One of the strongest arguments that can be made on the theory that one is saved before and without water baptism is based upon the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 in the light of what Jesus taught in Jno. 14:17. This is the way the argument is stated: "Jesus said in John 14:16-17, "And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may be with you forever, event the Spirit of Truth: Whom the world cannot receive; for it beholdeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: ye know Him; for He abideth with you, and shall be in you." Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before he was commanded to be baptized in water. Therefore, Cornelius was not of the world but a child of God before he was baptized in water."
The above is specious reasoning, it looks good on the surface, but will break down under the light of the Scriptures. It contradicts Acts 11:14 which states that Peter would speak unto Cornelius "words whereby he would be saved." He could not have been saved until he heard the words. He had to hear the words before he could believe (Acts 15:7), and his heart was not purified until he believed (Acts 15:9). Now when did the Holy Spirit fall on Cornelius and his household? From Acts 10:44 we read, "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the Word." He fell during the sermon, "while Peter yet spake," but from this passage, we cannot determine whether He came in the first, middle, or conclusion of Peter's sermon. The next chapter of Acts leaves us in no doubt because in it Peter "rehearsed the matter from the beginning and expounded it 'in order'" (Acts 11:4). To his Jewish audience in Jerusalem, Peter tells exactly when the Holy Spirit fell. Note in Acts 11:15, "And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning."
The Holy Spirit, therefore, fell when Peter opened his mouth, of at the beginning of his speech, before the words which saved Cornelius could have been spoken. Since "faith comes by hearing" (Romans 10:17), the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius before Cornelius believed or before he repented. It is not enough to say he received the Holy Spirit before water baptism. He also received the Holy Spirit before he believed or repented. Now, if the ability to speak by means of the Holy Spirit, qualifies the possessor as a child of God then Cornelius was a child of God or saved:
- Before the words whereby he was to be saved were spoken to him.
- Before he could have believed (Acts 11:7).
- Before he repented.
From the argument by those who deny the efficacy of water baptism strikes out water baptism as being essential to salvation, it strikes out faith also in the case of Cornelius. All Bible believers know that "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6). Thus their speaking by the Holy Spirit did not prove they were children of God unless one would also claim that they saved without believing. After they received the Holy Spirit, (which was to enable them to speak in tongues and convince the Jewish disciples present, that the Gentiles were eligible to receive the gospel) they were then shown the necessity of believing and being baptized in order to be saved, just like Jesus commanded previously in Mark 16:16.
If John 14:17 cannot be so applied to Cornelius to make him a child of God before water baptism, just what does it mean? In this discourse, Jesus was addressing the twelve. He was soon to leave them, and knew that they would feel that they were "as sheep without a shepherd." He wishes them to know they should not be left orphaned. He tells them, "I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter." The word "Comforter" is a translation from the Greek word paracletos which is used only four times in the New Testament and that only in His private address to the twelve, found in the 14th, 15th, and 16th chapters John. It is never applied to the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to mankind in general or even to the church in general. The paraclete was an infallible guide. Speaking by Him, the apostles did not contradict each other. Among other things, He was to teach them all things, bring to their remembrance all things Christ had spoken unto them, convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment to come; guide them into all truth, and show them the things that were to come. The Comforter continued with the apostles till the end of their ministry and through them gave to mankind the New Testament, "the perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25). It is quite obvious that Cornelius did not receive the Holy Spirit in the sense the Lord promised it to the apostles in John 14:17.
It is also true that Cornelius later received the ordinary gift of the Holy Spirit, not miraculous, which comes to every Christian. This is promised after obeying the conditions of salvation including water baptism for the remission of sins. "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 Spirit" (Acts 2:38). In this sense, the Holy Spirit comes to all those that obey Him (Acts 5:32).
If the ability to speak by means of the Holy Spirit makes the possessor a child of God then what about these?
- Balaam prophesied against Balaak by the immediate direction of God (Numbers 23,24). Did that make him a child of God?
- The Spirit of God came upon King Saul and he prophesied. Yet God rejected Saul as a wicked king (I Samuel 10:10).
- The lying prophet of Bethel was enabled by the Spirit to foretell the sad fate of the man of God, whom by falsehood he had seduced from the Word of the Lord (I Kings 13:11-32).
- A dumb animal, Balaam's ass, spoke by the Holy Spirit (Numbers 22:27). Did that make the dumb animal, which had no soul, a child of God?
- Caiaphas, the wicked high priest, spoke "not of himself" that one man should die and not the whole nation. He held the office of high priest by Roman appointment. Was he a child of God, just because we have a record of the Holy Spirit's speaking through him on one occasion (John 11:41-52)?
In the above cases, the Holy Spirit merely used these parties as mediums for God's speaking to men or impressing upon him some important lesson. So it was in the case of Cornelius. If he had to hear words by which he would be saved (Acts 11:14), he could not have been saved by the words until he heard them. As the Holy Spirit fell on them, as Peter began to speak (Acts 11:15), it follows that they had not heard the words when the Holy Spirit fell on them, and hence were not saved at that time. In Acts 10:48, Peter commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. On Pentecost baptism "in the name of Jesus Christ was for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). Thus Peter understood water baptism in the name of the Lord to be for (in order to) the remission of sins and this is what he commanded Cornelius and his house to do since he said, "God put no difference between us and them" (Acts 15:9).