Theology of Righteousness in Acts 10 – The Story of Cornelius

I wonder how neatly the story of Acts chapter 10 and 11 fits into your theology. In much traditional protestant theology, especially amongst the followers of Calvin, there is a strong belief if the "total depravity" of those who are not regenerate by means of the gospel. The idea here is that nothing an unregenerate person thinks or does is actually clean or righteous. There are also those in various traditions who believe that without water baptism, a person is not born again. I think God put the story of Cornelius in the Bible not only to upset the theological apple cart of the Jewish Christians of the day, but also many of our "applecarts" as well.

If you have not done so before I urge you first of all to read the 10th and 11th Chapters of the Book of Acts, with special reference to Cornelius the Roman Centurion, and ask yourself the following questions:

At what stage was this man "born again"?

Were any of his works and prayers prior to hearing and receiving the gospel pleasing to God?

Is personal salvation here all about God's choice or does the way an unbeliever lives and thinks predispose God to show mercy to that person through the gospel?

The man Cornelius was not a Jew, and had no part in the Abrahamic covenant. Jews saw all Gentiles as unclean and people that God was not especially concerned to save. They believed that "they", the Jews, were God's chosen people and basically "to hell with everyone else". Peter the apostle had some of this thinking, and God had to speak to him about this before He could send him to speak to Cornelius.

That Peter had a change of thinking is evident from his comment:

Act 10:34  Then Peter opened his mouth and said: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality.Act 10:35  But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.

What kind of theology did Peter have? Many today are taught that acceptance with God has nothing to do with fearing Him, nothing to do with "working righteousness" and everything to do with God's partiality. In other words, for whatever reason only known to Himself and having NOTHING to do with the righteous acts or disposition of the recipient, God chooses and DRAGS some unwilling person into His Kingdom, while at the same time choosing to ignore others who may or may not be reaching out for truth in some way. The unfavored ones are damned basically because God did not choose to show mercy on them, while the favored ones, who are equally unworthy and in fact totally depraved, are dragged into the Kingdom because God in his arbitrary sovereignty wanted to do it that way. Is this what the Bible teaches? Lets read the words of Peter here and let them speak to us.

Act 10:34  Then Peter opened his mouth and said: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality.Act 10:35  But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.

The theological problems that Acts 10 raises for some don't end here for those who believe in the doctrine of "total depravity" of the "wicked". How is it that God says to Cornelius through the angel: "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God." Let us read the passage.

Act 10:1  There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment,
Act 10:2  a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.
Act 10:3  About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius!"
Act 10:4  And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, "What is it, lord?" So he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God."

If none of our works before receiving the gospel are pleasing to God, as some say, then how is it that Cornelius' prayers and alms had come up as a memorial before God, and God apparently responds with the unusual step of sending a real live angel to give this man a message in person!

If we say that Cornelius was in fact regenerate before hearing the gospel, this raises other issues. On what basis was he regenerate? On the basis of works? Or heart attitude? Was Cornelius born again before he sent for Peter? Does that mean a person can be born again without knowing the gospel? Where was the Holy Spirit in relation to Cornelius before he met Peter? All these questions ought to be answered by those who have their watertight system of orthodoxy against which they judge others.

The Scripture does not agree with the thought that Cornelius was regenerate before hearing the gospel, at least in my mind.

Consider this passage:

Act 11:13  And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, 'Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter,
Act 11:14  who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.'

Peter relates that Cornelius was told by the angel that the words which Peter would speak to him (the gospel of Jesus) would be words by which he WILL BE SAVED. Therefore Cornelius wasn't actually saved yet.

I maintain that God has a few people who even without the preaching of the Word of God are God fearing people who seek to do the right thing and love the truth. Of course, most people are not like this at all, especially in heathen cultures. But for these people, God will move heaven and earth to arrange for them to hear the true gospel and so come fully into the Kingdom. This is what happened to Cornelius, and I believe it also happens today. The Bible says in John 1:9 "That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. " We see then in this passage clear evidence of the justice and righteousness of God in the way he deals with people.

This passage in my mind clearly reveals one of the ways of God. Again, the apostle Peter, unless he was mistaken, perceived it as such again in verses 34,35.

God responds to sincere prayer, God responds to people who care about others and show it by their actions. God chooses people who choose to respond to His revelation to some degree.

Furthermore, we see the way God responds to Cornelius. All of these things are supernatural. Our God is a supernatural God.

First God sends an angel. This is quite special.

Then God sends an apostle. This is also important.

Then God sends the message about Jesus and the gospel. People need to hear the gospel.

Then God sends the Holy Spirit in power. We need the Holy Spirit and His power more than ever today.
God also sends the gift of tongues. Some people don't like it, but it is there in the Bible and it is something by which the early Christians knew that the Gentiles really had received the gift of eternal life. See
Act 10:44  While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.
Act 10:45  And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
Act 10:46  For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.

If we are of the same religion as the apostle Peter we should not reject Peter's thinking, theological conclusions and the importance he put on speaking in tongues when we see it.

Water Baptism

Another tradition that this passage challenges is that you have to be baptized in water before God would baptize you in the Holy Spirit. In this passage, God is arranging everything and yet water baptism FOLLOWS Baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. We should be careful not to try to force God to conform to our theological boxes.

This passage has profound implications for missiology and our understanding of the nature of mankind and the possibilities of people without the gospel to be doing things which move them to a place where God will arrange for them to hear the saving message.

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About Michael Fackerell

Michael is the founder of Christian faith dot come, a site about Jesus. He came to save the lost. Bible teaching, Testimonies, Salvation, Prayer, Faith, Networking.

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