The Bible is very clear that our Creator is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3.9). In fact, Jesus is spoken of as “the propitiation” for the “sins of the whole world” (1 John 2.2). The salvation provided by Jesus is potentially given to all, but reception of Jesus as the Christ and the teaching of the gospel message is essential to access the blessings in Christ (Col. 2.6, 2 Thess. 2.14, Eph. 1.3-14, Gal. 3.23-29). In the language of Luke, we must become “obedient to the faith” (Acts 6.7).
We continue our series on this soul searching topic, how does a person become saved, converted? The story of Cornelius, his family, and his friends, and their response to the gospel address this important question.
THE CONVERSION OF CORNELIUS & COMPANY (Acts 10-11)
The case of Cornelius is intriguing from a number of aspects. (1) It is the first case in Acts where non-Jews (i.e. gentiles) are reached out to for evangelism (Acts 11.18, 15.7). (2) Cornelius and his company appear to be “God-fearers”, a term that has technical significance referring to gentiles who have joined themselves to the Jewish religion in faith and practice (10.2, 22). (3) These God-fearers are both knowledgeable (Grk. epistamai) of Jewish Law and custom (10.28), and have a familiar acquaintance (Grk. oida) with the events of Jesus’ ministry (10.37-43).
Moreover, (4) Cornelius was a good man. In fact, aside from being a “God-fearer” he is described as “a devout man” and his behavior demonstrates this (10.2): he “gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God”. In fact, the Jewish nation held him in high esteem, for he was “well spoken of” among them – a truly remarkable feat for a gentile (10.22). And yet, Cornelius was, contrary to popular religious belief, lost and in need of salvation (10.5, 22; 11.14).
Cornelius is visited by an angel and directed to send for the apostle Peter, who in turn is to declare “a message by which” he would “be saved” (Acts 11.14). Peter is also visited by God in a trance, in which Peter is told not to “call any person common or unclean” (10.28). This was to prepare his conscience as he entered a gentile’s home, contrary to Jewish practice. But, the trance was also designed to prepare the key for reaching out to the gentile world with the gospel (Rom. 1.16-17).
As Peter was preaching, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (10.44). This endowment was demonstrated by miraculous powers (10.45), and it confirmed to both Peter and the six Christian Jews (10.23; 11.12) God’s undeniable cleansing of the gentiles (cf. 10.15; 11.9). Consistent with Peter’s inaugural preaching of the gospel on the day of Pentecost, he asks the “brothers”, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people [= Cornelius and his household of family and friends], who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10.47, emphasis mine).
Since Peter was to bring a message with the words to bring them salvation, it is fitting that Peter concludes his message with a command to them “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10.48). Much like Peter’s response on the day of Pentecost, he employs baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2.38ff).
Since the inspired apostle Peter is speaking in both situations, he would hardly have a different saving message; hence, it is important to include baptism in the name of Jesus is for the remission of sins (Acts 2.38). In fact, when the Jerusalem church hears about the event, they glorify God and conclude, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11.15).
It is one of the saddest of notes to observe how transparent the stories of conversion are as narrated in the book of Acts; and yet, for all their simplicity and elegance confusion abounds regarding those essential elements of conversion. The gentiles were to hear the message of salvation, and when they received it, they were commanded to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ; thus, being granted repentance that leads to life.
WHAT ABOUT THE GOOD PERSON, ARE THEY SAVED?
Several years ago I heard of a Bible class in which baptism was being discussed as reflected in the New Testament scriptures, that being “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2.38). But, when the teacher of the class was asked, “what if a Bible believing, God-fearing person never was baptized?”, the would be instructor said, “I think today God feels different.” How would he know?
The arrogance of such a statement is astounding; especially, in light the testimony of scripture. If the conversion of Cornelius and company informs us of anything, it should demonstrate that being “devout”, “God-fearing”, and having a “servant-heart” – as some are fond of saying today – are not sufficient by themselves to receive salvation and life.
And yet, we have would-be scholars among us providing “proposals” for Christian unity making the following comments:
I know people whose baptism is defective on my understanding of the Bible but whose passion for God and uprightness of character left no doubt that they were light-years more Christ-like than I am. Should I judge them to be lost?
It appears to me, that such authors lean more upon personal conscience and sensitivities; rather than, the clear teaching of Scripture which affirms that being a good, Christ-centered person is vital but not the totality of how God grants mercy upon sinners.
- Shelly, Rubel, and John O. York. The Jesus Proposal (Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2003); p. 126 emphasis added.