Is General Revelation Sufficient for Salvation?,
Pt. 3: Cornelius Continued
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal.
But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:8-10, English Standard Version).
In Pt. 2 of this small series, I discussed Cornelius’s background as a God-fearer, and used him as an example for the individual on the island who has never heard the gospel or the name of Jesus before.
While Cornelius was an Italian soldier of some rank and education, The Lord desires to save more than just the elite — He came for all, which is why the Scriptures state that He was born in a manger. He came meek and lowly, and refused to shut anyone out of the kingdom if they would only believe in Him.
Part 2 focused on God’s desire to save the nations, but Part 3 will concentrate on the events surrounding Cornelius and Peter, and the importance of the gospel in Cornelius’s conversion.
Although he came to believe in the Creator God and general revelation (nature), he needed to hear the gospel message and believe in Jesus — God’s special revelation of salvation to the world.
The Lord appears to Cornelius by way of an angel in Acts 10:3-6 and tells Cornelius to send men to see Simon Peter. Simon Peter (Peter was his Christian name given by Christ) was staying with a tanner named Simon who lived in Joppa. It is important at this point to understand that Cornelius was seeking salvation but it does not seem as though he knew who Simon Peter was, nor did he know where Peter lived.
He had no contact with the Jews in regards to the salvation of Gentiles, and few Gentiles conformed to Judaism at this point. Cornelius paid alms to the Jews and prayed to God constantly (Acts 10: 2), so he seems to perform actions that conform to proselytes — those in the Upper Room who converted to Judaism.
While Cornelius prayed to God and gave alms to the Jews, he did not convert to Judaism. We have no justification from the text that Cornelius was a Judaizer, or that he practiced the ways of the Jews (except to give alms and pray to Yahweh). His family also believed in the Creator God, though they too, did not convert to Judaism.
Cornelius is a great example of how those who do not yet know Christ can be saved: he received the revelation he had (in nature) and did good deeds. Although good deeds and prayers are not enough for salvation, they are a sign that a human heart is receptive to God and the gospel. Before Cornelius even heard the message, The Lord had already made the hearts of Cornelius and his family receptive to the preached message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Cornelius relays the message from the angel of The Lord to his two servants and a soldier (which indicates that Cornelius was of some rank to command soldiers to do his bidding). He tells them the same message that the angel tells him, and the three men go to Joppa to look for Simon the Tanner’s house (and thus, Simon Peter). The Lord first goes to Cornelius, then He works on the heart and mind of Simon Peter. This doesn’t happen, however, until the next day.
The following day, The Lord places Peter in a trance while he is on the rooftop of Simon’s home, praying to God (in a place of spiritual retreat). The trance concerns beasts and animals. Peter calls them “unholy and unclean,” but The Lord rebukes Peter for this three times. Then, Peter comes out of the trance. The words “while Peter was reflecting on the vision” (Acts 10:19) and “Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be” (v.17) show that Peter was confused as to the meaning of the vision.
In the midst of his confusion, the Spirit tells him that “three men are looking for you. But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself” (Acts 10: 20).
The Lord tells Peter that he has sent these three men, and Peter reasons within himself that the vision ties in to the three men that are looking for him. As he says in his sermon before Cornelius and his family, “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.
That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (Acts 10:28-29). Although he did not know the reason for which Cornelius came to him (vv.21, 29), he did know that the vision of the animals had some relation to the Gentiles.
When the soldier and two servants arrive at Simon the tanner’s home to speak to Simon Peter, their description of Cornelius is interesting: “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews” (Acts 10:22). He is called “righteous” and “God-fearing,” terms that also describe Job (Job 1:1, 8).
As God-fearing as Cornelius was, however, he still needed the gospel. He wanted something more than to be God-fearing: notice in verse 31 that Cornelius quotes the angel as saying, “your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God” (v.31, NASB).
In verse 4, the angel told Cornelius, “your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” This is important, since many claim that Cornelius wanted to receive the Holy Spirit. It seems then, that verse 4 appears to be The Lord directing Cornelius to salvation (which The Lord does); verse 31 harmonizes with the Lord’s direction by alerting the reader that salvation was not just the Lord’s desire for Cornelius, but Cornelius’s desire for himself; he wanted to be saved!
A. Peter Preaches the Gospel Message
One of the first things Peter says is welcoming: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10: 34-35).
Peter makes it clear to Cornelius’s family and friends (v.24) that The Lord does not favour the Jew over the Gentile, but accepts all who acknowledge Him and do what is right.
This has been used to argue, according to some Christian theologians (known as inclusivists and open theists), that The Lord automatically saves those who do what is right and respond well to the revelation they have.
Cornelius was one who responded well to the revelation he received, but The Lord still sent Cornelius a vision to direct him and his family to hear the gospel (preached by Peter) and be saved. Cornelius was a “God-fearer,” as was Job in the Old Testament; yet and still, Cornelius had a responsibility to hear the message about Jesus — a message that was preached in a different form in the days of Job.
In Job’s day, there were prophecies about the Messiah that were preached but there was no message about the historical suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.
Whereas Cornelius had a responsibility to believe in Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus of history, Job had a responsibility to believe in Yahweh and the prophecies about Christ that existed in the Torah (Deut. 18:18-19, among them). Christ had not yet come to earth in those days, but The Lord still used the Scriptures to proclaim the promise of the Messiah’s coming (Isaiah 9:1-7).
Although Jesus had not yet come to earth in the Old Testament days, the Law of Moses, Prophets, and the Psalms foretold of Christ (Luke 24:44). Even Simeon, a prophet in the temple, recognized Jesus as the Lord’s salvation and Israel’s consolation (Luke 2:25-32). Simeon referred to Jesus as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), meaning that, unlike the Jews, the Gentiles did not have the Mosaic Law and needed further revelation than just general revelation (nature and its wonder) to be saved.
Peter agrees with the Old Testament as well as the words of Jesus (that the OT reveals Christ) when he says during the sermon, “Of Him [Christ] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10: 43). He says this after telling His testimony about Christ, who Jesus was, His miracles (“doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him,” v. 38b).
He then tells that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead three days later. After His ascension, He appointed His disciples (the Twelve) as witnesses of the truth about Christ (vv.38-42). We do not know how long or short the sermon was, but it is believed here that Luke summarizes Peter’s sermon for us. Sermons were often longer in the days of Peter than they are now; even Jesus preached long sermons (cf. Matthew chaps. 5-7).
In the midst of Peter’s preaching, the Gentiles experience the Holy Spirit, and the circumcised Jews who have traveled with Peter from Joppa are surprised “because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (v.45). The immediate, external sign of their salvation was that they began to speak in tongues (speaking in tongues being a gift of the Holy Spirit given to certain individuals in the church, cf. 1 Corinthians 12:10-11).
There were those who did not speak in tongues after being converted (see the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:34-40). The Scriptures refute the Pentecostal notion that the external sign of salvation when a person is converted to Christianity is to “speak in tongues.”
God does not grant each saved person this gift — but speaking in tongues does not make or break a person’s salvation. If one confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, he or she is saved (Romans 10:9).
Once the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius, his family, and his friends, Peter then urges them to be baptized and says, “no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (v. 47) In Peter’s mind, at least, baptism was not just any baptism, but the baptism of “believers” (what is known in conservative circles as believer’s baptism). The Scriptures teach that baptism does not save, but is an outward manifestation of an inward transformation — an external sign that a person has surrendered his or her life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Peter has to later explain why he was found associating with GentilesActs 11:1-18, giving credence to his earlier statement “how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him” Acts 10:28. God, however, breaks beyond barriers because His Word is of far greater priority than an ethnic law or ethnic discrimination.The Lord desires that the entire world hear the gospel and be saved,and He will send Jews to Gentiles and Gentiles to Jews, if that is what it takes to win the world to Himself. Now it makes sense, the apostle Paul was sent by God to the GentilesActs 9:15