“Was Cornelius, the Roman centurion of Acts chapter ten, saved before and without baptism?”
Some so claim. They reason in this fashion: Cornelius received the Holy Spirit prior to being baptized (Acts 10:44-48). But only a child of God receives the Holy Spirit. Thus, Cornelius was a child of God before his baptism.
The argument is invalid for several reasons.
Why Cornelius Received an Outpouring of the Holy Spirit?
First, Cornelius’ reception of the Holy Spirit represented a very unique situation. He was the first Gentile to be offered the gospel. This was a revolutionary step in the unfolding of God’s scheme of redemption.
The fact is, the supernatural work of the Spirit in this case had nothing at all to do with Cornelius’ personal salvation. The outpouring of the Spirit was to persuade the Jews that Gentiles had an equal right to the kingdom of heaven.
Note these passages:
“And they of the circumcision that believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10:45).
“If then God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us, when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17).
“And God, who knoweth the heart, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as he did unto us” (Acts 15:8).
No Distinction in Salvation
The apostle Peter, in his defense of the Gentiles’ acceptance into the church, made it very clear that God “made no distinction between them [Gentiles] and us [Jews]” in the matter of salvation (Acts 15:9).
If one can learn, therefore, what the Jews were required to do in order to secure the remission of their sins, he will be compelled to conclude that the identical process applied to Cornelius and his household.
Luke records the first Jewish response to the gospel from the Day of Pentecost. Believers who believed the message regarding Christ were instructed: “Repent and be immersed ... for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Baptism was crucial to their obedience. One must conclude that Cornelius was under an equal obligation. No wonder Peter “commanded” the Gentile soldier to be immersed (10:48).
The Order of Events
According to Peter’s rehearsal of these events—which is more chronological than is Luke’s original record (cf. Acts 11:4)—the Spirit fell upon Cornelius just as the apostle “began to speak” (Acts 11:15), and therefore, before this Gentile even heard the message—before he had faith (cf. Romans 10:17).
If Cornelius’ reception of the Holy Spirit is an indication of his salvation, then Cornelius was saved without faith. In fact, if such was the case, the Holy Spirit simply could have saved Cornelius and his household without Peter or the other Jews.
Cornelius was the first Gentile converted to Christ. To convince the Jews that the Gentiles were to be permitted into the Kingdom of Christ, the Holy Spirit demonstrated his approval of Cornelius as a candidate. Having received this demonstration of divine approval, Peter commenced to preach to Cornelius and commanded him to be immersed.