A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 9:32-11-18. Lesson to learn (continued)
c). The status of non-Christian religions.
The story of Cornelius has developed a fresh importance in relation to the new pluralism of many societies and the contemporary assessment of non-Christian religions. Some argue that it is ‘perhaps the most powerful pointer to the inclusiveness of God’s saving activity’ and contains statements which are ‘important clues for a Christian understanding of the status before God of those who are not Christians in our day’. We, need, therefore, to examine carefully this ‘pointer’ and these ‘clues’.
It is true that Luke describes Cornelius as a ‘devout’ (*eusebes*, ‘godly’) and ‘God-fearing’ man, who ‘gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly’ (10:2). Later his own servants portray him as ‘a righteous [dikaios] and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people’ (10:22), while Peter includes him among those who ‘fear God and do what is right’ (10:35). More than this, God is represented as being pleased with him. His prayers and gifts had ‘come up as a memorial offering before God’ (10:4, 31). This phrase ‘memorial offering’ translates *mnemosynos*, a sacrificial word used in the LXX of the so-called ‘memorial portion’ of an offering which was burned. Does this mean that Cornelius’ prayers and alms had been ‘accepted as a sacrifice in the sight of God’ (31, JB)? And what did Peter mean when he stated that God ‘accepts’ (*dektos*) in every nation those ‘who fear him and do what is right’ (10:35)? What kind of ‘acceptability’ to God is implied by this word *dektos* and by the use of sacrificial imagery in 10:4 and 31?
One possibility is that *dektos* refers to the acceptance called ‘justification’, but that fearing God and doing right (35) are ‘not meritorious conditions or prerequisites to the experience of divine grace, but its fruits and evidences’, and that Peter is describing believers rather than unbelievers (as, for example, Paul does in Rom.2:10). The emphasis then is that God accepts whoever fears him and does right, not irrespective of their faith in Jesus (because they have believed and now show their faith by their works), but irrespective of their race and rank. The essential meaning is that whatever is acceptable to God in one race is acceptable in any other. An alternative explanation, however, seems to me fit the context better, This is that *dektos* means not ‘accepted’ in the absolute sense of justification, but ‘acceptable’ in a comparative sense, because in everybody God prefers righteousness to unrighteousness and sincerity to insincerity, and in the case of Cornelius God provided for him to hear the saving gospel.
What Peter emphatically did not mean is that anybody of any nation or religion who is devout (’fears God’) and upright (‘does right’) is thereby justified. Calvin rightly dismisses this notion as ‘an exceedingly childish error’. Not only does it contradict Paul’s gospel, which Luke faithfully echoes in the Acts, but it is refuted by the rest of the Cornelius story. For this devout, God-fearing, upright, sincere and generous man still needed to hear the gospel, to repent (11:18) and to believe in Jesus (15:7). Only then did God in his grace (15:11) save him (11:14, 15:11), give him forgiveness of sins (10:43), the gift of the Spirit (10:45; 15:8) and life (11:18), and purify his heart by faith (15:9). Moreover, only then was he baptized and thus visibly and publicly received into the Christian community.
It is, then, a misuse of Acts 10 and 11 to suggest that already before he heard Peter, Cornelius was in right relationship with God, or ‘justified’. The essence of the story is that (negatively) God shows no favouritism (10:34) and makes no distinction between races (10:20, 29; 11:12; 15;9), and that (positively) he gave and gives the same Spirit to all alike, not irrespective of faith, but irrespective of circumcision.
d). The power of the gospel.
Luke has now recounted the conversions of Saul and Cornelius. The differences between these two men were considerable. In race Saul was a Jew, Cornelius a Gentile; in culture Saul was a scholar, Cornelius a soldier; in religion Saul was a bigot, Cornelius a seeker. Yet both were converted by the gracious initiative of God; both received forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit; and both were baptized and welcomed into the Christian family on equal terms. This fact a signal testimony to the power and impartiality of the gospel of Christ, which is still ‘the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’ (Rom. 1:16).
Tomorrow: Acts 11:19-12:24 Expansion and opposition.
John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.