The conversion of Cornelius and his household was one of the most controversial and debated conversion accounts in the first century. While most of the church rejoiced at the first intentional effort to take the gospel to the Gentiles, there was a faction that wanted them to undergo circumcision and keep the law (Acts 15:5). The apostles and the Holy-Spirit appointed elders came together to consider the matter. After a lot of debate, Peter stood up and gave his account of his interaction with Cornelius:
Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are. (Acts 15:7-11)
Peter mentions faith twice. He mentions grace once. He even talks about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Peter does not mention water baptism. This passage specifically says that their hearts were cleansed by faith and that God, who knows the heart, sent the Holy Spirit to testify of their faith and equality with believers like Peter. This is not the only time that Peter recounts his tale. After the gospel was received by the Gentiles, Peter went back and reported his experience.
…And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way? (Acts 11:13-17)
Why is it that Peter doesn't mention water baptism again? Why does no one inquire about their baptism? The only response they give is, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Preachers today typically mention how many baptisms they had in such and such area first, but a casual reading of Peter's two accounts places no emphasis on their water baptism. Let's go back to the original sermon that Peter preached. Perhaps there is something in the sermon that will cue us into this mystery. After all, Peter, quoting Cornelius, said that he was supposed to speak words “by which you will be saved.” So, there must be something in Peter's sermon about baptism.
Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him… We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third… And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days. (Acts 10:34–48)
The Holy Spirit fell on those that heard the message. This is because, as we have seen, their hearts had been cleansed by faith. God new they had believed Peter's message, so He baptized them in the Spirit as a sign to Peter and those that were with him that the Gentiles had believed just like the apostles did. Peter ended his sermon in an interesting way: “Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” This is what was said of Abraham in Romans 4 as was discussed yesterday. It is at the point of faith that righteousness is imputed. Baptism is a sign or seal of the righteousness that one had at the time of their initial trust in Jesus. It was only after their belief, reception of the Holy Spirit, and their worship of God that they were commanded to be baptized. Since baptism was commanded, it would have been wrong for them to postpone or to deny their baptism just as it would have been wrong for Abraham to deny his need to be circumcised. (Acts 10:34-48; cf. Luke 7:30)
Notice that I said Cornelius and his household worshiped God. Think about that for a moment. If Cornelius and his household were wretched sinners at this point because they had not been baptized after hearing the gospel preached, why did they worship the One who they do not yet truly know? Was their worship in Spirit and in Truth? Or were they worshiping in vain? Does the reception of their worship not speak to the fact that they were already justified? After all, the “words by which they must be saved” contained nothing about baptism. If Peter's statement about belief and remission of sins was a synecdoche that Luke employed to shorten Peter's speech, and Peter had already mentioned baptism to them, then they shouldn't have worshiped until after their baptism if the traditional view of baptism is to be upheld. Now, baptism was necessary, but the initial point of justification took place when they believed in Jesus.
This account of the conversion of Cornelius is a perfect demonstration of Romans 4. All these debates about people dying on the way to the baptistry or whatever come from a misunderstanding, not of baptism, but of the nature of God. As Peter said, God looks at the heart. This is not something that was just true for Peter, but it has always been true about God.
Now it was in the heart of my father David to build a house for the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. But the LORD said to my father David, ‘Because it was in your heart to build a house for My name, you did well that it was in your heart. Nevertheless you shall not build the house, but your son who will be born to you, he will build the house for My name.' (1 Kings 8:17–19).
When David purposed in his heart to build a temple to God, God looked at his heart and said that he had done well before he had ever actually done anything.
You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27–28)
If God credits wickedness towards the account of the one who dwells on evil things, how much more will God count righteousness towards the account of the one who puts their faith in Him?
For a multitude of the people, even many from Ephraim and Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun, had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than prescribed. For Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good LORD pardon everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, though not according to the purification rules of the sanctuary.” So the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people. (2 Chronicles 30:18–20)
Some may find it odd that God operates outside of His laws at times, but this is called grace. Grace is when God breaks His own rules.
These passages teach us, in conjunction with the account of Cornelius' conversion, that God first looks at the heart. Baptism is commanded, but justification is first credited at the point of faith. In the next section, we will take a look at 1 Peter 3:21 and ask what salvation is.