By Cecil Willis
For the past several weeks now, -we have been concentrating our efforts in this study to investigating what the various ones in the New Testament did to be saved. We are making a partial survey of the cases of conversion as recorded in the New Testament, and especially in the book of Acts, but we are trying to show that the things that those men and women in the apostolic days did to be saved are the very same things that you and I do.
After studying the story of the salvation of the Ethiopian nobleman last week, we would like to reflect on the conversion of Cornelius for this period of study.
The first thing concerning the salvation of Cornelius that one needs to know is where to find the record of his conversion. We are not living in the day in which this event transpired, and consequently do not know the details of it first-hand, but we have the inspired account of what took place in the household of Cornelius when Peter came over to preach to him. Actually, there are three separate accounts of the conversion of Cornelius just as there are three independent accounts of Paul’s conversion. Luke gives us the story of Cornelius’s conversion in Acts the tenth chapter. Then in the eleventh chapter, Peter is called in question concerning why he went to Caesarea to preach to this Gentile, and so he rehearses what occurred again. Later on, Peter went up to the city of Jerusalem and there he again told part of the story connected with Cornelius’s salvation when they were discussing the problem of circumcision. So we have a record of events in connection with the conversion of Cornelius found in the tenth, eleventh and fifteenth chapters of the book of Acts. We shall have occasion to refer to each of these accounts freely.
A Good, Religious Man
First, we need to know just a little about the man, Cornelius. Probably the one outstanding characteristic of Cornelius with which more people would be acquainted is that he was a Gentile. As Peter first began to speak, he started off by declaring that “Ye yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to join himself or to come unto one of another nation: and yet unto me hath God showed that I should not call any man common or unclean: wherefore also I came without gainsaying when I was sent for” (Acts 10:28, 29). In the eleventh chapter, as Peter taught us and the Jews concerning the significance of the reception that “to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). Then while Peter was in Jerusalem, he referred to the time that he went to Cornelius’s home by saying: “Brethren, ye know that a good while ago God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles, should hear the word of the gospel, and believe” (Acts 15:7). So in studying the conversion of Cornelius, we are dealing with the first case recorded in the Bible of Gentile conversion. About eight or ten years earlier the gospel had been preached to the Jews, beginning on Pentecost. The Jews thought that they had a monopoly on God’s blessings in the gospel, until Peter was sent by God to declare the unsearchable riches of salvation to Cornelius, a Gentile.
A second trait that we should notice regarding the man, Cornelius, is that he was extremely religious. It is hard for many people to realize that even though this man was so devoutly religious, that he was yet an unsaved man. Many people, are just as Cornelius, worshiping devoutly and sincerely, but still wrong. Notice what the Scriptures say about the religious life of this good man. “Now there was a certain man in Caesarea, Cornelius by name, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always ” (Acts 10:1, 2). Now this is the kind of man of whom Peter was speaking when he quoted Cornelius’ words concerning what God had told him to do. God told this very religious man to “Send to Joppa, and fetch Simon, whose surname is Peter: who shall tell thee words, whereby he might be saved.” This man, in spite of his great religious life, was still an unsaved man. One cannot save that which is not lost. Cornelius could not be saved if he was already saved. This should do enough to explode the now prevalently taught doctrine which states that all good religious people will be saved. Few men today, if any at all, can meet the moral qualifications ascribed to Cornelius, by Luke the inspired writer, and yet men today will trust in their own moral goodness for their salvation. I feel sure in saying that few men today have attained the moral and religious, status of Cornelius, yet he was an unsaved person. So are these today who are trusting in their own goodness for their salvation. They are trusting in their own merit, when they have no merit. A religious and moral life is not enough to save one. It must be the right religion, and the right morals to save, and these may only be found in God’s word.
I feel safe in saying that there are more doctrinal errors taught from a misunderstanding of this tenth chapter of the book of Acts than in any other record of conversion in all the New Testament. Consequently, our study is seen to be all the more important if we are to understand God’s will to man. Error cannot save. Jesus said, it takes truth to save (Jn. 8:32).
One is helped in understanding this chapter, and some of the points we will discuss in just a moment, if he understands the attitude that the Jews had toward the Gentiles. The Jews had absolutely no use for a Gentile. As Jesus taught the disciples concerning disciplining an erring brother, he told them to first go to the brother who did wrong, if he refuses to hear thee, take with thee one or two witnesses, and then if he refuse to hear thee, tell it to the church. If he remains impenitent, then let him be unto thee as a Publican and as a Gentile (Matt. 18:15-17). That simply means, have nothing to do with him. This was precisely the attitude of the Jew toward the Gentile. When Cornelius sent over to Joppa to get Peter, and Peter returned to Caesarea with Cornelius’s servants, one of the first things that Peter said was, “ye yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to join himself or come unto one of another nation” (Acts 10:28). This was the reason that Peter brought with him the six Jewish brethren from Joppa. Peter used them as witnesses unto what happened in the house of Cornelius, and that the Gentiles also had been granted repentance unto life.
In connection with this case of conversion, there are three miracles performed, but be it observed in the outset of this part of our lesson, that none of these miracles had anything to do with saving the man, other than to tell him where to get a preacher. The first miracle is performed upon Cornelius. “He saw in a vision openly, as it were about the ninth hour of the day, an angel of God coming in unto him, and saying to him, Cornelius. And he, fastening his eyes upon him, and being affrighted, said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are gone up for a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and fetch one Simon, who is surnamed Peter: he lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side” (Acts 10:3-6). This is the first miracle. Was it to save Cornelius? Was it to tell him what to do to be saved? Certainly, not! It was to tell him where to get a preacher who was to tell him words whereby he could be saved. Some of these denominational preachers need to find a New Testament example in which a miracle was performed to save a man, or in which through some miraculous method one is told what to do to be saved.
The second miracle was performed upon Peter, the preacher. It was to tell’ him to go preach to this man. Cornelius had sent servants to fetch Peter and as they “drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour:~ and he became hungry, and desired to eat: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance; and he beholdeth the heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending, as it were a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth: wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts, and creeping things of the earth and birds of the heaven. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common and unclean. And a voice came unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, make not thou common. And this was done thrice, and straightway the vessel was received up into heaven” (Acts 10:20). Then later when the three servants of Cornelius came seeking Peter, the Spirit said to him “But arise, and get thee down, and go with them, nothing doubting: for I have sent them” (Acts 10:20). So this is the second miracle performed. It was upon Peter, the preacher, and was to instruct him to go preach to Cornelius in spite of his Gentile race. So Peter, arose, and went with the servants to the household of Cornelius to preach to him.
In the meantime, Cornelius had been getting ready for the arrival of Peter, the messenger sent of God. He had gathered all his family and near friends. When Peter arrived, and came into the house, Cornelius met him, and fell down before Peter, and worshiped him. But, this was not what Peter would have him do. “Peter raised him up saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man” (Acts 10:26). Peter would not permit this man to worship him, for he was a man also. Is this action not vastly different than that of those Roman pontiff’s who have claimed to be Peter’s successor? One must bow before him who claims to be the head of the church on earth, which a very militant denominational group claims is the successor of Peter. Peter not only would not permit it, but he also forbade it. They expect it.
The third miracle in the conversion of Cornelius is this: when Peter came to the house of Cornelius to preach, as he began to speak to them, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as he did on the apostles in the beginning, or on the day of Pentecost. From the tenth chapter one might be led to believe that Peter was in the middle of his sermon, or at least had been preaching to them quite at length when the Holy Spirit came upon them, but in the eleventh chapter, Peter rehearsed the matter in chronological order. He related the events in the order in which they happened. How do we know that the eleventh chapter is in chronological order, and that the tenth is not? Notice this verse: “But Peter began, and expounded the matter unto them in order, saying. . .” (Acts 11:4). The expression “in order” in the Greek language means successively, or one after another, and so Peter was telling us the order in which these matters transpired. Then Peter said, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even -as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). It was as Peter began to speak that the Holy Spirit fell on them. This was the third miracle performed, and this is the one that men sometimes use to show that these people were saved before they obeyed the commandment of baptism. But actually the Holy Spirit came before Peter had preached to them, and if they were saved before Peter preached to them, then they were saved before they believed, for “faith comes by hearing.” What proves too much proves nothing. They were not saved until they obeyed all the words for which Peter had come to tell them.
The purpose of the baptism of the household of Cornelius by the Holy Spirit was not to save them. We are told exactly why they were baptized of the Holy Spirit, by this same apostle Peter, who was present at the time. You remember what we learned earlier about how the Jews felt about Gentiles. They did not even think that a Jew should go into the house of a Gentile, certainly one should not eat with a Gentile, said the Jew, and surely Gentiles had no right to the blessings of the gospel. When Peter went up to Jerusalem to tell them why he had gone into the house of this Gentile, he began by telling them how the Lord had sent him over to Caesarea, and how that he had taken with him six Jewish brethren. Peter said, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit. If then God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us, when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God? And when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:15-18). Why was the Holy Spirit given? It was given, said Peter, to show to the Jews that the Gentiles had the same right to the gospel as had the Jew. This is what the inspired apostle said about it. Now many today tell us it was given to save them. If you believe or teach Holy Spirit baptism is to save, remember that Peter the apostle did not know it was for that reason. Do you know more than the apostle Peter, as he spoke guided by the Holy Spirit? If not, then you should cease to use this instance of Holy Spirit baptism differently than did Peter, and he said it was to prove to the Jews that the Gentiles deserved the gospel too.
Now, in conclusion, what did Cornelius do to be saved? He did the same thing that you and I must do. True, there were some miracles performed, but they were simply to bring the preacher to him, and the last was for the purpose we have just studied. What did he do? He heard gospel preaching from the mouth of Peter, the apostle, believed it, and obeyed. Peter asked, “Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:47, 48). Cornelius did the same thing that we must do. We must hear, believe, repent and be baptized.
Truth Magazine XX: 45, pp. 707-709
November 11, 1976