The Apostle Peter, near the close of his second Epistle, has a very interesting allusion to the Epistles of “our beloved brother Paul.” In them, he says, there “are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” It is open to conjecture whether Peter may not have become aware, at the time he wrote these words, as we are now aware, that some of his own words—those with which he opened his address to Cornelius—had been thus perversely and ruinously “wrested” from their proper meaning. The words were—“Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation, he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.”
It has been urged that these expressions sanction the notion, that there are in every nation men who, “fearing God and working righteousness,” are, on such grounds alone, “accepted of Him,” or entitled to salvation, and receiving salvation; that any one, ignorant or regardless of the revealed covenants, but believing in a supreme God as the Creator of heaven and earth, and walking righteously according to the measure of his light, needs nothing more for salvation. That
He can’t be wrong whose life is in the right,”
is the true saving doctrine.
Without pausing further upon this than to remark, that for a life to be in the right, not merely correct moral conduct, but correct motives and principles of conduct are needed, it may be asked: What need was there, then, to Cornelius for the doctrines of the Gospel, which Peter came to teach? It cannot be denied that Cornelius “feared God and wrought righteousness,” and he, therefore, stands before us a most advantageous example of those who are supposed to be thus “accepted,” on grounds apart from the plan of redemption which the Gospel declares. Yet that even he was not then in the condition of one “accepted,” in the sense put upon the text, is clear from all the circumstances. When Peter spoke these words, Cornelius was in the same condition as when the angel had spoken to him—he had not been converted, he had not received the Holy Ghost, he had not been baptized, the Gospel had not even been preached to him and offered to his acceptance; and that he was not then “accepted,” so as to be in a state of salvation, is made manifest by the words of the angel, who, after directing him to send to Joppa for Peter, adds, “who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.” He was to be saved, then, not by his previous qualifications—and these were higher than any mere heathen possessed, seeing that the God he “feared” was Jehovah, the God of Israel—but by that Gospel which Peter was to preach, and which was still unpreached by him, when this greatly misconceived declaration fell from his lips.
These considerations alone suffice to make it evident that Peter’s declaration is not thus to be understood. What he did mean, a little consideration of the position in which the apostle himself stood, and of the great matter which had been occupying his own mind, will make sufficiently clear. We know how slow he and the other apostles had been to receive the idea that, since the Lord’s death, the seed of Abraham no longer possessed exclusive privileges, and that now the Gospel of salvation was as open to the Gentiles as to them. It was a fixed belief of the Jews that they alone had tiny interest in the blessings of the Messiah’s kingdom, which were not to be extended to any other kingdom or people, who they regarded as remedilessly alien from God, and not under his care or protection. When our Lord had prohibited his disciples to preach the Gospel, while he yet lived, to any but the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He had appeared to give his sanction to this impression; and, as Jews, the apostles were more likely to dwell on these instances, than upon the intimations of a larger commission which they received after the resurrection. In this view, therefore, God had seemed “a respecter of persons”—as having had special favor and regard to the Jews, out of respect to his covenant with Abraham their father, and to the high purposes for which He had set them apart as a peculiar people among the nations. This view had been shaken in Peter’s mind by the vision of the great sheet, and the application of that vision which the message from Cornelius had compelled him to make. There can hardly be any doubt that all the day after the arrival of the messengers, and during all the journey from Joppa to Caesarea, this had been the engrossing subject of his thought. And when, on entering the house of Cornelius, he declared that God had showed him that he was not to regard any persons as common or unclean, his meaning was just the same as in the words before us—uttered after he had heard the recital of Cornelius. This was, that he was now, at length, enabled to perceive that God was no longer a respecter of persons, as he had aforetime been; and that no man was now beheld with exclusive regard because he was, as Abraham’s son, under a peculiar covenant with God, but that the gates of life were now thrown widely open, so that all, whether Jew or Gentile, who “feared God and worked righteousness,” might enter in.
But what of these apparent qualifications “of fearing God and working righteousness”? We have seen that they are not stated as conditions of, far less as constituting a sufficient, claim to, salvation. To fear God is to know Him, at least, as the God of nature and providence; and to walk in that fear is to acknowledge his practical sovereignty in the moral government of the world. Paul says—“He that cometh to God, must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him.” Cornelius had certainly reached this state. He was, therefore, in the condition of one standing ready to “come” to God through that “Door” which was now about to be opened to him. The Lord in his high grace had bestowed upon him all that had brought him hitherto—the knowledge and fear of himself, the thirsting after righteousness, the desire to know Him better and approach Him nearer—the “diligent seeking after Him,” which He fails not to “reward” by further disclosures of himself, as He did in the case of Cornelius. Our Lord declared that “no man cometh unto me, except the Father who path sent me draw him.” How God drew Cornelius we have seen. We see how the door was opened to let the stranger in. But we must consider that it was the same power that opened the door which brought him to the door that was to be opened. God honored his own gifts. And when we see a man thus, according to his light, “diligently seeking” after God, we may be sure that the light by which he seeks is of God’s bestowing, and that God has purposes of great mercy towards him, and that he will in due time be rewarded by fuller disclosures of the Divine glory in Christ, and will at length be brought fully into the fold. A man must go before he comes; and if we see one going the right way, we conclude that he will be carefully guided, and will “come” at last, and will not fail of acceptance to salvation when he comes.
Peter in the case before us plainly means this. He saw that Cornelius had been diligently seeking after God. He had the most certain evidence that he was a subject of the Divine grace; and seeing that there were even among the Gentiles men so favored, he naturally concluded that it must be acceptable to God that the Gospel should be offered to them, which Gospel he accordingly proceeded to proclaim and offer.
It appears, therefore, that the text has little or nothing to do with the question which has been fastened upon it—whether the man who walks uprightly, according to the measure of his knowledge, and without any regard to revelation, may or may not be saved.
“But may they?” some will ask. We do not know. It is not revealed. But we do know that besides the name of Jesus “there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved,” and that if these are saved it will only be because Christ died. Let us not pry too curiously into these matters. There are things that concern us much more nearly. Remember our Lord’s answer to those who asked “Lord, are they few that be saved?”—“Strive to enter in at the strait gate!”
Another thing we know—that it would have been ill with Cornelius if, after the gospel of the atonement had been offered to him, he had rejected it, and had chosen rather to rest his hopes upon his own righteousness. This concerns us more nearly; for this case, and not the other, is ours. For the Gospel is continually preached to us; and if we trample it under foot, or if we set it aside with decent forms of respect, as a thing we do not want and can do very well without, it were better for us that we had never been born; for we are then of those servants who knew their Lord’s will and did it not, and who therefore shall be “beaten with many stripes.”