[The following article is a response to an earlier article written by my friend, Dave Miller. Dave’s article is written on the assumption that the world of the first century was basically like the world of the twenty-first century. That is, as far as amenability to the gospel is concerned, Dave views the world to whom the apostles preached as composed of lost sinners only. This assumption cannot be correct, but as long as Christians study the book of Acts with this assumption, they can never understand kingdom entry that occurs in the first century as recorded by Luke].
In a recent article entitled, “Gentiles Received the Spirit Before Baptism?” in the August, 2022 issue of Reason & Revelation, the director of Apologetics Press and our good friend, Dave Miller, takes a very unique approach to the Gentiles’ reception of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts 10 prior to their baptism in water. Brother Miller, like so many other Christians, still thinks Cornelius was a lost sinner before Peter arrived in Caesarea. I have shown in our book, Except One Be Born From Above, why this position is false. However, some brethren still cling to it. And since brother Miller is one of them, he feels the need to explain how it is that Cornelius and his household and near friends as sinners could receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit before they were baptized in water. His approach is unique in that in John 14:17 where the Saviour said that the world cannot “receive” the Holy Spirit, Miller takes the position that the word “receive” means rather that the world would not be able to “seize” or to “take away” the Holy Spirit as the world could and did seize Jesus. He thinks that the word translated “receive” should be taken to be something else. It is a desperate effort in the handling of alleged sinners and their reception of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, to be sure, but it is not correct.
In the first place, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is never promised to any alien sinner as he continues to remain an alien sinner. Never! My good friend knows and admits that Cornelius, his household, and his near friends received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And he knows that they were baptized (immersed) in Holy Spirit prior to their baptism in water.
Second, the word translated “receive” is, as translated, in complete harmony with the rest of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in both Old and New Testaments. The world (alien sinners) cannot receive the regeneration of the personal Spirit and the subsequent indwelling until following forgiveness (Acts 2:38; Titus 3:5-6; Eph. 1:13-14; Acts 5:32). Only the forgiven are given spiritual life by the Holy Spirit, and only the forgiven are added to the church (Acts 2:47), and only the forgiven are indwelled by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9-11; Eph. 1:13-14).
Third, Apologetics Press’ own Defending The Faith Study Bible (copyright 2019), which uses the New King James Version, has in the text, of course, “receive.” Is there any reputable English translation of standing that does not translate the Greek word in John 14:17 by the word “receive” or an equivalent? My friend’s effort is a desperate one. But in replacing the word “receive” with another word such as “take” or “seize,” what would my friend hope to gain? He is taking the position that the Bible DOES NOT teach that an alien sinner CANNOT RECEIVE the Holy Spirit! This is not unique, however. In Curtis Cates’ 1998 book, Does The Holy Spirit Operate Directly Upon The Heart Of A Saint?, brother Cates unfortunately took the position that not only can an alien sinner produce Holy Spirit fruit, but that it is absolutely essential that he do so before he can be baptized in water (see pages 146-148). Cates did this in spite of the Lord’s declaration in John 15:1ff. that a person not connected to the vine (Jesus) could not bear fruit! I told brother Cates to his face in Memphis, Tennessee that he had taken the same position that Ben Bogard had taken in his debate with N. B. Hardeman on the fruit of the Spirit. Brother Cates didn’t at the time seem to be aware of this truth. Bogard took the position that one must produce Holy Spirit fruit prior to water baptism, and thus he claimed that water baptism had nothing to do with salvation from sin. Both Cates (Christian) and Bogard (Baptist) failed to understand Holy Spirit baptism and the fruit of the Spirit. Unfortunately, it is still not very clear to brother Miller either.
Fourth, the principle identified in Haggai 2:10-14 shows us that if something clean touches something unclean, the unclean contaminates what had been clean. The clean cannot cleanse the unclean by coming into contact with it. But given the desperate effort of our friend on Cornelius, Dave is implying that a man who is a spiritually unclean person (a practicing sinner) can come into spiritual contact with the Holy Spirit (being immersed in Him), and somehow, the Holy Spirit is not contaminated by an individual who remains contaminated! This peculiar arrangement imagined by our friend does not square with Bible doctrine. Imagine: a sinner’s heart (completely saturated with sin) comes in contact with HOLY Spirit, and the sinner remains a sinner and the Spirit becomes unclean! The Bible position is that when a person is forgiven and is no longer contaminated, the Spirit is joined to his spirit so that the two are ONE SPIRIT (1 Cor. 6:17). Cornelius was forgiven of his sins by the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rev. 1:5; Rom. 4:25). Jesus died for Cornelius and Abraham, and they were cleansed by his blood and justified by his resurrection before they ever had access to the gospel of Christ (Heb. 2:9; Rev. 1:5; Rom. 4:25).
Fifth, clearly brother Miller is trying to help save water baptism for the remission of sins and as the entry point into the church. He knows that Cornelius is not in the church prior to baptism in water. But what he does not yet comprehend is that no one ever entered the church without being immersed in the Holy Spirit as well as water. Water-only never placed one person into the kingdom. But Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before he received the water. And since Dave sees Cornelius as an alien sinner, he writes his article in an attempt to prove that the Bible does not teach that alien sinners cannot receive the Holy Spirit! Well, let me just say this: it is the Bible position that alien sinners cannot be immersed in the Holy Spirit! Miller says they can. The Bible says they cannot. Dave’s confusion is apparent.
Sixth, why do brother Miller and many brethren assume that Cornelius is an alien sinner? Because he has not been immersed in water. Why do they think that Cornelius needs to be immersed in water? Because he is an alien sinner. But, dear reader, this whole perspective regarding Cornelius is totally misguided, and it is based on the failure to remember the historical context in which Cornelius lived. When we are reading the book of Acts, we are not seeing the same kind of world that we have today. The world in which Cornelius lived was composed of Jews and Gentiles who had divinely provided religions by which they could attain unto glory before the gospel was first preached on Pentecost of Acts 2. The world today is composed of alien sinners and Christians. The world of the first century was composed of people who became amenable to the gospel as the gospel became for the first time accessible to them! Cornelius was not amenable to the gospel before Peter reached him. He was a righteous Gentile on his way to glory before Peter came to see him.
All righteous Jews and all righteous Gentiles were judged by the law under which they lived (Rom. 2:14-15). And all of them that died prior to any hearing of the gospel went to glory. Abraham went to glory as well as Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 8:11) without baptism in water for remission of sins. How could this be? The Jews (descended through Jacob) were judged by the law of Moses, and the Gentiles (Abraham and Isaac) were judged by the moral law (what we have called “Patriarchy,” [Rom. 2:14-15]). So, in the book of Acts, we have seven classes of people who will hear the gospel preached throughout the history recorded by Luke in Acts. We have (1) faithful Jews who are added to the church, including the apostles (Acts 2:1-4; 13:43); (2) unfaithful Jews who needed to repent (Acts 2:5-47); (3) unfaithful proselytes who needed to repent (Acts 2:5-47); (4) faithful Gentiles (Acts 10); (5) unfaithful Gentiles (cf. Acts 14:8ff.; 17:22-34); (6) faithful proselytes (Acts 8:26-40) [Note: the Ethiopian eunuch was a faithful proselyte (Acts 8:26-40); Lydia was either a faithful Gentile or a faithful proselyte (Acts 16:11-15)]; and (7) Samaritans (Acts 1:8; Acts 8). The book of Acts is NOT simply a history of conversions. It is a history of kingdom (or church) entry, and those who entered came from one of the seven classifications just mentioned. Not everyone who entered was a lost sinner! The world was not like that. Some were lost. In fact, most were. But some were righteous Jews and Gentiles and proselytes who entered when the gospel reached them. Read Acts 13:43 very, very carefully. Some people was already in the grace of God when the gospel first reached them. Cornelius is one of these righteous people. How do we know?
Seventh, notice how Luke in Acts 10 describes Cornelius: (1) a devout man, (2) one that feared God with all his house, (3) who gave much alms to the people, (4) and prayed to God always (v. 2). Then again, Luke says of Cornelius that (5) his prayers and his alms had gone up as a memorial before God (v. 4). Again, Cornelius is described as (6) a righteous man and one that feareth God, and well reported of by all the nation of the Jews (v. 22). (7) He is NOT unclean (v. 28). Again, (8) his prayer was heard and his alms had in remembrance in the sight of God (v. 31). Furthermore, Peter finally affirmed that (9) Cornelius and those like him were acceptable to God because they were God-fearers and righteous-workers (vs. 34-35). How can anyone in the light of all this evidence claim that Cornelius was a lost sinner? There is simply no need to try to justify a sinner’s reception of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Acts 10 provides no such case. Peter’s description in Acts 10:34-35 in context applies to Cornelius. If Cornelius’ prayers were acceptable and a memorial (vs. 4, 31), then Cornelius was acceptable, too!
Think of it this way. If the disciples of John (including the apostles and the Lord’s own mother) that numbered about one hundred and twenty people had died the day before Pentecost, they would have gone to heaven because they were righteous Jews (Acts 1:12-15). If Cornelius had died the day before Peter arrived in Caesarea, he would have gone to glory because he was a righteous Gentile. And that brings us to the final obstacle to some people’s seeing Cornelius for what he was.
Eighth, Cornelius was (1) to hear words from Peter (Acts 10:22); (2) to hear all things that have been commanded thee of the Lord (Acts 10:33); and he was to hear (3) words whereby thou shalt be saved, thou and all thy house (Acts 11:14). First, remember that Cornelius already knew about John the baptizer and Jesus (Acts 10:37-38). Peter did not bring new information to Cornelius respecting them. The fact that he was baptized in the Holy Spirit at the very beginning of Peter’s sermon shows that the reception of Holy Spirit baptism preceded instruction that could have provided necessary faith to salvation from sin. His heart was already right before God before Peter began his sermon. But, as a Gentile, he had no responsibility to John’s baptism which was, to the Jews in the area of the Jordan River, for remission of sin (Mark 1:4). He was a pure Gentile practicing his God-given religion knowing of things happening in the Jewish community to which he was not amenable. However, that situation was now to change at Peter’s arrival to his house. The Gentiles were for the first time becoming amenable to the obligation of entering the kingdom by means of the gospel, which requirement entailed baptism in both water and Holy Spirit (John 3:3-5). Cornelius would no longer have right standing before God if he refused to enter the kingdom. God was now for the first time bringing Jews and Gentiles together in the kingdom (Eph. 2:11-22; Acts 11:18). The first Gentiles to enter were righteous as was the case with the first Jews to enter (Acts 2:1-4). Peter preached words to Cornelius whereby he could be saved—not saved from sin, but saved from his divinely provided situation which would no longer be operative in his life. From now on, he must be not simply a good Gentile, but a faithful Christian. His salvation was deliverance from a divinely provided religion that was no longer to be satisfactory. It was good enough for Abraham, and it was up until Acts 10, good enough for Cornelius. But he lived during the “transition era” in which all Jews and all Gentiles were delivered out of their amenability to previous divine arrangements. That is what the “great commission” was about: it changed the amenability of all men from Judaism and Patriarchy to the gospel of Christ!
If someone objects by saying that the word “saved” in Acts 11:14 must mean “saved from sin,” he is simply not thinking the matter through completely. The word “saved,” though usually in context refers to a spiritual deliverance, cannot always mean that. In 1 Pet. 3:20 Peter tells us that eight souls were “saved” through water. Noah and his family were saved. This was not a spiritual deliverance. It was a physical deliverance from the flood. Again, consider the word “sanctify” (to set apart from common condition or use). It usually refers to spiritual sanctification, but not always. In 1 Cor. 7:14 it cannot refer to spiritual sanctification. We are told that the unbelieving husband or wife is sanctified in the Christian husband or wife. This cannot mean that a non-Christian can be saved simply by marrying a Christian. It means that a non-Christian married to a Christian will be set apart for divine consideration because of his/her relationship to the Christian who is a child of God. So, the reader should be able to see that words like “saved” and “sanctified” have to be understood in their historical context. The same is true of Cornelius. His “salvation” has to be understood in his historical context. Brother A. G. Freed years ago affirmed that Cornelius was “told words by which he is saved from the sinking ship of patriarchy” (Sermons, Chapel Talks and Debates, p. 152). I couldn’t say it any better.
Remember, what the Lord said to Nicodemus in John 3:3-5 is exactly what he meant, and it applies to every case of kingdom entry in the book of Acts without exception. Don’t insert what Jesus never said to Nicodemus. And, as I pointed out in our book, Except One Be Born From Above (p. 274)—
Jesus never said:
(1) Water must come first and then the Spirit;
(2) Spirit must come first and then the water;
(3) Water and Spirit must come at the same time;
(4) One’s forgiveness had to occur at the moment of kingdom entry;
(5) Forgiveness would occur in every case of water baptism;
(6) One born of water-only could enter the kingdom;
(7) One born of Spirit-only could enter the kingdom.
Brother Dave did say in his article that “The Gentiles’ reception of the baptism of the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with their salvation.” He is correct in that it had nothing to do with their salvation from sin! But it was, along with immersion in water, essential to their kingdom entry.
What Jesus said in John 3:3-5 fits every case of kingdom entry recorded by Luke, including that of Cornelius and every other Gentile. “…Except one be born anew (from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God…Except one be born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”