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.  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.

9 Responses

  1. Matt Holst


    I also have trouble accpeting the theories that Cornelius was unregenerate prior to Peter’s meeting with him. I can’t make sense of the pleasure of God that was upon him without faith being present.

    I think we must understand that real genuine Jewish faith (of the Simeon and Anna type) was present inside and outside Israel both before and after the coming of Christ. It is clear that the coming of the Spirit was a New Covenant blessing, of which some of these Old Covenant saints had not experienced. Was Peter a believer before Pentecost? Were John and the other apostles? Most certainly, though we can see the effects of the Spirit on them – signs and wonders in abundance, the deepening knowledge of the Scriptures, the assurance unto imprisonment and even death that Jesus was the Christ etc . The coming of the Spirit did not necessarily bring salvation to these Old cov saints, rather it brought them into the fuller and deeper relationship of the New Cov.

    It might be worth while however, commenting briefly that there is a diversity of opinion on this issue, even among good men in the reformed world. This makes me question whether I’ve understood the passage correctly. You’ve done more research on this than me, so you might like to comment. But at the moment, I can’t see any way forward on this issue, without taking Cornelius as a believer.



  2. I think we have to look at both Acts 10 & 11, and in 11 we read this:

    “At that very moment [of seeing a vision from God] three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 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; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household'” (11:11-14).

    That last sentence seems clear to me: Cornelius was NOT saved before he heard Peter preach Christ. The angel tells him that he has to go to Peter in order to hear a saving message.

    I think our understanding of the “memorial” before God needs to be understood in light this.

    Grace and peace,

  3. John,

    Thank you for giving your input. It is truly a difficult issue. As you have noted verse 14 is the central verse that leads many to conclude that he was NOT a believer. It does not, however, settle the issue. First of all, the Bible of speaks of salvation in three tenses: past, present and future. Along these lines the verse may be read as teaching that the words of the fuller New Covenant revelation contain the entirety of the “message by which you and your household will be saved.” Cornelius receives the Spirit after the preaching of Peter, just as the Spirit comes at Pentecost. Were the disciples believers prior to Pentecost? Of course they were. Just as Cornelius seems to have been prior to Peter’s preaching the “fuller revelation of Jesus.” Calvin’s point about Cornelius’ prayers coming up to God as a memorial is that God only hears the prayer of faith. Faith is the consequence of the work of regeneration in the heart. So, the greater difficulty is not in explaining why Peter would say he was preaching a message by which Cornelius and his household “would be saved.” The greater difficulty is with how God would hear an unregenerate man’s prayer. At least, it seems to me to be the challenging passage. And, it seems that Calvin’s explanation is the only satisfactory one. Thoughts?

  4. Yes, good thoughts, Nicholas. And, by the way, I have been following your blog for a while, though this is the first time I have commented.

    I think a big part of the difficulty in much of Acts is that the years following Pentecost were very much a period of transition, where events played out in ways that are not repeatable. So, could it be that in this period regeneration preceded faith in such a way that days, weeks, months separated it and explicit faith in Christ? Maybe, but I don’t think there is warrant for this in the text.

    Neither do I think Peter means salvation in the full, final sense to the neglect of entering in then to the saving work of Christ by faith.

    In the end, I think the question of the honoring of the prayer should not drive us to rethink Cornelius’ regeneration (or that of whole household!) as much as it should cause us rethink the nature of the prayers he offered and the way in which God accepted them. I’m hesitant to say that God only hears the prayers of those who have the Spirit and have experienced regeneration. I think first of the many people who clearly came to Christ, asking for healing, but who may not have been trusting him for salvation.
    I think God hears the prayers of any would look to him in humility and faith (e.g, Isa 66:1-2), even if they do not fully know him or his Son so as to experience salvation. That being said, I do think that there is an intimacy, confidence, and efficacy that is unique to the prayers of Christians (e.g, Romans 8).

    When we look to the text, Cornelius is not even a full Gentile convert to Judaism (not being circumcised), though he does clearly believe that the God of the Jews is the God–worthy of worship, prayer, and alms giving in his name. So, I think I would say that God was at work in Cornelius, opening his eyes, preparing him to hear the gospel of Christ. But I don’t think we need to say that he was regenerate.

    The whole tenor of the text, seems be that Cornelius needed to hear of Christ in order to be saved, that he wasn’t before, and that it was upon explicit faith in Christ that resulted in an evident falling of the Spirit. Again, the transitionary nature of that time meant you could have disciples who experienced regeneration & were saved, then had a later, explicit experience of the Spirit. But that doesn’t mean that we have to say Cornelius was regenerate before he heard Peter’s message.

    But then again, who am I to contradict Calvin? 😉 Seriously, though, I’m not dogmatic on this point–I could easily be wrong. But I do find it easier to see in the text than that he was regenerate without full knowledge of Christ.


  5. John,

    Thanks again for taking the time to give your excellent thoughts on this passage. I wrested with it, came to a position, but (as you say) would not be overly dogmatic.

    It is interesting to note that when Peter does comes to preach to Cornelius, his household and his friends, he reminds Cornelius that he “knows” the word of God–specifically what the Old Testament prophets say about the Christ. It seems like a fairly significant exegetical statement. What do you think?

  6. If that is what Peter is saying, then it does drastically change how I would understand the entire passage. It would seem then, that he was indeed already saved (in the fullest sense) and Peter only came to see the “Gentile Pentecost” and be convinced that Gentiles had a full inclusion in the church.

    However, I would see a stop at verse 39. So, Peter says, “As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

    Based on what Cornelius knew, then, Peter explains it’s significance in vv.40-43, as an apostolic witness. Namely, that Christ was not just anointed as a prophet, but that he was anointed as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises of the old covenant, and the object of faith for salvation:

    “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.”

    If Cornelius knows Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament and that forgiveness comes through his name, then he must also know that the resurrected Christ only appeared to the disciples, ate with them, and that they were commissioned to preach his gospel.

    Again, the passage seems to be saying that all of this information is new to Cornelius, and that it’s a surprise he and his Gentile family have been given repentance and faith by God (Acts 11:18). It seems to me that it wouldn’t be much a surprise if Peter already knew that they knew who Christ was and had trusted in him.

  7. Chris Brown

    Nicholas, I know I’m 6 years late to the party, but aren’t you basically saying that Nicodemus was an OT saint that needed to transition to the NT?

  8. Matt B

    I hope many read this article to see the fundamental flaw in Calvinism’s “restrictivist” understanding of general revelation vs. special revelation. They are forced to assume Cornelius was already “born again” (regenerated) such that he could positively respond to general revelation, and then later respond to Peter’s preaching.

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