In order to prove, from the Scriptures, that men may be saved without the knowledge of the revelation of mercy in the gospel, communicated either orally or in writing before or after the coming of Christ, it is customary to appeal to the case of Cornelius. But to such an opinion, no countenance is given by what is said of that centurion in the Acts of the Apostles, which is entirely consistent with every other part of Scripture. As, however, very mistaken notions of Cornelius are entertained by many, it is proper to consider at some length what is recorded concerning his history.
We are informed. Acts x., that Cornelius lived in Cesarea, that he was a devout man, and one that feared God, who gave much
alms to the people, and prayed to God alway; that his prayers and his alms came up for a memorial before God; that he was a just man, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews; and that he was acquainted with the word which God sent unto the children of Israel after the baptism of John, preaching peace by Jesus Christ.Â—After all this, although Cornelius was a Gentile, and uncircumcised, it would be contrary to the whole tenor of Scripture had he not been accepted of God, who is equally the God of Jews and of Gentiles. But his acceptance with God is in perfect conformity to all that the gospel declares concerning the salvation of men.
1st, Cornelius was a devout man. Acts x. 2, that is, godly, pious.Â—This word is found only in three other passages in the New TestamentÂ—in the same chapter, verse 7, where it characterizes one of the servants of Cornelius; and again, in the book of Acts, xxii. 12, where it is applied to Ananias, who is expressly called “a disciple,” and who received from the Lord the singular honour of being charged with His first message to the Apostle Paul. Finally, this expression is employed in the 2nd Epistle of Peter, ii. 9, where that Apostle designates by this epithet the servants of God, whom He knoweth how to deliver out of temptations, and who are there opposed to the unrighteous. The application, therefore, of this epithet to Cornelius is of itself sufficient to determine his character as one who was justified by faith; for we know, that all those who are justified, are, till the moment of their justification, ungodly, Rom. iv. 5, which is the opposite of godly.1 Here, then, we have full proof that Cornelius was a justified believer.
2d, Cornelius was one that feared God.Â—When the Scriptures make use of this expression, it always respects the true God;
Cornelius, therefore, is here represented as fearing Jehovah, the God of Israel. It is the character of all who are wicked, or in their unregenerated state, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” On the other hand, it is a promise made by God to all His people, that He will put His fear in their hearts, Jeremiah xxxii. 40. It is declared to the praise of the churches in Judea, that they walked in the fear of the Lord, which is connected with the comfort of the Holy Ghost, Acts ix. 31. It is by grace that the children of God serve Him acceptably with reverence and godly fear, Heb. xii. 28. There is not a more definite characteristic of a believer than the fear of God.
3d, Cornelius gave much alms to the people.Â—This declaration concerning him is made in connection with that of his fearing God; and immediately afterwards it is noted, that this service was accepted of God, proving that it was good in His sight. But no work is recognized in Scripture as good and acceptable to God, except it proceeds from faith. The expressions, good works and well-doing, are not employed in the New Testament to signify any
moral virtue practised by those who do not believe the gospel, nor any works, but such as are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The only passage which appears an exception to this, is Rom. xiii. 3. The children of God are saved by grace through faith. They are the workmanship of God, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that they should walk in them. In the same chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the apostle says, that without faith it is impossible to please God, he refers to the memory of those who through faith wrought righteousness.
4th, Cornelius prayed to God alway.Â—Men may worship an unknown god, or a god of their own imagination, but they cannot pray to the true God, without believing in Him as He hath revealed Himself to man. Without faith, it is impossible to please Him; for He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. And this last proposition no one can believe without express Divine testimony, for there is no other means of knowing this fact. Nor can we believe that God is what He really is, without the knowledge of that revelation of His character which He has vouchsafed. Faith is not a conjecture, or a doubtful opinion, but a persuasion and cordial reception of the truth of what God has declared. On this subject, the wisest of the ancient philosophers were entirely ignorant.2 The world by wisdom knew not God.Â—How a sinner could be justified, a subject on which the works of creation, and the work of the law written in the heart, are silent; how such an one could approach to God, who is holy; what communion could be established with Him; and, above all, on what foundation man could hope for a reward from GodÂ—are questions which none but God could answer. The things of God knoweth no man but the Spirit of God. How, then, shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? Besides, in order to be heard as was Cornelius, a man must ask in faith, nothing wavering: for he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed; for let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord. But how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? Rom. x. 14.
5th, The prayers and alms of Cornelius came up for a memorial before God.Â—Did ever the prayers and the alms of an unbeliever go up before God for a memorial? Is not the sacrifice of the wicked an abomination in His sight?3 Here, then, we have a
proof that Cornelius worshipped in the faith of the promised Mediator; for no man can come to the Father but by Him. This is a solemn truth, declared by Jesus Christ Himself, and strikingly held forth in all the ceremonial observances of the Old Testament. But if Cornelius was accepted by God on account of his alms and prayers, without faith in the Messiah, then it follows that, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish his own righteousness, he had attained to righteousness by the works of the law, and not by faith, in direct opposition to all the apostle Paul had declared in respect both to Jews and Gentiles. Besides, it is twice intimated that Cornelius, on praying to God, had respect to the instituted worship at Jerusalem. It is said that he prayed at the ninth hour, which was the hour of prayer at the temple. Acts iii. 1, and the time of the evening sacrifice. What reason can be assigned for this, but his faith in the Messiah? The Temple of Jerusalem was a remarkable type of the Redeemer, and the medium of communication between God and the people of Israel. There alone the appointed sacrifices could be offered, and the prescribed worship rendered to God. When the Jews were at a distance from the temple, they showed their respect for it, by lifting up their hands towards the Holy Oracle. At its dedication, Solomon besought the Lord to hear from heaven the prayers of His people when they spread forth their hands towards that house. Jonas said, in the belly of the fish, “I will look again toward the holy temple?” Daniel in a distant land prayed, his windows being open in his chamber towards Jerusalem; and when, during his prayer, a messenger was sent from Heaven to make known to him that remarkable revelation concerning the birth of the Messiah, it was “about the time of the evening oblation.”4 It was also at the ninth hour, at the time of that oblation, while Cornelius prayed, that an angel brought to him a message from God. In the dedication prayer of
Solomon, express mention is made of the stranger who shall pray towards that house. “Moreover, concerning a stranger that is not of Thy people Israel, but cometh out of a far country for Thy name’s sake (for they shall hear of Thy great name, and of Thy strong hand, and of Thy stretched-out arm), when he shall come and pray towards this house, hear Thou in heaven, Thy dwelling-place, and do according to all that the stranger calleth to Thee for.” The prayers and alms, then, of Cornelius came up before God, in the name of the same Mediator through whom the prayers and the alms of the people of Israel were accepted.
It is said. Acts x. 31, “Thy prayer is heard.” This is conclusive. Not only did the prayers of Cornelius in general find acceptance with God, but the prayer that is here said to be heard must have concerned the Messiah. How otherwise could his vision have been an answer to his prayer? The direction to send for Peter to make known to him the actual appearance of the Messiah, is stated as the answer to that prayer. But it could not have been an answer to it, unless it had concerned the coming of the Messiah. “Thy prayer is heard; Send, therefore, to Joppa.” The things which he learned by sending to Joppa, were the things which had formed the subject of his supplications. The knowledge of the Messiah, as come in the flesh, was the answer to his prayer. It must then have been the object of it. As believing Jews were now everywhere looking for the redemption of Israel, what should prevent Cornelius from having the same expectation? What was there known to them that could be unknown to him? He lived among them, while many of the Jews themselves sojourned in distant countries. To suppose that Cornelius could not have been saved, without hearing the words of Peter, and that he must have perished had he died previously, is to condemn all the Old Testament saints, without excepting Abraham himself. Had the salvation of Cornelius been the only object, this message, this journey of Peter, and his vision itself, were all unnecessary. The grand object of the vision and extraordinary message was to instruct the Apostle, and to reconcile the Jewish believers to the calling of the Gentiles.
6th, Cornelius, whom his servant calls “a just man,”5 was “of good report among all the nation of the Jews.” The same testimony is given to Ananias; he had “a good report of all the Jews which
dwelt” at Damascus. Another centurion, who was not an Israelite, was recommended to Jesus, as one who loved their nation, and was worthy; of whom Jesus said “unto the people that followed Him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith; no, not in Israel.”
Here is a case parallel to that of Cornelius, decided by the Lord himself. A just or righteous man is the most distinguishing descriptive appellation of a servant of God.
Finally, Peter addressed Cornelius as one who was acquainted
with “that word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ.” “That word,” said he, “YE KNOW, which was published throughout Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached; How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost, and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with Him,” Acts x. 37. On what ground, then, is it asserted that Cornelius was ignorant of the true God? Not only the whole tenor of Divine revelation, from beginning to end, forbids us to entertain such an idea; but we find in the narrative itself accumulated proofs which demonstrate the contrary.
And what is the foundation on which, in the face of all these proofs, the opposite opinion is built? Solely on the declaration of Peter, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons;
but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him,” Acts x. 34. We have already seen who are those that, according to the Scriptures, fear God, work righteousness, and are accepted by Him. That God is no respecter of persons is often repeated; Paul affirms it both of Jews and Gentiles. In spite, however, of all that had been said by the prophets, and notwithstanding the express commandment given by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to the apostles to preach the gospel to every creature, the prejudices of the latter were so strongly rooted, as to render a new revelation to Peter necessary, in order that he might be convinced of the duty of announcing the gospel to the Gentiles. A revelation, by the vision he saw, was for this purpose accordingly made; but even then the import of it was not understood by him. Nor did he comprehend it fully till informed by Cornelius of the revelation with which he had also been favoured. Peter had then no further doubt concerning the meaning of the words uttered to him by the voice from heaven, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common,” and he immediately exclaimed, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.” Can words be more decisive than these to demonstrate that Cornelius was a converted man before he saw Peter?
Peter here takes it for granted that God had before accepted Cornelius, and that if He had not accepted him it might be said He was a respecter of persons. If so, Cornelius must have been a believer in the Messiah. His faith must have been the same with that of Abraham and the believing Israelites. Destitute of faith in the Messiah, God’s rejection of him would have shown no partiality, and the God of the whole earth could not have been said to be a respecter of persons. Cornelius must, in all respects, have been on a level with Jewish believers who had not heard the gospel. Peter also here determines the import of the phrase fearing God. According to him, it belongs only to the person who is accepted of God. Such a person is accepted by God to whatever nation he may belong. It must imply, then, the knowledge of God
in his true character, as the just God and the Saviour. It is here necessarily implied, and was before expressly stated, that Cornelius was a fearer of God. Here also it is implied that Cornelius was a worker of righteousness. But does this character belong to any unconverted man? Can any worker of righteousness perish? Here, also, Cornelius is said to be accepted of God before he hears a word from Peter. The news that Peter brought concerning the appearance of the Messiah was indeed glad tidings, but now, though the first time he knew it as an accomplished fact, yet he had previously known it, like Abraham, as a thing to be expected. If Cornelius was a man accepted of God before he saw Peter, he could not have been ignorant of the hope of Israel. What more could have been said of Abraham himself than that he was accepted of God? Did God ever accept any unconverted man?
Not only was Cornelius a man accepted by God before his interview with Peter, but according to the necessary import of Peter’s language, every man of any nation who fears God and works righteousness is accepted by him. Salvation never was confined to the Jews, and those who were incorporated with their nation. To enjoy the ordinances of the Jewish religion, circumcision was absolutely necessary. But to have salvation through Abraham’s seed, it was only necessary to believe the promise made to Abraham about the Messiah. This faith produces the fear of God and works of righteousness in all who receive it. Gentiles as well as Jews. But the true fear of God and works of righteousness are never produced without some knowledge of the grand promise made to our first parents, that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent.
In one word, Cornelius the centurion honoured God, in the same manner as the elders did, who, by faith, “obtained a good report.” He was acquainted with the worship of the Jews, and was informed of the message which God had sent to Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ, although not hitherto addressed to uncircumcised Gentiles. Until Peter was sent to Cornelius, Jesus had not been announced to them as the Saviour. Before His advent it was only necessary to believe in the Messiah to come, the seed of the woman, the promised deliverer; but after he appeared on earth, and was preached to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews, it became indispensable for all who heard of His name, to believe that Jesus was the Christ, or Messiah. It is on this account that the apostle John declares, that “whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God,” 1 John v. 1. This implies two things: First, A proper understanding of the character of the Messiah who was to come; and. Secondly, That Jesus, whom the Apostles preached, was He. This could not be known till after He appeared, and was pointed out as “The Son of God.” Accordingly, Cornelius was informed by the angel, that the person of whom he was directed to inquire, would tell him “words whereby he and all his house should be saved.” This did not prove that he was not till
then accepted of God, any more than the apostolic commission proved that none were accepted in Jerusalem previously to their hearing and believing the proclamation concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But, as God was about to afford to Cornelius new light, and to give him a new commandmentÂ—”THIS is my beloved Son; hear Him,” it was requisite that he should attend to it; just as it is indispensably requisite for every Christian who is ignorant of any part of the will of God, to obey it as soon as it is made known to him.
It is only necessary to remark further, that when it is said, “The Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word,” Acts x. 44, this does not refer to their first receiving the Holy Spirit, but to what Paul calls “the manifestation of the Spirit,” 1 Cor. xii. 7, for it is immediately added, that “they spake with tongues.” It was in the same manner that, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Ghost was poured out on the apostles, in His miraculous gifts, long after they were the subjects of His internal influence, and after they had received the Spirit from the Lord Jesus Christ, by His breathing on them, John xx. 22.
Cornelius, then, was a spiritual worshipper of God, under the old dispensation, who, like the Eastern Magi, the Ethiopian Eunuch, and many others, was waiting for that Messiah, who, when He should come, “was to tell His people all things,” and who was “set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed.” All in Israel, and others besides, professed to be looking and waiting for the Messiah. But His advent was to be the test of their sincerity. It was to show who should abide the day of His coming, and who should stand when He appeared; for He was to be like a refiner’s fire. The case of Cornelius, therefore, forms no exception to that universal truth which the Scriptures declare of the way in which man shall “be just with God.”
1 See Titus, ii. 12, ungodliness, in opposition to which the gospel teaches to live godly; and see 2 Tim. iii. 12.
2 “I think,” says Seneca, “we are not only blind to true wisdom, but are very dull and slow of apprehension in those things which seem to be discerned and understood.”
3 “Until Christ’s righteousness be imputed to you by faith,” says Mr. Romaine, vol. vi. 175, “your prayers are an abomination and your fancied good works are nothing but sin.” After quoting the 13th article of the Church of England, he proceeds: “We doubt not but the best of them-Â— works done before the grace of ChristÂ—are only so many splendid sins. They may adorn a man’s outward conversation, may gain him the honour of men, but in the eyes of God they are of no price, because they flow from an unregenerate heart. So that works done before we receive Christ’s righteousness, can do nothing towards meriting it, and works done after receiving it, can add nothing to it. It is a free gift, therefore;
works done before cannot merit it. It waits for no qualification, no condition in the receiver, because it is given to the most unworthy, and is given to supply the want of all qualifications and conditionsÂ—it is given to the unrighteous and to the ungodly. And it wants no works done after receiving to add to it, because it is infinitely perfect. It is the righteousness of God, and will prove itself to be from God by its fruits, which fruits evidence us to be righteous, but do not make us so: for if they were to make us righteous but in part, that would be going about to establish our own righteousness, and not submitting to the righteousness of God.”
4 It was at the same hour that Elijah offered his prayer and sacrifice. 1 Kings xviii. 36. And at the same hour Jesus Christ gave up the ghost, Matt. xxvii. 46; Luke xxiii. 44. So exact, in this respect, was the correspondence between the type and what it represented. There is a remarkable coincidence, too, between the seventy years at the end of which the temporal deliverance of the Jew was to take place, and the seventy weeks of years when the great deliverance was to come. That space of timeÂ— 490 yearsÂ—includes ten Jubilees, at the last of which, not one nation only.
but all the nations of the world, should hear the sound of the gospel trumpet.
5 Besides the Lord Jesus, who is the Just One. there are in Scripture nine other persons called just or righteous; Abel, Noah. Abraham, Lot, Simeon, Joseph, John the Baptist, and Joseph of Arimathea, and Cornelius.