Essentials And Incidentals -- No. 1
God has given laws and commandments governing every phase of our religious activity. He not only has given the laws but also has shown examples of these laws being obeyed. Whenever these commandments were obeyed in the New Testament, there were various circumstances surrounding the obedience that did not become a part of the law. Today many people are more concerned about incidentals, non-essentials, and circumstances surrounding various laws than about the laws themselves. Especially is this true in regard to the plan of salvation. We are told by some that we must "pray through;" others say, "be baptized with the Holy Ghost," etc. By a close study of things essential and things incidental, much misunderstanding can be removed.
The Great Commission
In order to know what God's law governing conversion is, it becomes necessary to look to the Great Commission which contains Christ's own words as to what one must do to be saved. In Mark's record of the commission Christ states, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." (Mark 16:16) From this we notice first that faith is necessary. Faith is a part of the law. In Luke's record we read, "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations." (Luke 24:47) So repentance became a part of the law of conversion. In Matthew Jesus says, "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (Matt. 28:19) In Mark it was "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." (Mark 16:16) We learn that baptism was a part of God's law of conversion. Thus faith, repentance, and baptism are essentials in becoming a child of God. Here we have God's law—it cannot be altered or changed. It is to "every creature" even to "the end of the world."
The Jews Of Pentecost
In order to notice some incidentals or non-essentials surrounding the plan of salvation, we look to some examples of conversion. In Acts 2 we read of the establishment of the church and hear Peter's sermon to the multitude which gathered together. Luke tells us that about three thousand were converted on that great day. (Acts 2:41) How were they converted? Someone notes that the apostles spoke in tongues (2:4) and that, therefore, we must speak in tongues in order to convert people today. But speaking in tongues was not a part of God's law—it was an incidental! What law was given to the Pentecostians? Was it the same as given by Christ in the Great Commission? Let us see. In Acts 2:36 Peter said, "Let all the house of Israel know assuredly (believe) that God made that same Jesus whom ye crucified, both Lord and Christ." Here was part of the law—faith. They were pricked in their hearts and wanted to know what to do to be saved; and Peter said, "Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38) Here is the same law as taught in the commission—faith, repentance, and baptism. They did this and were saved; God added them to the church. (2:47) Faith, repentance, and baptism were essential; speaking in tongues only incidental.
Saul Of Tarsus
Our friends who tell us that we must pray in order to be saved from alien sins nearly always give Saul of Tarsus as an example. Was prayer a part of God's law of conversion in this case, or was it merely an incidental? Saul was on the Damascus road with authority to bind disciples of Christ that they might be persecuted. The Lord appeared to Saul and told him to "go into the city and it shall be told thee what thou must do." (Acts 9:6) We understand that Saul believed for he went into Damascus. While Saul was in the city, he prayed. (Acts 9:11) And so, our friends tell us, we must pray today in order to be saved. But notice: The Lord said, "It will be told thee what thou MUST do." Who commanded him to pray? He hadn't yet been told what he "must" do. His vision, his being left blind, and his praying were merely incidentals. They were circumstances surrounding his conversion that did not become a part of the law. Ananias came unto Saul and told him what he "must" do. He said, "And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized and wash away thy sins." (Acts 22:16) There was the law, or if you please, the essential. He believed, he repented, was commanded to be baptized and did so. (Acts 9:18) The law was the same as given by Christ in the commission and preached by Peter on Pentecost. The incidentals were different.
The Conversion Of Cornelius
Now we come to a portion of scripture that is probably abused more than all others regarding the plan of salvation. Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, was a "devout man, and one that feared God, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always." (Acts 10:2) We read that he and his household were baptized with the Holy Spirit. Our holiness friends (and others, too) argue thus: Cornelius was baptized with the Holy Spirit before he was baptized in water, therefore water baptism is not essential to salvation. They tell us that this is a clear-cut example proving that we must be baptized with the Holy Spirit in order to be saved. Let us notice the facts of this conversion.
The gospel had been in operation for about ten years and as yet no Gentile, as such, had been made recipients of the gospel. Evidently, the apostles themselves misunderstood the scope of the great commission which said, "Go preach to every creature." The Jewish brethren believed that this was only to the Jews and not to the Gentiles. It took a series of miracles to remove from their minds this false impression. These miracles did not become a part of the law, but were merely incidentals.
The first miracle in the series was the appearance of the angel to Cornelius. The angel told Cornelius to send to Joppa and call for Peter "who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved." (Acts 11:14) The angel then retired from the picture. Cornelius was still unsaved. That was the first miracle; its purpose was to tell Cornelius where he could get the preacher. The appearance of the angel was a circumstance surrounding his conversion and did not become a part of the law.
The next miracle is in Joppa. Peter is praying and a vision appears from heaven with all manner of creatures on it. Peter is told to "kill and eat;" but he refuses saying, "nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth." This happens three times with the words of God, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." The purpose of this miracle is to convince Peter that he should preach the gospel to the Gentiles. This also was incidental, therefore not a part of the law; Cornelius is still unsaved.
A fact worthy of note just here is that the tenth chapter of Acts is Luke's account of Cornelius' conversion and is not given in order. The eleventh chapter is Peter's record of the events given in the order of their occurrence. (Acts 11:4)
Peter entered the house and began to speak when the Holy Spirit fell on them. (Acts 11:15) But Cornelius was still unsaved because Peter had not told him "words whereby he could be saved." In fact Cornelius was not a believer when the Spirit fell. It was necessary that he "hear the word of the gospel" in order to believe. (Acts 15:7) He had not heard the word of the gospel when the Spirit fell; it fell as Peter BEGAN TO SPEAK. The purpose of this miracle was to prove to the Jews that the Gentiles were gospel subjects. It was not a part of God's law of conversion.
What was God's law to Cornelius? It was the same as in every other case. He had to believe (Acts 15:7), repent, (Acts 11:8) and be baptized in water. (10:48) It was commanded of God. Faith, repentance, and baptism were essentials; the angel, the vision of Peter, and the fall of the Holy Spirit were circumstances surrounding the conversion. Circumstances and incidentals are not laws. Let us not be guilty of making incidentals essential.