Cornelius was a man who prayed and whose prayers were heard by God
"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. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, 'Cornelius!' And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, 'What is it, lord?' So he said to him, 'Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God' " (Acts 10:1-4).
We have all heard that if we wish to be saved, we need to get down on our knees, pray to God for salvation, and our prayer will be answered. When Cornelius had his vision of the angel, he was engaged in prayer. "So Cornelius said, "Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing" (Acts 10:30). It appears that the ninth hour (or 3 p.m.) was Cornelius's customary time for prayer. A Jewish historian, Josephus, states in Antiquities 14.4.3 that public sacrifices were offered in the temple, "twice daily, in the early morning and about the ninth hour." It was customary for the Jews to offer prayers during the time of the offering. Hence, the ninth hour was known as the hour of prayer (Acts 3:1). Though Cornelius was not a Jew or even a proselyte, his practice of praying during the ninth hour demonstrates that Cornelius followed the Jewish practices of his day.
But Cornelius was not just a man who prayed, he was a man whom God heard praying. His prayers and alms were described as ascending as a memorial before God (Acts 10:4). The phrasing is an allusion to the sacrifices done before God in the Old Testament (Leviticus 2:1-2). As the Psalmist requested, "LORD, I cry out to You; Make haste to me! Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You. Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141:1-2). Therefore, we do not find it strange that Christians' deeds are described in a similar manner. Paul said of the Philippians' gift to him, "I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God" (Philippians 4:18). Or, as the Hebrew write notes, "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Hebrews 13:15-16).
Not only were Cornelius's prayers and alms sacrifices to God, but he was told that God took note of them. Imagine hearing from God that He noticed what you did in His name! The greatest fear for any man ought to be being forgotten or forsaken by his God (Matthew 27:46). Yet, we are told that our deeds can bring remembrance, just as the simple deed of one woman is forever memorialized (Matthew 26:13). It is not that God needs man to remind Him of our existence, but the language of the verse describes God's acceptance of Cornelius's prayers and deeds. It tells us that God took note of what Cornelius had done. Just as God takes note of what we do. "For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister" (Hebrews 6:10).
The fact that God heard his prayers shows us that Cornelius had a heart that was willing to obey God. It is the disobedient to whom God will not listen. "One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Proverbs 28:9). I'm sure some reading this will exclaim, "Ah! Now I have you! God doesn't hear the prayer of the sinner, so Cornelius must have been saved." This concept comes from John 9:31 where a formerly blind man stated, "Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him." The man made this claim in response to the Pharisees' charge that Jesus was a sinner (John 9:24). The formerly blind man could not comment on Jesus' standing before God (John 9:25), but he did note that Jesus must not have been such a sinner that God was against him. The fact that God heard Cornelius's prayer, proves that Cornelius was not a rebellious sinner, but a man willing to obey God. We have already noted this point. But Cornelius's willingness to obey doesn't reflect whether he was saved or not.
Cornelius prayed, but the answer to his prayer was not salvation, at least not directly. "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). The answer to Cornelius's prayer was instructions on how to be saved. In other words, Cornelius was not saved prior to God's response, nor was he saved when God answered his prayer. He was offer a chance to be saved in the future when he did as God instructed him.
The answer Cornelius received was no different from what Saul was told prior to his conversion. "So he, trembling and astonished, said, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" Then the Lord said to him, "Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."" (Acts 9:6). While waiting, Saul continued to pray. "And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." So the Lord said to him, "Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying"" (Acts 9:9-11). Yet even these prayers did not bring Saul salvation. Instead, when Ananias visited Saul he told Saul what he had to do -- and it wasn't to keep on praying until he prayed through to salvation. "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). The answer to Saul's prayer was the same as Cornelius. He received directions on how to learn what was needed to be saved.
Other people expressed the desire to be saved. What commands were given to them?
"Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:37-38).
"Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. ... But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized." (Acts 8:4-5, 12).
"Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" Then Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him." (Acts 8:35-38).
"And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized ..." (Acts 16:13-15).
"And he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" So they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household." Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household." (Acts 16:30-34).
"And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. ... Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized." (Acts 18:4-5, 8).
"Then Paul said, "John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus." When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." (Acts 19:4-5).
Do you see the pattern of the gospel being preached, that people accepted the gospel by believing, and that with their belief they sought to be baptized? Was Cornelius's case any different from any other Christian? "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. ... And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins. ... And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:33, 42-43, 48). No, we find the same pattern in Cornelius's conversion that we find elsewhere in the book of Acts.
The desire for salvation, expressed in prayer, is not sufficient in itself to bring salvation to a person. God expects more from us. He expects us to believe what we are told and to do what we are told.