“And Cornelius said, ‘Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.’” -Acts 10.30-33
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” -Romans 10.14-17
One of the most overlooked New Testament stories, in my opinion, is the interaction between Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11. And even when we do focus on this it seems that all we say is “And here we see the Gospel opened up to the Gentiles” (which is true, don’t get me wrong, but just read on). However, I think in focusing on that we miss a really interesting commentary which speaks to a large objection to orthodoxy arising in our emerging culture these days.
It’s cool to be semi-universalist. On the heels of Rob Bell’s tour Everything is Spiritual and in light of past comments by figures such as Brian McLaren and Billy Graham, we see a swelling tide towards, if not universalism, at least a universalism where all “spiritual people” are saved. The idea from Bell is that the Gospel is Jesus telling us that we live in an “integrated holistic spirituality” and so, as in his title, everything we do is spiritual, and de facto, everything we do is worship to God (a thesis which, think about it for a minute, is completely false).
But, instead of fighting over the words of men, let’s look at what the Word of God says in Acts 10 and 11. This passage presents us with the story of a non-proselyte Roman centurion who, though not officially a Jew, nevertheless offered devotion to and feared the one-true God (Acts 10.1-2, 28 ), and as a result of his devotion God decides to use him as the entry point of the Holy Spirit and salvation to the Gentiles. This we usually state and then move on to Peter’s vision and the eventual evangelization and regeneration of the Gentile gathering. But, let’s take a closer look at the setup.
Who are we presented with? A non-Jewish Roman who through some set of circumstances and interactions has taken to worshiping the one-true God. We know that his worship is of the God of the Jews because the text states that he was “a devout man who feared God with all his household.” So, not only is Cornelius spiritual, but his spirituality is directed towards the living God, even though he is not a member of God’s covenant people Israel. And what does this spirituality get him? Under popular theology that is enough. Cornelius is a spiritual person, living a spiritual life, and doing his best to please whatever God is there. This seems to be the criteria in our society, and certainly in the theology expressed by people like Graham, for salvation. For all intents and purposes Cornelius should expect to find himself in heaven when it’s all said and done just by what he has already demonstrated.
Yet is it enough? Is his spirituality and devotion enough? Using no other text besides Acts 10 and 11 I would argue that the answer is a resounding “No.” Why do I say this? Well, look what happens. First, we see that an angel comes to him and delivers a cryptic message about sending men to Joppa to retrieve the apostle Peter (10.3-6). Then, when the men return with Peter we see that Peter’s response to why God called him was to preach the Gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected to this gathering of Gentiles (10.34-43). Upon hearing the Gospel the Gentiles receive the gifting of the Holy Spirit and are baptized by Peter and the believers that accompanied him as a sign that they have gained salvation and been brought into the covenant people of God (10.44-48). Finally, after all of this, we see Peter testify to the fact that he was brought to give the message of how Cornelius “[would] be saved” (11.14).
Do you see it? Peter came to preach how Cornelius “[would] be saved.” As in, he wasn’t saved already. Regardless of his spirituality and devotion, it was not until he believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that Cornelius was saved. He was even devoted to the one-true God and yet that still was not enough without his ascending in faith to the message of the Cross. If Peter or someone else had not come and presented the Gospel then Cornelius would never have been saved, no matter how spiritual and good of a life he led.
And still people miss this. It is clear as day. If Jesus saying “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” is not enough (as Rob Bell argues in Velvet Elvis) then hopefully this testimony will be sufficient to convince us. There is no salvation without faith in Christ. “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4.12). Please get this, lives are at stake. It may not be cool, but at least people won’t be going to hell because we wanted to feel good about ourselves and be liked.