Bible Answer

Household Salvation?

I read in Acts 16 that God promises to save an entire household when one person comes to faith. How can I secure this promise for my family?

In Acts 16 we read:

Acts 16:25  But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; 
Acts 16:26 and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 
Acts 16:27 When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 
Acts 16:28 But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” 
Acts 16:29 And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, 
Acts 16:30 and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 
Acts 16:31 They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 
Acts 16:32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. 
Acts 16:33 And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.

At this moment, Paul and Silas are in prison, and when the Lord delivers a supernatural prison break for these men, the jailer awakes and see the miracle God performs. Just as the jailer was preparing to kill himself (which Roman jailers were required to do if their prisoners escaped), Paul intervenes by the leading of the Holy Spirit and delivers the Gospel message. 

Included in Paul’s commands to this jailer was the promise that if the jailer believers, then his household would follow suit. And because all believed, all would be saved. 

Were Paul’s words to this jailer meant to be a universal truth for all believers? Both the word of God and our personal experience tell us the answer is no. Paul's words are not a promise to all believers.

First, scripture never makes such a promise to all believers. In this circumstance Paul gave a promise to one man, the jailer. Paul did not include this command in any of his letters writen to all believers, nor does Christ ever issue such a promise. When the Lord makes promises to all believers, His word makes clear that the promise is universal. We cannot assume that what Paul said to one person is automatically true for all believers. 

Proper interpretation of scripture requires that we distinguish between descriptions and prescriptions. In the Bible a description is any account of events, and a prescription is a specific command given to the believer. Descriptions (i.e., historical accounts, prophecy, etc.) are given in scripture to explain God and His character, purposes and plans. We simply cannot interpret such descriptions as commands or promises for all believers. 

For example, we read about David’s adultery with Bathsheba in the Bible, but this account is not intended to prescribe adultery for all believers. Instead, we understand that David’s mistake was merely described so we can learn from it. We also read in Isaiah 20 how the Lord commanded the prophet to live without clothing for three yerars, but this is not a prescription to the believer to do the same.

Likewise, Paul’s instructions to the jailer were not a prescription for all believers. Instead, this scene was described for our benefit. Paul spoke under the inspiration of the Spirit and his words were intended solely for that man and his family. The events were described for us so that we might know about them, not so that we might expect the same outcome in our own lives.

Secondly, our personal experience confirms that this passage is NOT a prescription or promise for all believers. Unfortunately, many, many individuals have come to know Christ as Savior over the centuries without the rest of the family following suit. If we interpret Paul's comment as a promise from God to all believers, then what would we conclude about God’s faithfulness? Did He make a promise that He didn't keep? Are we to say God is a liar? 

Never! Instead, we must conclude that this statement is not a promise to all believers. Instead, the Lord was speaking only about one man and his family, because the Lord chooses to saves those He wishes:

Rom. 9:16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 

While we should hope and pray for the Lord to save our unbelieving family members, we willl find no guarantee in scripture that the Lord is likely to do so. On the contrary, in many families the Lord chooses to save only some individuals while passing over others, according to His sovereign will.