If Cornelius Had the Holy Spirit, Doesn’t That Mean He Was Saved?
Acts 10 contains the exciting story of Peter preaching the first Gospel sermon to the Gentiles. Until this time, many of the Jewish converts believed that the Gospel was for the Jews, and they thought that those who obeyed the Gospel were also supposed to keep the Law of Moses. That was not God’s plan, however, and through several miraculous visions and angelic appearances, God orchestrated events so that Cornelius, a devout Gentile, and all the members of his household, were able to hear Peter preach the good news about Jesus Christ.
God knew, however, that many of those in the Jewish nation would have difficulty accepting the truth that the Gentiles were just as eligible to obey the Gospel as the Jews. Thus, the Bible tells us that while Peter was preaching to Cornelius and his family, “the Holy Spirit fell upon those who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). The result of this was that the Gentiles could speak in tongues just as the apostles did on the Day of Pentecost. When Peter saw what had happened, he said: “Can anyone forbid water that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” He then “commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:48).
This episode in the book of Acts has been used by some to teach that Cornelius and his family were saved before they were baptized. Their reasoning is this: If the Gentiles had been given the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, then they must have already been saved, because only those who are saved can be “filled with the Spirit.” Sometimes, those who use this argument will go to Ephesians 1:14 and contend that the Bible says that the Holy Spirit is “the guarantee of our inheritance,” and if anyone has “the Spirit,” that proves he or she is saved. Is this line of argument correct? Is it true that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit prove that a person is saved? When we explore the entirety of the Bible, we see that this reasoning cannot be sustained.
Those Who Had Miraculous Gifts, But Were Not Saved
Throughout the Bible, we see that the miraculous powers bestowed by the Holy Spirit were not used to prove an individual’s salvation. On several occasions, we see people that were not saved being given such powers. For instance, in the book of 1 Samuel, we learn about the first king of Israel—King Saul. When he was chosen, Saul was the ideal candidate to be king. And yet because of a series of poor decisions that resulted in disobedience to God’s commands, he was rejected by God. In 1 Samual 16:14, the text explains that “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul.” Due to Saul’s hardened, disobedient heart, he began to chase David in an attempt to kill him. Saul’s debased mind even led him to bring about the death of an entire city of the Lord’s priests. On one occasion, as he was chasing David, he heard that David was with Samuel in the city of Ramah. Saul sent messengers to capture David, but when they arrived, “the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they prophesied. And when Saul was told, he sent other messengers, and they prophesied likewise. Then Saul sent messengers a third time, and they prophesied also” (1 Samuel 19:20-21). Notice that the fact that the Holy Spirit came upon the messengers was not an indication of their being saved, but instead was a miraculous intervention on God’s behalf to save David. Finally, Saul himself went to Ramah in an attempt to capture and kill David. When he got there, “the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah” (1 Samuel 19:22-24). The miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were a sign from God, but not one meant to indicate Saul’s salvation. Instead, it was a sign to show that God was with Samuel and was protecting David.
In the New Testament, we see another instance of a person who was not saved being given miraculous power by the Holy Spirit. In John 11:45-57, the Pharisees and chief priests had gathered together to form a plan to eliminate Jesus. Some of their party were distraught because so many people were following Jesus. They opined: “If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” Caiaphas, who was the High Priest that year, calmed the group and said: “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50). Where did Caiaphas get such keen insight? The text explains: “Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.” If he “prophesied” that Jesus would die, where did he get such accurate information? Only the Holy Spirit could have supplied him with such an accurate prophetic utterance.
The Gifts of the Spirit or the Fruit of the Spirit
Furthermore, the Bible clearly explains that miraculous gifts say nothing about whether a person is saved or lost. In the book of 1 Corinthians, the church in Corinth was having problems with some of their members. Some were bragging about the miraculous powers they had been given. Others were wishing they had different powers. Some in the church were using their miraculous powers in the assembly to draw attention to themselves. In chapters 12-14, Paul gave instructions that would help Christians use the miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit in the best way. Chapter 13 is one of the most famous chapters in all the Bible. It is often called the love chapter. In this chapter, Paul explains that miraculous powers given by the Holy Spirit do not prove salvation. In fact, if those powers are being used by a person who does not have love in his or her heart, then that person is lost. Paul said: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Notice that Paul’s statement shows that an amazing display of the miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit would indicate nothing about a person’s salvation, since such a display could be done without love.
Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 13 also helps us to understand something else about the Holy Spirit. There is a difference between the miraculous powers bestowed on people by the Holy Spirit, and the fact that the Holy Spirit dwells in saved Christians. Ephesians 1:14 says that if the Holy Spirit dwells in a person, that fact verifies that he or she is saved. We read a similar statement in 1 John 3:24: “And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” In 1 Corinthians we read, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (6:19). Notice, however, that in Galatians 5:22 we read that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Thus we can see that Paul stated that a person could have the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit without having love. But from Galatians 5:22 we understand that the true fruit of the Spirit, that indicates that the Spirit lives in a person and that shows that person is saved, begins with love. Therefore, it was possible for a person to have the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit and be able to speak in tongues, and yet not have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside him in the sense that the person was saved (see Miller, 2003).
Throughtout the Bible, we can see that God used the miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit to accomplish many things. This miraculous power was not an indication of the spiritual status of the one being empowered by the Holy Spirit. In fact, it was sometimes the case that those who were empowered with such abilities were wicked enemies of God. Thus, we can see that the story of Cornelius and the fact that the Gentiles received the miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit does not show that the Gentiles were saved before they repented or were baptized. On the contrary, the apostle Peter understood God’s message perfectly. The miraculous powers were bestowed upon the Gentiles to show that God accepted them as candidates for salvation just as He accepted the Jews. Peter, in accordance with the Gospel message he had preached in Acts 2, instructed the Gentiles to be baptized in water just as he instructed those on the Day of Pentecost to be baptized. The reason in Acts 10 for baptism was the same as that in Acts 2:38—“for the remission of sins.”
Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern-Day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=264.