From the description of Luke and those who knew Cornelius, he was a good man. When a “good person” dies, we hear people say, “if anyone goes to heaven, he will, for he was such a good man.” How do good people who do not have Jesus, stand before God? To answer this very difficult question, we need to turn to the Scriptures. Since Cornelius is obviously a good man, we ought to find our answer in his conversion.
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. 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… fetch one Simon, who is surnamed Peter… who shall speak unto thee words, whereby thou shalt be saved, thou and all thy house (Act 10:1-5; 11:14).
Cornelius Was Lost
Since Cornelius needed to hear words whereby he could be saved (Acts 11: 14), he was lost. We need to establish when salvation is obtained and what is essential and what is non-essential in obtaining salvation, making the proper distinction between essentials and peripheral matters.
When Was Cornelius Saved?
We are expressly told that Cornelius was devout (Acts 10:2). Vine says that devout is derived from the Greek word that indicates “reverence exhibited especially in actions.” Most of the world would certainly think that such a condition and characteristic as “devoutness” would constitute salvation. However, Cornelius—though devout—needed to hear words of salvation because he was lost.
Cornelius believed in God yet, at the time, he was unredeemed and in danger of eternal doom (Acts 10:2; 11:14). Therefore, the teaching of salvation by faith only is not Biblically sound.
Cornelius “feared God.” The Holy Spirit, through Luke, states it clearly: Cornelius “feared God” (Acts 10:2). From Acts 10:34-35, Peter correctly concludes that “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him.” This being so, Cornelius must have been saved. Wrong. He “feared God,” but at that time in his life he did not know what to do to work righteousness. He had to hear what to do.
Cornelius “gave much alms to the people.” He was very generous and apparently had the kind of compassionate heart that God sought (Acts 10:2).
Not only did Cornelius pray, we are told that he “prayed always” (Acts 10:2). Now since he was lost, though he was a praying man, it is obvious that we are not saved by prayer.
Among some of the miraculous happenings associated with Cornelius was the vision that he received (Acts 10:3). Many think that if a person has a vision, this is a sure sign of personal salvation. However, seeing and hearing the angelic being did not save this good man.
Cornelius wanted to hear preaching. He even invited others to hear the gospel. It is highly commendable when one wants to hear the preaching of the gospel, as did Cornelius. (Acts 10:8, 24). In fact, Cornelius is described as “waiting” to hear. He was enthusiastic and eager to learn how to be saved.
Cornelius had a respectful attitude and was just—had a good report of the Jews (Acts 10:22). It was unheard of for a Gentile to be so highly regarded and respected by the Jews in the first century. Surely such a one is saved, isn’t he? Not according to Holy Writ (Acts 11:14).
Cornelius spoke in tongues, having received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45-46). But even speaking in tongues did not save Cornelius, nor was it a sign that he was already saved (Acts 11:14). This may sound strange in view of those who teach that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was for the salvation of the recipient.
What Are the Words Cornelius Had to Hear?
All men must fear God and work righteousness (Acts 10:35; Rom. 1:16-17)—possess a godly attitude that is coupled with obedience to God—prescribed actions. Salvation is not all of grace or all of works. The salvation of Christ is of grace but it is also of obedient works.
He had to hear, believe and acknowledge certain facts pertaining to Jesus: Jesus did good; God was with him (Acts 10:38); Jesus was crucified (Acts 10:39); He arose from the grave (Acts 10:40, 41); these words also stressed future judgment (Acts 10:42); the wonderful news Peter preached to Cornelius was that he could have, “… remission of sins” through the name of Jesus (Acts 10:43). When Cornelius received the gift of the Holy Spirit, he had not believed in, or heard of, this Jesus because Peter had only “began to speak” (Acts 11:15). After receiving the Spirit, after hearing the gospel, after being baptized into Christ, he was saved.
Cornelius was obedient to all of heaven’s message (Acts 10:47-48). It was at this point that Cornelius and his household were saved. Regardless of a person’s goodness, it takes the blood of Jesus to wash away sins (Matt. 26:28; Jas. 1:18-21). Sinners contact the blood in water baptism (Rom. 6:3-4). Since remission of sins is tantamount to salvation, we see why Cornelius had to hear words whereby he could be saved (Acts 11:14). The remission of sins was obtained when Cornelius submitted to water baptism (Acts 2:38; 10:47, 48).
People have trouble keeping their theology consistent. They argue that one cannot be saved by what he does, contending that salvation is by faith alone. However, the same people are the very ones to say at the death of a good neighbor, “He was such a good man. If he doesn’t make it to heaven, no one will.” Which stance correctly represents his theology? Faith only, or being good? Cornelius has taught us that neither position is biblical.
“[I]n none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ASV). All men are lost without Christ, even those we might classify as “good men.”
Every snowflake has a tiny piece of dust at its core. In the spiritual realm, that speck of dust—sin—no matter how small, needs to be removed. The blood of Christ is applied to the heart of an unbeliever, cleansing him from all sin. Not a speck of defilement remains, for God removes every stain and washes him even whiter than snow (Psa. 51:7).