So far in our study we've considered the words "hear" and "sinner". We've seen how God's face is against those who are unrighteous, but his eyes and ears are attentive to the prayers of the righteous. Through the scriptures we understand that we may be either righteous or unrighteous, depending upon our response to the will of God in our lives. Since we know that God's face is against the unrighteous, our study to this point suggests that God does not hear the prayers of a sinner. Any discussion dealing with this topic must include Cornelius. I'm sure Acts chapter 10 is used as evidence of God's general acceptance of prayers offered by anyone, regardless of their willingness to obey His commandments. Is this valid? Let's examine the scriptures dealing with Cornelius as we seek to answer our question.
Who was Cornelius? All we know about Cornelius is revealed in Acts chapters 10 and 11. He was a man who served as a centurion in the Roman army (10:1). He was a Gentile (11:18). Religiously, he was devout and feared God with all his house, praying to God always (10:2). The Bible records that he was just (10:22) He was generous (10:2) and had a good reputation among all the Jews (10:22).
What unusual event happened to Cornelius? As he was praying about the ninth hour one day he saw a vision. An angel (10:3) dressed in bright clothing (10:30) appeared to him and stated, "Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter: He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do." (10:4-6)
What did Cornelius do? We see that Cornelius obeyed the instructions given by the angel. Cornelius told two of his servants and a devout soldier of the vision and sent them to Joppa (10:7,8).
What was happening as the men traveled to Joppa? The Lord was preparing Peter for their arrival. It was unlawful for Peter, being a Jew, to go in to Gentiles and eat with them (10:28, 11:3). Some preparation was necessary before Peter could go with the messengers. The Lord showed Peter how He is no respecter of persons (10:34) through a vision. In this vision Peter saw a great sheet fall from heaven. The sheet was bound at the four corners and contained all manner of animals. A voice told Peter to "Rise, kill and eat." Peter responded by saying, "Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." The voice responded, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." These events occurred three times, after which the sheet was drawn back into heaven. (10:9-16) As Peter pondered the vision the messengers from Cornelius arrived (10:19). The Spirit tells Peter to go with them, doubting nothing, because He sent them (10:19,20). The messengers tell Peter of Cornelius and his vision (10:22). The next day they left for Caesarea (10:23).
What did Peter tell Cornelius? He began by reminding Cornelius how it was unlawful for him to be there, but that God had shewed him that he should call no man common or unclean (10:28). He then asked Cornelius why he sent for him (10:29). Cornelius proceeds to tell Peter of the vision he saw and the instructions he was given (10:30-32). Peter tells how God is no respecter of persons but accepts everyone who fears Him and works righteousness (10:34,35). Peter reminded him of things Cornelius knew already (10:37), regarding Jesus and his mighty deeds (10:37,38), and how the ones who ate and drank with Him after His resurrection served as witnesses chosen of God to preach to the people (10:39-42), and how whosoever believes in Jesus shall receive remission of sins (10:43).
What happened to Cornelius and those who heard the word spoken by Peter? As Peter was still speaking the Holy Ghost fell on those who heard his words (10:44). They spake with tongues and magnified God (10:46). The Jews present were astonished because the gift of God was poured out onto the Gentiles also (10:45,46).
What was Peter's response to these events? He asked a question which should make every Gentile alive today grateful beyond measure. He states, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" (10:47) He then commanded they be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (10:48).
What did the Jews in Jerusalem think of Peter's journey to Caesarea? They were displeased. We see that they contended with him (11:2), saying "Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them." (11:3) Peter knew this would happen, so he had rehearsed what he was going to say (11:4). He proceeds to tell them of his vision (11:5-10), the messengers from Caesarea (11:11), how the Spirit instructed him to go with them (11:12), of Cornelius' vision (11:13), his preaching to Cornelius (11:15), and how the Holy Spirit fell on them (11:15). He summarized his defense with the statement, "Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as He did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?" (11:17) Those in Jerusalem then held their peace and glorified God, acknowledging that God had granted repentance unto life to the Gentiles (11:18).
What can we learn from Cornelius?
Has God always been a non-respecter of persons? Yes. God doesn't change (Malachi 3:6). The fact that Peter acknowledged God as no respecter of persons means He has never been a respecter of persons. But men often perceive God as a respecter of persons because of His relationship with the Jews and the old covenant. But we see from the scriptures how the Gentiles were always included in the promise given to Abraham. Paul outlines this clearly in Galatians 3:7-17. Paul states that the Gentiles were included in the promise of God when God told Abraham that, "In thee shall all nations be blessed." (3:8) When was the promise given, before the old covenant or after? Before! Paul goes so far as to tell us exactly how long before the law of Moses was given Abraham was given the promise that all nations would be blessed through him: 430 years! (3:17) This was a promise given to Abraham by God, which means that the coming of the law of Moses could not nullify it. (3:17) So, both Jew and Gentile were included in the promise that through the seed of Abraham they would be blessed. But who was this seed through which they would be blessed? Jesus Christ (3:16). Here we see the coming of Christ prophesied well before the old law was ever given. God always included the Gentiles in his promise to Abraham. When Jesus came to the earth and died on the cross, the old covenant ceased to be valid and the new went into effect. (Review my study on the Old and New Covenants for more information)
But what about the Gentiles during the time of the old covenant? Let's turn to Romans as we consider this period of time. Paul makes a distinction between the Jews with reference to the law: It's not enough to hear the law but not apply it; the ones who do the works contained within the law are just before God (3:13). It's not enough to simply be a descendant of Abraham. This alone will not make one just before God. One must do the works of the law to be just. Well, if being a descendant of Abraham is secondary to obeying the law, what if one obeys the tenets of the law but is not a descendant of Abraham? They will be considered just before God! Let's turn to verses 13-15 of chapter 2. Again, the doers of the law shall be justified (13). Notice the first word in verse 14: For. This is a conjunction. It is connecting the thoughts in verse 13 with verse 14. What does Paul say in verses 14 and 15? When the Gentiles do by nature the things contained within the law, they are a law unto themselves, their conscience bearing witness. So a Gentile who obeys his conscience and doesn't commit adultery, murder, steal, etc. will be considered just before God. Even though he/she is not a descendant of Abraham, they are doing the works written in the law. Since obedience to the commandments of the law takes precedence over genetics when making one just before God, a Gentile who is faithful to the commandments of the law will be considered just. Paul states this again in a different way in verse 26. "Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?" Why is the "therefore" in verse 26? It is connecting the thoughts of verse 25 with those of 26. In verse 25 Paul tells the Jews that those who are descendents of Abraham (the circumcision) who fail to keep the law are made uncircumcision! They are no different than the Gentile who fails to keep the law! But, in verse 26, Paul turns the coin over. What about the uncircumcision (Gentile) who keeps the law? Their uncircumcision is counted for circumcision! They are no different than the Jew who keeps the law. They are just before God as well! So we see from the book of Romans that the Gentile who was obedient to his conscience and did by nature the things contained within the law was just before God. Even while the law of Moses was in effect God was no respecter of persons!
Can we use Cornelius as proof that God hears all prayers? No. Recall 1 Peter 3:12. The face of the Lord is against them that do evil. Only those who are righteous have the ears of the Lord open to them. What does this tell us about Cornelius? Since God heard his prayer (Acts 10:31), he must have been righteous in the sight of God. Peter confirms this in 10:34 and 35 when he states that "God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him." Peter records two requirements before one is accepted in God's sight: One must fear God, and one must work righteousness. The Greek word phobeo is translated "feareth" and means "to be in awe of, to reverence." Phobeo is a verb, a word which reflects an "act, occurrence, or mode of being" on the part of the subject. To be accepted by God one must have awe and reverence for Him, and act in a manner consistent with such reverence. If one truly reverences God, they will be obedient to His every command. If one refuses to obey His commandments, what can we say about their attitude toward God? They do not reverence Him and are not in awe of Him. God has told us what we must do to be saved, and has warned us of the consequences should we fail to obey. If one refuses to heed these warnings and submit to the will of God, they don't fear Him.
Along with fearing the Lord, one must work righteousness to be accepted by Him. Again, we see action involved in this phrase. What did Paul say about the Jews in Romans 10? We read in verses 2 and 3 that they "have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God." The Jews tried to become just before God through works, and not by faith. Was the righteousness they set about to establish truly righteousness? No! God did not accept the "righteousness" they manifested. However, in their minds they were righteous before God. So, one can appear to be zealous for God but in actuality be rejected by Him! Paul tells us that the Jews had a zeal of God, but not according to righteousness. Only when we submit ourselves to the righteousness of God will we be accepted by Him. How many people today manifest a zeal for God and have an inward feeling of righteousness, but the righteousness they've established is not according to God's righteousness? Have you submitted to His righteousness, or are you following the righteousness of men, which eventually leads to destruction?
So what can we say about Cornelius? His prayer was heard, so he must have been just before God. He must have reverenced Him and have been working righteousness to be accepted by Him. But Cornelius was a Gentile! What righteousness could he have been working? I'm sure you all know the answer after going through our earlier discussion of Romans 2. He was obedient to the righteousness available to him as a Gentile. Cornelius knew of Jesus (Acts 10:37). However, up to that time, only Jews had had the message of salvation preached to them. We can judge from the response of the Jews at Jerusalem that they would almost certainly have resisted the word being preached to Gentiles unless something unusual had happened. What did Joel say would happen in the last days? Joel records in chapter 2 verse 28 that the Lord would, "pour out My spirit upon all flesh." Peter reminds the listeners at the day of Pentecost of these words spoken by Joel, and confirms the events that took place as being part of the fulfillment of that prophecy (Acts 2:17). I say part, because had His spirit yet been poured out upon "all flesh?" Turn to Ephesians 2. In verse 11, Paul shows us how the Gentiles and the Jews were considered to be two different flesh. However, in Jesus the two are made one (14-16). In Cornelius and his household we see the completion of the prophecy made by Joel. Now His spirit was poured upon all flesh. Peter in his defense of his preaching to Cornelius reminds the Jews of this fact in Acts 11:15-17. Look at the Jews' response: "When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life." (Acts 11:18) Something miraculous occurred to indicate God's acceptance of the Gentiles. Until the Jews heard these things they contended with Peter because of his preaching to the Gentiles (Acts 11:2). So, up to this point in time God would accept the Gentiles who were obedient to the righteousness available to them.
But what happened after Cornelius' conversion? The Jews and the Gentiles were both subject to the same righteousness of God. Now the Gentiles had to be obedient to the same commandments of God as the Jews in order to be accepted by God. No longer could a Gentile's prayer be heard simply because they feared God, working the righteousness available to them and were obedient to their consciences. Now both Jews and Gentiles are required to work the same righteousness of God to be accepted by Him. For us today the words of Peter still apply: To be accepted by God we must fear Him and work righteousness. If we are one of the untold millions with an ignorant zeal of God working that which appears to be righteousness but is of men, we will not be accepted of God. His face is against this multitude and their prayers are not heard (1 Peter 3:12). However, if we are of the number who is truly in awe of God, reverences Him, and submits to His righteousness while rejecting the righteousness of men he will accept us and His ears are open to our prayers.
Cornelius is often quoted as an example of a sinner's prayer being heard by God. However, we have seen in this study of Cornelius that we cannot apply his situation to ours today. Only when one has subjected themselves to the righteousness of God will their prayers be heard. It is beyond the scope of this study to address fully the righteousness that is of God. However, I would like to briefly mention a couple of key points which are markers of the righteousness of men that often lead zealous people astray:
One is saved before baptism. I have addressed this point in detail in my study on baptism. For an in-depth study of this important topic, please click on this link and you'll be taken to the study on baptism.
Faith only is sufficient for salvation. Please turn to Romans 3:22. Here Paul uses both faith and believe in the same sentence. The Greek word for "faith" is pistis. This word serves as a noun when used in the NT. The Greek word translated "believe" is pisteuo, a verb. So we see in Romans 3:22 that faith (pistis, a noun) combined with works (pisteuo, a verb, translated "believe") are necessary in order for one to practice the righteousness that is of God. Pistis and pisteuo are not interchangeable. They are two different parts of speech. Pisteuo describes the action manifested when one has pistis in their life. One with pistis in their life will completely surrender their life to His will and will manifest conduct inspired by such surrender. James summarizes this point succinctly in chapter 2 verse 18 of his letter when he states, "Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works." Here he clearly shows the relationship between pistis and pisteuo. So one must be subject to the entire will of God to be working His righteousness. Part of His will is that we demonstrate our devotion to Jesus through the act of baptism, by which we are buried and rise again to walk in newness of life. Faith without works is dead (James 2:26).
As I continue our studies I'll address more indicators of the righteousness that is of men. I pray you will consider the things we've studied and prove them to be true for yourselves through your own private Bible study. My only purpose is to bring these things to your attention. I don't want anyone to take my word only as truth. Please confirm for yourselves the truths contained within this study.