Acts 10 records the greatest moment in the history of the Gentile people. With centurion Cornelius, God opened the doors of salvation to all men, not just the Jews. For Gentiles, this event is the “Pentecost” of the Gentile world. Sadly, some Bible teachers have wrested the Scripture from its context and have attempted to force it to say something that it does not. This beautiful story of conversion supposedly demonstrates that baptism is not necessary for salvation. Such teaching is false.
In the study that follows, we will show from the context, both immediate and remote, that baptism was and is essential to salvation.
The story of the conversion of Cornelius spans chapters 10 and 11 in the book of Acts. Because we can know truth (John 8:32), and because God’s word is truth (John 17:17), we should examine what God’s word says concerning Cornelius and baptism for salvation.
According to acts 10:1,2, Cornelius was a “devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.” Yet, despite these inspired accolades, Cornelius was still missing something. He was an alien sinner who had not yet been added to the household of faith. He had not experienced the blood of Jesus Christ. He had not obeyed the gospel truth. Indeed, he could not, for salvation had not yet come to non-Jews (c.f. Romans 1:16; Romans 2:9, 10; Luke 24:47; Acts 3:26; Ephesians 2: 11-17).
Peter is the other central character in this narrative. Whereas Cornelius was a Gentile, Peter was a Jew. When confronted with the Lord’s command to eat food that was unclean according to Jewish law, Peter refused (Acts 10:14). It was even considered sinful to associate with a Gentile (Acts 11:2, 3; Galatians 2:11-14). Now, the apostle is commanded to go to the house of Cornelius and to share with him the gospel that previously belonged only to the Jews. This opening to the Gentiles was monumental. Not only would it open salvation to the remainder of the world, but it would also shatter the Jews exclusive attitude.
It is against this background of a devout Cornelius and a faithful yet reticent Peter that the story of Cornelius’ conversion is told.
The conversion of Cornelius is a seminal event
There are only two other occasions in Scripture which rise to the level of Cornelius’s conversion. The first was the giving of the Law of Moses at Mount Sinai. There, God established his chosen people as a divine nation under his absolute authority. The second was the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At that time, God established the church. The law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2) represented a major departure from the religious practices of the Law of Moses.
The astute Bible student observes that both Sinai and Pentecost are marked by extraordinary miracles (Exodus 19:16-20; 20:2; Acts 2:1-21). Any time the Lord changed the status quo of religious life, he validated those changes with unquestionable miracles. So it is not surprising that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church was attended by great miracles.
The miraculous power of the Holy Spirit proved that Peter was doing God’s will.
Peter’s vision, beginning in Acts 10:9, was private. The text says nothing about anyone else sharing that vision. Still, Peter took Jewish brethren with him to Cornelius’ home (Acts 10:23). These traveling companions went into a Gentile’s home because Peter told them it was God’s will. They had no independent confirmation that what Peter said was true. It would appear to anyone else that Peter was violating God’s instructions concerning Gentiles.
But, before Peter had instructed Cornelius to do anything, the Holy Spirit fell upon his listeners (Acts 10:44). Notice the reaction of the Jewish witnesses: they were amazed (Acts 10:45). Peter would depend upon the testimony of these witnesses when he rehearses these events to the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 11 1-18, esp. vs. 12). Just as the great miracles at Sinai and Pentecost had confirmed a change in God’s covenant with men, the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 10 confirmed this expansion of the church beyond Judaism.
The words of Peter in chapter 11 strengthen this assertion.He says, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way” (Acts 11:17)? What does he mean, “stand in God’s way?” What was God doing that gave Peter pause? What did the miracle of the Holy Spirit say to Peter? It confirmed his actions both for himself, the Jewish witnesses and the Jews who would soon learn of the conversion and question Peter’s actions.
This outpouring of the Holy Spirit does not confirm salvation. It confirms that Peter was doing God’s will.
Peter was not needed for a faith only conversion
Errant teachers assert that the baptism of Cornelius was unnecessary. If Cornelius is saved by faith alone, there was no reason for Peter to travel to Caesarea. But the Bible says that Cornelius and his household already knew the story of Jesus and his death, burial, and resurrection (Acts 10:37 ff).
If a man could be saved by faith only, apart from baptism, why was Peter sent to preach to Cornelius? Cornelius called for Peter because he wanted to hear what the apostle had to say (Acts 10:22). What did Peter say that was new to Cornelius?
Peter accomplished two things on this trip. He confirmed the oneness of all men before God (Acts 10:34) and taught Cornelius what to do with the facts he already knew. he commanded him to be baptized (Acts 10:48).
Acts 10 must not be extracted from the greater context of the New Testament
Acts 10 must be viewed first in its immediate context, and then in the more remote context of the entire New Testament and even the entire Bible.
Nowhere else is the reception of the Holy Spirit indicative of salvation. In Acts 2:38, the Holy Spirit is a promise after repentance and baptism. In Acts 8:12, people were baptized but, the miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit was not given until later when Peter and John came down from Jerusalem. In the case of the Ethiopian and of Saul of Tarsus, neither man rejoiced until after his baptism (Acts 8:26-40; 9:1-19; 22:12-16). Surely one who enjoys the gift of the Holy Spirit would rejoice and not grieve as did Saul!
Baptism is a consistent, essential, part of the plan of salvation
From the very beginning of the church in Acts chapter 2, every Christian was baptized. Aside from the multiple examples in the book of Acts, Paul explains the importance of baptism in Romans 6:2-11. He says that by sharing in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, through baptism, we also share in a “newness of life.” The careful study of this passage will show that baptism is how we join Christ in his death and are united with him in his resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).
It is Peter who declares that “baptism also now saves us” (1 Peter 3:21, 22). We are saved by baptism, just as we are saved by grace and by faith. We cannot be saved apart from grace or apart from faith, and we cannot be saved apart from baptism. This was the clear understanding of the apostles and the original Christians. Only years later, did men begin to misunderstand and misrepresent the truth of what is revealed in Scripture.
As it pertains to Cornelius, we observe that even after the Holy Spirit was poured out on his household and after the Jewish witnesses perceived the validation of Peter’s mission to Cornelius, Peter commanded that Cornelius and his household be baptized (Acts: 10:48). In the same way: men today are commanded to be baptized for the remission of their sins.