In a recent article the owner of a prominent Christian magazine reflected on his own journey of faith. He likened himself to the Roman Centurion Cornelius, about whom we read in Acts 10. Like Cornelius, this man was a good man, and a religious man who believed he was doing what the Lord wanted him to do. Like Cornelius, he came into contact with someone who helped him complete his understanding of what the Lord requires for salvation and faithful living. The story of Cornelius is an inspiring story of an honest seeker finding the truth and bowing the knee to the Lord in obedience to it.
This story is especially important in the New Testament records of conversion that we find in the book of Acts. It is important for several reasons. First, Cornelius was the first Gentile convert to Christ. Up until his conversion, the gospel had only been preached to the Jews, and to their cousins the Samaritans. With Cornelius the gospel truly became international in scope as the Lord intended. Second, his conversion was marked by miraculous interventions in order to facilitate it. The only other conversion that contained such was that of Saul of Tarsus. Third, Cornelius was not a typical convert to Christ. He was not a wicked man whose life openly declared his need for salvation.
Regarding the first aspect, the significance of Cornelius’ conversion is not in him personally, but in his nationality. God had intended for Gentiles to be saved, just like the Jews, from before the beginning of time. Cornelius was simply the man that the Lord chose to be the first among his class of people to be saved. Regarding the second aspect, it is important to notice that the miraculous events surrounding his conversion are not what saved Cornelius. It was his obedience to the gospel by being baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of his sins that saved him and his household. This message is the same throughout the book of Acts (cf. Acts 2:38-41; 22:16; et al).
Regarding the third aspect, Cornelius’ conversion is important because of who he was before he was saved. In Acts 10:2 Luke describes him as, “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.” The significance of this statement is seen in the common belief today that all good, sincere, honest, religious people will be saved. By all human standards Cornelius was an exemplary individual. He was a godly man. He was a religious man. He was a devout practitioner of the Jewish faith. But, he was not saved by any of this. Not even the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on him and his household saved him (Acts 10:44-48). Cornelius was not saved until he was baptized for the forgiveness of his sins, just like every other person whose conversion is recorded in Acts.
This is what makes the story of Cornelius timeless. Salvation is the gift of God for all those who believe in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). But this gift is given only when we obey the command to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). We receive salvation only when we have been baptized and washed away our sins (Acts 22:16). The significance of Cornelius is that he did not let his devout nature and good conduct keep him from obeying the command to be baptized (Acts 10:48), and neither must we.
What we need so desperately today are people who are willing to be a modern-day Cornelius. We need good people who are willing to do everything the Lord commands in order to be saved. We need good people who will not let their goodness be an obstacle to their salvation. May God grant us many more like Cornelius!