Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 12, 1960

Cornelius And Salvation

Donald P. Ames, Tampa, Florida

Studying the various cases of conversion in the book of Acts, one can frequently find as many things that will not save him as will save him. Such is indeed the case with Cornelius. As we turn to Acts 10, we find Cornelius described as "a devout man, and one that feareth God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always. . . a righteous man and one that feareth God, and well reported of by all the nation of the Jews" (10:2,22). Yet, he was still lost! What could he have lacked? In the eyes of man, he lived a near perfect life; still in God's eyes, he was lost.

From this man, people can gain many lessons today. First of all, we find that he was described as a "devout man" — that is to say, one who is very sincere. He didn't take what he believed with a grain of salt, but rather put his whole life into it. He tried to live up to what he believed. People often say today, "It doesn't make any difference what one believes, just so long as he's sincere." But, does it? Cornelius believed in the God of the Jews, and the Bible tells us that he was sincere. Yea, and he even "feared God." Yet Peter recognized him as a lost man, and began to speak unto him words of Christ whereby he might be saved. (Acts 11:14-150 Paul tells us that a man may believe a lie and still be damned (2 Thess. 2:11-12); not that he might pretend to believe it, but would believe it. He'd be sincere in it — or he wouldn't really be believing it. Yet he would still be lost. If Cornelius could have been saved because of his sincerity, then surely the angel would have no cause to tell him to send to Peter to learn what was required of him.

Again, from a study of Cornelius, we can learn that man is unable to save himself by his good works, that is, make God owe him salvation. Cornelius was a man who gave much alms to the people, benevolent in his attitude to those in need. While it's true this is a characteristic every professed follower of Christ should have (James 1:26-27, I Tim. 5:10), yet mere possession of this characteristic does not make one a Christian, nor does it make God owe him salvation. It is true one can't get to heaven without doing these good works (Matt. 25:31-46), but it's equally true one cannot earn his way into heaven with them, "for by GRACE have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the GIFT of God; not of works, that no man should glory" (Eph. 2:8-9). In spite of all his good works, the angel still told Cornelius that he was lost! He couldn't earn his way into heaven by his works. Just as the rich young ruler also fell short (Mark 10:17-22), so Cornelius, had he rejected the words of Peter, would have been lost. When people today say "so-and-so" is bound to go to heaven for all the good things he's done, they are overlooking the fact God looks not on the outward part, but on the heart (I Sam. 16:7, 2 Cor. 10:7). Has he done all God's will?

Still another lesson we can gather from this good man is that a man is unable to pray his way to salvation. Cornelius was a man who prayed to God always (a trait to be admired in anyone), and was no doubt praying at the time the angel appeared (compare 10:3 with 3:1). Yet the angel didn't say his prayers had saved him, but rather told him to send for Peter that he might learn what he still had to do to be saved. He hadn't yet done what was required of him. If prayer was sufficient to save him, the angel was ignorant thereof. Likewise in the case of the apostle Paul, who prayed and fasted for three days (Acts 9:1,11; 22:16). Nowhere in God's word is prayer given to a man as a means of salvation except in Acts 8:22, where a man who is already a Christian (compare Acts 8:13 with Mark 16:16), is commanded to both repent and pray for forgiveness. Christ is the author of salvation only to those who obey Him (Heb. 5:9), and this requires more that merely calling on His name (Matt. 7:21).

Yes, as Cornelius shows us, it does make a difference what one believes, and sincerity is not enough. Likewise, one cannot depend solely upon his good works to get him to heaven, nor does he dare to think he can be saved by prayer without doing the will of God. Cornelius "feared God," and salvation meant so much to him that he didn't try to confine it to himself, but rather called together his kinsmen and near friends (Acts 10:24). Peter "feared God," and proclaimed the will of the Lord to him (see 2 Cor. 5:11). Christ says, "If ye love me, ye will keep my commands" (John 14:15). Cornelius heard and obeyed (Acts 10:48).

But, what are the commandments of God? That we believe in Christ as His divine Son (John 3:16, Heb, 11:6, Mark 16:16). But is that all? If so, then one can be saved even though he denies Christ (John 12:42; see Rom. 10:10, Matt. 10:32). Again, we find one must repent of his sins (Acts 2:38, 17:30), and be buried in baptism for the remission of those sins (Acts 2:38, I Pet. 3:21, Acts 22:16, Rom. 6:4, Col. 2: 12). Again, Christ says, "If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments" (John 14:15).