Question: “What does the Bible say about household salvation?”
Answer: Having a proper understanding of what the Bible teaches concerning household salvation must begin with an understanding of what the Bible teaches about salvation in general and election in particular. To begin with, we know that there is only one way of salvation, and that is through faith in Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:13-14; John 6:67-68; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8). We also know that the command to believe is directed to individuals and the act of believing is an individual action. Understanding this is important when it comes to correctly understanding the concept of household salvation because it helps us focus on the fact that salvation can only come through an individual believing in Christ. It is not something that a father can do for a son or daughter, nor is the fact that one member of a family or household believes any guarantee that the rest will also.
In fact, Jesus Himself indicates that the Gospel often divides families. For example, in Matthew 10:34-36 Jesus said: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Also, if we understand what the Bible teaches about election, we again come to understand that God elects individuals to salvation and that only those that are elect will be saved (John 6:44-65). This indicates that both election and salvation are not corporate but individual in nature. God elects individuals to salvation (Romans 9:6-18), and those that are elect believe and are saved (Acts 13:48).
So, if salvation is an individual action, then how are we to understand those passages in the Bible that seem to contain a promise of household salvation? How can we reconcile the need for individuals to believe in order to be saved and the promises of verses like Acts 11:14 that indicate a promise was given to Cornelius that his household would be saved? First of all, like any passage of Scripture, it is important to understand the genre or type of book the verse is in. In this case it is found in Acts, which is an historical narrative of actual events that took place. This is important because the fact that God promised Cornelius that his whole household would be saved does not mean the same promise applies universally to all households across time. In other words, it was a specific promise to a specific person at a specific point in time. One must be very careful about interpreting these types of promises as universal in nature because they must be understood correctly in their historical setting in order to be correctly interpreted.
Second, we need to look at how God fulfilled His promise to Cornelius. If we go back to Acts 10:33, we first see that Cornelius and his household were gathered “to hear all that you (Peter) have been commanded by the Lord.” In other words, they were in a place and position to hear the Gospel which “is the power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16). Upon hearing the Gospel preached by Peter, everyone in Cornelius’s household believed and was baptized (Acts 11:15-18). So, while God had promised Cornelius that his household would be saved, the way they were saved was consistent with God’s plan of salvation, which is through the preaching of the Gospel. They were not saved because Cornelius believed but because they believed.
Another passage in Acts that carries the promise of household salvation is found in Acts 16:31. Here the Philippian jailer asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” To which Paul and Silas respond, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.” Again, it is important to remember that this promise is given to a specific individual in a specific context; however, unlike the promise to Cornelius, this one contains a promise that is clearly universal in nature and spans all time periods and contexts. That promise is not one of household salvation but is one that is entirely consistent with every other verse in the Bible that speaks of salvation. It is the promise that if you believe in the Lord Jesus “you shall be saved.” Also, if we continue to study this passage in context, we see again that salvation came as the result of hearing the Word of God and responding in faith (Acts 16:32). Again, this is consistent with every other verse in the Bible concerning salvation. Individual people hear the gospel and respond in faith and are saved. They were not saved because they werepart of the jailer’s household; instead, they were saved because they believed the Gospel message and responded in faith.
A third verse in the New Testament that some will use to try to teach household salvation is 1 Corinthians 7:14: “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.” Is this verse somehow teaching that an unbelieving spouse can be sanctified or saved on the basis of their spouse’s faith in Christ, or that their children will be holy before the Lord because one of their parents is saved? Of course, the obvious answer to that is “no” because that is totally inconsistent with the overall teaching of Scripture. That becomes even clearer when one again examines the context of the passage. In this case, the passage is not dealing with salvation or sanctification (being made holy before God) at all. Instead, it is dealing with the marriage relationship between a husband and wife, and this and the following passages deal specifically with the issue of a Christian who has an unbelieving spouse. Paul taught that Christians should not be “unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14) with unbelievers. Here in this passage, he clarifies that if a believer is already married to an unbeliever they should remain married as long as the unbeliever consents to do so. The reason this would be allowable is that the marriage relationship would be sanctified (holy or set apart in God’s eyes) based upon the faith of the believing spouse. Likewise, the children of that marriage will be legitimate in the sight of God despite the fact that Christians are not to be unequally yoked with the lost.
Noted Greek scholar A.T. Robertson in his book “Word Pictures of the New Testament” writes this about 1 Corinthians 7:14: “Paul does not, of course, mean that the unbelieving husband is saved by the faith of the believing wife. Clearly, he only means that the marriage relation is sanctified so that there is no need of a divorce. If either husband or wife is a believer and the other agrees to remain, the marriage is holy and need not be set aside. ….If the relations of the parents be holy, the child’s birth must be holy also (not illegitimate).”
The fact that 1 Corinthians 7:14 is not speaking of some type of household salvation is clearly seen in the rhetorical question that Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 7:16: “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?” The obvious answer is they don’t because only God knows who will be saved and who will not be.
While there really is no promise of “household salvation” that a believer can lay claim to, that does not mean that we should not earnestly hope, pray, and work for the salvation of our families. And while there are times as foretold by Jesus in Matthew 10:34-36 that salvation will divide a family, there are also many times where the God of Abraham also becomes the God of Sarah, and then of Isaac and then of Jacob. As Charles Spurgeon said: “…though grace does not run in the blood, and regeneration is not of blood nor of birth, yet doth it very frequently—I was about to say almost always—happen that God, by means of one of a household, draws the rest to himself. He calls an individual, and then uses him to be a sort of spiritual decoy to bring the rest of the family into the gospel net.” God has not only appointed or elected individuals to salvation. He has also ordained the means by which they will be saved, which is hearing and responding in faith to the Gospel message. As Spurgeon so eloquently communicates, this often involves a family member, as God saves one person and then uses him/her in such a way that others in the family hear the Word of God, believe, and are saved.