Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: Membership

“Achan is stoned to death”, illustration by Gustave Dore (Note the absence of the rest of Achan’s household.)

In the previous article, I discussed some basic principles of Reformed covenant theology (Covenant of Works vs. Covenant of Grace, substance vs. administration, etc.). I then provided a summary of how the New Covenant is described in scripture, with a particular emphasis on the times it was mentioned by the Old Testament prophets. To summarize, the New Covenant is new, it is eternal, it is wrapped up in a person, and it involves a true knowledge of God and His Law.

There are several more issues we should consider when attempting to determine if the Old and New Covenants have the same substance. (Here I must remind you that I am typically limiting the description “Old Covenant” in this discussion to the Mosaic Covenant, though I have no intention of ignoring the Abrahamic Covenant.) Today, I will consider another important question.

Did the Old and New Covenants have a similar membership?

The Mosaic Covenant was made with the people of Israel and their descendants by birth. It was essentially an ethnonational covenant. Like the Abrahamic Covenant before it, a major focus of the Mosaic Covenant was on offspring and households. This was what the Lord originally said to Abraham.

“I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17:7-10

This was part of the Abrahamic Covenant, but it was also looking forward to the Mosaic Covenant: the Law that would be given to Abraham’s descendants before they entered the Promised Land. In fact, the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan were prophesied in Genesis 15:12-21. Therefore, the ethnic character of the people of Israel, all of whom were Abraham’s physical descendants, continued into this new era of history.

There is no explicit mention in the Old Testament of how a person could convert to Judaism. We do see a few scattered cases of non-Jews effectively becoming Jews, such as Ruth. However, true conversions seem to have been rare, and they would have involved a change in national affiliation as well as religious affiliation. In general, the people of Israel were commanded not to take foreign spouses, though it did happen. The Talmud, an important Jewish religious text that was recorded after the destruction of the last Temple in 70 A.D./C.E., states that a convert to Judaism must be circumcised (if male) and immersed in a ritual bath. However, these practices are not actually recorded in scripture itself, apart from the fact that servants in a Jewish person’s household were to be circumcised and treated as part of the covenant people.

Not only were the people of God defined by physical descent from Abraham, but blessings and curses could be passed on from parents to children.

Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the Lord your God…Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock…But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you…Cursed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock.

Deuteronomy 28:1, 4, 15, 18

These verses reveal the largely corporate nature of the Mosaic Covenant. Yes, individuals were certainly responsible before God, and they often received the just rewards of their own deeds. However, there was also a certain extent to which the sin or obedience of one person affected other people as well. One of the most fearsome examples of this is the story of Achan.

Perhaps you recall the context of this tale. Before the Israelites conquered the city of Jericho, the Lord commanded them not to take any of the spoils for themselves, but to devote everything to God. (Joshua 6:18-19) However, we are told, “But the sons of Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the things under the ban, for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Jerah, from the tribe of Judah, took some of the things under the ban, therefore the anger of the Lord burned against the sons of Israel.” (7:1) Notice that this verse says the “sons of Israel” were unfaithful. It does not say, “Achan was unfaithful.”

Because of this one person’s sin, we are told that 36 Israelite men were killed when they attempted to take the city of Ai, and fear fell upon the whole camp. (7:5) When Joshua prayed to the Lord and asked how this could have happened, he received the following answer: “Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things.” (7:11) Again, although Achan was the only one who took things under the ban, the Lord says that “Israel has sinned”. When it was revealed by the casting of lots that Achan was the one who had stolen, the punishment did not fall upon him alone.

Then Joshua and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, the silver, the mantle, the bar of gold, his sons, his daughters, his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, his tent and all that belonged to him; and they brought them up to the valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you troubled us? The Lord will trouble you this day.” And all Israel stoned them with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones.

Joshua 7:24-25

Why did Achan’s entire household have to be destroyed? Perhaps this seems very severe. I have heard people insist that the other members of the family must have participated in Achan’s sin, but whether or not that was the case, I do not believe it is why they were all stoned. After all, even the animals were killed. No, I believe that the sin of the father was accounted as a sin of the family, even as the sin of one person was accounted as a sin for all Israel. The Lord had said, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:5b-6) Achan’s children were killed because of Achan’s sin.

The nature of the Old Covenant was wrapped up so tightly with Israel’s ethnonational identity that they struggled to comprehend the idea that a Gentile could be righteous before God, as evidenced in the experience of the early Church. Everything about the Mosaic Law seemed designed to emphasize Israel’s otherness, from the ritual food laws, to the prohibitions on intermarriage, to the odd requirements regarding hair. Likewise, everything about the Old Covenant was designed to emphasize the importance of households, from the corporate blessings and curses, to the inheritance laws, to the requirements for biblical instruction. (Keep in mind that there were no synagogues at this early date, so it was either family worship or the rarer Temple worship.)

These two aspects of the Old Covenant—its limitations in terms of ethnicity and the corporate household aspect—were not carried over in the same way to the New Covenant. Both the nation and household aspects exist, but they are based on spiritual things rather than physical things. I will demonstrate both points by appealing to 1) Old Testament prophecy regarding the New Covenant, 2) the words and actions of Jesus Christ, and 3) the New Testament epistles.

One of the most specific prophecies in the Old Testament that references the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s covenant people comes in the Book of Isaiah, where the Servant (whom we can safely identify with the Messiah) speaks of His mission.

And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant,

To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him

(For I am honored in the sight of the Lord,

And My God is My strength),

He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant

To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;

I will also make You a light of the nations

So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’”

Isaiah 49:5-6

This prophecy began to be fulfilled during the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, even though His primary mission was to the people of Israel: those under the Mosaic Covenant. This is demonstrated in two tales of miraculous healings that involved Gentiles. Here is the first.

And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment.

Matthew 8:5-13

In praising the faith of this Gentile centurion over many of his own countrymen, Jesus was making a clear statement that faith was necessary in order to “recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. The “sons of the kingdom” who are cast into the outer darkness seem to represent ethnic Jews without faith, whereas the Gentile who did have faith was included. The second example of a miracle involving a Gentile is the story of the Syrophonecian woman.

Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.

Matthew 15:21-28

Here the Lord actually says that He was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. The woman persists in her request, noting that “even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table”. At this point, Jesus seems to change His mind and grant her request. However, I do not believe that He actually changed His mind at all, but had been seeking to make a point and reveal this woman’s faith. We have seen how He healed the centurion’s servant earlier, so He clearly had dealings with Gentiles. The point Jesus wanted to make is that the Gentiles, who were previously excluded from the table, would finally have a seat there. Perhaps He also wanted to point out that this time had not fully come, but they were seeing the first fruits.

After the ascension of Christ and the falling of the Spirit on believers at Pentecost, Gentiles came to faith along with Jews, starting with the household of Cornelius. (Acts chapter 10) It became obvious early on that God’s people were no longer solely Jewish, but it was the Apostle Paul who provided the clearest theological explanation for this inclusion. He taught that there are essentially two progenies of Abraham: one that is physical and one that is spiritual. The former are the children of the flesh who were part of the Mosaic Covenant. The latter are the children of faith who are Abraham’s descendants in the truest sense. The concept is developed in the following three passages.

So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.

Galatians 3:5-9

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 2:28-29

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.

Romans 9:6-8

Note how Paul develops his argument in each of these passages. Those who have the faith of Abraham are the ones to whom the ultimate blessing was promised, not those who have his DNA. The true circumcision is the circumcision of the heart, not the flesh. The children of promise are Abraham’s descendants, not the children of the flesh. Paul is making several related points here, always contrasting the physical and the spiritual. He raises up that which is spiritual and lowers that which is physical. This means that God’s people under the New Covenant include both Jews and Gentiles: anyone who has the faith of Abraham.

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

Galatians 3:26-29

What both Christ and Paul are presenting to us here is a kind of spiritual family. You get a seat at the table through faith. You are an heir of the promise through faith. How are you Abraham’s descendant? Not if you are a Jew, but if you belong to Christ. There is no ethnonational character to the New Covenant as there was to the Old. The work of Christ has allowed people of all nations to become one body in Him.

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.

Ephesians 2:11-16

I believe I have demonstrated well enough that the New Covenant is not linked with ethnicity as the Old Covenant was, but what of those household connections? The tie between parents and children was so strong under the Law of Moses that the blessings and curses of the former passed to the latter. However, in the very same passage where Jeremiah speaks most clearly of the New Covenant, he makes a further prophecy.

In those days they will not say again,

‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,

And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.

Jeremiah 31:29-30

The saying Jeremiah quotes was evidently a popular one in his day. From the context, we can gather that the approximate meaning was, “The parents did something bad, and their children are paying the price.” Jeremiah prophesies that this will no longer be the case, but rather the one who does the deed will reap the consequence. Perhaps this seems a little obscure, and on its own it is not very convincing. However, it is worth noting that the Prophet Ezekiel went into much greater detail on this same point.

Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying,

‘The fathers eat the sour grapes,

But the children’s teeth are set on edge’?

“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore. Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die. But if a man is righteous and practices justice and righteousness, and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period— if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing, if he does not lend money on interest or take increase, if he keeps his hand from iniquity and executes true justice between man and man, if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully—he is righteous and will surely live,” declares the Lord God. “Then he may have a violent son who sheds blood and who does any of these things to a brother (though he himself did not do any of these things), that is, he even eats at the mountain shrines, and defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore a pledge, but lifts up his eyes to the idols and commits abomination, he lends money on interest and takes increase; will he live? He will not live! He has committed all these abominations, he will surely be put to death; his blood will be on his own head…Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself…Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right? When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and dies because of it, for his iniquity which he has committed he will die. Again, when a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. But the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Are My ways not right, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right?

Ezekiel 18:1-13, 19-20, 25-29

Here we have an expansion of the point that things which were once more corporate will now be more individual. The difficulty in interpretation is determining whether this actually represents a change in God’s dealings with His people or simply a change in their perceptions of Him. Certainly, scripture teaches from beginning to end that our ultimate justification before God is based on individual faith. Simply having parents with faith is not enough to forgive your sins and grant you new life. While parents may have their child circumcised, they can by no means circumcise the child’s heart for them. That was true in the period of the Old Covenant even as it is today.

However, I believe that these prophesies could mark a real change rather than a perceived one. Remember the story of Achan. Remember the promises of familial blessings and curses. The people of Israel were clearly under the impression that sin had corporate effects within a person’s household and among their descendants. In one sense, they were correct. The Mosaic Covenant did include certain corporate aspects, even though it was not entirely corporate. I believe that what Jeremiah and Ezekiel were announcing was a real change, and it was associated with the New Covenant. I say this largely because the concept occurs in Jeremiah during an explicit discussion about the coming covenant. However, I realize that this point of my argument rests on a less solid foundation. Therefore, we should press on to the words of Christ Himself.

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

John 9:1-3

Notice the assumption of Jesus’ disciples. The man had been born blind. They interpreted this as a sign of God’s curse, because they had been taught to do so by the Mosaic Law. Righteousness led to blessings. Sin led to curses. Therefore, they asked whether the man had sinned himself or he was suffering the consequences of what his parents had done. Jesus confronted their assumptions and said it had nothing to do with sin. This was not an explicit change in how God operated, because even in the Old Testament many righteous people suffered due to no fault of their own or anyone else in their household. Rather, this passage establishes the fact that Jews in Jesus’ day were still very much in a corporate or household frame of mind. Although He certainly never did anything to denigrate the institution of the family, Jesus suggested that the coming kingdom would include a very different notion of family: one that was spiritual rather than physical.

While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:46-50

While Christ may have been making a statement here about the lack of faith among His physical relatives, I think He was primarily saying something about the new state of affairs that was coming into being. In the Old Testament, fellow Israelites would sometimes call each other “brother”, but the only recorded instance of a non-literal sister being called a “sister” (and not as part of a prophesy) is in the Song of Solomon (e.g. 4:9), where the king addresses his bride this way. Boaz referred to Ruth as “my daughter” (e.g. Ruth 3:10), but she was a relative even before their marriage. The use of such familial titles among those who were not at all closely related seems to have been less common, if it happened at all. They did have some concept of God as their Father (Isaiah 63:16), but they did not typically refer to Him that way. While they were sometimes called the “house of Israel” (Leviticus 10:6) and clearly had a national identity, they were also very much tied to the idea of their own tribe or household.

Jesus taught that His true family and household was a spiritual one. He said this once in reference to the way people would persecute His followers. “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:25b) He also referred to the way that He would actually divide families. “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:51-52) By no means was Jesus advocating familial division, but He was making a point that this new spiritual family would trump the physical family, and not everyone who was related by blood would end up in the kingdom of heaven.

The Church is referred to as a “household” on four occasions in the Epistles. This household is associated with those who obey the gospel of God (1 Peter 4:17), support the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), are in Christ and have the access through the Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:17-22), and have faith (Galatians 6:10). Paul teaches us to treat all our fellow believers as spiritual family members. “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.” (1 Timothy 5:1-2)

This spiritual family that exists under the New Covenant does not by any means negate the importance of the physical family. By God’s grace, those within our physical household often share our faith. However, this is not always the case, and I take Jesus at His word when He says that our truest brothers and sisters are those who do His will. Our most important identity is in that spiritual family and not our physical one. This is the family that is eternally bound together in Christ, a unity far greater than our own flesh and blood. It is a unity brought about by Christ’s flesh and blood.

Think back to my previous essay, when I pointed out how the Prophet Isaiah predicted that the Christ would in some sense be the New Covenant. (Isaiah 42:6-7, 49:8) At the Last Supper, Christ said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 29:20b) Matthew records Him saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27b-28) The writer of Hebrews identified this blood with those who were in the New Covenant, were enrolled in Heaven, and had been made perfect.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:22-24

The Book of Hebrews contrasts the blood of animals under the Old Covenant with the blood of Christ under the New Covenant. The latter truly sanctifies those whom it touches.

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

Hebrews 9:13-14

The blood of the New Covenant carries the power of forgiveness and salvation. It makes us right before God. That is why the author of Hebrews also says,

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Hebrews 10:19-22

What a crime we commit against this blood of the New Covenant if we say that it is without effect! To be covered by the blood of Christ is to have union with Him, which is also to be justified before God. This is what it means to be in the New Covenant: we are in “the house of God”. The same author tells us that as severe as it was to scorn the blood of the Old Covenant, it is even worse to reject the saving blood of the New Covenant.

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?

Hebrews 10:28-29

This is a much debated passage, and I will address it in more detail at a later date. However, let us note the connection that is made between the blood of the covenant, Christ, sanctification, and the Spirit. Whatever is meant by these verses, we cannot create a separation between the blood of Christ and the benefits of Christ. Those who are in the New Covenant really and truly have these things. They are united with Christ. They are regenerated and indwelt by the Spirit. They progress in sanctification. This is why, after giving such a warning, the author immediately reassures his readers and gives them reason for confidence. “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” (Hebrews 10:39) That is when he launches into the greatest celebration of faith in all of scripture. (chapter 11)

As Peter declared on Pentecost, “Repent, and each of you be baptized 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 your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39) The promises he referred to were those of the New Covenant, which was unlike the previous Mosaic Covenant. (See this article where I discuss the same passage in depth.) They were given to all whom the Lord would call to Himself: that is, the elect of all nations.

There are some who disagree with me and state that even as the Old Covenant included all members of a believer’s household, so the New Covenant does as well. Despite the shift in focus I have noted away from biological families and onto the household of faith, they nevertheless point to passages in the New Testament that they believe support their viewpoint.

There are certainly passages in the Book of Acts that describe entire households believing and being baptized. This is not the source of disagreement. Rather, the divergence occurs when some claim that those two things were separated: that members of households were all baptized whether or not they actually believed, based solely on the fact that they were in the household. This is not really a question of the age of those who received baptism, for no one knows for certain whether or not those households included very small children. The question is, did the apostles who performed the baptisms assume that if the head of household believed, all the other members were in the New Covenant by default and should therefore receive the covenant sign of baptism? Is there a sense in which the corporate household principle applies today? In order to answer this question, we must examine these cases one by one and see if there is any reason to conclude that those who were baptized had not all believed.

  • Acts chapter 10 records the story of the first Gentile converts in the household of Cornelius. The text tells us that Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household”. (v. 2) When the Apostle Peter gave the gospel message to Cornelius and his relatives (and probably his employees as well), “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message”. (v. 47) They were then baptized (v. 48), but why? Peter said, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” Therefore, in this case, scripture indicates that all members of the household professed belief and showed evidence of having received the Holy Spirit.
  • Lydia, a native of Thyatira, was listening when “the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul”. (Acts 10:14) We then read that “she and her household” were baptized (v. 15), but we receive no further information, leaving some questions unanswered.
  • When Paul and Silas were jailed in Philippi and an earthquake occurred, the jailer was terrified that the prisoners might have escaped. Once he was assured that they were all still there, he asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) They responded, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (v. 31) Paul and Silas then shared the gospel with all members of the household, and they were all baptized. A final note says that the jailer “rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household”. (v. 34) This leads me to suspect that all members of the household actually believed. However, the English Standard Version translates verse 34 differently: “And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” This could suggest that only the head of household believed. However, that seems unlikely. Why would they rejoice if they thought he had joined a strange religion that was sure to lead to hardship and persecution? The celebration would have surely been half-hearted if they thought he joined a cult. Moreover, Paul and Silas’ imploring words indicated that the jailer’s household would be saved if they believed. Therefore, I see every reason to conclude that the entire household put their faith in Christ, despite a certain degree of ambiguity in the original Greek.
  • Acts 18:8 records that, “Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.”
  • Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 1:16 that he baptized the household of Stephanas. Later in the book, we read of this household that “they were the first fruits of Achaia” and “have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints”. (16:15) That suggests to me that they believed and actively chose to follow Christ. There is an outside possibility that Paul was referring to two different Stephanases in the same town, but it is unlikely.

That is the extent of the discussion about household baptisms in the New Testament. There is nothing which clearly indicates that unbelieving persons were baptized. In fact, every passage seems to suggest that the persons who were baptized did believe. The exception is Lydia’s household, where only her own faith is mentioned. We could assume that others in her household were unbelieving, but that is an argument from silence. When the general trend in the Book of Acts is that baptism is paired with belief and the reception of the Holy Spirit, I think it is safer to let the numerous verses interpret the one rather than the other way around. There is, however, one more passage that we must address, and it comes in the midst of a discussion about marriage.

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

1 Corinthians 7:12-16

Paul indicates that an unbelieving spouse can be sanctified by their believing spouse, and thus their children will be holy. This is a difficult teaching. Clearly, it does not mean that a person can be made righteous before God simply on the basis of having a believer in their household. That goes against the rest of the scriptural witness. One possible conclusion is that Paul is actually referring to covenant households. If one of the parents is a believer, then the rest of their family is part of the New Covenant by default, and thus they are in some sense sanctified. (This then raises the question, “In what manner are they sanctified?”) Although Paul does not specifically mention anything about covenants in the passage, this interpretation would explain some of the odd language.

There is another solution that relies on the understanding of marriage in ancient Judaism. John Gill notes in his commentary on the passage that the Mishnah, Talmud, and rabbinical writings tended to refer to those espousing themselves as “sanctifying” their husband or wife. When combined with the ambiguity of the Greek preposition, the sentence could therefore imply, “For the unbelieving husband is espoused to his (believing) wife, and the unbelieving wife is espoused to her believing husband.” If this was what Paul meant, then he was stating that despite the difference in religion, the marriage was still valid.

But how would that explain the next statement about children who were otherwise unclean being holy? It could mean that children who would otherwise be the illegitimate product of an unholy union were in fact legitimate. This is an interesting theory that fits within the context of the passage, but you might conclude that Gill was simply looking for a way to justify credobaptism. Perhaps this is why he notes that the same interpretation was given by Jerome, Ambrose, and Erasmus. In general, I intend to avoid referencing specific theologians, all of whom are fallible, but I did find Gill’s suggested interpretation interesting.

Another possibility is that Paul simply means the following: a believing spouse will be a sanctifying influence on their unbelieving partner, drawing them to the things of Christ. Likewise, a child who has at least one believing parent will hopefully be taught about God and raised in the church. You may draw your own conclusion. I personally favor the one offered by Gill. Overall, I do not feel that the evidence in favor of the covenant household view is strong enough to overcome the general shift from a more corporate, household system under the Old Covenant to one in which individuals are brought into the household of God in the New Covenant.

What should we conclude from all of this? I see no reason to disagree with the teaching of the Apostle Paul. The Old Covenant consisted of people who were descended from Abraham physically. The New Covenant consists of people who are descended from him spiritually. These are the people who have the faith of Abraham: the instrument through which they are united to Christ. The New Covenant is in the blood of Christ. To be in the covenant is to be in Him, for He Himself inaugurated and sustains it. That is the difference between the membership of the Old Covenant and that of the New Covenant. Only some of those under the Law of Moses were united to Christ through faith. All of those under the New Covenant are people of faith. I will develop these ideas more as we go along, but for now let us simply consider the significance of that difference. Come back next time for a consideration of the Old Covenant types and shadows.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.