage, it seems to suggest that when the jailer believed in Christ, his family was saved as well.
The key to understanding the “promise” of Acts 16:31 is to note that in the original Greek when translated literally, the verse can be rendered, “(You, singular) Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you (singular) will be saved, you (singular) and your household.” What Paul means is that the gospel he is proclaiming to the Philippian jailer is that Jesus is Lord, and if he believes this, he will be saved. At the same time, this applies to his entire household, i.e. if they believe in the same manner as he has believed, then they will be saved. It is not a promise that if the head of the household believes, his entire household is saved. Rather, the promise is that if the jailer’s household believed in the same manner as he did, they would be saved just as he was.
In examining these key texts that supposedly point to household salvation, it is clear that the Bible does not support this assertion. In fact, the principle that each person must make a conscious response to God’s message is one that is consistent throughout the Bible. Salvation is always personal and the result of an individual receiving it by grace through faith in Christ (Eph 2:8-9). However, this does not mean that there is no spiritual influence when a first member of the family believes. In fact, in many cases, the influence of one Christian parent or member of the family provides a means to better share the gospel with other members through witnessing and praying for their salvation. An entire family may indeed be brought to salvation through one believer, but it is not a promise that God had made.
Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.