WHEN Was Cornelius Saved?

Are We Saved by Knowledge?...Or by the Grace of God?

Chistian Knowledge and Doctrine are Important, But Where They Become Too Important, A Serious Imbalance Can Sometimes Affect Christians...

"The Biblical Teaching Seems Clear Enough: Knowledge Cannot Save."

There is an argument which has raged among Christian writers and theologians for many years. The argument concerns one Cornelius, whom we may read about in the Book of Acts. The big question is: Just when was this man actually saved? Some see one's understanding of the Cornelius episode as a vital point of theological evaluation and comprehension indicating one's deepest perspective on grace and faith. The big question is: Can faith alone save? Or is a personal knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and full acceptance of that, absolutely necessary? Many, of course, would certainly state that both of these factors are vital. Yet still others may point out certain biblical examples which appear to show that spiritual knowledge is not necessarily salvific - or, to put it another way: the Bible never seems to teach that knowledge alone - plus acceptance of the full ramifications and implications of the precise form of any such knowledge - can ever save, or lead to spiritual salvation, even if that 'knowledge' should concern the precise period during which the Messiah walked this earth, or even the specific content of His message. We might note that the Thief on the Cross certainly came to know and to perceive the identity of Jesus, but how much did that man really understand? He appeared to respond in faith to as much as he knew and that seemed to be considered sufficient. But did he possess a deep doctrinal and spiritual knowledge as to the plan of God and the full implications of the ministry of Jesus and why that ministry was so essential? Almost definitely not. One would surely be safe to conclude that the Thief on the Cross probably did not measure up in that deeper spiritual/doctrinal knowledge department, yet when he finally came to faith, that faith was plainly unaffected by this shortcoming.

Well that is probably already more than enough as an introduction. I will later attempt to draw some conclusions in this somewhat difficult doctrinal area, but, firstly, we need to take a much closer look at the relevant Scriptures.

We first learn of Cornelius in Acts 10:1. The reader is advised to open a Bible to the appropriate section. Apparently Cornelius was a centurion in the 'Italian Regiment' - see inset article for more specific information about this, but what we learn during the next few verses is that Cornelius was very devout. He was a firm believer in God, a man of prayer and of many charitable works; a truly fine and noble individual (verse 2). One day an Angel of the Lord is sent to Cornelius (verse 3), and this Angel carries an important message:

More Facts About Cornelius

Cornelius was a Latin name which had become popular after Cornelius Sulla had set free 10,000 slaves about 100 years earlier. The slaves had all taken his family name.
A Centurion commanded 100 men. The Roman Legion (about 6,000 men) was divided into ten regiments, one of which was the 'Italian.' All Centurions (including Cornelius) were very carefully selected for good character and outstanding leadership skills.
(I acknowledge some extra help here from the NIV Study Bible).

'..."Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea."' (Acts 10:4b-6, NIV throughout).

The story of Cornelius is now temporarily interrupted while Peter is given the vision of the 'unclean' animals (verses 9-16). We do not need to go into that here except to understand that Peter was being prepared for receiving the testimony of Cornelius the Gentile with a vision which revealed that God had now cleansed the unclean and a door was now opened for Jews to freely preach Christ among the Gentiles.

As the messengers of Cornelius reach Peter, verses 22-23 of Acts 10 confirm that Cornelius was considered a truly righteous man. Peter later enters the home of Cornelius the Gentile in a most un-Jewish action (vs 27), showing his understanding of the message of the cleansing of the Gentiles which he had just received. Cornelius then explains why he had called for Peter, before the latter makes an important assertion:

'..."I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right."' (Acts 10:34b-35).

We should note here that because God chose to primarily work with the children of Abraham, and then Jacob, through the biblical family lineage, especially under the Old Covenant, this was done for a specific purpose; this never did mean that no works of God ever occurred among Gentile peoples and there were probably several. Moreover, it is entirely possible that God raised up several leaders among the Gentiles. The work among the Jews was of importance simply because of the structure of God's plan for mankind, a structure which would eventually lead to the birth of the promised Christ. This is why the Bible mostly follows a particular family lineage. One of the results of this is that many of the Jews undoubtedly felt themselves to be a 'favoured people' in a sense in which they were not and Peter now finally understood this. God's concern for non-Israelites may be noted in several Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 2:5,9,19,21-22 and Amos 9:7.

Verse 44 of chapter 10 then relates how the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and others with him to the surprise of the Jews. Cornelius and his household are then baptized (verses 45-48).

Peter then goes to Jerusalem to explain his experiences among the Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18). Without doubt, many Jews had gained an erroneous understanding that God was only concerned about the Jews, but Peter was now superbly equipped to explain that God intended calling men and women from every nation and people.

But we must now consider this much argued-over matter of the point at which Cornelius was saved, or the confirming point of his salvation.
Broadly speaking, one may find two approaches to the salvation of Cornelius among evangelical (Bible-believing) Christians:

1. Cornelius was already saved, proven by his life of prayer and faith even before meeting Peter. As a spiritually worthy man, Cornelius was introduced to the truth about Jesus so he could then also widely testify that all salvation is ultimately through the name of Christ. So Cornelius was already saved and under God's grace (demonstrated by the presence of the 'fruits of the Holy Spirit' in his life), but God is prepared to furnish certain saved individuals with further knowledge, both as a blessing to those people and also as a blessing to everybody whom they thereafter encounter. But some in this group would say that the salvation of Cornelius necessitated that he would learn of Christ before he died, since he lived during a period of time during which the name of Christ could be known..

2. Cornelius' former worthy behaviour counted for nothing until he became aware of - and accepted - the truth of Jesus Christ. But for this, Cornelius would nevertheless have gone to Hell. People who would adopt this view are mainly Restrictivists - they see no salvation outside of Israel or the Church - no exceptions! Moreover, since the first century AD sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, these people believe that only personal knowledge of Christ accompanied by personal acceptance and appropriation of His message can save. Theologically, Restrictivists and Arminians largely populate this group, and they place a very high value on Christian mission since they see no salvation without missionary activity. This position may initially seem biblically strong, but longer and deeper reflection will certainly reveal inherent weaknesses within it, including a tendency to over-stress the importance of knowledge, as a major factor leading one to salvation.

"...The man got back to me with a page and a half of A4-sized paper listing of things which he expected to find in the life of any repentant believer, including quite a detailed description of doctrinal understanding which this man expected such people to embrace!"

Regarding the first view, if one is tempted to think that that expressed view sounds a little too 'loose' or 'liberal,' I should quickly point out that both Luther and Calvin, the two 'heavyweights' of Protestant theology, accepted the view that Cornelius was plainly already saved! (Source: Luther, Lectures on Galatians, Vol 26, page 210. Luther's Works, ed. Pelikan. St Louis: Cancordia Publishing, 1963. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.17.4). Calvin's basic approach is that good works did not save Cornelius but that those works were a strong indicator that he was already illumined by the Spirit who, at length, surely brought him into a knowledge of Christ:

'Cornelius being endued with true wisdom, in other words, with the fear of God, must have been enlightened by the Spirit of wisdom, and being an observer of righteousness, must have been sanctified by the same Spirit; righteousness being, as the Apostle testifies, one of the most certain fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:5)...' (Calvin, 'Institutes.' 3.17.4, Beveridge translation).

Calvin aptly reminds us here that the activity of the Spirit can certainly lead those - who are already declared righteous in the court of heaven by the grace of God - into a fuller knowledge of God's will. But would a technical knowledge of the time and place in human history of the ministry of Jesus - without personal acceptance - mean very much? No, it would not. So knowledge of Christ does not save but acceptance only; such acceptance being an action of grace and faith enabled by the Holy Spirit. Of course, the point might be added that - post-resurrection - one would still need to hear of the name of Christ, but, even there, one is on somewhat shaky theological ground; might it not be more correct to say that God's election and grace are what save us and that - in the ages and periods of time in which the name of Christ and knowledge of His ministry might be known, the likelihood is that the Spirit would bring one into the knowledge of that? But dare we dogmatically assert that God cannot save any who produced the fruits of His righteousness (according to His own election), if they had never yet heard the name of Jesus? If our Sovereign God elects to judge on the knowledge which He - in His infinite wisdom - has granted them (rather than on the knowledge which certain doctrinally-strict evangelicals might insist that such people must have), is that not within His divine area of jurisdiction? (Ultimately, of course, one can never come down to a technical 'black and white' understanding that those who do not hear the name of Christ cannot be saved, when Scripture itself plainly shows us that the saved of the Old Testament were saved through the blood of a Christ who had not yet even been born). No - election and grace are the saving factors, and that election actually took place at the foundation of this earth (Ephesians 1:3-12).

So Cornelius was was not saved at the point at which he finally learned of, and accepted, Christ (which would be a knowledge-based divine acceptance). Cornelius was saved from the foundation of the earth, just as Jesus was effectively slain from the foundation of the earth (Revelation 13:8). At least theoretically, most of those who argue over this Gentile's point of salvation are quite aware of that point yet still question the confirming point of his salvation. But the answer is that no confirming point is needed where the sovereign God grants salvation through election! Jesus Christ is the only doorway into Eternal Life - that we know, and it is not open to negotiation (John 10:2-9), but the Bible never outlines any sort of 'saving' knowledge level. Yet some still tenaciously cling to a schema of salvation which is overly knowledge-based.

Knowledge Cannot be a Basis for Salvation

J.N.D. Anderson asks,
"Does ignorance disqualify for grace? If so, where in Scripture do we have the exact amount of knowledge required set out? For assurance, no doubt, knowledge is required, but for grace it is not so much knowledge as a right attitude towards God that matters."
Christianity and Comparative Religion (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press, 1977, page 99).

We simply have to face the fact that many of the lives of faith which are recorded in the Holy Bible were the lives of very ordinary people in most cases. Can we really conceive of Ruth, or Rahab, or even Joshua and Gideon as paragons of doctrinal knowledge? I don't think so, but they were certainly outstanding examples of faith. One of the weaknesses of Protestantism (and it obviously has many strengths), is that it has tended to push the concept that theological expertise can lead an individual towards salvation. It cannot. Oh yes, Protestants have always stated that salvation is a matter of faith and of divine election, yet the way we have actually behaved has often been as though we believe that theological knowledge is right up there with those things. Much of this, of course, has been reactionary to the perceived doctrinal flaws and knowledge gaps within both Roman Catholicism and 19th century Liberal Protestantism and is a 'hangover' from a previous age. Yet an actual over-stress on doctrine and knowledge (which is not to say that doctrine is unimportant), has long been a factor among us and, as hopefully honest and conscientious evangelical Protestants, we should recognise and admit this.

This problem was highlighted to me a few years ago when I - somewhat naively - asked an experienced reformed (Calvinist) minister to write down on a piece of paper how he would recognise those who had truthfully come to Christ and whom he considered ready for baptism. What things would he expect to see in their lives? What understanding should they express? And what actual doctrinal and spiritual understanding should they hold? After asking this question I had half-expected that this man would reject the whole idea of writing such things down. Maybe he would just state, 'Obvious signs of faith and Grace' - and refuse to go any further than that. Indeed, I very soon felt that I had made a mistake in even asking him the question, and was more or less ready to apologise the next time I saw him; but to my amazement the man got back to me with a page and a half of A4-sized paper listing of things which he expected to find in the life of any repentant believer, including quite a detailed description of doctrinal understanding which this man expected such people to embrace! This - to me - seemed to be a most amazing legalism which almost nobody could measure up to. I have to say that, these days, in many cases, I feel that many are baptized rather too quickly - but here was the other side of the coin and quite an extreme example which amounted to a spiritual/doctrinal straitjacket. I recall wondering how the Thief on the Cross would ever be able to enter God's kingdom if this man was the kingdom doorkeeper! To even reach the point of baptism, this sincere man almost seemed to expect such people to be able to sit a theological examination! Here was evidence of a clear over-stress on knowledge. Yet he wrote very little about grace and faith. Of course, I have no doubt that this man was sincere. But we must remember the words of the apostle Paul,

A.H. Strong wrote,

"...The patriarchs, though they had not knowledge of a personal Christ, were saved by believing in God so far as God had revealed himself to them; and whoever among the heathen are saved, must in like manner be saved by casting themselves as helpless sinners upon God's plan of mercy, dimly shadowed forth in nature and providence. But such faith...is implicitly a faith in Christ, and would become explicit and conscious trust and submission, whenever Christ were made known to them."
Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1947, page 842).

'Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.' (1 Corinthians 13:8-12, NIV).

Sometimes I wonder whether God does not consider all our doctrinal wranglings and difficulties as childishness which, one day, when perfection comes, we must be prepared to put aside. I think that when we finally inherit Eternal Life - by the very side of God and Jesus for eternity - we will learn that all our doctrinal strivings were not as important as we thought and certainly not as important as real, living faith, and pure spiritual love; and yet, do we not seriously lack these things at times? And I write these words as one who is actually passionate about Christian doctrine - But we must remember its limitations! All the knowledge in the world cannot save us, but the grace of God - entirely unmerited by all of us - is what saves.

Christians must give up the doctrinal 'cut and thrust' and 'points scoring' about Cornelius and other similar biblical personalities and Scriptures. It is one thing to warn of heresy and, in fact, not enough are doing that, but doctrinal wranglings and disputes among those truly within the Body of Christ are not wise since they, somewhat arrogantly, suggest that one group may have all the answers - but no group yet has all the answers because there are certain things which God has not yet clarified, or fully revealed. But one day we shall see these things, as it were, 'face to face.' In the meantime, yes, we strive for truly biblical doctrine but we should do that in humility and with patience and without ever suggesting that greater doctrinal knowledge will ever save anyone - it won't.

When was Cornelius saved? He was saved from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4,11) through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 1:7-8). If you and I are indeed saved, we are saved in exactly the same way. We need say no more.

Robin A. Brace, 2007.