There may be some that wonder if one can receive the Holy Spirit before being saved. This is a great question and one that deserves very careful study as it brings to the forefront at least a couple of commonly misunderstood topics regarding the Holy Spirit.

How Scripture answers "Can someone receive the Holy Spirit before being saved?"

No, one does not receive the Holy Spirit before being saved5. More specifically, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not given by God before one is baptized with water2,3,5,6 for the remission of their sins. This “rule” can be formulated by adding these facts together: (1) God gives the Spirit to all that obey Him1,6, and (2) Peter said anyone would receive the gift/promise of the Holy Spirit if they repent (obey1) and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus2,5,6. What Paul faced in Ephesus shows this rule play out5. These “disciples” (e.g. obedient believers) knew nothing of the Holy Spirit since they had only been baptized “into John’s baptism”5.

But wait! What about Cornelius3? This question serves to highlight the difference between two acts of the Holy Spirit often confused – the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Technically, one could rightly argue that the Gentiles in Acts 10 “received the Holy Spirit”3 before being saved. However, Cornelius shows us that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was not for the benefit of Cornelius! It wasn’t for his salvation, but to convince Peter that Gentiles were equal to Jews4, worthy to receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through their belief/obedience1. Furthermore, Peter would later equate Cornelius’ baptism of the Holy Spirit to what had happened only once before “at the beginning” on the day of Pentecost4.

Answer built on scripture-blocks below

The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.
You [High Priest and Jewish Council] killed Jesus by hanging Him on a cross, but the God of our ancestors raised Him and exalted him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, bringing Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins.  We [apostles], together with the Holy Spirit – whom God has given to all that obey Him – are witnesses to these things.

In the early days of the Christian movement and God’s establishment of His “new covenant,” the apostles are carrying the message of the gospel across Jerusalem and Judea.  Being confronted by the Jewish leadership (vs 27), as often they were, Peter tells them, “We must obey God rather than men” (vs 29) and witnesses to them about the things he and the others have seen with their eyes.  In this case, Peter may be specifically referring back to witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus documented in Acts 1.

Scripture-block application to this question

God gives the Holy Spirit “to those who obey him.”

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brothers, what shall we do? And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.

When they heard these words, they were pierced in the heart and asked Peter and the other apostles what they should do [to be saved].  Peter told them that they each should repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ in order to receive two things: the remission of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This “gift” was the promise made for all that the Lord calls to himself, even those far off.

Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost where he recalled several prophetic statements from Joel and David (vss 16-36). By divine inspiration, Peter interpreted these statements to apply their fulfillment to Jesus and the ushering in of the “last days”. He also specifically refers to the “promise of the Holy Spirit” earlier – given by the Father to the Son (vs 33). More were continuing to be saved and they began meeting together as the Lord’s church (vss 41-47).
Scripture-block application to this question

Peter directly connects being baptized (with water) as an act of obedience1 (e.g. “repent and be“) that provides two things: forgiveness of sins and receipt of the gift of the Holy Spirit that was promised for all (Jew and Gentile3).

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?

While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those Gentiles hearing the gospel message.  The Jews present with Peter were amazed since the gift of the Holy Spirit was being given to the Gentiles to the extent that they were speaking in tongues and praising God.  Then Peter declared that nobody could withhold the water needed for baptizing them since they had received the Holy Spirit just as they [apostles] had.

The church has grown among the Jewish community according to the pattern Jesus foretold (“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8).  This pivotal chapter accounts the conversion of the first Gentiles to the Way.

Scripture-block application to this question

The Holy Spirit “fell on all who heard” and was “poured out” on believing Gentiles to convince Peter that they too were eligible for God’s salvation and should be kept from “water for baptizing these people.”

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

Before this takes place and Peter even goes to Cornelius’ house with the gospel, he has had three visions from God showing him that the Gentiles are to be accepted. And following this, the Gentiles being baptized with the Holy Spirit is critical testimony for the rest of the Jewish Christian community to accept them into the body of Christ.

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? When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

If God gave the same gift to them [Gentiles] as He gave to us [Jews] when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who was I [Peter] to resist? So when they [Jerusalem church] heard Peter’s testimony they stopped objecting and glorified God by accepting the fact that God had granted salvation from obedience to the Gentiles as well.

Peter is reporting back to the church in Jerusalem about his journey to Joppa and the conversion of the first gentiles (Cornelius and his family/friends – chap 10).

Scripture-block application to this question

Peter testifies to the rest of the Jewish brethren about what happened with Cornelius3, and that it was God’s giving of “the same gift” [of the Holy Spirit] that convinced him they too should be baptized/saved.

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

Paul has just recounted the Acts 10 events3, telling them that, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.” (vs 15)

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? And they said, No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit. And he said, Into what then were you baptized? They said, Into John’s baptism. 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. On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed inland and came to Ephesus. There he found some converts and asked if they received the Holy Spirit when they had believed.  They had not and didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.  So Paul asked what they had been baptized into?  They said John’s baptism.  Paul then explained the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism – that the former was only of repentance and pointing toward Jesus.  When they heard this, they were baptized into Jesus.  At that point, Paul laid his hands on them which gave them the power of the Holy Spirit – to speak in tongues and prophesy.
Paul is on his third missionary journey in 52AD.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul encounters believers that knew nothing about the Holy Spirit since they had not been “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”, only into John’s baptism.

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 by the Spirit of our God.

Some of you were engaged in these sinful practices, but you have been cleansed [of sin], set apart (e.g. made holy), and reconciled in the name of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is addressing the brethren of Corinth that are relatively new to the faith and has just listed several sinful practices of the “unrighteous” (vss 9-10) that some in Corinth had been a part of but had turned from in their conversion.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul references the fact that these Corinthians were baptized with water (“washed“) and thereby made holy (“sanctified” or set apart) in the name of Jesus and “by the Spirit of our God.”

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

Paul later concludes (vss 19-20) by emphasizing the fact that their “body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…from God.”

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