Cornelius, Baptism, and the Holy Spirit

We now return to the topic of baptism and salvation.

“Faith only” proponents often point to the story of Cornelius in their attempt to defend their mode of salvation. “Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before being baptized,” they say. “That proves he was saved before baptism.”

Does it?

THE POINT OF CORNELIUS’ STORY

For the sake of time and space, I will not reproduce the story here, but I urge you to open your own Bible to Acts 10, then Acts 11:1-18. Notice as you read that the account of Cornelius’ conversion is repeated — first told through the pen of Luke, then again as Peter tells of his experience to the brethren in Jerusalem who took issue with him going to the Gentiles with the gospel. The fact that the story is told twice in the Bible, especially in such close succession, tells us that God considers this passage important. If it is so important, then it is equally important that we understand it.

First of all, what is the main message behind this story? It begins with Peter on the rooftop and his vision of unclean animals. God tells him to “kill and eat”, but Peter, a devout man of strong Jewish background, refuses — three times — upon which God tells him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider holy.”

Then a knock at the door. Cornelius’ messengers have arrived to take him to Caesarea and their master. At the direct order of the Holy Spirit, Peter goes with them. And when he meets Cornelius, he says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and you God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) After he preaches to Cornelius and returns to Jerusalem in Acts 11, Peter encounters “those of the circumcision” — Jews — who objected to his going to the Gentiles. Upon which Peter recounts the story, including the part with his vision. Luke’s account ends with the following in Acts 11:18:

When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

So what can we conclude was the entire point of this whole story? That God’s gift of salvation is available to every man — not exclusive to the Jews, as Peter and others once thought, but to all the nations of the world.

Keep this in mind as we continue the study.

DOES THE STORY OF CORNELIUS DISPROVE BAPTISM?

Now let’s go to the parts about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days. — Acts 10:44-48

“The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. These six brethren also went with me and we entered the man’s house. And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” — Acts 11:12-18

Now, let’s back up a little.

The angel told Cornelius Peter would “speak words to you which you will be saved.”

Now Acts 10:44 says the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household “while Peter was still speaking”. Peter, in Acts 11:15, says, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as He did upon us at the beginning.”

Based on these two statements, Peter had only begun preaching when the Holy Spirit fell upon them. Now consider these points:

  1. This is the apostle Peter, who preached on the day of Pentacost with the words, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38) The gospel never changed. Remember also that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit interrupted Peter, so when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius, Peter had not even gotten to the part about baptism. This was God’s way of confirming to Peter immediately that He accepted Gentiles as well as Jews. Notice that Peter says in Acts 11:17, “Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as he gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” If Cornelius was saved upon receiving the Holy Spirit, then how could Peter stand in God’s way . . . unless he refused Cornelius something essential for salvation? In Acts 10:47-48, Peter exclaimed, “ ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’ And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” In other words, to refuse Cornelius baptism would be to stand in God’s way. And God’s mission is to save Gentile as well as Jew.
  2. Let us assume for the moment that Cornelius was meant to be saved through the “faith only” method. “Faith-only” proponents will say that all a person must do is believe and confess Jesus to be saved (Romans 10:9). According to the account of Acts 10 and 11, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius before he even had a chance to confess Jesus. Remember, the Holy Spirit fell while Peter was still speaking — it interrupted him. Therefore, if the story of Cornelius disproves Acts 2:38, I Peter 3:20, Mark 16:16, Acts 22:16, and other verses linking baptism to salvation, then it also proves that one need not confess Jesus either, thus rendering Romans 10:9 ineffective. This, of course, is absurd. One passage does not disprove another. God is not a God of confusion (I Corinthians 14:33). Therefore, rather than disproving the passages above, Acts 10 and 11 link together with and support the passages referenced above.

BUT WOULD THE HOLY SPIRIT FALL ON AN UNSAVED INDIVIDUAL?

As incredible as it might sound to some, yes. It can, and it has. Scripture supports this with several accounts of the Holy Spirit in relation to a person who was unsaved or displeasing to God.

— Balaam spoke through the Holy Spirit in Numbers 22-24. Balak king of Moab hired Balaam to curse the Hebrews, but Balaam, though the Holy Spirit, only blessed them. But later we learn from II Peter 2:12-16 that Balaam was a wicked man “who loved the wages of unrighteousness”. In Jude 11 we read that wicked men “have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam”. Revelation 2:14 says that though the Holy Spirit only allowed Balaam to speak blessings on Israel, he still taught Balak “to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.”  Balaam was anything but a righteous man, and yet God “the Spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2).

— In I Samuel 19:18-24, David was hiding from King Saul among Samuel and the prophets at Naioth. Saul, intending to murder David — and filled with an evil spirit (I Samuel 16:14) — sent a company of men to Naioth to capture David and bring him back. God protected David by sending His Spirit upon them. They stopped at Naioth and prophesied along with the resident prophets at Naioth. So Saul sent another company of men, and they too were overcome by the Spirit of God and began to prophesy. The third company Saul sent was also stopped in similar fashion. And so Saul went himself. Of course, we know what happened:

He proceeded there to Naioth in Ramah; and the Spirit of God came upon him also, so that he went along prophesying continually until he came to Naioth in Ramah. He also stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

Remember, Saul was also under the influence of an evil spirit, and intended to murder David. He was not saved. He was not pleasing God with his behavior. And yet God sent His Spirit to overcome him — not because Saul was so righteous or pleasing before God, but as a method of protecting David.

— Caiphas was the High Priest when Jesus was killed. In John 11:49-53, while conspiring with the Pharisees and chief priests, he says, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” Verses 51-52 say,

Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Now if you read this passage carefully, you’ll notice that Caiaphas was not speaking as a believer in Jesus, but rather in favor of killing him. They were worried that, if Jesus kept speaking and the people kept listening, the Romans would take away “both our place and our nation”. After Caiaphas speaks, John writes, “So from that day on they planned together to kill Him.” (John 11:53) Caiaphas intended to say that they needed to kill Jesus in order to protect themselves and their positions. However, Verse 51 says he did not speak of his own volition — in other words, he was speaking prophecy without intending — the Holy Spirit was guiding his tongue.

That Caiaphas was not a believer in Jesus is proven later in Matthew 26, when Jesus is brought before Caiaphas. The high priest was not Jesus’ friend, but rather one of the loudest proponents for His death, calling Him a blasphemer.

Was Caiaphas saved, or in any way pleasing in God’s eyes? No! He was an evil man who conspired with others to murder Jesus, and participated in the sham trial that ultimately sent Him to Calvary.

Based upon the above instances of Balaam, King Saul, and Caiphas, we can see that it is not necessary for a person to be saved to have the Holy Spirit fall upon them and influence their actions. (NOTE: The supernatural OUTPOURING of the Holy Spirit versus the INDWELLING of the Holy Spirit are not to be confused — a topic to be covered later.)

This proves that the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius and his household does not prove they were saved. It did, however, cement in Peter’s mind the novel concept that Gentiles are accepted by God.

As we read all of the New Testament, we find cases in which the Holy Spirit fell on people prior to and after baptism — the Holy Spirit fell on some people as a result of the apostles laying hands on them, and on others without the laying on of hands. The Holy Spirit fell on people as God dictated. Whether they were saved or not had no bearing on the matter.

ANOTHER PIECE OF THE PUZZLE

In some places of the New Testament account, we find instances in which the Holy Spirit fell on people AFTER they were baptized. Acts 8:12-17 tells of the people of Samaria receiving the gospel, and the apostles laying hands on them so they would receive the Holy Spirit . . . . AFTER the new converts were baptized. In Acts 19:1-6, Paul met men in Ephesus who had never heard of the Holy Spirit. When he learned that they had only been baptized in the baptism of John, he rebaptized them in the name of Jesus Christ. He then laid hands on them, whereupon they received the Holy Spirit, and prophesied and spoke in tongues.

Now if some can isolate the instance of Cornelius and say that their outpouring of the Holy Spirit proves they were saved prior to baptism, then others can isolate the cases listed in the previous paragraph and say these prove that one is only saved after baptism. We now see, however, that none of those stories lends strength to either argument. The only conclusion one can logically draw is that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and its gifts can fall on anyone God so chooses, saved or otherwise.

Again, remember that there is a distinct difference between the OUTPOURING of the Holy Spirit and the INDWELLING of the Holy Spirit.

PETER PREACHED OBEDIENCE TO CORNELIUS!

We know from Acts 11:14 that Peter went to Cornelius to “speak words to you by which you will be saved”.  When Peter began preaching to Cornelius, what was one of the first things he said?

“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and DOES WHAT IS RIGHT is welcome to Him.” [emphasis mine] — Acts 10:34-35

Now what is the definition of doing what is right? According to Paul in Romans 6:17-18,

But thanks be to God that that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

Thus, doing what it right is being sincerely obedient to God’s teaching.

No one is saved until they do what God tells them to do (i.e., are obedient).

The story of Cornelius does not prove that we are saved by “faith alone”, but by fearing God and making our faith alive through obedience. When Peter told Cornelius to “believe” in Acts 10:43, they would not have arrived at the conclusion that salvation was through faith without obedience, because Peter had been very specific in Acts 11:35 that obedience is needed for salvation. He preached the same gospel to them that he preached to the 3000 on the day of Pentacost, which was to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

PETER PREACHED WATER BAPTISM TO CORNELIUS!

Peter told them words by which they would be saved (Acts 11:14). His words, the words he told them in obedience to God’s command, included water baptism (Acts 10:47-48). When the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household, Peter had not yet concluded preaching. As a matter of fact, according to Acts 11:14-15, he’d just begun to speak! He’d told them to be obedient, but hadn’t yet specifically told them HOW to be obedient. Read the account carefully: He starts to speak, the Holy Spirit interrupts by falling on them, and Peter finishes preaching (telling them words by which they would be saved), by saying they must be baptized in water.

Again, he was delivering the exact same gospel message that he preached on the day of Pentacost!

CONCLUSION

And so we see that the story of  the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius does not prove that one is saved without or before water baptism, but rather lends strength to the argument that one is saved when one believes, repents, and is baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. History has shown that men both good and evil have experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and that the outpouring has nothing to do with salvation.

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