If several years of blogging have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t know what people think about a given spiritual topic until you write about it and they react to what you’ve written. For me, this has been the case with “the gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 10:45. I think one can legitimately argue that the phrase means the same thing in 10:45 as it does in Acts 2:38 (though I don’t agree).
However, once somebody has made the argument, I think they’re locked into insisting that the gift of the Holy Spirit is miraculous spiritual gifts in both places. That’s the second-best interpretation of Acts 2:38 (better than a non-miraculous personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which is a Romans 8 concept rather than an Acts 2 concept). In Acts 10:45, though, it’s far and away the best reading of the text, to the point where I don’t think there’s a moderately close second. As a result, in my first post on the issue on Tuesday, I hand-waved at the argument, assumed that everybody would agree with me, and moved on.
I did have friends, though, who concurred that the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 is salvation, but argued that the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 10 also must be salvation, essentially because the same phrase is used in both locations. I see the point, but I think there are serious problems with the argument.
THE FALLING OF THE SPIRIT
First, Acts 2:44-46 is positively filled with miraculous-spiritual-gift language. This begins in v. 44, where Luke reports, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who had heard the word.” The phrase “the Spirit fell” is only used three times in the Bible and twice in the New Testament (though Acts 8:15-16 speaks of the Spirit not yet having fallen). The Old-Testament appearance of the phrase is in Ezekiel 11:5, where the falling of the Spirit causes Ezekiel to prophesy—a miraculous spiritual gift.
I think that use is telling (and the New Testament is probably quoting Ezekiel in using the phrase), but even more telling is Peter’s explanation of what it means in Acts 11:15, where Peter reports to the Jerusalem church, “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.” This isn’t about salvation. In Acts, people are saved at other times than “at the beginning”. Instead, it refers to the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4, which gave the apostles the miraculous gift of tongues. The falling of the Holy Spirit is about gifts, which is the reading we should apply in Acts 10:44.
THE OUTPOURING OF THE SPIRIT
Second, Luke says that the gift of the Holy Spirit “was poured out even on the Gentiles” in v. 45. The idea of God pouring out His Spirit appears in several places in the Old Testament, but the usage of the phrase in Acts focuses on the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32, where it is used twice. Joel himself links the outpouring of the Spirit to miraculous spiritual gifts: prophecy, dreams, and visions.
Peter makes this connection even more explicit in the sermon of Acts 2. In v. 16, he says of the apostles’ display of tongue-speaking, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel.” He can’t be talking about salvation; at this point in the narrative, nobody has been saved yet who wasn’t already. In case anybody misses the point, he adds “and they shall prophesy” to Joel’s second mention of the outpouring of the Spirit. It’s as though he’s saying, “The outpouring of the Spirit is about gifts, people!”
This continues when Peter takes up the phrase himself. In v. 33, he says of Jesus, “He has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” Salvation is both invisible and inaudible. Miraculous spiritual gifts, especially when speaking in tongues is paired with tongues of fire, are both visible and audible. Additionally, it’s still true that at this point in the story, nobody has been saved yet. It is inarguable that to Peter, the outpouring of the Spirit is about gifts (though this outpouring is important primarily as a sign of the salvation of Acts 2:21).
Now, let’s take all this and apply it to Acts 10:45-46. Once again, the Holy Spirit has been poured out, and the Jewish believers in attendance know that it has been poured out. How? It’s not because they see the Gentiles glowing with numinous light after their salvation. It’s because they hear the Gentiles speaking in tongues.
To these believers, the manifestation of gifts is proof of the outpouring of the Spirit because the outpouring of the Spirit is inextricably linked to gifts. Sure, you can insist that “the gift of the Holy Spirit” has to mean salvation because of the use of the phrase in one other place in Acts. However, to do that, you have to reject the implication of the outpouring of the Spirit and what it means in three other places in Acts.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BAPTISM
Finally, if the Gentiles’ receipt of the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 10:45 means that they are saved at that point, why is Peter so insistent that they have to be baptized immediately afterward in vs. 46-48? Such haste is quite common in Acts. In Acts 2, the Jews who believe the gospel on Pentecost are baptized that same day. In Acts 8, the Ethiopian eunuch is baptized as soon as he sees a body of water adequate for the purpose. Early in Acts 16, Lydia and her household are baptized after hearing the word once. Late in Acts 16, the jailer is baptized that same hour of the night. In Acts 22, Paul recounts how Ananias said to him, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized!”
In Acts, Luke offers ample explanation for this rush to the water. He records Peter as saying that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and Ananias as saying that it washes away sins. People in Acts are in a hurry to get baptized because they understand that the fate of their souls hangs in the balance (Side note: people today who don’t believe their salvation depends on baptism are rarely to never baptized immediately. Sometimes, they are never baptized, period.). The early believers’ haste is a marker for their conviction that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins.
In Acts 10, Peter and the Gentiles are in just as much a hurry to be baptized as the Jews on Pentecost, the eunuch, and so forth. Their behavior aligns perfectly with the behavior of others in Acts who get baptized for the forgiveness of sins (and not with the behavior of those today who don’t get baptized for that reason). If the people in Cornelius’s household think they still need salvation, and they’re sure acting like it, they could not have received salvation with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
There are certainly worse arguments than the argument that “the gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 10:45 is about salvation, just as it was in Acts 2:38. However, those who maintain this argument must overlook a mountain of contrary evidence. Acts 10:44-46 is replete with language indicating that the text is about miraculous spiritual gifts. If we want to find salvation in the text, we must look to vs. 47-48 instead, to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.