The way of salvation is counterintuitive. When we look at certain people who perform certain actions, we are likely to assume salvation. Most people in the world believe that salvation, being right with God, is something that comes to those who do the right religious things. But that is not God’s way, nor has it ever been.
Acts 10:1-2 – 1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.
Cornelius looks saved. He believes in God. He prays and gives. By all measures that any person would come up with, Cornelius looks like he is in.
But if you read this chapter of Acts, you find that God tells Cornelius to fetch the apostle Peter to his house. Peter comes and preaches, and that preaching, the message Peter brings, is what opens the door for the family to actually be saved. It is not their belief in God, prayers, or social kindness that leads them to salvation. It is something else.
What does Peter preach that God uses to give Cornelius and his household the faith needed for salvation?
Acts 10:39-43 – 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter comes and preaches Jesus. And only after the people hear the message of the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, only after they hear of salvation by God’s grace through faith alone, do we see Cornelius and his family actually saved.
Now wait, is Scripture really saying that Cornelius was not saved before this encounter? Is Scripture really saying that a man who believed in God, prayed all the time, and gave to the poor was outside of the kingdom? Look at Peter’s words as he explains to others what God had told Cornelius.
Acts 11:13-14 – 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’
Peter is absolutely clear that God told Cornelius that the message Peter would bring to his house is the message by which they would be saved. They were not already saved, but needed additional light. God was moving Peter to bring Cornelius what he needed to be saved. And what Cornelius needed was the message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What Cornelius needed was the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Wait a moment. Cornelius believed in God. Is that not saving faith? No, it is not. To believe that there is a God is a good thing, for sure. To see that we are created by God is right. To pray to God is good. To give to the poor is good. But that is not enough to save you. We are saved, not by believing in God in general, but by faith in Jesus Christ and his finished work. We are saved when we believe that Jesus came to earth to save us, died as a sacrifice to pay for our sins, and rose from the grave to complete the process. WE are saved when we put all of our trust for all of our eternity in the work of Jesus alone to bring about our forgiveness. We are saved when we let go of a belief that we can lead our own lives and we surrender all authority over our lives to Jesus and his word.
That story is counterintuitive to many people. Many people think that doing good should make you OK with God. Many people think that doing religious things should make you OK with God. Many people think that people are just automatically OK with God. But the word of God shows us that we are only made right when we place our faith and our lives in the care of Jesus Christ and his finished work through his life, death, and resurrection.