Today's lesson is an extension of that thought, as it pertains to Cornelius of Caesarea, a centurion in the first century (Acts 10:1). Admittedly, there is much to consider in this chapter of the New Testament. Lord willing, we will do so in future lessons. Our intent at this time, however, is to simply focus on Cornelius as a perfect example of the truth that living a morally upright life is necessary but not sufficient for salvation. The inspired Luke describes Cornelius as "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always" (Acts 10:2). Let's elaborate on that description. Cornelius was: (1) a devout or pious man, (2) one who had awe and respect for God, (3) one who had guided his family to also revere the Lord, (4) a generous giver to the needy, and (5) one who prayed frequently to the Lord. Wow! What an outstanding man! If anyone was on his way to heaven, certainly it was Cornelius, right? Well, not exactly.
Clearly, Cornelius was searching for the truth. He wanted to please God and do what was right. However, until Peter came and spoke with him--an event that was divinely arranged--he was ignorant of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The angel who appeared to Cornelius in a vision said that Peter would come and "tell you what you must do" (Acts 10:6). This phrase cannot be overemphasized. Cornelius was told to expect instruction regarding something that he must do. This would not be a suggestion, and it would not be an optional matter. It would be something that he must do.
So, what was it? A careful reading of the chapter will show that Peter, after sharing the blessed gospel message with Cornelius, his relatives, and close friends, did command them to do something. There was something that they must do. "And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:48). The text implies that they complied.
Again, there is much more to ponder in this chapter, especially regarding the Holy Spirit falling upon these Gentiles and enabling them to speak in tongues, but we have narrowed our scope at this time to Cornelius' conversion. I affirm that these miraculous manifestations of the Spirit had nothing directly to do with his salvation. If such proved Cornelius to be a saved man, then why did Peter command immersion in water (i.e., baptism)? Some in the religious world claim that baptism is merely "an outward sign of an inward grace" and that one today can be saved prior to baptism. Friends, the Bible does not teach such (please refer to our three lesson series on baptism for Scriptural proof--March 12, 19, & 26, 2005). Why would Cornelius need to be baptized if its primary purpose was only as "an outward sign" ? He was speaking in tongues! How is getting wet a better "outward sign" than tongue speaking? Such a position is illogical.
Dear listeners, nowhere does the text state or even imply that Cornelius was saved before He heard the gospel and obeyed it by being baptized. Baptism was the act that Cornelius was told by the angel that he must do (Acts 10:6,48). Further proof of the correctness of this conclusion is seen in the next chapter. There a new detail is shared regarding the angel's communication with Cornelius. The angel had evidently also said that Peter would tell him "words by which you and all your household will be saved" (Acts 11:14). That's right, words by which they could be saved. If Cornelius needed to hear words (and obey them) in order to be saved, is it not implied that he wasn't saved at the point in time when the angel spoke to him? And, if he wasn't saved at that point in time, then all of his prior good works were insufficient to save him, in and of themselves. That is not to say that a morally upright life is unimportant, but it is to say that such is not the determining factor in the salvation of a person.