Household salvation is the idea that whole families or households are saved at once. The saving of the entire family is accomplished through the faith of the leader of the family. If the father or the head of the home declares himself to be a Christian, then he presides over a Christian household—the members of his family are Christian by default, based on the decision of their father/husband. According to the concept of household salvation, God saves the entire family unit, not just the individual expressing faith.
A proper understanding of the Bible’s teaching on household salvation must begin with knowing what the Bible teaches about salvation in general. 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; 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 a personal action. Thus, salvation can only come to an individual who personally believes in Christ. Believing in Christ is not something that a father can do for a son or daughter. The fact that one member of a family or household believes does not guarantee that the rest will also believe.
Jesus Himself indicates that the gospel often divides families. In Matthew 10:34-36 Jesus says, “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.” These words completely undermine the concept of household salvation.
If people are saved as individuals, then how are we to interpret 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 verses like Acts 11:14? In that passage, Cornelius is promised that his household would be saved. First of all, as with any passage of Scripture, we must consider the genre or type of book in which it occurs. In this case it is found in Acts, an historical narrative of actual events. A principle concerning biblical history is that no one event can be automatically assumed to apply in every situation. For example, Samson tore the city gates off of Gaza and carried them up a hill (Judges 16:3), but this doesn’t mean that, if we grow our hair long, we will be able to perform similar feats of strength. In Acts 11, 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 all time. In other words, Acts 11:14 was a specific promise to a specific person at a specific point in time. We must be careful about interpreting such promises as universal; they should not be separated from their historical settings.
Second, how God fulfilled His promise to Cornelius is important. In Acts 10 Cornelius welcomes Peter into his home and says, “We are all here” (Acts 10:33). In other words, Cornelius’ entire household was gathered to hear everything that Peter would preach. All of them heard the gospel, and all of them responded. Everyone in Cornelius’s household believed and was baptized (Acts 11:15-18). This is exactly what God had promised. The household of Cornelius was not saved because Cornelius believed but because they believed.
Another passage that carries the promise of household salvation is Acts 16:31. Here the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The missionaries respond, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Again, this promise is given to a specific individual in a specific context; however, this one contains an additional promise that is clearly universal and spans all time periods and contexts. That promise is not one of household salvation but 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 will be saved.” Also, salvation came to the jailer’s household as the result of their hearing the Word of God and individually responding in faith: Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (Acts 16:32). The whole family heard the gospel. They were all saved, just as God had promised, but their salvation was not due to their being a part of the jailer’s household; they were saved because they believed the gospel for themselves.
A third verse in the New Testament that some use to teach household salvation is 1 Corinthians 7:14: “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” This verse seems to teach that an unbelieving spouse can be saved on the basis of his or her spouse’s faith in Christ. It also seems to say that their children will be holy before the Lord because one of their parents is saved. But that conclusion would be inconsistent with the overall teaching of Scripture. In this context the word sanctified is not referring to salvation or being made holy before God. Instead, it refers to the sanctity of the marriage relationship itself. Paul taught that Christians should not be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14). The fear of some in the church was that, since they were married to unbelievers, they were living in sin—their marriage was “unholy” and their children from that union were illegitimate. Paul allays their fears: believers who are already married to an unbeliever should remain married as long as the unbeliever consents to stay married. They should not seek a divorce; their marriage relationship is sanctified (holy or set apart in God’s eyes) based upon the faith of the believing spouse. Likewise, the children of their marriage are legitimate in the sight of God.
The fact that 1 Corinthians 7:14 is not speaking of household salvation is clearly seen in the question Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 7:16: “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” If household salvation were true, then the wife would already be saved (on the basis of the husband’s salvation); Paul would not need to refer to a future time of salvation for her.
The Bible does not promise household salvation. But that does not mean that a godly father or mother does not have a profound spiritual influence on the children in that family. The leader of a household sets the course for the family in many ways, including spiritually. We should earnestly hope, pray, and work for the salvation of our families. There are many times when 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 . . . 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.”