John Piper on Cornelius

Here are some excerpts from a sermon that John Piper preached on Cornelius. My comments interspersed.

-C-Dunc

The Story About Cornelius and Peter

Let me try to sum up the whole story for us. Cornelius is a Gentile, not a Jew. But he feared God as best he knew him and he prayed and he gave alms and walked in an upright way (10:2, 22). God sent an angel to him and told him to send for Peter to hear what he has to say.==

Chris: Piper says Cornelius feared God as best he knew Him, implying that he was completely ignorant about Christ and just went with the little “Gentile light” he had. But recall what Peter said to Cornelius. Peter said that he knew about Christ and the surrounding events. And thus, Piper starts out wrong and will continue to build upon this false foundation (premise) that Cornelius was ignorant of the Lord Jesus.

Was Cornelius Already Saved?

But today I want to ask two questions that are really pressing in this story. One is this: Was Cornelius already saved before Peter preached Christ to him? The reason this is so pressing is that verses 34–35 have led many to say that he was. This would have a big impact on the way we think about world missions.

Chris: Of course it would have a big impact on the way one thinks about world missions. But remember that Piper falsely assumes that Cornelius knew nothing of Christ.

Peter begins his sermon to the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house like this: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” You can see how readers would easily conclude: Well, then, Cornelius was already accepted by God since verse 2 said that he feared God and prayed and gave alms. So Peter’s visit just informed him of the acceptance and salvation that he already had. And so the conclusion is further drawn out: many people in all the unreached peoples of the world are truly born again and accepted by God and saved without hearing or believing in Christ.

Chris: Of course, that “further drawn out” conclusion would follow IF Cornelius had not heard of or believed in Christ prior to Peter’s visit. But Peter himself said that Cornelius knew about Christ. And with Cornelius already being a believer in Christ, then yes, Peter’s visit was an edifying informing of the salvation he already had in Christ, much like Paul’s visit to the Romans was (or would have been).

Initially, Peter did not know why he was going to see Cornelius. For when he first meets Cornelius, all he says is that “you know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation.” But then he adds that God has shown him that he is not to call any man common or unclean (solely due to his Gentile ethnicity).

God has shown him that he is not to judge a man “unclean” based solely upon his ethnicity. But what Peter STILL does not recognize is that God is looking to save (and has in fact already saved) non-Jews like Cornelius. Peter says in effect, Okay, God told me this about uncleanness, etc., so what is the reason that you sent for me?

People like Piper think that the reason that he was sent was to preach to the unsaved Cornelius. But the Bible indicates that not only did God send Peter to preach the gospel for the saved Cornelius’ edification, but ASLO for the purpose of showing thick-headed Peter that He has cleansed Cornelius just as He had cleansed Peter and the rest of the believing Jews (i.e., faithful among the circumcision).

“What God has cleansed you must not call common” (Acts 10:15).

And so when Peter hears all this about what the angel of God said concerning Cornelius, he’s like, Oh, God accepts (saves) Gentiles too. In short, it appears that Peter’s visit to Cornelius was primarily about “converting” Peter (and the rest of the Jewish faithful) to Gentile evangelism.

Piper notes how one could easily conclude that Cornelius was saved. But Piper overlooks two very important words Peter had spoken to Cornelius: “You know.” Piper erroneously assumes that Cornelius didn’t know a thing.

In addition, that “further drawn out conclusion” posited by Piper is a conclusion that the inclusivists hold to. Perhaps Piper does not realize that the Westminster Confession of faith holds to it also (see Of Effectual Calling, Section 3).

So my first question is: Does verse 35 mean that Cornelius and people like him are already justified and reconciled to God and saved from the wrath of God? My second question assumes the answer to this first one and brings us to the very pointed applications of this story to racism and world missions. I save it and ask it after answering the first question.

Does verse 35 mean that Cornelius and those like him are already in God’s family, justified, reconciled, saved? Is that Peter’s point in saying this and Luke’s point in writing it?

Chris: I wonder why Piper does not pay particular attention to Acts 10:36-37: “That word you know.”

Four Reasons for Answering No

Let me give you four reasons from the text for answering NO.

1. Peter’s Description in Acts 11:14

Acts 11:14 says that the message Peter brought was the way Cornelius was saved. Look at 11:13–14 where Peter tells the story of the angel’s appearing to Cornelius: “He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”

Chris: Taken in isolation, Acts 11:14 does not necessarily mean that this was the way Cornelius was saved. For Acts 11:14 could also be said of an already saved Cornelius. For all believers, whether just recently converted, or glorified in eternity future, will have been saved by the gospel message.

Notice two things. First, notice that the message is essential. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Then notice that the tense of the verb is future: ” . . . a message by which you will be saved . . . ” In other words, the message was not simply the informing of Cornelius that he already was saved—which is what some people say world evangelization is for. If he sends for Peter and hears the message and believes on the Christ of that message, then he WILL be saved. And if he does not, he won’t be.

Chris: I already quoted this in my previous post, but I’ll add a few additional comments here. The tense of the verb is future, yes. But “you will be saved” can refer to a time in the future when a person’s salvation has commenced. And “you will be saved” can also refer to a time in the future when a person’s salvation will have been consummated.

“You will be saved” can point to a time in the future when one is initially regenerated and it can also point to a time in the future when one is finally glorified. “You will be saved” is true in both the former and the latter cases.

Piper says:

“If he sends for Peter and hears the message and believes on the Christ of that message, then he WILL be saved. And if he does not, he won’t be.”

Chris: Not according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Piper. For according to the WCF, there are some unsaved elect people groups who are not reached with the ministry of the Word, who do not hear the gospel, who do not believe the gospel, who are nevertheless “regenerated and saved by Christ”:

Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth: so also, are all other elect persons who are uncapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word (WCF, Of Effectual Calling, Chapter 10, Section 3).

Chris: This portion of the Confession brazenly repudiates the truth of Romans 1:16.

Piper:

This surely is why the whole story is built around God’s miraculously getting Cornelius and Peter together. There was a message that Cornelius needed to hear to be saved (vv. 22, 33).

So Acts 10:35 probably does not mean that Cornelius is already saved when it says that people in unreached ethnic groups who fear God and do right are acceptable to God. Cornelius had to hear the gospel message to be saved.

Chris: I would say that Cornelius needed to hear the gospel to be edified, and Peter and the faithful among the circumcision needed to witness God’s special manifestation of His Spirit in order to see that God saves Gentiles too.

Also, Cornelius is not among the “unreached ethnic groups.” For not only was he visited by an angel of God, but he already knew the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ.

2. Peter’s Declaration in Acts 10:43

Peter makes this point at the end of his sermon in 10:43. He brings the message to a close with these words: “To him [i.e., to Christ] all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Forgiveness of sins is salvation. No one is saved whose sins against God are not forgiven by God. And Peter says that forgiveness comes through believing in Christ, and it comes through the name of Christ.

He does not say, “I am here to announce to you that those of you who fear God and do right are already forgiven.” He says, “I am here so that you may hear the gospel and receive forgiveness in the name of Christ by believing in him.” So again it is very unlikely that verse 35 means that Cornelius and his household were already forgiven for their sins before they heard the message of Christ.

Chris: Again, Piper assumes that Cornelius knew nothing of Christ and so also assumes his family (whom he would teach) also knew nothing of Christ as well. Piper assumes that they had never heard Jesus preached before, despite the fact that Peter told Cornelius that what he was saying Cornelius already knew. Also, Piper has not even come close to accounting for the words of Peter concerning the fact that Cornelius is one who is accepted by God. Those who “fear God and do right” are showing forth works meet for repentance (as John the Baptist put it) and bearing fruit unto God. Piper needs to explain how what is said of Cornelius can be said of every outwardly moral unsaved person. Would Piper apply Romans 10:3 to Cornelius, for instance?

3. What Devout Jews Need Elsewhere in Acts

Elsewhere in the book of Acts even those who are the most God-fearing and ethical, namely, the Jews, are told that they must repent and believe in order to be saved. The Jews at Pentecost were called “devout men” (2:5) like Cornelius was called a devout man (in 10:2). But Peter ended his message in Acts 2 by calling even devout Jews to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins (2:38). Same thing in 3:19 and 13:38–39.

Chris: This could be a case of another’s estimation of one’s devoutness (or a superficial kind of devoutness). Kind of like saying a devout Mormon or a devout Muslim. But what is said of Cornelius far surpasses what is said about those “devout men” in the texts Piper mentions. The Jews at Pentecost (Acts 2:5) were not spoken of as acceptable, nor does Acts 2:5 mention their prayers, much less what God thought of them. And thus, the “devout men” of Acts 2:5 and Cornelius is not an equivalent or comparable case for obvious reasons.

4. The Apostles’ Reaction in Acts 11:18

The fourth reason for saying that verse 35 does not mean Cornelius and others like him are already saved is found in Acts 11:18. When the apostles hear Peter tell the story about Cornelius, their initial misgivings are silenced, Luke says, “And they glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”

“Repentance unto life” means that their repentance led to eternal life. They did not already have eternal life. They received it when they heard the message about Christ and turned to believe and follow him.

So I conclude that Acts 10:35 does not mean that Cornelius was already saved because he was in some sense God-fearing and did many right and noble things. That’s the answer to my first question.

Chris: What needs to be remembered is that those faithful among the circumcision needed extra proof that the Gentiles indeed had been granted repentance unto life. Those among the circumcision would not be persuaded by a Gentile professing faith in Christ unless it is clear that the Gentiles receive the exact same thing that they did–namely, the out poured Spirit and speaking in tongues.

What Is This “Acceptability” Before God?

The second is simply: What then does it mean when Peter says, “In every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”? And what does this have to do with our racist tendencies and our ethnocentrism and our commitment to world evangelization?

All People Are Acceptable Candidates for Salvation?

My first thought was that what Peter means in verse 35 is what God meant in the vision about the unclean animals, namely, the lesson of verse 15: “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” But something stopped me and made me think again.

Look at verse 28. Peter is explaining to the Gentiles why he was willing to come and says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”

What this means is that Christians should never look down on a person from any race or ethnic group and say: they are unfit to hear the gospel from me. Or they are too unclean for me to go into their house to share the gospel. Or they are not worth evangelizing. Or they have too many offensive habits to even get near them.

But the phrase that makes verse 28 so powerful is the phrase “any man” or “any one”: “God has shown me that I should not call any human being common or unclean.” In other words, Peter learned from his vision on the housetop in Joppa that God rules no one out of his favor on the basis of race or ethnic origin or mere cultural distinctives or physical distinctives. “Common and unclean” meant rejected, despised, taboo. It was like leprosy.

And Peter’s point here in verse 28 is that there is not one human being on the face of the earth that we should think about in that way. Not one. That’s the amazing thing in this verse. Not one. Our hearts should go out to every single person whatever the color, whatever the ethnic origin, whatever the physical traits, whatever the cultural distinctives. Don’t write off anybody. Don’t snub anybody. Don’t check them out like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan and then pass by on the other side. “God has shown me that I should not call any one—not one—common or unclean.”

Chris: Okay, Piper. Are you going to get to exactly what you think it means for a supposedly unsaved person to be “acceptable” to God?

Not Simply a Matter of Clean and Unclean

Now that is not what Peter says in verse 35. This is what kept me from assuming that verse 35 simply meant: all people are acceptable as candidates for salvation, no matter their ethnic background. In verse 35 Peter says, “In every nation [note those words!] any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to God.” Here he is not talking about every person like he was in verse 28. Here he is talking about some IN every nation. IN every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to God.

So the acceptability Peter has in mind here is something more, it seems, than merely not being common or unclean. That’s everybody. Peter said, “Call NO ONE common or unclean.” Here he says that only some in every nation fear God and do right. And these are acceptable to God.

So now we know two things verse 35 does NOT mean. (1) It does not mean that these God-fearing doers of good are saved. We saw four reasons why it can’t mean that. And (2) it does not mean merely that they are acceptable candidates for evangelism (not common or unclean, not taboo), because verse 28 already said that’s true of everybody, not just some. But verse 35 says that only some are God-fearing, doing what is right, and thus acceptable.

Chris: Okay. Piper has still not clearly answered what “acceptable” is yet.

Somewhere in Between

So the meaning probably lies somewhere between these two: between being saved and being a touchable, lovable human candidate for evangelism.

Chris: Piper still doesn’t quite answer it, for he doesn’t say exactly what this “somewhere in between” is.

Here’s my suggestion. Cornelius represents a kind of unsaved person among an unreached people group who is seeking God in an extraordinary way. And Peter is saying that God accepts this search as genuine (hence “acceptable” in verse 35) and works wonders to bring that person the gospel.

I get this especially from verse 31 where Cornelius says that the angel said to him, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter.” Notice: Your prayers have been heard . . . therefore send for Peter. This implies that the prayers were for God to send him what he needed in order to be saved.

Chris: Unsaved people seeking God in an extraordinary way, says Piper. So extraordinary is this seeking that it explicitly contradicts the teaching of the Bible in Romans 3:10-18 (also the specific portions of Romans 1)! Piper says the search by (supposedly) unsaved people is genuine and hence this is what “acceptable” to God means in this verse. This unsaved person is in the flesh no doubt, and Romans 8:8 says that those who are in the flesh cannot please God and Hebrews 11:6 says that without faith one cannot please God. But Piper is saying that at least in some sense or in some exceptional cases God IS pleased (or finds acceptable) with the “seeking” of unsaved, unregenerate persons.

So the fear of God that is acceptable to God in verse 35 is a true sense that there is a holy God, that we have to meet him some day as desperate sinners, that we cannot save ourselves and need to know God’s way of salvation, and that we pray for it day and night and seek to act on the light we have. This is what Cornelius was doing. And God accepted his prayer and his groping for truth in his life (Acts 17:27), and worked wonders to bring the saving message of the gospel to him.

Chris: Acts 17:27 “groping for truth” is a condemnation by Paul, not a commendation, Piper. For despite all this supposed groping or searching after truth (i.e., God) they cannot find Him though He is not far from each one of us. Acts 17:27 illustrates Romans 1 and Romans 3:10-18. Piper’s false interpretation of Acts 17:27 makes nonsense out of Romans 1 and Romans 3:10-18. Piper’s twisting of Acts 17:27 makes the suppression of the truth in unrighteousness, a true sincere seeking of the truth by unregenerate, unsaved, unreached people groups.

Two Lessons

So there are really two lessons in this text for today. One is that no human being is common or unclean. None is to be spurned, shunned, rejected, despised because of his ethnic origin or race or culture or physical traits. Christians should have no part in the kind of renewed racism that is cropping up around our land, for example, in the white supremacist groups on the university campus.

The second lesson from the text is that in every nation—that is, every ethnic people group around the world (v. 35)—there are people being prepared by God to seek him with acceptable prayer. This means two things for us as we approach our annual Missions Fest.

One is that many of us should go. Cornelius would not have been saved if no one had taken him the gospel. And no one will be saved today without the gospel.

Chris: If one believes the WCF (Westminster Confession of Faith) in Chapter 10, Section 3, then at least some unreached people will be saved who are ignorant of Jesus Christ:

Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth: so also, are all other elect persons who are uncapable [sic] of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word (WCF, Of Effectual Calling, Chapter 10, Section 3).

Chris: Verses like Mark 16:16 are cast behind the back of the WCF.