The Acts of the Spirit, Part 6
Conversion of Cornelius
Joseph D. McPherson
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Fall 2010. Volume 28.
Date Posted Nov, 2010
The book of Acts portrays a step by step process by which the apostles were persuaded that God's plan of salvation through Christ was not limited to the Jewish people. In Chapter 8 we read of the Gospel being taken to the Samaritans and to the Ethiopian nobleman by Philip. Chapter 10 demonstrated the supernatural and unique way in which Peter was led to take the Gospel to certain Gentiles in Caesarea. It is here that we are introduced to "a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band." He is described as "A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always."
A question arises in our minds. In what sense are we to understand Cornelius to be a devout man? In chapter two Luke tells us that on the day of Pentecost "there were dwelling at Jerusalem, devout men, out of every nation under heaven." Luke is speaking of Jews yet unconverted to Christianity. Peter had not so much as begun preaching his Pentecost sermon. It was before any of the 3,000 Jews were converted and yet they were identified as "devout men, out of every nation under heaven." Obviously, they were not devout in the Christian sense of the word but rather in the Jewish. Likewise, when St. Luke identifies Cornelius as a devout man, we are not to conclude that he was at that time a born again Christian. The late Dr. Ralph Earle, a noted professor of Bible exposition, once stated that "to hold that Cornelius was a Christian before he met Peter is very precarious exegesis." Wesley, Fletcher, and Adam Clarke all describe Cornelius before Peter's arrival in Caesarea as a "God-fearing Gentile" or "God-fearing heathen."
Wesley says that "it is certain, in the Christian sense, Cornelius was then an unbeliever." Although he feared God as his Maker and did right according to the light he then had, "He had not [yet] faith in Christ." According to the Rev. John Fletcher, Cornelius was without sufficient faith in Christ prior to Peter's appearance, having never yet "heard the Gospel explained with precision and fidelity." Adam Clarke was convinced that though Cornelius lacked faith in Christ prior to hearing Peter's message, he was, nevertheless, a man "who was acquainted with the true God, by means of his word and laws; who respected these laws, and would not dare to offend his Maker and his Judge." We are informed that "He saw in a vision . . . an angel of God" who instructed him to "Send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter . . . . Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 10:3; 11:13-14).
Upon his arrival at the house of Cornelius Peter confessed a significant and personal discovery. "I perceive of a truth,,," said he, "that God is not a respecter of persons." In other words, Peter was beginning to realize that God does not limit His love to one nation of people. "But in every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is accepted by him." As Wesley explains: "He that first reverences God, as great, wise, good; the Cause, End, and Governor of all things; and, secondly, from this awful regard to Him, not only avoids all known evil, but endeavors, according to the best light he has, to do all things well 'Is accepted of him'-Through Christ, though he knows Him not." Fletcher observes that following Peter's statement, "none of the congregation said, 'Well, if we are accepted, we are already in a state of salvation, and therefore we need not 'hear words whereby we shall be saved.'" No, although they had been faithful to the prevenient grace already afforded them, they were yet to hear words by which they should be saved.
Peter then enters into his message by providing Cornelius and his household with an account of Jesus' ministry. Although these Gentiles had heard news of Jesus and his miracle working, they had yet to hear the Gospel message explained and expounded to them directly. Apostles and leaders of the church were Jews and would have been extremely reluctant to preach the Gospel to Gentiles. It took a miraculous vision for Peter to be thus persuaded to evangelize those in Caesarea.
According to Luke's account, Peter briefly summarized the full message of the Gospel. He introduced Jesus as "Lord of all" and further described Him as having been "anointed . . .with the Holy Ghost and power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with Him." And although His enemies had put Him to death and hanged Him on a tree, God raised him from the dead and showed Him openly. Most importantly, Peter assured these Gentiles "that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins."
It is important to notice the content of Peter's message. It was not a message having to do with a second work of grace. There was nothing in his message that spoke of entire sanctification or any advanced experience of holiness. Rather, his message was about Christ and the remission or forgiveness of sins. It was a very basic and elementary message, a message of introduction to the Gospel.
"While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word." The Holy Ghost knew the hearts of those gathered there and was poured out upon them.
They were baptized in the Holy Spirit. To be sure, there are those who wish to identify Spirit baptism exclusively with a work of grace subsequent to the experience of initial conversion. And though it is true that the Holy Spirit continues His work of perfecting the believer in divine love following conversion, baptism in the Holy Spirit has historically been identified with initial conversion. This was the teaching of the Church Fathers, the Reformers and early Methodists.
It is not surprising that "the circumcised Jewish believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles." Nor is it surprising when the news of this episode became known back in Jerusalem that there would be those among the "circumcision" who would severely criticize Peter for not only entering a house of uncircumcised Gentiles but also eating with them. In defense of his actions Peter reviewed his experiences in some detail. "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). The words, "granted repentance unto life," again identify clearly initial salvation or justification and regeneration to be the experience of these Gentiles. Dr. Robert Lyon assures us that this "was most certainly the conversion of Cornelius and his incorporation into the body of Christ. . . . It is the account of a beginning, not a second blessing." Lyon convincingly shows that there is no difference in Acts between "receiving the Spirit" and "being baptized with the Spirit." In Acts 10:47 and 11:16 "both are used," says he, "of the Cornelius experience. Acts 15:8 only confirms this, for the Spirit was 'given' (a word not previously used) to them 'just as to us.' Everything in these narratives requires our understanding the conversion of Cornelius as the occasion for his experience of the Spirit. Upon hearing and receiving the word, he and those with him were baptized, according to promise, in the Spirit."
This interpretation, however, is not satisfactory to some. Historically unique to the modern holiness movement is the view that these Gentiles experienced an advanced work of grace in entire sanctification because, as Peter later testified: "God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:8-9). But how are we to understand Peter's use of the word "purifying" in this context? We believe it is best to let the Apostle answer for himself. Writing in his first epistle to those whom he describes as "newborn babes" he declared: "ye have purified your souls." Such purifying he attributes in the next verse to their "being born again" (1 Peter 1:22-23). Nothing in the context so much as suggests their enjoying a second work of grace. Adam Clarke declares such newborn babes to be "purified in the laver of regeneration."
Although the believers in Corinth, whom the Apostle Paul also identifies as "babes in Christ," were not entirely sanctified at the time he wrote, he nevertheless gave to them words of assurance in the following manner: "And such were some of you; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified [in an initial sense], but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor 6:11). Again this same Apostle assures his readers that it is, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3:5). There is, therefore, a cleansing or washing associated with regeneration. It is a grave mistake to suppose that the initial experience of salvation is little more than forgiveness of sins.
Although Acts 15:8-9 does not specify the level of cleansing to which Peter is referring, no early Methodist commentator associated this passage with entire sanctification. In his sermon "On Sin in Believers," Mr. Wesley assures us that the state of a newly justified believer is inexpressibly great and glorious. He is washed; he is sanctified (in an initial sense). His "heart is purified by faith; he is cleansed from the corruption that is in the world." In his sermon, "The Marks of the new Birth," he assures us that the immediate and constant fruit of this faith whereby we are born of God is power over inward and outward sin. Here again he quotes Acts 15:9 as descriptive of the new birth.
Early Methodist theologian, William Burt Pope, often referred to as "The Prince of Theologians" connected Acts 15:9 with 1 John 1:7, "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." He likewise quotes James 4:8 "Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded." All three of the above passages are quoted by Pope as applying to initial sanctification in the newly regenerated believer. Alex Deasley, a more recent scholar, applied the cleansing referred to in Acts 15:9 to the surrounding context of repentance, faith, salvation and new life. Other scholars look upon the "purification" mentioned in Acts 15:9 as referring to "sprinkling of the conscience by the blood of Jesus from dead works to serve the living God" [Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, 3:522].
We are bound to conclude that all converts since the day of Pentecost experience the new birth (regeneration) by way of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul writes the following concerning all truly regenerated believers without exception: "by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body . . . and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (1 Cor 12:13). The same Apostle makes it emphatically clear that since Pentecost one cannot without the Spirit be a Christian (Rom 8:9). It was under the Apostle Peter's preaching that Cornelius and his household received the Spirit for the first time.
Dr. Lyon declares that "The baptism in the Spirit, far from being the second experience and an experience subsequent to receiving the Spirit or being born of the Spirit, stands scripturally at the heart of conversion. The nature of Christian conversion, when fully appreciated, is by itself and in itself an anticipation of what we seek to find completed in the insufflations of love." He explains that, "To be made perfect in love is to come to know the natural (supernatural) consequence and corollary of conversion. Perfection in love [or entire sanctification] is the follow-up of that baptism in the Spirit which sets the believer on course."
Too often the initial work of grace in a penitent's heart is forcibly minimized in the ongoing effort to emphasize a second work of grace. Easily overlooked is the fact that justification, regeneration, initial sanctification, adoption and the Spirit's witness are all a part of true and initial conversion.
The promise Jesus gave to His followers was: "Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost." "And so are all true believers, to the end of the world," wrote Mr. Wesley. According to this founder of Methodism, the faith that accompanies this baptism of the Spirit is a "gift of God" and "a work of omnipotence. It requires," says he, "no less power thus to quicken a dead soul, than to raise a body that lies in the grave. It is a new creation; and none can create a soul anew, but He who at first created the heavens and the earth."
It has been said that the New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptized Christian. So it is that in the final verse of the chapter we read that Peter "commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord." This sacrament of water baptism has long been a scriptural and historical symbol of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Its significance as a sign, seal, pledge and means of grace is recognized by the fact that it was instituted by Christ, who alone has power to institute a proper sacrament.
We believe that the scriptural evidence surrounding the episode of Acts 10 must constrain any unbiased observer to conclude that Cornelius, together with his kinsmen and friends, experienced initial conversion or regeneration by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As the saintly Fletcher assures us, to be "baptized with the Holy Ghost . . . is the common blessing which can alone make a man a Christian."