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What About Cornelius?

By H. A. (Buster) Dobbs

religion, articles, christianity

The account of the conversion of Cornelius gives understanding in two areas often misrepresented.

  • The only condition of eternal salvation is being morally upright and doing good to others.
  • The reception of the Holy Spirit signifies salvation.

The report of the conversion of Cornelius proves these sentiments to be wrong. Consider first the misunderstanding that if a person has in his life any influence of the Holy Spirit, that person is in a saved condition.

One writer, in criticizing the idea that in conviction, conversion, and edification the Holy Spirit works only through the Word, pointed out that in Acts 2:41 people received the Word before they were baptized. He then correctly stated, "They did not and could not become sons of God ... before their baptism. Before becoming 'sons of God' these were clearly, 'sons of the devil."' The writer was horrified at the thought. He could not accept the Holy Spirit coming upon a child of the devil.

If the Holy Spirit exerts an influence through the Word in bringing an alien sinner to conviction, faith, repentance, confession, and baptism, then he is exerting an influence on a child of the devil. So what? Why should it be thought incredible that the Spirit can be received by one who is outside of Christ and the church?

Look at the facts in the case of the conversion of Cornelius:

  • He was told to send to Joppa for Peter "Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11:14).
  • Peter then explains, "And as I began to speak the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning" (Acts 11:15).
  • Peter says that God gave to them (Cornelius his family and friends) "the like gift" as that received by the apostles in the beginning of the gospel (Acts 11:17).

Cornelius received the gift of the Holy Spirit, just as the apostles had received it (poured out from heaven) and this caused Peter to remember "the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost" (Acts 11:16).

Cornelius received a baptism with the Holy Ghost while Cornelius was a child of the devil! He received the gift of the Spirit before he heard the Word of salvation. The Spirit came upon him as Peter "began to speak." Not after the sermon, nor even in the middle of it, but at the first word of Peter's lesson. Since faith comes by hearing the Word of God he received the Spirit before he had faith in Jesus as the Son of God. The gift of the Spirit was poured out on Cornelius before he repented and while he was still in his sins. It was after the reception of the Spirit that Peter commanded Cornelius and his group to be baptized (for the remission of sins).

No one was ever commanded to receive the Holy Spirit for salvation, except as the Spirit operates through the Word of truth. There is an influence of the Spirit in the life of the sinner prior to conversion. The lost person hears the Word, which is the sword of the Spirit, and believes that Jesus is God. His faith then causes him to agonize over his sins and repent. His decision to turn from wrong to right is a fruit of the Spirit in his life. He obeys the Lord's command to be baptized and his human spirit is born again in the water - born of the water and spirit, without which he cannot enter the kingdom (John 3 :5).

After conversion, the child of God continues to have the influence of the Spirit in his life through the Word, which alone is sufficient to make the man of God complete in the sight of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Spirit through instruction of the Word leads the disciple of God to manifest and increase in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance, which is the fruit or gift of the Spirit in his life. He is influenced by the Spirit before his baptism and the influence continues after his baptism. As he lives for truth and right, the living hope of eternal glory burns brightly in his soul. The saint has instruction in righteousness, reproof and correction when he goes astray, and the assurance of everlasting peace. All of this is accomplished by God the Spirit through the Word. What more is possible or needed for salvation?

The other lesson from the conversion of Cornelius which I wish to emphasize is that goodness and benevolence do not equate to salvation. In concluding the public forum with Rubel Shelly and a Muslim minister, a Jewish layman said:

While we cannot agree on all of the questions we've discussed tonight, nor should we, nor should we paper over those differences, we can agree - we have agreed - that there are things this world needs from all of us. There are those out there who are hungry. There are those who are homeless. There are those without physical or emotional clothing. And life provides every one of us an opportunity to help them. And if we accept that challenge and use the abilities that God has given us to make the difference, then I believe that whatever afterlife exists out there, all of us will have a free path to the inside.

The idea the rabbi projected on the participants and the audience was that the only condition of an inside path to the afterlife is being good and feeding the hungry. We do not deprecate the need for visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction-we cannot be pleasing to God if we ignore the needs of the poor - but neither must we leave the impression that all who respond to pitiful appeals will be saved on the basis of benevolence alone.

You can have a benevolent program without a cross, but you cannot have salvation without the cross. Eternal salvation is only in Jesus (Acts 4:12). This was the point Paul made in Jewish synagogues that caused some of them to stone him. He pulled no punches, but made it plain that acceptance with God is absolutely dependent upon accepting Jesus. Paul knew the pain it would cause him, but he never allowed the impression to be left that all you have to do to be saved is throw money at a bum on a street corner. He always made it crystal clear that all of God's blessing are in Jesus and only in Jesus.

Those who have been redeemed by the blood of the lamb will feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, but that alone is not the basis of their salvation. If it is, then Cornelius did not need the preaching of Peter. He feared God and gave money to the poor before he heard the gospel. He was a good man who helped others, but he was lost. An angel of God told him to send for Peter "who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11:14). Though devout, prayerful and benevolent, he needed to be saved. He was good and lost.

Published March 1996