“It [the Diatribe] cites Cornelius as an example of one whose prayers and alms pleased God before he was baptized or breathed on by the Holy Ghost (cf. Acts 10:4). I, too, have read Luke on the Acts; but I HAVE NEVER FOUND A SINGLE SYLLABLE TO SUGGEST THAT CORNELIUS’S WORDS WERE MORALLY GOOD WITHOUT THE HOLY SPIRIT, which is the Diatribe’s dream. On the contrary, I find that he was ‘a just man, and one that feared God’—so Luke describes him (v.2). But to call a man without the Holy Spirit a ‘just man, and one that feared God’, IS THE SAME AS TO CALL BELIAL CHRIST! Moreover, the whole argument of the passage is concerned to show that Cornelius was ‘clean’ before God: the vision sent down to Peter from heaven to reprove him bore witness to that. By such notable deeds and words does Luke call attention to the righteousness and faith of Cornelius. But, for all that, the Diatribe and its beloved Sophists, standing open-eyed under the bright light of Luke’s words and of clear fact, CONTINUE IN THEIR BLINDNESS; such is their lack of care in reading and marking the Scriptures…granted, Cornelius was NOT YET BAPTISED, AND HAD NOT YET HEARD THE WORD OF CHRIST’S RESURRECTION; but does it hence follow that HE WAS WITHOUT THE HOLY SPIRIT? On these principles, you will be saying that John the Baptist and his parents, and the mother of Christ, and Simeon, were without the Holy Spirit! Let us bid such thick darkness farewell!” (Martin Luther, “The Bondage of the Will,” pp. 246-247).
In the above quote, Luther responds to Erasmus’ claim about Cornelius being a man without the Spirit, who was called “God-fearing” and devout, in addition to being a man who prayed to God.
Let’s explore Luther’s quote and see his error. First, he states, “…I have NEVER FOUND a single syllable to suggest that Cornelius’s words were morally good without the Holy Spirit…” Contrary to Luther though, we find these words about Cornelius’s prayers in Acts 10:
“Your PRAYERS and your acts of charity have come up as a memorial offering before God” (Acts 10:4b, Holman Christian Standard Bible).
However, it is in the same chapter that we find Cornelius receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit:
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came down on all those who heard the message” (Acts 10:44).
Cornelius was part of this group that heard the message. If he received the Holy Spirit during Peter’s preaching, this means that, BEFORE Peter’s preaching, Cornelius didn’t have the Holy Spirit.
We find other references to attest to the coming of the Spirit on Cornelius and his household as a salvation experience:
“All the prophets testify about Him that through His name everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins” (v.43).
We notice that, only after the coming of the Spirit, are Cornelius and his household baptized:
“Then Peter responded, ‘Can anyone withhold water and prevent these from being baptized, WHO HAVE RECEIVED THE HOLY SPIRIT just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
And what are we told about the necessity of possessing the Spirit?
“But if anyone DOES NOT HAVE THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST, he does not belong to Him” (Romans 8:9b).
So although Cornelius was “God-fearing,” he didn’t have the Spirit (even though he believed).
Now let me say at this moment that I believe that a person must possess the Spirit—otherwise, that person does not belong to Christ. But we have to keep in mind, too, that at the time of Cornelius’s conversion, the Gentiles had not yet received the Spirit of God. Notice that in Acts 10, when Cornelius and his household receive the Spirit, that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (Acts 10:45).
Luther makes another erring statement at the end of the above quote: “granted, Cornelius was NOT YET BAPTISED, AND HAD NOT YET HEARD THE WORD OF CHRIST’S RESURRECTION; but does it hence follow that HE WAS WITHOUT THE HOLY SPIRIT? On these principles, you will be saying that John the Baptist and his parents, and the mother of Christ, and Simeon, were without the Holy Spirit! Let us bid such thick darkness farewell!”
Luther first states his disbelief that Cornelius was not saved; the problem with this, however, is that Peter’s statement in Acts 10:47 implies that Cornelius had just received the Spirit during his preaching. How then, could Cornelius have had the Spirit PRIOR to this?
Secondly, notice that he states, “Cornelius was not yet baptized, and had not yet heard the word of Christ’s resurrection.” Yet and still, the Word was to precede faith:
“But how can they call on Him in whom THEY HAVE NOT BELIEVED? And how can they believe WITHOUT HEARING ABOUT HIM? And how can they hear WITHOUT A PREACHER?...so FAITH COMES FROM WHAT IS HEARD, AND WHAT IS HEARD COMES THROUGH THE MESSAGE ABOUT CHRIST” (Romans 10:14, 17).
So, before a person can believe, the Word must be preached to them; and, once the Word is preached, and the person hears the message, they can then call on the Name of the Lord. This is why, in Acts 10, we find Peter preaching the message of salvation (Acts 10:34-43).
So, what of Cornelius and his household? Were they “saved” prior to Acts 10? No. But the text tells us that Cornelius and his household were “God-fearers” (Acts 10:2, 22). And Luke uses this very same description of the thief on the cross in Luke 23:
“But the other [criminal] answered, rebuking him: ‘Don’t you even FEAR GOD, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because WE’RE GETTING BACK WHAT WE DESERVE FOR THE THINGS WE DID, BUT THIS MAN HAS DONE NOTHING WRONG” (Luke 23:40-41).
One of the criminals (the one quoted above) told the other criminal that he needed to “fear God.” And then, what does he say? He tells the other thief that they are being punished because their deeds merit their punishment—while Jesus, the man in the middle, doesn’t deserve His punishment.
The thief on the cross who makes these remarks shows that he, unlike the other selfish thief, FEARS GOD! He has been convicted about his sin (his current punishment of death), but not only has he been convicted of his sin—he also sees the need to accept Christ. Notice, then, the God-fearing criminal’s next step:
“Then he said, ‘Jesus, REMEMBER ME when you come into Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42)
The next step of the thief is to tell the Lord that he wanted to be where the Lord was—in other words, he wanted to go to heaven, he accepted Christ as his Savior! He told the Lord to “remember me,” which means that he was proclaiming himself to be a FOLLOWER of Christ! And the Lord’s response?
“And He [Christ] said to him, ‘I ASSURE YOU: TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE” (Luke 23:43).
The Lord accepts his plea and promises him that he would be in Heaven with the Lord. The only way the thief on the cross could have told the Lord to remember him, is if the Lord even KNEW him! And, because he accepted Christ as his Lord in his heart, he could make this request. The Lord could remember him because he was a disciple of His!
Back to Luther’s quote: “On these principles, you will be saying that John the Baptist and his parents, and the mother of Christ, and Simeon, were without the Holy Spirit! Let us bid such thick darkness farewell!”
Luther states that if we are to view Cornelius as being devoid of the Spirit, we have to say that “John the Baptist,” his parents, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Simeon all lacked the Spirit.
Starting with John the Baptist; we are told that John would have the Holy Spirit within himself from birth:
“For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. HE WILL BE FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT WHILE STILL IN HIS MOTHER’S WOMB” (Luke 1:15, HCSB).
The above words from the angel of the Lord to Zechariah tell us of John the Baptist’s birth.
Next, what about John’s parents?
“Then his father Zechariah was FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT and PROPHESIED…” (Luke 1:67)
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped inside her, and Elizabeth WAS FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT” (Luke 1:41).
We see the Lord using Elizabeth and Zechariah as servants. We are also told in Luke 1:6 that “Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” We are not given this description with Cornelius: instead, all we’re told is that he was “God-fearing” and that he prayed to God.
What about Mary, Jesus’ mother?
“I am the Lord’s slave…may it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Mary calls herself “the Lord’s slave,” which means that she is a servant of God, someone who has yielded herself as a servant of righteousness. Notice, too, that the Lord is giving Mary a divine mission to fulfill—to bear the Savior of the world. With Cornelius, however, the Lord tells Cornelius to go see Peter so that he may hear the message and be saved. Cornelius’s encounter with God is salvific in nature, not missional. Before Cornelius would be an instrument for God, he first had to be saved and receive the Holy Spirit. Mary doesn’t have to receive the Spirit here—because she already has the Spirit! This is why the angel Gabriel makes the following announcement:
“THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL COME UPON YOU, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
In addition, notice Gabriel’s opening words to Mary: “Rejoice, FAVORED WOMAN! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). What does the Lord say to Cornelius?
“Your prayers and acts of charity have come up as a MEMORIAL OFFERING BEFORE GOD” (Acts 10:4).
With Cornelius, God tells him that He has remembered Cornelius BECAUSE OF his acts of charity and his prayers! The emphasis seems to be on Cornelius’s deeds toward the Jewish people (as well as his prayers). With Mary, though, the Lord assigns her a task that involves the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit; and remember, in Cornelius’s case, he didn’t have the Spirit! Also, the Lord’s presence is with her. Although the angel appears to Cornelius, we never read of the Lord’s presence being with him—just his good deeds!
Last but not least, Luther points out Simeon in this group as well. Let’s look at Simeon:
“There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to Israel’s consolation, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT WAS ON HIM. IT HAD BEEN REVEALED TO HIM BY THE HOLY SPIRIT that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. GUIDED BY THE SPIRIT, he entered the temple complex” (Luke 2:25-27a).
Notice that the text tells us that the Holy Spirit “was on” Simeon. The Spirit was in his life! In addition, the Spirit was not only IN him, the Spirit had REVEALED things to him! Last but not least, the Spirit GUIDES his entrance into the temple.
According to Luke 2:25-27a, Simeon is called a “devout” and “righteous man,” but we are told something about him that we are NOT told about Cornelius: and that is that the Spirit is in him.
Back to Cornelius: Cornelius was described as “devout” and “God-fearing”; but he was without the Spirit. Even being a “good” person is not enough for salvation! A person must hear the Word of the Lord and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved!
Cornelius’s prayers involved being saved. This is why the Lord tells him to send men to Joppa to find Peter (Acts 10:5-6). With the others Luther mentions to bolster his position, however, we read of their “rightness” with the Lord; the Lord is using them for His glory, filling them with His Spirit and allowing them to speak and prophesy in His Name. These things are the OUTWORKING of the Spirit on a person’s life:
“…This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘And it will be in the last days,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity: then your sons and your daughters WILL PROPHESY…I will even pour out My Spirit on My male and female slaves in those days, AND THEY WILL PROPHESY” (Acts 2:16-18).
The prophecies of Simeon, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah are all evidence of the Spirit’s residence within. Cornelius, however, is a God-fearer who, although feeling the Spirit’s conviction and inner guilt, has not heard the message yet and waits to receive the effects of salvation. So to place Cornelius in the same category with these others is a grave mistake.
Luther commits here what I call “The Cornelius Fumble.” Here, we see Luther’s argument break down—for, here is a man who is God-fearing without the Spirit. I will explain the importance of Cornelius in this regard soon.