Cornelius was a devout man who did good deeds
"There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always." (Acts 10:1-2)
Cornelius served in the Roman Army. In particular, he served in the Italian cohort (or band, or regiment) stationed in Caesarea. A cohort was a company comprised of approximately 600 soldiers. As a centurion, he had charge over a hundred soldiers, making him the equivalent of a captain in today's army. Polybius, in his book History, tells us about the traits valued by the Romans in their centurions: "Centurions are required not to be bold and adventurous so much as good leaders, of steady and prudent mind, not prone to take the offensive or start fighting wantonly, but able when overwhelmed and hard-pressed to stand fast and die at their post."
Surprisingly, this rock-steady man in the Roman army was also a worshiper of God. In fact, he is described as a devout man. His own followers describe him as, "a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews" (Acts 10:22). Even though Cornelius was a Gentile, he had a good reputation among the Jews. This alone is not a small feat to overlook given how much the Jews of that day hated all Gentiles. Cornelius was a good man who was good to people, giving gifts of charity, or alms, when opportunities arose.
He also influenced others for good. We are told that his entire household feared God. When the opportunity arose to hear a message from God, Cornelius pulled in his friends and relatives to join him in hearing the message (Acts 10:24).
Cornelius was a man who continually prayed. When he received a command from the Lord, he promptly obeyed. "'Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.' And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa" (Acts 10:5-8). Even though an angel of God was before him, Cornelius was directed to send for a man living in a small town with a common tanner. He had to wait several days for his men to reach Peter and to return, yet we see Cornelius' eagerness to obey God. "'Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.' So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God" (Acts 10:32-33). Here is a man who was receptive to the word of God even before he heard the message.
Think about the devotion required of a man who lived and worked among idolatrous people. Paul gives a very unflattering account in Romans 1:29-31 of what the Gentile society was like. Peter, too, described the difficulty Christians had living among the Gentiles, "For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles--when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you" (I Peter 4:3-4).
Now remember that Cornelius would have been an outsider. He was still a Gentile. In other words, he had not converted to Judaism. Peter was prepared by God for the request to visit a Gentile by his vision of great sheet. He related the difficulty to Cornelius say, "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). The difficulty was wide spread, the Christians in Jerusalem objected to Peter's visit to an uncircumcised Gentile. "Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, 'You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!'" (Acts 11:1-3). Consider the strength of Cornelius's faith. He maintained a strong faith in God without any external support from his fellow Gentiles or from the Jews.
And yet God said that Cornelius needed to be saved. "Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved" (Acts 11:13-14). The words Peter would tell him would bring salvation to Cornelius and his household.
There are a lot of good people in this world today. People who are not nearly as devout as Cornelius, but good people none the less. Yet they do not think they need to be cleansed by the blood of Christ. God, in their view, would not destroy a good person. The reality is that their hope of a heavenly reward is based upon their own moral goodness. They hold tightly to the fact that by being good, they will have earned a place in heaven. They do not realize that all of man's "goodness" is not enough; "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Salvation does not come strictly by our own efforts. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:8-10). It takes the blood of Christ to save man. "Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh--who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands--that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:11-13).
Some reading this will object to this conclusion. "Wasn't he a devout man?" Yes, but the Bible speaks of others who were devout but were not saved. For example, in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia, Paul met and talked with devout, God-fearing proselytes of the Jewish religion (Acts 13:43). Yet, many of this same group rejected the message brought by Paul a week later (Acts 13:44-45). Among the Gentiles of the city were devout women, but they too were prodded into persecuting Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:50). Now, devotion was not limited to non-Christians. Ananias was a devout man and a Christian (Acts 22:12). Hence we must conclude that Christians should be devoted to their God, but every devout person is not necessarily a Christian.
"But wasn't Cornelius God-fearing?" Yes he was, and so was his household. But it was obviously not enough in the eyes of God. God-fearing does not mean he was without sin. None of us can truthfully claim that we are without sin. "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (I John 1:10).
You could even claim that Cornelius was evangelistic before his conversion. He brought his friends and relatives to hear Peter preach. But even this was not enough to save him.
Cornelius did charity work. He continually prayed to God. He was a righteous man in the sight of others (Acts 10:22). But, he was not saved. Still, he was a man whom God would welcome into His family. "Then Peter opened his mouth and said: 'In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him'" (Acts 10:34-35).
Salvation is for all men. "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:11-14). Salvation is not just for the corrupt and despised people, but it is also for the good and admired people. It must be available to all because no one is good enough (Romans 3:23).
God wants His people to do good, but our salvation is not based on the good deeds that we have done. "For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men" (Titus 3:3-8). Yet while we cannot earn salvation, it does not imply there is nothing to be done on our part. God told Cornelius to send for Peter. Notice that God did not directly tell Cornelius what he needed to do to be saved. God did not even send Peter to Cornelius. He made Cornelius get his own preacher! Then Cornelius had to listen to what Peter told him. "And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, 'Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved'" (Acts 11:13-14). And finally, Cornelius understood that he would have to do the things that Peter taught him. "So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God" (Acts 10:33).
God had works for Cornelius to do, just as God has works for each of us. "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). These works do not merit the worker's salvation, but salvation will not be given if the works are left undone. Cornelius would not have been saved if he did not obey the commands of God.
It does not matter if we or others think that we are righteous. If we are our own judge then our righteousness is not of God. Like Paul, we should desire a righteousness that is not based upon our selves; "and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith" (Philippians 3:9). This is the error committed by the Jews. They had established their own system of righteousness, but their system wasn't God's. "For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God" (Romans 10:3). When a person loves God with his whole being, he will yield himself to all of God's commands. As Jesus stated, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15).
Cornelius did not trust in his righteousness. God gave him orders, and he hurried to obey. What about you? Are you so confident in your salvation that you will not consider all that God has asked of you to do?