April 25, 2019

Did Holy Spirit Baptism Save the Household of Cornelius?

Justin Monts

Many in denominations claim that Holy Spirit baptism saved the household of Cornelius. This passage is commonly cited by those who do not believe that immersion in water is for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16). What exactly are we to learn from this case of conversion?

Let us bear in mind that the same man who was sent to Cornelius’ house later wrote in an epistle that baptism now saves us, and years earlier had taught that one must repent and be baptized for the remission of sins (1 Pet. 3:21; Acts 2:38). Would he bring a different plan of salvation to Cornelius? Look at the details of the narrative. An angel told Cornelius that he would hear words from Peter by which he would be saved (Acts 11:14). The angel said to Cornelius that Peter would tell him what he must do (Acts 10:6). Upon the arrival of the apostle, Cornelius acknowledged, “We are all present before God to hear all the things commanded you by God” (v. 33). What did he look for in these commands? “Words” which he “must do” (obey) (10:6) in order to be “saved” (11:14). After having told Peter that all were gathered together to hear all the things commanded him by God, Peter responded by saying, “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation whoever fears him and works righteousness is accepted by him.” Peter then showed what works of righteousness were needed to be accepted by God. As with every other conversion in the book of Acts, Cornelius would have to believe, repent, confess, and be baptized to be saved (Acts 2:1-47; 8:5-13, 26-39; 9:1-18; 16:14-34; 18:1-8; 19:1-7). These are the works of God, not of men.

So why did the Spirit fall upon Cornelius’ house? The Spirit fell to demonstrate to the Jewish Christians present with Peter that Gentiles were candidates for the gospel. Peter himself did not have a full understanding of this prior to the vision of the sheet of unclean animals coming down and being pronounced clean. Note what the record says: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (Acts 10:45). The circumcision who believed were amazed, because God had demonstrated that even the Gentiles could stand on the same level as Jewish Christians, if they complied with the terms of the gospel. The Gentiles would not first have to become Jews before becoming Christians! God acknowledged that they could be as “fellow heirs of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ through the gospel” (Eph. 3:4). How would that be accomplished? How would they enter into that same body? Jesus already gave the answer in the great commission. It would be by means of water baptism (Mark 16:15-16). Thus, Peter asked, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized” (Acts 10: 47)? Now convinced that Gentiles should be recipients of the gospel, Peter’s companions could not object. So Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (v. 48).

What is baptism in the name of the Lord? Baptism in the name of the Lord is baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 10:48). Look at the immediacy of such action! They did not wait several weeks or months to perform the baptism. They did not wait until others could first be gathered together who might also be interested in committing themselves to Christ. Why was it done so soon? It’s because Peter and all first century Christians understood that water baptism is essential to salvation, essential to becoming a child of God.

We must always look at the context to see what is signified by the manifestation of the Spirit. The Spirit’s manifestation can mean different things in different contexts.

John the Immerser was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Did that mean he was saved even before he was born? No. It signified that he was to play a special role in paving the way for the Messiah (John 1:22-23).

The Spirit fell upon Jesus at His own baptism. Did that mean that Jesus was saved by the Spirit falling on Him? No. Jesus was the author of salvation. He did not need salvation. The Spirit falling upon Jesus verified to the audience that He was God’s chosen one (John 1:33-34).

The Spirit fell upon the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. Did that mean that the apostles were saved by the Spirit falling on them? No, because Jesus, during His ministry, had already declared them to be clean (John 13:10). The Spirit falling upon the apostles informed the multitudes that God approved their message.

In like manner, the Spirit falling on Cornelius’ house taught Peter and his company that Gentiles were to be brought into the church even as the Jews were to be brought in (Acts 10:45). That was the purpose.

If we say that the Spirit falling on Cornelius’ house means that salvation occurred at that instant, we run into many dilemmas, not the least of which is in this text, too. Peter said, “And as I began to speak the Holy Spirit fell...” (Acts 11:15). Did you ever realize that the Spirit fell on Cornelius’ house even before they could believe? If the Spirit falling upon Cornelius’ house means that baptism is not necessary, it also teaches belief is not essential! Those in denominations haven’t used this passage to teach faith is not required. So why do they teach water baptism is not a part of the plan of salvation by using this text?

Let us be fair with the teaching of Scripture. The Bible says, “The sum of your word is truth” (Ps. 119:160). Belief and baptism are joined together in salvation (Mark 16:16). To borrow an expression from Peter, “But we believe that through the grace of Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (Acts 15:11). Cornelius and his house were saved with water baptism and not apart from it! Would you not submit to the same plan of salvation taught consistently in the book of Acts? The good news of the gospel is that you can be saved in the same manner as they!

Truth Magazine Vol. LIII: 12 December 2009