Was Cornelius Regenerate Prior to Peter's Preaching Christ to Him?
The thorny question of whether or not Cornelius--the Italian centurion officer to whom God appeared in a vision--was a regenerate believer prior to Peter's preaching Jesus to him has proven to be quite challenging for me as I prepare to preach the second part of the narrative (Acts 10:23-11:19). In the opening verses of chapter 10 we are told that Cornelius was "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always." We are then told that his "prayers and alms came up for a memorial before God." Some have mistakenly taught that Cornelius was a Heathen who was saved without Christ. Others suggest that Cornelius was given some kind of prevenient (preperatory) grace. Still others say that he was unconverted, but that God simply takes account of good works as acceptable.Â When we come to consider this question, we enter into the Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian and Reformed soteriology debate.
John Calvin, first concluding that Cornelius must have already been regenerate because "he could obtain nothing by prayer unless faith went before, which only opens the gate for us to pray," explained that Cornelius must have trusted Christ for salvation prior to Peter's preaching (although he still needed to receive the fuller light of the New Covenant revelation about Jesus). He tied what the text said about his prayers being remembered with the role of faith in prayer and the nature of faith and regeneration. He wrote:
Yet here may a question be asked, Whether faith require the knowledge of Christ, or it be content with the simple persuasion of the mercy of God? For Cornelius seems to have known nothing at all concerning Christ. But it may be proved by sound proofs that faith cannot be separated from Christ; for if we lay hold upon the bare majesty of God, we are rather confounded with his glory, than that we feel any taste of his goodness. Therefore, Christ must come between, that the mind of man may conceive that God is merciful. And it is not without cause that he is called the image of the invisible God, (Colossians 1:15) because the Father offers Himself to be holden in his face alone. Moreover, seeing that he is the way, the truth, and the life, (John 14:6) wherever you go without him, you will be surrounded on every side by errors, and death shall meet you on every side. We may easily answer concerning Cornelius. All spiritual gifts are offered unto us in Christ; and especially from Him comes regeneration, save only because we are ingrafted into the death of Christ, our old man is crucified? (Romans, 6:5, 6.) And if Cornelius were made partaker of the Spirit of Christ, there is no cause why we should think that he was altogether void of his faith; neither had he so embraced the worship of the true God, (whom the Jews alone did worship,) but that he had also heard, without having at the same time heard, somewhat of the promised Mediator; though the knowledge of him were obscure and entangled, yet was it some. Whosoever came at that time into Judea he was enforced to hear somewhat of the Messiah, yea, there was some fame of him spread through countries which were far off. Wherefore, Cornelius must be put in the catalogue of the old fathers, who hoped for salvation of the Redeemer before he was revealed.
This, it seems to me, is the right way to understand how it can be said that Cornelius' prayers and alms came up as a memorial before God, and yet Cornelius needed Peter to come and preach Christ to him and his household. Note also that Cornelius stands at the head of the transition from the Jewish church to the Gentile church. He, and the church in his house, experience a Pentecost. It is (if I can put it this way) the Gentile Pentecost. This is the age of the outpouring of the Spirit. The things that happened during this inter-testamental, foundational period were temporary and exceptional. The disciples were certainly true believers before they experienced the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. Cornelius, like Simeon and Anna before him, was a regenerate man who experiences the extraordinary outpouring of the Spirit at the Gentile Pentecost.