Few biblical stories challenge both exclusive and inclusive perspectives. Yet a story exists revealing how God can be pleased with the spiritual activities of the lost, while simultaneously excluding them from salvation. Some might question, how can God do both?
Luke introduces us to Cornelius, a devout “God fearer.” God fearers were Gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel, but who had not become Jews. Thus, although they sought to honor God and follow his ways, they had not entered into the covenant relationship God had offered at Mt. Sinai.
So how did God view Cornelius? An angel revealed this Gentile’s prayers and charity ascended up to God as a memorial (Acts 10:4). As surprising as this might be to some, God viewed this Gentile’s service and worship in the same way he regarded faithful Israel’s worship (Leviticus 2:2,9,16)!
This realization challenges the notion that God is only pleased by his people’s loving service and worship. When people live as God desires and pray to him, even though they are not his people, this can please God.
Such inclusive thoughts can quickly lead to such reasoning as, “I know these people have not obeyed the gospel, but since they are genuinely honoring God and loving others, how could God not save such transformed lives?” Or perhaps, “Look at their good lives, listen to the sincerity of their worship to the one true God, how can they not be saved?” It is just when someone concludes that God will save everyone who sincerely worships him and loves others that the Cornelius story challenges us with God’s exclusivism.
To be sure, Cornelius’ lifestyle was impeccable and godly. Not only had people recognized Cornelius’ righteous character (Acts 10:22,2), but we have already heard God’s viewpoint through the angel’s testimony (Acts 10:4).
And yet, as incredible as it might seem to some, Cornelius needed to hear a message “by which you and your entire household will be saved” (Acts 11:14). Thus, although God was pleased with his prayers and charity, nevertheless Cornelius was still lost.
This should not surprise us. Why? Because if someone could be saved simply based upon his or her sincerity, love toward others and prayers toward God, then salvation could be based upon one’s own character, rather than requiring someone to be redeemed by Christ.
There is, however, something that should shock us. Sometimes people in one breath will repeat the truth in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation is by grace through faith, not by works. And then in the next moment they argue that those who have a genuine devotion toward God and love for others must be saved even though they have not yet been raised up with Christ. Cornelius’ story challenges such inclusive reasoning.
Cornelius, in spite of his wonderful devotion to God, needed to hear a message to be saved. As long as Cornelius remained outside of the body of Christ, he was lost. With Christ’s death, God exclusively saves those within Christ (John 14:6).
This should alert us to an oft overlooked perspective. It does not matter what anybody claims about their relationship with God, what matters is whether God recognizes that person as belonging to him.
To state the good news succinctly but sufficiently, through love and mercy, God gave his Son to die for everyone in order that the benefits of Christ’s death might be available to all. God then raised Christ to life.
When someone chooses to rely upon Christ and his blood, God promises through the New Covenant to forgive and to claim that person as one of his people. We trust in Christ by being baptized, which is why the Hebrews’ author ties the application of Christ’s blood to our hearts with our bodies being washed in water (Hebrews 10:22). This also explains why baptism is described as providing the promises of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:10-12; Galatians 3:26-27; Acts 2:38; Titus 3:5).
All of this brings us back to God. While God can be pleased even when those who do not belong to him serve him and live with love, God is not content to leave them outside of his people. He sent an angel to guide Cornelius to Peter, so that Peter could teach him the gospel. Let’s follow God’s example.