"Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no Respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him." (Acts 10:34,35)
It is perfectly astonishing with what tenacity people cling to the idea of salvation by works. It is a fact that notwithstanding the continuous, laborious, and elaborate teaching of the truth-advocating minister, the hearers, for the most part, are still unimpressed upon the subject of salvation by free grace. Reiterated again and again as it is in the ears of hearers, "By the deeds of the law shall no flesh living be justified;" (Rom. 3:20) "By grace are ye saved through faith: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast;" (Eph. 2:8,9) "He hath saved us, not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to His own purpose and grace;" (2 Tim. 1:9;Titus 3:5) yet men will cling to it that salvation may be effected by works! I say it is perfectly astonishing with what tenacity men cling to this idea. It can only be accounted for by the innate ignorance, pride, and unbelief of the human heart. Men do not believe that they are as fallen as they are; they do not believe that God is as pure and holy as He is represented; they do not believe that Christ is as powerful as the Holy Ghost describes Him; they do not believe that sin is so awful and accursed a thing as God has pronounced it. And, what is more extraordinary than all this is, that many of the very parties who hold this idea of the possibility of salvation by works do the fewest works that even by their own showing could be acceptable to God, and commit the most glaring sins without fear or compunction. Surely blindness has happened to these people.
I will tell you of another strange fact connected with this subject. There are many persons who, though they profess to believe in the Gospel plan of salvation, think that there is another plan as well; and that whilst it is true that by grace are men saved, it is also true that by working righteousness men may be saved too! The case of Cornelius is a great favorite with both parties, as illustrative of their peculiar views; so we will now, under God, examine it, and shall see how utterly fallacious and delusive the reasoning and suppositions of those parties are.
I. You are all, of course, familiar with Cornelius' case. He was a Roman officer, having the command of a company of soldiers at Caesarea--a Gentile, who is described as being a religious man, very charitable, and much given to prayer, one that feared God, and did good works, and whose works and prayers went up as a memorial before God. "Now," argue the parties I have alluded to--"now here is a case wherein it is plain that a man may be saved without a knowledge of Christ, and by works of righteousness he has done; as so we argue, that, if a man acts up to the light that is in him, and lives a religious and consistent life, he will be saved." Such is the argument of thousands. But here, as in countless other cases, there is bold assertion without proof, and a jumping to conclusions from false premises. It is not plain from this, or any other case, that a man may be saved without a knowledge of Christ, or by works of righteousness that he has done. For in the first place it is not said in the narrative that Cornelius knew not Christ; secondly, it is not said in the narrative that Cornelius was saved by his works; thirdly, it is positively and plainly stated in other Scriptures that by works of righteousness no man can be saved; and, "there is none other name given under heaven among men whereby we must be saved but Christ Jesus." (Acts 4:12) Nothing can be clearer from Scripture than this, namely, that by deeds or works of any kind no flesh shall be justified. So that Cornelius' cannot be an exceptional case. But let us minutely examine it.
First. See Acts 10:2. Cornelius was a devout man, a godly man. The word in the original is yoo-seb-mos, "godly," and is opposed to "ungodly." Now we argue, if Cornelius was a godly man, then he must have been a justified man, a man justified by faith; for all who are justified are, till the moment of their justification, ungodly. (Rom. 4:5) Here, then, we have a full proof that Cornelius was a justified believer.
Secondly. Cornelius feared God; Jehovah the God of Israel. Now, it is the character of the unregenerate that there is no fear of God before their eyes. So that as Cornelius feared God, he must have been a regenerate man, a man into whose heart God put His fear according to His own promise. (Jer. 32:40)
Thirdly. Cornelius gave much alms to the people, through his fear and reverence of God; and we perceive a little lower down (ver. 4) that this service was accepted of God, proving that it was good in His sight. But no work is recognized in Scripture as good and acceptable to God, except it proceeds from faith. "Without faith it is impossible to please God." (Heb. 11:6) Again, we argue, as Cornelius' good works were accepted by God, it is plain that they proceeded from faith; and, if Cornelius had faith, he was already a converted man, and saved by grace.
Fourthly. Cornelius prayed to God alway--to the true God--the God of Israel. Now, men may worship an unknown God or a god of their own imagination, but they cannot pray to the true God without believing in Him as He has revealed Himself to man. To do this a man must have faith and light from the Holy Spirit. If Cornelius had faith and light thus, he must have been a regenerated man; and a regenerated man knows that he cannot be saved by works of righteousness.
Fifthly. Cornelius' prayers and alms came up for a memorial before God. (see ver. 4) Now, we ask, did the prayers or alms of an unbeliever ever go up as a memorial before God? Surely not. The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination in God's sight. Here again we have clear proof that Cornelius worshipped God in the faith of the promised Mediator: "for no man can come unto God except through Him." But listen again, if Cornelius' alms or prayers were accepted by God without faith in the Messiah, then it would follow that, "being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish his own righteousness, (Rom. 10:3) he had attained to righteousness by the works of the law and not by faith," in direct opposition to all the apostle Paul has so clearly established.
Sixthly. Cornelius' prayer is heard. (Acts 10:31) Now what could this prayer have been about? Evidently concerning Christ. He wanted to have more explicit information about the Messiah. This is demonstrated; for how otherwise could his vision have been an answer to his prayer? The direction to send for Peter to make known to him the actual appearance of Messiah is stated as the answer to that prayer. But it could not have been an answer to it unless it had concerned Messiah's coming.
Lastly. Peter addresses Cornelius as one who was already acquainted with the word which God sent to the children of Israel. (See Acts 10:37)
From all this it is abundantly evident that Cornelius was godly, a man justified by faith--one wrought upon by God's Holy Spirit--one saved by the righteousness of the Messiah,--before he ever saw Peter. And Peter's mission to Cornelius had a twofold design; (1) as an answer to Cornelius' prayers and (2) to let Peter see that there were others besides Jews interested in the work of Christ.
II. I will now briefly explain the words of my text, and conclude with a few reflections. As I have already hinted, this passage is constantly quoted by legalists and Arminians to disprove the doctrine of election and of salvation by free grace. Such say, "You see, here it is plainly asserted that God has no regard for one more than for another; and that men of all kinds will be accepted by Him if they work righteousness." Nothing can be more erroneous or in opposition to the positive teaching of Scripture than these views. That God has a people whom He has elected to eternal honor is a fact that no sane or unprejudiced man can deny, and that no man can be saved by his works is a truth that stands out through all the economy of grace. These things may be demonstrated as any proposition of mathematics, notwithstanding the continual opposition they meet with.
First. The meaning of Peter in our text, as is manifest from the entire context, is, that the believing Gentile was as great a favorite with God as the believing Jew. Peter had hard work to learn this lesson. He had supposed that God was the God of the Jews only, and not the God of the Gentiles; but now he is convinced that there is no such respect of persons with God, but that in every nation under heaven, whether he be Greek or Scythian, Jew or Gentile, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted with Him. God has nowhere said, "Because you are not a Jew, you cannot be saved, or because you have not as great privileges as others you cannot be saved;" but, "In whomsoever my fear is manifested, or works of righteousness brought forth, I take delight, be he from what clime or kindred or tongue in all the earth he may." So far for the plain and obvious meaning of the first sentence.
Secondly. Now for the meaning of the second. Pray mark well that the sentence is not "Shall be accepted with Him," but "Is accepted with Him;" "I perceive that such a person is already accepted with Him." But this by no means insinuates that it was the person's fearing God or working righteousness which were the causes of God's acceptance of him. Take care of such an error; it is fearfully common, I can tell you. No; "But where I perceive this fear of God," says Peter, "and where I perceive these works of righteousness, I may be certain that the person in whom they are exhibited is in favor with God." And what could have brought him into favor with God? Not his fear or his works, for this would be to contradict free grace, (Rom. 11:6) but God's sovereign will, which chose out the man, and put His fear into his heart, and created him anew in Christ unto good works, which God had foreordained that he should walk in. The fear and the works here are not causes, but evidences, of acceptance with God.
And now, my dear hearers, can you or I trace out any resemblance between ourselves and Cornelius?
1. Are we godly, justified by faith? Have we renounced, once and for ever, all idea of ever justifying ourselves by our works, and are we depending solely upon Messiah's work?
2. Do we fear God, with a reverential fear? Do we fear God as He has revealed Himself to man?
3. Do we perform any works in consequence of that fear? If we have it not in our power to give much alms to the people, do we do what we are disposed to do through reverence for God, and not for our own glory?
4. Do we pray to the God of Israel, the true God, the sovereign God, the God of the Scriptures? And is the subject of our prayers that Messiah may be more clearly revealed to us, and may dwell in our hearts by faith?
5. Do we pray in faith, nothing wavering, not halting between two opinions, either as to our own lost estate, our deserts, or God's sovereignty?
If so, we may be certain that we are accepted with God, not because we do these things, but because our doing them is a proof that God has wrought in us "to will and to do of His good pleasure." (Phil. 2:13)