Baptismal Regeneration and Justification (vs. Jason Engwer)

Baptismal Regeneration and Justification (vs. Jason Engwer) June 4, 2020

This is my reply to Jason Engwer’s article, “Baptismal Justification” (12-20-09), which was a portion of a larger discussion he was having with Catholic apologist Bryan Cross. His words will be in blue.

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As an introductory statement, I would emphasize that the Bible and Catholicism teach both justification by grace through faith and baptismal regeneration (including normative infant baptism). The two notions and events are harmonious. But they can be discussed by themselves.  Often (if not most times), the Bible will mention one without the other. But it doesn’t follow that every mention of one without the other implies some sort of contradiction. It does not, because both are asserted in inspired Scripture. I agree that many mentions of something constitute good biblical evidence for it (I presuppose this in many of my own articles, in citing a lot of Bible passages); however, there are things that are mentioned a lot less in the Bible that remain just as true as the frequently mentioned doctrines.

The examples of this that I usually point out are the virgin birth and original sin. Both are firmly believed by virtually all Christian believers: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox: yet they are mentioned (especially in the case of original sin) fairly few times. Moreover, there is an example of a firmly and universally held doctrine (apart from seven disputed books pout of 73) that is absolutely absent from Holy Scripture: the canon of the Bible: which was ultimately determined and decreed by Church authority and apostolic tradition.

Bottom line: assertion of either aspects of baptism or justification, without mentioning the other doctrine, does not imply a negation of the other. and if and when Jason argues in such a fashion, he will be engaging in logical fallacy and inadequate biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. The task of the fair and open biblical exegete is to incorporate all of the data regarding justification and baptism into a harmonious whole. As one would expect, I think the Catholic view does that. And there are two passages in Paul that explicitly link baptism and justification.

Below is a portion of my latest response, relevant to the subject of attaining justification through baptism. . . . 

Paul, James, and other New Testament authors suggest continuity between justification through faith in the Old Testament era and justification through faith in the New Testament era.

Indeed they do. But baptism was prefigured by circumcision. I summarized the biblical data on that analogy in my paper, Infant Baptism: A Fictional Dialogue

Paul in Colossians 2:11-13 makes a connection between baptism and circumcision. Israel was the church before Christ (Acts 7:38; Romans 9:4). Circumcision, given to 8-day-old boys, was the seal of the covenant God made with Abraham, which applies to us also (Galatians 3:14, 29). It was a sign of repentance and future faith (Romans 4:11). Infants were just as much a part of the covenant as adults (Genesis 17:7; Deuteronomy 29:10-12, cf. Matthew 19:14). Likewise, baptism is the seal of the New Covenant in Christ. It signifies cleansing from sin, just as circumcision did (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25; Romans 2:28-29; Philippians 3:3).

I also have an article about John Calvin commenting at length about Paul’s circumcision-baptism analogy.

But works of faith come later than faith. Genesis 15:6 is about a faith that would result in works, but the works come after the faith.

We fully agree, which is why we speak of initial justification, by faith. I’ve even written a post entitled, Monergism in Initial Justification is Catholic Doctrine. So this notion doesn’t contradict Catholic soteriology or theology in general.

When somebody trusts God in response to a promise God makes, as in Genesis 15, that’s faith in the heart (as in Acts 15:7-11 and Romans 10:10), not faith accompanied by an outer manifestation like baptism.

Now here is where Jason attempts to illogically separate such justification from an equally necessary and regenerative baptism. Acts 15:7-11 is the account St. Peter at the Jerusalem Council talking about how he had observed Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit (15:8) and have their hearts “cleansed . . . by faith” (15:9). But there is no reason to believe that he would separate baptism from that, simply because he doesn’t mention it here. How do we know that? Well, we know from looking at actual instances of reception of the Holy Spirit in which Peter was present.

In Acts 2, it is the Day of Pentecost and the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and are indwelt by Him (2:1-4). As a result, St. Peter gives the first Christian sermon, explaining what had happened, and presents the gospel (2:14-36). When he is done, the Bible says that “they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?”‘ (2:37; RSV, as throughout). And here is how Peter responds:

Acts 2:38-41 . . . “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [39] For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” [40] And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” [41] So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Thus, the very first act or “work” that those who have accepted the gospel by grace through faith is to get baptized. And this baptism is “for the forgiveness of your sins” and its result will be receiving “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And it is intended for all believers, and for their “children” (infant baptism). Lastly,  getting baptized is, according to Peter and inspired Scripture, “Sav[ing] yourselves from this crooked generation.” I don’t know how the Bible could be more explicit in describing baptismal regeneration and its actual necessity, either at the beginning of an adult convert’s Christian life or for an infant who is the child of Christians. Everything is here: repentance, forgiveness of sins, the indwelling Holy Spirit, salvation, and the idea that baptism formally adds one to the Church.

When Peter observes the Holy Spirit falling upon Gentiles, too, he acts in exactly the same fashion:

Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. [45] And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. [46] For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, [47] “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” [48] And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

When St. Paul converted, it was precisely the same state of affairs again:

Acts 9:17-18 So Anani’as departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” [18] And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized,

Acts 22:11-16 And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. [12] “And one Anani’as, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, [13] came to me, and standing by me said to me, `Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. [14] And he said, `The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; [15] for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. [16] And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

Note that his sins were not yet “washed away” when he first converted and saw Jesus. That only came with baptism, just as was the case in Acts 2:38, 40.

Obviously, then, for Peter and Paul, baptism (i.e., for adult converts accepting Christianity for the first time) goes along with — at the same time — repentance, belief in the gospel and justification by faith. How is it, then, that Jason can claim the exact opposite: that it’s not faith accompanied by an outer manifestation like baptism”? Well, he does so by highlighting certain passages while ignoring other relevant ones, and playing the usual Protestant unbiblical and illogical “either / or” game. The Bible teaches both things; he contends in futility that it teaches only one of them.

It isn’t the case that the chronological order is always the same (baptism —> reception of the Holy Spirit or reception of the Holy Spirit —> baptism), but rather, that they are, broadly speaking, together in time. That is the constant. The ancient Hebrews didn’t view chronology like we do. One being accompanied by the other (whether technically before or after) is the essence of the thing, rather than one being slightly before the other. That’s what Scripture teaches, whether Jason and other Protestants care for it or not. 

There isn’t a single individual who’s described as coming to faith, but having to wait until baptism to be justified. Nor is there any individual who’s described as only having a lesser, unjustifying faith prior to baptism or not having faith at all until baptism. Rather, we repeatedly see people justified as soon as they believe, prior to or without baptism.

I just provided several counter-examples. In Acts 2, the sequence was repentance, then baptism, which brings forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and entrance into the kingdom (i.e., the Church). One can hardly be “justified” without all those things or have a greater faith before baptism (given this description). Therefore, baptism is what immediately caused it. When Paul was baptized, according to his own interpretation, his sins were washed away as a result.

So how could he be justified (before baptism), seeing that his sins weren’t even forgiven and washed away and he wasn’t “saved” yet? He could not, since forgiveness of sins and salvation / regeneration are essential to the notion of justification. And an infant can have no conscious, “personal” faith at all prior to baptism or even after. Yet the Bible teaches infant baptism. Other passages on baptismal regeneration reinforce this point:

Mark 16:16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

John 3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (cf. 3:3: “unless a man is born again …”)

Romans 6:3-5 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? [4] We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. [5] For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Titus 3:5 he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit,

1 Peter 3:20-21 . . . during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. [21] Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, . . . 

We see from this additional relevant biblical data that a person is “saved” by baptism; it’s how he can “enter the kingdom of God” and be “born again”; it allows the baptized person to “walk in newness of life” and be united with Jesus in His Resurrection. It brings about “regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” I fail to see what else is required to prove the point! Is this not overwhelming evidence for the Catholic view (and Orthodox and Anglican and Lutheran and the view of other Protestant groups that believe in baptismal regeneration)? Yet Jason wants to argue that justification is before baptism. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s exactly the opposite of the biblical presentation on these matters.

I just discovered some very exciting arguments for baptismal regeneration tonight (I don’t know how I’ve missed this, all this time, but I’m always learning), from my friend David Palm, who wrote on my Facebook page:

I remember when I was not-yet-converted and was scratching my head about this whole baptism and justification connection that the Council of Trent made. Trent references Romans 6:7, so I went and read it in the Greek and was absolutely gobsmacked. Romans 6:7 in English is often translated along the lines of, “For he who has died is freed from sin” (RSVCE). But in Greek it says, “ὁ γὰρ ἀποθανὼν δεδικαίωται ἀπὸ τῆς ἁμαρτίας.” That word “δεδικαίωται”, is a form of the verb “to justify”, the very same verb used in the more prominent passages in Rom 3 and 4. So more literally it would be (in the context), “For he who has died [in Christ, in baptism] has been justified from sin….”

I was curious to see if there were translations that reflected this. There aren’t many, but I found a few (including several quite old ones):

ASV for he that hath died is justified from sin.

Darby For he that has died is justified from sin.

Douay-Rheims For he that is dead is justified from sin.

Tyndale For he that is dead is justified from sin. [Old English spelling modified]

Wycliffe For he that is dead [to sin], is justified from sin.

Wuest for the one who died once for all stands in the position of a permanent relationship of freedom from the sinful nature.

ASV is the most surprising, since it was the American revision of the King James Version: produced in 1901. Strong’s Concordance lists the word here as dikaioo (#1344).  Knowing that, we can trace its use in other passages, as David suggests above. It occurs 14 more times in Romans alone and 12 times in other Pauline epistles. Here are the most notable instances:

Romans 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

Romans 3:23-25 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24] they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, [25] whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. . . . 

Romans 3:26 . . . he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:28 For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

Romans 3:30 . . . he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.

Romans 4:5 And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.

Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

Galatians 2:16 . . . in order to be justified by faith in Christ . . . 

Galatians 3:24 So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith.

Titus 3:7 so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

Apologists, theologians, and avid Bible readers are well familiar with Paul’s theme of being justified by grace (Rom 3:24; Titus 3:7) and by faith (most of the other passages above). But in Romans 2:13, Paul applies the term not to either grace or faith, but to “doers of the law.” James uses the word (in a way that gave Luther fits) in relation to Abraham and Rahab being “justified by works” (Jas 2:21, 24-25). 

But now we also see that St. Paul teaches that the baptized person is “justified from sin” (Rom 6:7). This pretty much dramatically shoots down Jason’s entire attempt to separate baptism from justification / regeneration. The entire chapter of Romans 6 is now seen in an exciting light in reference to baptism and its profound spiritual power. Paul creates an analogy between our baptism and Jesus’ death (6:3-6). Then we have the bombshell verse of 6:7, which directly applies justification to baptism.

The rest of the chapter, in light of the stage that Paul has set, is filled with proof texts for baptismal regeneration. Because of our baptism / “death” we are now “dead to sin and alive to God” (6:11). Thus, sanctification seems intimately tied in with the justification and regeneration that baptism has brought about (a very Catholic and unProtestant view indeed).

Perhaps this is some of what St. Paul means by saying, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27; cf. Rom 13:14), and also his terminology of “put on the new nature” (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10), and “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17), and “the new life of the Spirit” (Rom 7:6): not to mention several other verses about the indwelling Holy Spirit.

As a result of this baptism, sin is no longer to “reign” over us or have “dominion” (Rom 6:12-15), leading to “righteousness for sanctification” (6:19). We’re no longer “slaves to sin” (6:16-18, 20). Now as a result of baptismal regeneration, we’ve been “set free from sin” with “the return” being “sanctification and its end, eternal life” (6:18, 22).

Wow! Hard to argue against all that! It’s baptismal regeneration, justification, sanctification, and salvation all in one fell swoop: in one chapter of Paul: supposedly the great “Protestant” apostle and alleged herald of justification by faith alone.

It’s not as though people like Cornelius and the Galatians didn’t have access to baptism,

In the passage about Cornelius, Peter preaches, and then Cornelius, along with other Gentiles who receive the Spirit are baptized (Acts 10:44-48). So this is more evidence of the Catholic position, not Jason’s. We know what Paul and Peter thought baptism did: not from this particular passage, but others, that have to be considered along with Acts 10.

It would make no sense to dismiss a passage like Luke 18:10-14, Acts 19:2, or Romans 10:10 as an exception to the rule. Justification upon believing response to the gospel, prior to baptism, is the rule, not the exception.

In Luke 18:10-14, we hear of the righteous man who was “justified”because he exhibited genuine repentance and humility. This doesn’t prove that he would not also have to be baptized (see my logical point in the introduction). The same Jesus Who taught this in a story, also said: 

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 

After we preach and make disciples and bring about new converts and believers by the power of the Holy Spirit, we baptize them. The disciples were already baptizing others, early in Jesus’ ministry: thus we can assume that they must have themselves been baptized, in order to baptize others, but it wasn’t by Jesus (John 4:2).

Acts 19:1-6 While Apol’los was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. [2] And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” [3] And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” [4] And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” [5] On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. [6] And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

It’s the same again here: some disciples were found who had been baptized by John the Baptist. But then they were baptized in the name of Jesus and after that, they received the Holy Spirit. Apparently, then, Jason manages to believe (I know not how) in a justification without the Holy Spirit. 

Romans 10:10 For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.

This refers to justification, but the same Paul makes it clear that baptism is also an essential part of the overall equation, in Romans 6:3-5 and Titus 3:5 (seen above). So it’s not “either/or” but “both/and.” I have repeatedly shown how the two can go hand-in-hand and be perfectly harmonious. This is what the Bible teaches. So why does Jason keep trying to separate them? Well, because he is engaged in systematic eisegesis: reading into the Bible and apostolic Christianity what isn’t there. And he is engaging in the typical and distressingly common Protestant false dichotomy. 

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Mark 16:16 is an extra-Biblical source. It has some significance as an early text, but the readers should keep in mind that it’s an extra-Biblical text. The authentic gospel of Mark says nothing of baptismal justification. (Similarly, the authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch say nothing of it. The inauthentic longer versions of his letters, on the other hand, include reference to the concept.)

There are many excellent and compelling arguments for Mark 16:9-20 being part of Scripture. But even if it isn’t, there are plenty more passages teaching baptismal regeneration that Jason can’t dismiss.

You’ve made no attempt to explain the large number of Biblical examples of justification apart from baptism that I cited earlier. As I said, such passages have moved many advocates of baptismal justification to argue that baptism didn’t become a requirement (in normative cases) until after Jesus’ public ministry. . . . John refers to justification through faith many times (1:12, 3:15-16, 3:18, 3:36, 5:24, 6:35, 6:40, 6:47, 7:38-39, 11:25-26, etc.), and baptismal justification is alleged to be referred to only once, in 3:5.

As explained in the introduction, mentions of justification that do not also mention baptism, don’t wipe out all the passages that teach required baptism as an essential component of Christian discipleship and justification itself (which Paul literally asserts in Romans 6:7). It’s simply not a disproof. The Bible has to be interpreted as a harmonious whole, since it is inspired revelation, and Jason cannot ignore this massive biblical evidence regarding baptism. How very odd, if Jason is correct, that the very first thing Jesus did when He commenced His public ministry, was to be baptized as an example.

And the immediate precursor and proclaimer of the arrival of Jesus the Messiah: John the Baptist, was primarily one who baptized (as we see in his very title): which prophets had never done before. Then we see Jesus’ disciples baptizing (Jn 4:2), and His command. shortly before ascending, that mentioned baptism in conjunction with making disciples (Mt 28:19). After the Day of Pentecost and the first Christian sermon of the new covenant, Peter immediately calls for a mass baptism: precisely as Jesus said His disciples should do: preach and baptize. Jason’s inability to grasp the significance of all this is like a person looking all over the sky at high noon on a clear summer day and not being able to find the sun.

Most likely, Acts 2:38 has a meaning similar to Matthew 3:11. The people in Matthew 3 weren’t being baptized to attain repentance. Rather, they were repenting, then being baptized on the basis of that repentance. Not only would it be irrational to think that unrepentant people would be baptized in order to attain repentance, but Josephus specifically tells us that John’s baptism was for people who had already repented (Antiquities Of The Jews, 18:5:2).

Of course, this was the order (repentance, then baptism, which “seals” it), as indicated in Mark 1:5: “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (cf. Mt 3:6). John’s words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2), imply — it seems to me — a repentance, followed by baptism: rather like a Protestant altar call, where the person repents, then goes up to the altar in a ritual gesture of public proclamation of newfound faith. In Catholicism, the equivalent would be reception into the Church at Easter, followed by baptism, for those who had never been baptized. When I was received, I was conditionally baptized, just in case my previous one (as a Methodist infant in 1958) was invalid for some reason.

Acts 2:38 is the same order: “Repent, and be baptized.” And it was the same for St. Paul. He repented and stopped warring against Jesus Christ and His Body, and then he was baptized.

Given the availability of such a reasonable understanding of Acts 2:38 (one similar to how we all read Matthew 3:11), it wouldn’t make sense to adopt some other view of the passage that would be so inconsistent with what Luke says elsewhere and what other Biblical authors say (documented above).

Jason seems to think that repentance is the same thing as justification, but it’s not. It’s only the first step towards justification and regeneration. Hence we see a verse like this:

Mark 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (cf. Lk 3:3)

The people in John’s baptisms would repent and confess, then get baptized, which would bring the forgiveness (which is the justification: at least by analogy to later Christian baptism). The Apostle Paul taught that the two are not identical:

2 Corinthians 7:10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation . . . 

1 Peter 3:21 is a passage addressed to Christians in the context of discussing sanctification. Baptism saves in that sense, not in the sense of justification. Like the baptism of John the Baptist, Christian baptism doesn’t remove the filth of sin (1 Peter 3:21). Instead, it’s a public pledge made to God that commits Christians, like those to whom Peter is writing, to faithfulness to God in their present experience of persecution.

The preceding context shows that Peter is talking about unbelievers being saved by baptism:

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit;

Peter goes on to make a parable-like comparison: during the Flood, “eight persons, were saved through water” (3:20). Then he says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (3:21). “Salvation” in the Old Testament generally meant “saved from death” or from “enemies” (who often would bring death). In the New Testament it means being rescued from eternal death or spiritual death. So it’s a clear-cut analogy: eight people were saved from physical death “through water” on Noah’s ark. Now, by analogy, we are saved through the waters of baptism, which “correspond” to the waters of the Flood.

If baptism were intended as some sort of “pledge of faithfulness,” Scripture would say so. Instead, it is repeatedly referred to (including in key passages by Peter himself) as bringing salvation, regeneration, the Holy Spirit, and justification itself (Rom 6:7). Jason is simply doing more desperate eisegesis. It doesn’t fly. His view is neither biblically plausible nor self-consistent. 

Acts 19:2 only mentions faith. 

That’s right, but it’s just one verse. The original New Testament did not even have verses. When we consider context, the discussion immediately turns to baptism (19:3-4), then the people get baptized (19:5), which results in the reception of the Holy Spirit (19:6). Jason simply repeating that Acts 19:2 only mentions faith over and over proves or resolves absolutely nothing, as to the present dispute. 

If you want us to believe that Galatians 3:2, Ephesians 1:13-14, and other passages are including baptism when they refer to faith, you need to argue for that position rather than just asserting it. . . . We don’t begin with a default assumption that references to belief include baptism. If you want baptism included, you carry the burden of proof.

As explained, they don’t have to mention baptism because it’s mentioned (and very prominently in the whole scheme of salvation) in many other places. Not everything has to be noted in any one particular passage. But St. Paul does put both things (and sanctification) in one verse:

Corinthians 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

If Paul can put them together in that passage, then it follows that he could very well be presupposing this in other passages, and he also connects them in Romans 6:4-5, where he directly connects baptism with waling “in newness of life” and being “united” to Christ: both of which — I submit — are essentially synonyms of justification; and above all in Romans 6:7, where st. Paul leaves no room for doubt.

It’s not just a matter of faith coming before baptism. Rather, justification does as well. Cornelius’ example and Paul’s assumed soteriology in Acts 19:2 involve the reception of the Spirit, the seal of adoption and justification, at the time of faith and prior to baptism.

I don’t know why Jason can’t see the sequence of events around Acts 19:2. It’s not rocket science. These people did not have the Spirit prior to baptism. It says that they were “disciples” (19:1) and “believed (19:2). But so were the original twelve disciples, and they did not have the Holy Spirit till a post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus (John 20:22). The text says that they were baptized, Paul laid his hands on them,  and then “the Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:4-5). What is so hard to grasp about the chronology there? How is it that Jason gets it dead wrong? I find it perplexing, even given the usual, expected Protestant bias.

That’s why the Christians in Jerusalem, after hearing Peter mention Cornelius’ reception of the Spirit without any mention of his baptism, respond by saying that Cornelius had been given eternal life (Acts 11:18).

He doesn’t have to mention that they were baptized. In terms of Bible readers, that was already in the text at 10:47-48: just ten verses before. So Peter didn’t happen to mention Cornelius’ and the others’ baptism; so what? Paul certainly mentioned his own when he recounted his conversion story, and said that the effect of it was to “wash away [his] sins” (Acts 22:16). So one apostle (by far the favorite of Protestants) mentioned it and the other didn’t (but talks explicitly about it elsewhere). It’s a wash, and of no particular significance for determining the correct theology of baptism and justification.  

Moreover, if we want to talk about what gives eternal life, Jesus explicitly said also that it was receiving His Body and Blood in Holy Communion:

John 6:48-51 I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

John 6:53-58 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.

This is extremely plain and clear, yet I don’t see Jason going around teaching that “the Bible says very plainly that the Eucharist gives eternal life.” He doesn’t even believe it. Nor does he believe the many passages clearly proclaiming that baptism regenerates and gives salvation. All he seems to care about are the ones that talk only about justification. He thinks — for some unknown reason — that he can avoid and ignore all of this additional relevant biblical revelation about salvation because it doesn’t harmonize with his man-made theology: devised in the 16th century after Jesus. But if he wants baptism and justification directly tied together, then we have Romans 6:7 and 1 Corinthians 6:11.

Peter goes on to use Cornelius as an example of a person whose heart had been cleansed through faith, demonstrated by his reception of the Spirit (Acts 15:7-11). Peter says nothing of baptism in that context, and the reception of the Spirit that confirmed Cornelius’ justification occurred prior to his baptism. Besides, reception of the Spirit is normally associated with the beginning of the Christian life, so the description of what happened in Acts 10:44-46 would be sufficient to support my conclusion even if we didn’t have the further confirmation in Acts 11 and Acts 15.

Sometimes this is the case, and it is an “anomaly” from the usual sequence: which we see in Acts 2 and Acts 19:1-6 and among the original twelve disciples, who were first baptized and later filled with the Spirit, and St. Paul, whose sins were forgiven by baptism. Yet, baptism was still associated with it in the same passage. It wasn’t absent, let alone irrelevant. Whatever spiritual benefit accrued from having the Holy Spirit still needed to be supplemented by baptism, which the same Peter said was instrumental for forgiveness, salvation, and inclusion in the Church, the Body of Christ.

But the Holy Spirit could not have been the end-all and be-all of justification and salvation, since the disciples were healing and raising the dead and casting out demons even before they received Him (Mt 10:8; Lk 10:17). Even in the Old Testament, the prophet Micah said that he was “filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD” (Mic 3:8) and King David, the “man after” God’s “own heart” (1 Sam 13:14)  cried out to God after he had sinned, “Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51:11). God said about the prophet Jeremiah: “before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet” (Jer 1:5).

Noah clearly had an extra measure of grace and “was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9). Enoch also “walked with God” (Gen 5:24) and the New Testament says that he “pleased God” (Heb 11:5), as one of the heroes of faith. Job was described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). The extraordinary faith and obedience of Abraham and Joseph and the prophets is well known. God also expressed such an internal divine presence, I believe, in talking about transforming people’s hearts:

Deuteronomy 30:6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Jeremiah 24:7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.

Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Jeremiah 32:40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.

Ezekiel 11:19 And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, (cf. 18:31: ” get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”)

In this sense, selective, anomalous instances of people receiving the Holy Spirit before baptism are not much greater than (perhaps even lesser than) these instances of old covenant “heart renewal” so to speak.

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Related Reading

Born Again: Baptism in the Early Fathers (Evangelical Catholic Apologetics)
*
Church Fathers on Baptism (Armchair Theologian; Lutheran site)
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The Church Fathers on Baptismal Regeneration (Bryan Cross, Called to Communion)
*

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Photo credit: Vision of Cornelius the Centurion (1664), by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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