When we were serving in Louisiana, our church sent a mission team to Suriname, South America, where one of our members was a missionary. The first team we sent went to teach Bible stories in a local school, and they also built a playground for the village. When they finished it, they posted above the playground a sign, written in the native language, which read: “Jesus loves ALL the children”!
And that is true! Jesus does love all of the children — and not only all the children, but all people of our world: from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. Our “story” for today reminds us of that. It is the story of Cornelius the Centurion. His story reminds us that Jesus loves everyone, whatever their background, and that each of us can have a salvation story if we come to God not by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
I. Everyone can have a salvation story
Peter himself comes to this conclusion in his message in :34, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”
You’d think they would have already gotten the idea at least after Jesus had given them the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to go and “make disciples of ALL the nations”, and His Acts 1:8 command to be His witnesses in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth” – but they still didn’t get it! It may be hard for us to understand what a difficult lesson this was for them to learn. The Jews were SUCH an ethnocentric people – they thought it was all about them – they were “God’s chosen people” and everyone else was just the “Gentile dogs.” It took that dream of the unclean animals earlier in this chapter to even prepare Peter to go and see Cornelius. So when Peter preached, and the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles who had gathered there, it was a real revelation to him. That is the significance of that event, I believe; why they spoke in tongues. The lesson of this passage is not that every person who believes will instantly speak in tongues. That didn’t even happen that way every time in the Book of Acts. Rather, it took these Gentiles speaking in tongues for Peter and the Jewish church to understand that the Gentiles were equal sharers in the gospel. That is why Peter said in :45, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And then see in Chapter 11, when they told the church in Jerusalem that the Gentiles had been saved and baptized, there was an uproar, until Peter told them in :15, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them JUST AS HE DID UPON US AT THE BEGINNING”! And then in :18, it says, “They QUIETED DOWN and glorified God, saying, ‘Well, then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life!’” Up until then, they didn’t understand! They thought it was just for them! So having a “Gentile Pentecost” as it were, showed the up-until-then Jewish church that the gospel is for everyone. Everyone can have a salvation story!
Peter and the others learned a lesson in this passage which we need to make sure that we remember today: ANYONE of ANY color, or nation or ethinc background is welcome to God through faith in Jesus Christ! Unfortunately too often churches have been guilty of ignoring this lesson – 2000 years after we should have learned it! There is no room for racial prejudice in the church of Jesus Christ!
Years ago, when W.A. Criswell was attending Baylor University in Waco, Texas, he was pastoring a church there in south Texas, and when some of his members were going through some old books, they found a Spanish Bible. They asked Criswell what to do with it, and he told one of the deacons to give it to the Hispanic worker on his farm. So he did. A few weeks later, the family showed up – the husband and wife, and all 6 kids. They told him they had read the Bible, had accepted Jesus as their Savior, and wanted to be baptized! The deacon looked at Criswell nervously, and said: “You know, pastor, it just isn’t done around here, white churches baptizing colored folk.” Criswell said: “It is now. Somehow, by the grace of God, these dear people found Jesus as Lord & Savior through the Word. And that same word commands us to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And what the Bible says, we will do!” The deacon smiled and said, “OK, pastor; let’s do it!”
Unfortunately, too many of our churches have not gotten the “memo” God sent the church that day in Acts 10 – the gospel is for everyone. We have seen this over and over in our “this is my story” series: ALL are welcome to God: a rough Samaritan (half-breed) woman, a hardened Philippian jailer, a confessed violent criminal suffering the death penalty … how much more clear could God have made it, that the gospel is for everyone? Whatever your tribe, whatever your tongue, whatever your people, whatever your nation, whatever your status, whatever your color, whatever your social or economic status, whatever your background: YOU ARE WELCOME TO GOD!
–Jesus said in John 6:37: “The one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out”
–I Timothy 2:4 says that God “desires ALL men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
— Romans 10:12-13 says “there is no distinction between Jew & Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who will call upon Him; for whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”!
–That most famous verse in all the world says: “For God so loved the WORLD He gave His only begotten Son – YOU can put YOUR name in that blank: “For God so loved ____ (YOU)!” Whoever you are, this promise is for you! It is for everyone! Everyone can have a salvation “story”!
II. A salvation story is not from good works.
It is important that we realize that this man Cornelius had a number of good religious works — but those works had not saved him; something was missing in his relationship with God. Look at what all he had done: :2 says he was a “devout” man; he “feared God” (that is a term that means that although he was not a “Jew”, that he respected God and tried to please Him); he gave many alms to the Jewish people, and he prayed to God continually. So this was a VERY religious guy. And yet he was not right with God. He didn’t have a “story” of salvation. The angel appeared to him in a vision and told him in :5 to send for Peter. There was a message he still needed to hear and respond to, despite all his religious deeds. This is an important lesson: despite all his religious deeds, this man still needed Jesus! If he could have been saved by his religious works, God would have left him alone. But he didn’t. With all his “good works”, Cornelius still needed Jesus. He still needed to be saved.
This is the mistake that SO many people make: thinking that they will be justified by good works. I remember reading a poll showed that almost 80% of Americans believe that good works (in one form or another) will save them: their good deeds outweighing their bad; keeping the Golden Rule; going to church, etc. But that idea is a lie! The Bible says, “By the works of the Law, no flesh will be justified in His sight.” (Romans 3:20) Working your way to heaven is a lie that will only lead to eternal death.
When Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany, the first concentration camp he opened was in Dachau, in Southern Germany. The gate of the camp at Dachau has become famous, with the slogan in the metal bars of the gate: “Arbeit Macht Frei” — “work leads to freedom.” But it was a lie. There was no “freedom” through work. As one guard sarcastically told a prisoner: “the only way out is through the chimney” – of the crematorium! Work at Dachau did not lead to freedom; it led only to death, for thousands.
In the same way, the idea that your good works and deeds can make you right with God, that somehow “work will lead to freedom” with God, is a lie from Satan. Notice that ALL the religions of the world are based on works: It was reported not long ago that Islam is now the religion of ¼ of the world’s population. It is a very popular religion, and one of the reasons it is, is that it is a very “works”-based religion: say the prayers 5 times a day, give to the poor, take a trip to Mecca, fast during Ramadan – people love the “good feeling” that religious works give them; they “feel” like it makes them right with God. But it is a lie. Good works can never make you right with God. Every Muslim who tries to “earn” his way to Paradise by saying prayers, giving alms, making pilgrimages, will fall short – every single one. AND … in the same way, everyone who attends a Christian church who tries to earn his way to heaven by going to church, and giving money, and teaching classes, and being good, will also fall short! You cannot justify yourself with God by your good works. “NO flesh” will be justified by works, Romans 3:20 tells us.
Listen: if good works could make a person right with God, this centurion would have been “in.” But he wasn’t. God had to send Peter to him with the genuine gospel message, because He knew that for all this man’s good works, he was not reconciled with Him. And his works would never make him right with God. Cornelius needed something more than his own good works to save him – and so do you! Not matter how many times you go to church; no matter how much money you put in the plate; no matter how many classes you teach; or good works you do — you will never justify yourself before God by your good works!
III. A salvation story is by FAITH ALONE
Although those first two points are wonderful lessons, I think this third is the greatest lesson of Cornelius’ story – it shows how salvation is by faith alone – unaccompanied by works of any kind. Look at how the story unfolds in the second part of the chapter:
— After hearing Cornelius’ introduction, Peter begins preaching in :34, and in :43 he comes to the central truth of his sermon: “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”
— Then look at :44, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.”
This is SO important. Peter was wrapping up his message, but he was not quite through. He may have been about to offer an invitation, for them to come forward and receive Christ, or to believe in Him and be baptized — like we often do at the end of our services. But while he was still speaking, the Bible says, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and those who were with him listening. The importance of that is this: these people did not do anything but believe the message in their hearts! They didn’t “go forward.” They did not “shake Peter’s hand.” They did not yet get baptized. They didn’t do any good works. All they did was believe in their hearts – they just heard the message: “everyone who believes in Him receive the forgiveness of sins” – and they believed it – and instantly God saved them! He sent His Holy Spirit into their lives; that happens the moment a person is saved. The fact that God sent His Spirit into their lives before they had made any kind of outward response at all, just shows us as dramatically as in any other passage how salvation is not of any work; it is by faith in the heart alone. The Spirit came when they had done NOTHING else but believe the message in their hearts. This powerfully demonstrates that salvation is by faith in Jesus alone; nothing else.
Several years ago I visited a man in the hospital, and he told me that he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. But he said, don’t worry, because he had all his affairs in order: his finances, his will, everything was lined up. I said; “You know, you have all these other things lined up and ready — is your soul ready?” He said it was not. I shared Christ with him, but he was not ready to receive Him. I had the opportunity to visit with him a few times over the next months, but he was never receptive to the gospel. One evening, I got a call from a family member, who told me that this man was about to die; could I come and visit. I ran to his house. You could tell he was in distress, and that he was indeed about to die. I shared the gospel with him one more time, and asked him if he wanted to pray with me to receive Christ. This time he said he did. And I led him in a prayer admitting his sin, and asking Jesus to be his Savior.
Now, someone may look skeptically at that and say: “Can a person really be saved like that, at the last minute, without doing any good works or deeds; just believing in his heart?” Now, I do not know what was going on in the heart of the man; only God knows our hearts. But this is what you have to understand: just believing in your heart, without any works at all, is the only way that ANYONE can be saved! If you think you are saved because you walked down to the front of a church, or took a pastor’s hand, or filled out a card, or got baptized, are started going to church, or gave money, or taught classes, you are tragically mistaken. You are not saved by any work of human effort, but by faith in Christ alone:
— Acts 16:31 says “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”
— John 3:16 says “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
— Galatians 3:26 says “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (and 3:2 says it is “by hearing with faith”!)
— Romans 3:22 “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.
— Romans 4:5 says our “faith is credited as righteousness” – just like Abraham’s
— Romans 5:1 “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God …”
Over and over, the Bible says it is by FAITH, by FAITH, by FAITH … salvation is not of our good works; it is by faith if Jesus’ finished work on the cross. Eph. 2:8-9 “It is by grace that you are saved through faith … not of works, lest any man should boast.”
The cry of the Reformation was “Sola fide” – “only faith”; “faith alone.” Not faith mixed with anything else. “By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone”. Those Reformers got it from the New Testament, and it is true for us today as well.
The most important question of your life is, Have you ever come to a time when you realized that your good deeds could not save you, and you put your faith in Jesus alone? If you have, then you are saved. I think it is very possible that some of you here today are just realizing this for the very first time: that it is not coming to church or being “good” or any other “good work” that saves you, but just trusting what Jesus did on the cross.
Maybe right now in your heart, you are admitting your sin to God, and trusting in what Jesus did on the cross to save you. Maybe right now you are receiving the Holy Spirit in your heart just like Cornelius and his friends did that day. If you are, I want to encourage you to do what they did: follow through by being baptized. They were not saved by any good deed, and not by their baptism. But when they truly came to trust Christ, they wanted to be baptized, and you notice in :47-48 that they were indeed baptized. This is again, a good lesson for us. Baptism does NOT save you; it is not what gives you a “story.” But if you have a story of believing on Jesus in your heart, you will want to be baptized.
But the good news of this story is: it doesn’t matter who you are; it doesn’t matter what color you are, or how much money you have, or what your background is. If right now in your heart you will repent of your sins and trust Jesus as your Savior & Lord, you will be saved. And if you are, you are going to want to tell somebody, and show the world by being baptized. We want to give you an opportunity to do that right now …