So, what about Cornelius? Are his sins forgiven? Is he saved? And what about the millions around the world who do their best, but have not heard that Jesus died for sinners and rose from the grave; does the Bible teach that it is absolutely necessary to hear the gospel of Jesus and believe it in order to be saved?
People use the story of Cornelius (wrongly) to show that people can be saved without hearing the gospel. In fact, Peter says in Acts 10 to Cornelius and his guests that "God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." Doesn't this seem to imply that the gospel is not needed - that it only takes fearing God and doing what is right?
In his book Let The Nations Be Glad, John Piper deals with the story of Cornelius to show that the Bible does in fact teach that the gospel is necessary. Here are some of his reasons (along with some of my own) that Cornelius was NOT forgiven of his sin and justified before God until he heard and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1. The whole point of this story is that God worked miraculously to bring Peter to Cornelius with the gospel so that he COULD be saved. The logic of the story is not that Cornelius is already OK, but that even with all his good works, something is still lacking. That's why God sends an angel to Cornelius telling him to send for Peter, and speaks to Peter by the Holy Spirit telling him to go to Cornelius.
2. Peter preaches that it is through faith in Jesus that forgiveness of sins comes (10:43) [Piper, p136]. When Peter arrives he doesn't tell Cornelius that he and his guests are forgiven; instead, he preaches the gospel to them and tells them "everyone who believes in him (Jesus) receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
3. Even the Jews – who were the most devout and God-fearing people on earth, who had more advantages than any other people group (God’s Law, sacrificial system, the Old Covenant, the promise of the Messiah, etc) – even they are commanded by the apostles to repent and believe/be baptized (2:38) [Piper, p136]. If even God's Old Covenant people needed to hear the gospel of Jesus and believe on him, how much more the godless Gentiles!
4. The angel instructed Cornelius that Peter will bring him “a message by which you will be saved” (11:14) [Piper, p135]. This could be the most powerful statement in this story. "A MESSAGE BY WHICH YOU WILL BE SAVED!" With all his constant prayer and charity Cornelius still needed to hear the message (the gospel) to "be saved!"
Cornelius’ servants went to Peter and told him the angel directed Cornelius to send for Peter to come and “to hear” (10:22). Then when Peter gets there Cornelius says “we are all here in the presence of God to hear” (10:33). Hearing the gospel message for salvation is the point of this story!
It is the message of the gospel itself that brings salvation to those who believe. Look at these powerhouse verses:
- And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12 (Salvation is in Jesus' NAME).
- For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes... Romans 1:16a What is the power of God for salvation? The gospel message of Jesus!
- For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 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? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? Romans 10:13-15 These verses clearly teach the necessity of hearing the gospel of Jesus and placing concious faith in him in order to be saved.
- ...it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 1 Cor 1:21b
So we see that even a "good" man who worships the right God, continually prays, and even takes care of the poor still lacks salvation until he hears the gospel of Jesus Christ, the "message by which you will be saved," and responds to that message with repentance of sin and faith in Jesus. Praise God for giving us this glorious message! Now let us take this message to the ends of the earth! How can they believe without someone preaching?