Did Cornelius Receive the Holy Spirit without Baptism?
The answer is no. A common argument used against the essentiality of water immersion in its connection to salvation is the case of Cornelius and his household from Acts 10 and 11. This argument is not sound in the least, yet the argument may be constructed as follows:
Major Premise: All people who receive the Holy Spirit are people who are saved.
Minor Premise: Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before water immersion.
Conclusion: Therefore, Cornelius, who received the Holy Spirit, was saved before water immersion.
The minor premise is true (Acts 10:44-46). The argument falls short with regard to the major premise because it is not sound. Here is why.
1. Cornelius was informed by an angel of God in a vision to send for Peter so that he could find out from Peter what God required him to do in order to be saved (Acts 10:1-6; Acts 11:13-14). Notice Acts 10:6 very carefully: "He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He [referring to Peter the apostle] will tell you what you must do." When Peter arrived, Cornelius said, "we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God" (Acts 10:25-33). Following the instruction of God's angel, Cornelius was seeking the commands of God. Peter told Cornelius, "whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34-35). Peter further told Cornelius that he was commanded by God to preach Jesus as Judge of the living and the dead and that Cornelius must believe in Jesus in order to receive forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:42-43). Finally, Peter commanded Cornelius and his household to be immersed (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-12) in water (for the remission of sins, Acts 2:38; Acts 10:34,35,48; Acts 22:16).
Major Premise: All commandments that were given by Peter were commandments that Cornelius must obey in order to be saved (Acts 10:6,25-35).
Minor Premise: The commandments that Peter gave Cornelius were to fear God (Acts 10:34,35), work righteousness (Acts 10:34,35), believe in Jesus (Acts 10:42,43), and to be immersed in water (Acts 10:47,48).
Conclusion: Therefore the commandments of fearing God, working righteousness, believing in Jesus, and being immersed in water were to be obeyed in order to be saved.
2. In Acts 11:1-18, when Peter gave a recount of the past events that occurred at the household of Cornelius concerning the miraculous power of Holy Spirit falling upon that household just as Peter "began to speak", then it would have been the case that Cornelius would not have received the full message that would have resulted in the final act of faith to become a son of God by putting on Christ (Galatians 3:26-27). The logical consequence of the false argument using the case of Cornelius would be that Cornelius was saved without a full faith in Jesus Christ (which is not acceptable to God according to Matthew 7:21; James 2:19; 24, etc.). What proves too much, proves nothing!
3. We must understand that the Holy Spirit has different functions in the Scripture. There is the equipping and revealing function and the saving function of the Holy Spirit. The equipping and revealing function is seen in many Scriptures such as Numbers 11:10-26 where the Holy Spirit came upon seventy men in order to relieve the burden off of the leadership of Moses. In Joel 2:28-32, it was prophesied that miraculous power from the Holy Spirit would come upon certain individuals in equipping them with miraculous gifts in the infant church (Acts 2:38; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Ephesians 4:7-16). Sometimes the Holy Spirit came upon certain individuals such as the high priest, Caiphas, in John 11:49-52, and caused him to prophesy and reveal to the nation of Israel a prophecy.
We see also though that the Holy Spirit, who is Divine, desires to save all people from sin (1 Timothy 2:4). The way the Holy Spirit does this is by convicting (John 16:7-9), converting, and sanctifying (John 17:17) individuals through the medium of His inspired powerful word. This sword of the Spirit is written down and recorded for us to understand when we believe and obey the commands of what He has stated (Ephesians 6:17; Luke 1:1-4; 2 Timothy 3:16,17).
The equipping and revealing function is what we see in regards to Cornelius and his household in the events of the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit (specifically speaking in languages they had never studied) falling upon them directly from heaven. This divine act was for the purpose of revealing to the Jewish Christians that their built up wall of tradition and prejudice over the centuries ought to come crashing down. The Jewish Christians, therefore, ought to recognize that this sign (Gentiles speaking in tongues) was recognized as being from God since it had happened in a similar manner to the apostles some years before on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. To get Jews to start preaching to the Gentiles, it was going to take a miracle, to convince the Jews that it was God's will, that the Gentiles had the same access to the blessings of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Peter preached the same plan of salvation that he preached on the Day of Pentecost in that there was no distinction between the way Jews and Gentiles were to be saved. Both groups were to hear and obey the same plan of salvation (Ephesians 1:13; Hebrews 5:8-9), which included believing Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 10:43), repenting of one's past sins (Acts 11:18), confessing the name of Jesus before men (Matthew 10:37,38), and being immersed in water for the remission of sins (Acts 10:48). This involves the saving function of the Holy Spirit because He has told us what to do in order to contact the blood of Jesus Christ that can wash away our sins through the washing of water (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Titus 3:4-6; Ephesians 5:26).
4. Those who adhere to this false argument contradict themselves with many of the other passages of Scripture that teach that water immersion is an essential component in the plan of salvation (Mark 16:15,16; 1 Peter 3:20,21; Acts 2:38, 22:16; Romans 6:3,4; Titus 3:4-6; Revelation 1:5). They would rather be inconsistent and irrational rather than humbly submit to the Lord's commands on what a person must do in order to be saved from their sins (John 14:15; 15:14).
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