The Timing of Cornelius’ Baptism of the Holy Ghost

One argument for the theory a person is saved without water baptism is derived from combining what Jesus taught in John 14:16-17 with the timing of Cornelius’ infilling of the Holy Ghost in Acts 10. To see how this works, let’s begin in John’s gospel:

John 14:16-17  And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;  [17]  Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

The term “Comforter” is synonymous with the “Holy Ghost.” John said those of “the world” could not “receive” that Spirit. Then, in Acts 10, we have Cornelius receiving the Holy Spirit before he was commanded to be baptized in water.

Acts 10:44-48  While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.  [45]  And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.  [46]  For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter,  [47]  Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?  [48]  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.

Some theorize that since the world cannot receive the Spirit of God (see John 14:16-17), and since Cornelius received this Spirit before being baptized (see Acts 10:44-48), then Cornelius was not of the world but was already a child of God before receiving the Holy Ghost. This conclusion may look good on the surface, but it quickly breaks down under the weight of Scripture. The first evidence against this theory is found in Acts 11:14.

Acts 11:14  Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.

This verse states that Peter was to speak unto Cornelius “words” that would “save” him and his house. So, Cornelius needed to hear Peter’s words to be saved, thus he was not yet saved, which means he was still “of the world.” The second evidence is in Acts 15:7.

Acts 15:7  And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.

Similar to what’s in Acts 11, this verse says Cornelius needed to “hear the word of the gospel” before he could “believe.” Again, this would only make sense if it was said about a person still “of the world.” Then, in Acts 15:9, we find more evidence.

Acts 15:9  And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

This verse says this same gospel was heard so that Cornelius and his household could purify “their hearts by faith.” Again proving that he was still “of the world” and not yet saved.

Though the message of the three points is clearly stated, they still do not satisfy the question of how or why Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before being baptized in Jesus name. The first step in answering this is found in understanding the timing of when the Holy Ghost fell in Acts 10:44.

Acts 10:44 While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the Word.

The “them” is speaking of both Cornelius and those of his household. So, the Holy Ghost fell, “while Peter yet spake.” From this lone passage, we cannot tell with certainty if this group received the Holy Ghost at the first, middle, or conclusion of Peter’s sermon. The good news is because Peter was so thorough that he “rehearsed the matter from the beginning and expounded it ‘in order'” (see Acts 11:4), this next verse gives the exact timing when this took place:

Acts 11:15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning.

“As I ‘began’ to speak” sets the timing of Cornelius receiving the Holy Spirit concurrent with the moment Peter “began” speaking. This would mean before the “words” or “gospel” Peter was to speak to Cornelius so he could be saved were even spoken.

The Bible uses “speaking in tongues” as the initial evidence a person received the gift of the Holy Ghost (see MY STUDY for information). This gift qualifies a person to be a child of God. So, considering this and the timeframe when Cornelius is said to have received the Spirit, how would you answer these “yes” or “no” questions?

  1. Was Cornelius a saved child of God before he heard Peter’s words?
  2. Was Cornelius a saved child of God before he became a believer from hearing Peter’s words?
  3. Was Cornelius a saved child of God before Peter told him the gospel included repentance?

Since “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17), and since Peter had not spoken the words he was sent to share before the Holy Ghost fell on Cornelius, then Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he believed and before he repented. So, it is not enough to just say that Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before water baptism since he also received it before he believed or repented. With this in mind, and with the verses I previously listed, it should be clear that the correct answer to all three of these questions is “no.”

Those who do not believe in the essentiality of baptism use the timing in Acts 10 as their evidence. But if they are correct, this same timing disproves the necessity of having the faith that will “please God” as well as the belief that comes from “hearing the word.” Why I say this is because such faith “cometh by hearing” and Cornelius had not yet heard Peter’s message before receiving the Spirit (see Hebrews 11:6; Romans 10:17). We know this situation cannot be the case since later testimonies spoke highly of Cornelius’ conversation.

Another problem is since belief comes from “hearing the word,” and Cornelius didn’t hear Peter’s words, does that mean that a person does not need to be a believer to be saved? We know this cannot be the case because after Cornelius and his household received the Holy Ghost, they became witnesses to the necessity of believing and being baptized, which aligns with what Jesus commanded in Mark 16:16.

Mark 16:16  He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

Plus, there’s the fact that Peter used Cornelius receiving the Holy Ghost with the evidence of tongues as evidence to his Jewish brethren that the Gentiles were also eligible to receive the same gospel as they did (see Acts 11:15-17, Acts 15:8-9).

So, with all this in mind, let’s look again at John 14:17.

John 14:17  Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

Since this cannot make Cornelius a child of God before water baptism, what does it mean? When this verse was spoken, Jesus was addressing the twelve apostles. He was soon after to leave them and He knew they would feel they would be “as sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus wanted them to know He would not leave them orphaned. Thus, He said:

John 14:16  And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;

The word “Comforter” is translated from the Greek word paraklētos. This word is used only five times in the New Testament. Four of these is during a private address between Jesus and His twelve (see John 14:16, John 15:26, John 16:7). What we don’t find is it ever being applied to the work of the Holy Ghost in relation to mankind in general or to the church in general. The paraklētos is said to be an infallible guide. Speaking by Him, the apostles did not contradict each other. Among other things, these verses show that the paraklētos was to speak of the following things: teach the apostles of all things, bring to their remembrance all things Christ spoke to them, convict the world of sin, teach of righteousness, speak of judgment to come; be the guide into all truth, and show them the things that were to come.

The Comforter continued with the apostles throughout their ministry. Through its inspiration, the New Testament was written to communicate God’s “perfect law of liberty” to mankind (James 1:25). It is quite obvious that Cornelius did not receive the Holy Ghost in the same sense the Lord promised it to the apostles in John 14:17. It is also true that Cornelius later received the same gift of the Holy Spirit that is available to every Christian. This is the gift that is promised to come by obeying the gospel message of salvation that includes water baptism for the remission of sins. Peter first spoke this gospel message here:
Acts 2:38  Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

In this sense the Holy Ghost comes to all those that obey Him, as confirmed in this verse:

Acts 5:32  And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.

If the New Testament ability to speak by means of the Holy Ghost makes the possessor a child of God, what about these Old Testament situations?

  1. Balaam prophesied against Balaak by the immediate direction of God. Did that make Balaam a child of God? (see Numbers 23,24)
  2. The Spirit of God came upon King Saul and he prophesied. Yet God rejected Saul as a wicked king (see I Samuel 10:10).
  3. The lying prophet of Bethel was enabled by the Spirit to foretell the sad fate of the man of God, who, by falsehood, was seduced away from the Word of the Lord (see I Kings 13:11-32).
  4. Balaam’s ass spoke by the Holy Spirit. Did that make a dumb animal, which the Bible says has no soul, a child of God? (see Numbers 22:27)
  5. Caiaphas was a wicked high priest. He prophesied that one man (not himself) should die instead of the whole nation. He held the office of high priest by Roman appointment. Did the Holy Spirit’s speaking through him one time mean he a child of God? (see John 11:41-52)

Each case above was a vehicle God used to speak to mankind or to impress upon them an important lesson. Cornelius was used in a similar way. This answers the question of how Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before hearing Peter’s words (Acts 11:14). Thus, there is no biblical contradiction between the timing of Cornelius receiving the Holy Ghost and him still being of the world. Peter saw this and used its message as a vehicle to teach the Jewish believers that the Gentiles were also included in the promise of Jesus Christs’ gospel (see Acts 15:9). Since Peter saw “God put no difference between us [the Jews] and them [the Gentiles” (Acts 15:9), he commanded Cornelius and his household to be baptized in the “name of the Lord” in accordance with Acts 2:38. Peter understood water baptism in the name of Jesus to be for the remission of sins. Thus, after seeing Cornelius received the same Holy Ghost as he did on the Day of Pentecost, Peter commanded Cornelius and his house to obey the same gospel message he and his Jewish brethren had obeyed first in Acts 2. After repenting and being baptized in Jesus name, Cornelius was no longer “of the world” and had become a “child of God.”

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