From Acts 19:1-6 and Acts 22:16: “Can you be saved without baptism? Can you receive the Holy Spirit without baptism in Jesus?”
These are huge questions, especially because in the book of Acts, we have a historical record of the early church. Who doesn’t want to be a church like one in the New Testament?
So in the Acts 19 passage, we seem to have “Christians” who do not have the Holy Spirit. Then they get baptized and boom, they receive the Spirit (and speak in tongues). Naturally, we wonder, “So does that happen now?” Is it possible for someone to believe in Jesus and not have the Holy Spirit? Does the Holy Spirit come later? Does tongues-speaking signify a true Spirit-filling?
In short, we need to be careful to not allow the history of the early church’s beginnings to be the way things happen now. Flames of fire on people’s heads (see Acts 2) will probably not be repeated. A deceitful couple will probably not be struck dead if they lie about their pledge to the new ministry campaign (see Acts 5, the story of Ananias and Saphira). And not all converts to Jesus will speak in tongues (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 and know that in the original Greek language, Paul uses a construction with these questions that indicates the answer is no).
In the case of Acts 19, we have a people who state by their own lips they do not know (have not been instructed) concerning the person and work of Jesus nor the filling of the Holy Spirit. They were hoping for a Messiah and following John the Baptist’s lead, but they were not New Testament Christians yet. So, when Paul shows up, he preaches the full Gospel of Christ and upon believing they were immediately filled with the Holy Spirit (which is what happens to every Christian today, cf. Colossians 2, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 12:3). This all happens at conversion, before baptism.
So the answer to the second question is, “yes,” you can, should, and will receive the Holy Spirit prior to baptism at your conversion. Looking at the New Testament teaching as whole the process seems to be: Repent/believe, receive the Holy Spirit and then get baptized. That being said, sometimes, the spiritual experience is felt in a different order. You may cognitively believe in Jesus, receive baptism, experience a powerful sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and then boldly repent of sin. I personally don’t think a pastor should baptize someone who hasn’t believed, repented, and shown evidence of spiritual fruit in concert with the Holy Spirit’s presence. But the existential aspects of a person coming to faith are never the same.
The 1st question has multiple answers: Can you be saved without baptism? On one hand, yes, absolutely. Jesus saves, not baptism (baptism is just a sign and seal of Christ’s prior work). The repentant thief on the Cross experienced salvation through Christ and paradise all apart from baptism. A death bed conversion with saving trust in Jesus does not require baptism to be ratified in heaven. Believe and be saved (Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9)!
On the other hand, I would question the salvation of any person who refuses to be baptized. It’s a clear command from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Persistent, ongoing, unrepentant sin has consequences, eternal ones even (cf. Hebrews 9:26-27). So if months or years go by and a person refuses to be baptized, it would be hard for me to reconcile that they are Christians if they won’t profess that faith through baptism. It is a great joy to share the baptismal waters with our Savior! Who wouldn’t want that?
Here’s a bonus “Stump the Pastor Question” I was asked after the sermon on October 9 by a thoughtful 7 year old. “Do we get baptized to get the demons out?” Clearly, this person is aware that Jesus has power over demons. And they know that baptism is not to be taken lightly. Still, I think the Bible would say, “No.” In fact, I think that sort of mystical approach to baptism would take our eyes and worship off the true demon-cleanser, Jesus. Baptism conveys all sorts of truths about Jesus: he provides purification from sin, he saves us from judgement, he brings us from death to life, and he ushers us into a relationship with the Triune God and the Church. But the sign of baptism is pointing to Jesus. If we get caught up on the sign itself (and some church traditions do), we actually miss out on the person the sign wants us to worship, trust, love, and obey. So, if you are facing demonization, run to Jesus. If you need forgiveness of sin, run to Jesus. Accept Jesus, take His hand, and in time, he’ll walk you to the waters of baptism to symbolize all that He has done for you!