Some people believe that, when Peter told Cornelius words whereby he would be saved (Acts 11:14), he told him to believe and he would have remission of sins (10:43), and Peter later said God cleansed their hearts by faith (15:9). They received the Holy Spirit before they were water baptized (10:44-48). We are told that God would not have sent the Holy Spirit upon them unless they were already saved (Rom. 8:9; Ephesians 1:13,14). So they must have been saved by faith alone before water baptism.
I encourage the reader to study the following response in connection with our article about the Purpose of Baptism and the article about Saving Faith (Faith Only vs. Obedient Faith). These free articles give a proper background for the following comments. They may be found at https://www.gospelway.com/instruct/ (see the section about forgiveness).
Now please consider the following points:
1. Please see our article about saving faith (mentioned above) for a careful study of verses regarding faith (Acts 10:43; 15:9). "Faith" here is general and includes all that people must do to be saved. Specifically, Acts 10:43 says faith leads to remission, but the same apostle Peter had earlier preached that one must be baptized for remission of sins (Acts 2:38). Acts 15:9 says God purified their hearts by faith, but according to this same apostle Peter we purify our souls in obeying the truth (1 Peter 1:22). There is no conflict. As we have seen, saving faith includes obedience, including baptism.
Acts 15:11 says Jews and Gentiles are all saved the same way. Many other Scriptures show that this way is the way of obedient faith, including baptism (see Mark 16:15,16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3,4; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:21; and again, please see our article about the purpose of baptism as mentioned above).
2. Peter told them words whereby they would be saved (Acts 11:14). But what is the first thing he told them? He said that, to be accepted by God, everyone in every nation must fear God and work righteousness (i.e., obey God, as described in Rom. 6:17,18 and Hebrews 5:9; see also Matthew 7:21-27; 22:36-39; John 14:15,21-24; Acts 10:34,35; Romans 2:6-10; Hebrews 10:39; 11:8,30; Galatians 5:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:8,9; James 1:21-25; 2:14-26; Luke 6:46; 1 Peter 1:22,23; 1 John 5:3; 2:3-6). No one can be accepted by God (i.e., saved -- 11:14) until they do what God says to do. The case of Cornelius proves the very point we have been making: we are not saved by "faith alone" but by fearing God enough to obey Him. Saving faith is obedient faith. When Peter later told them to believe (10:43), they would not conclude this was "faith only" without obedience, since Peter had already told them that obedience was essential to be saved.
3. Peter came to tell them words whereby they would be saved (11:14). But the words he told them included water baptism (10:47,48). When the Holy Spirit fell, Peter had not completed his instructions telling. He was still in the process of telling them them words whereby they would be saved (10:44); in fact he was just beginning when the Spirit fell (11:14,15). He told them they must work righteousness (obey God) to be accepted by Him (saved), but he had not yet told them specifically what work they must do. So after he had been interrupted by the coming of the Holy Spirit, he completed telling them what to do to be saved, and he said to be water baptized. Telling people what to do to he saved includes telling them they must be baptized in water, just as in many other passages we have studied (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 2:38; 22:16; etc.).
4. The Holy Spirit fell, not only before they were water baptized, but also before they had confessed Jesus! While Peter was in the process of telling them what to do to be saved, the Spirit fell on those who were listening (10:44; 11:14,15). Cornelius and his house did not say anything in response to Peter's teaching till after the Holy Spirit fell. If the coming of the Holy Spirit before water baptism proves that water baptism is not essential to salvation, then it just as logically proves confession is not essential to salvation, since the Spirit also came before they confessed! Yet we know that confession is essential in order to he saved, just like we know baptism is essential in order to be saved -- from other passages (Rom. 10:9,10 and Acts 2:28; Rom. 6:3,4; etc.). So, we must conclude that the coming of the Holy Spirit did not prove Cornelius was already saved, or else we have contradictions in the gospel.
5. If receiving miraculous signs is the proof of when a person is saved, then what about examples of people who did not receive the miraculous sense of the Spirit until after baptism (Acts 8:12-17; 19:1-6, etc.)? If Romans 8:9 and Ephesians 1:13,14 prove that Cornelius was saved at the point of a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, before water baptism, then why don't the examples in Acts 8 and 19 prove that, in those cases, people believed and were baptized, but still were not saved until later, when the Holy Spirit came?
6. Cornelius' household spoke in tongues when they received the Holy Spirit (10:46). Must people today speak in tongues as a proof they are saved? 1 Cor. 12:28-30 says they do not need tongue-speaking to be saved. So the coming of the Holy Spirit in Cornelius' case must have been something unusual. It was not the typical pattern for salvation. If so, then why try to use the coming of the Holy Spirit here to establish a pattern of salvation for today? The truth is that miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit, as described in Cornelius' case, did not come at the exact moment a person was saved. It might come before or after being forgiven, but the coming of this miraculous power is not to be taken as proof of the point in time when one is forgiven.
7. In several other Bible examples, people received miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit at a time when they clearly were not "saved" or pleasing to God. Some people even spoke by the guidance of the Holy Spirit at a time when they were not yet in a pleasing relationship to God. Examples include Balaam (Num. 22-24; cf. 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14), Balaam's donkey (Num. 22:28-30), King Saul (1 Samuel 19:18-24), Caiaphas the high priest who later condemned Jesus (John 11:49-53), and Cornelius' household (Acts 10 and 11).
Note also that the Corinthians had been converted, yet they later became displeasing to God even though they still had spiritual gifts -- 1 Cor. 12-14, cf. chap. 1-4,5,11, etc. So it is a mistake to conclude that, just because people received or possessed miraculous gifts of the Spirit, that proves that they were saved or pleasing to God.
8. The truth is that, in the first century, just as there were different kinds of faith and different kinds of works, so people received the Holy Spirit in different ways or manifestations. Rom. 8:9 and Eph. 1:13,14 refer to the indwelling of the Spirit, which is not the same thing as the miraculous powers received by Cornelius and sometimes received by other people. All saved people have the Holy Spirit indwelling them (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; etc.). But for all people, salvation and the indwelling of the Spirit come as a result of water baptism, and not before.
Acts 2:38,39 says that the gift of the Holy Spirit comes when people have been baptized for the remission of sins. This is available to all people, therefore it cannot be miraculous powers of the Spirit (see notes above). It must be the indwelling of the Spirit.
1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19,20 -- Saved people are a temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in us. This is true because we belong to God, having been bought with a price (redeemed by Jesus' blood). But baptism is the point at which the blood (death) of Jesus is applied to the sinner, redeeming him and putting Him in Christ - Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; Acts 22:16. The sinner is then saved (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21), so the Lord adds him to the church, the body of people who have been purchased or saved by His blood (Acts 2:47; 20:28; Eph. 5:23,25).
Romans 8:9 -- If the Spirit of God (Christ) does not dwell in us, then we do not belong to Christ. But as shown above, we belong to Christ when by faith we have been baptized. So the Spirit dwells in all true children of God, and He begins to dwell in us at the moment we become God's children (not at some later point).
See our web site at https://www.gospelway.com/instruct for a fuller discussion of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (see the articles in the section about God/Deity).
9. But receiving the Holy Spirit with miraculous manifestations was different from the indwelling of the Spirit. Miraculous powers came to some people sometime later after they had been forgiven (Acts 8:12-17; 19:1-6). Other people never received miraculous manifestations, even though they were saved (1 Corinthians 12:4,7-11,28-30). And other people received miraculous manifestations at a time in their life when they were not yet in a pleasing relationship to God (see the examples above). So it is a mistake to think that the point in a person's life at which he receives miraculous manifestations is the point at which he is forgiven or that it is the point at which the Holy Spirit begins to indwell him. The indwelling of the Spirit and miraculous powers from the Spirit were two different things that began at two different times in people's lives. To learn more about the miraculous manifestations of the Spirit, please see our article about direct revelation and miracles for today https://www.gospelway.com/instruct/ (see the section about God/Deity).
10. The purpose of miracles (not the indwelling) was to "confirm the word" being spoken by a man of God (John 20:30,31; Mark 16:20; Hebrews 2:3,4; Acts 14:3; etc.) In Cornelius' case, the purpose of the miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit was to confirm the message Peter was preaching that all nations (Gentiles as well as Jews) could be accepted under the gospel if they would fear God and work righteousness (10:34,35). Miraculous confirmation of this was needed because it was a new doctrine, which the Jews would tend to reject, because they thought the gospel would be just for Jews like the Old Testament had been. Peter used the revelations he had received plus the miraculous coming of the Spirit on Cornelius as God's confirmation of his message that Gentiles were subject to the gospel just like Jews. He used this to convince the Jews who came with him (and later the Jews at Jerusalem) to see that God will willing to save Gentiles like Cornelius. The gospel was not just for Jews. Cornelius' example teaches the same lesson to us (Acts 10:28,45-48; 11:1-18, esp. vv 2,3,17,18; 15:5-11).
So, the miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit did not signify that the Gentiles were already forgiven. Rather, it served to prove that Peter was right in preaching to the Gentiles. The terms of salvation were the same for both Jew and Gentile (Acts 15:11). Peter was telling the Gentiles what to do to be saved (11:14), and the instruction included baptism for Gentiles (10:47,48) just like other Scriptures teach (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; etc.). But the Jews would never have believed that the blessings of the gospel applied equally to Gentiles, unless they received confirmation that the doctrine was from God. This is why the Spirit came on the Gentiles before they had been baptized. Without such miraculous manifestations, the Jews would never have been willing to baptize them!
So the unusual coming of the Spirit before conversion is due to the unusual circumstance that these were the first Gentile converts. It does not in any way prove they were saved before baptism. They were saved by obedient faith, including baptism, as taught in other passages studied.
Copyright 1998, David E. Pratte
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Things that Are Essential to Salvation
Is Obedience Essential to Salvation?
The Purpose of Baptism
Why Must We Be "In Christ"?
Individual Responsibility in Salvation
Importance of Repentance
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
Should Alien Sinners Pray for Forgiveness
What about the Thief on the Cross?
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.