The Ancient Faith
THE CONVERSION OF CORNELIUS
John W. McGarvey
Before the prayer I read a few verses in the beginning of the tenth chapter of Acts; I will now read the last few verses of the same chapter:
While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all them who heard the word. And they of the circumcision who believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God, Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.
In the two readings I have presented the beginning and the close of the account of another conversion. I propose to look at this example of conversion after the same plan with which we studied that of the eunuch this morning. First, I wish to observe the man himself, before his conversion; and secondly, to trace out what was done for him, and what was done by him, up to the time that he was rejoicing as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have here a very curious description, but an exceedingly interesting one, of what would be called, in our modern phraseology, an unconverted man. He was a soldier in an army generally composed of heathen, blood-thirsty men. He was an officer ranking as the captain in our modern armies, commander of a hundred men; but we are told that he was “a devout man”—a very remarkable circumstance in an officer in a heathen army—and lest we might understand that he was a devout heathen, it is added that “he feared God with all his house.” This last clause shows that he was not only a devout worshiper of the true God himself, but that he had brought up his whole family in the same religious habits. He was not one of those worshipers of the Lord who are so timid about their own religious sentiments that they make no effort to impress their faith upon the members of their families; for, “He feared God with all his house.” This expression, as we learn farther on, includes his servants; because it is said that he called to him “two of his devout servants.” He was a man, then, of great religious zeal. He was not one of those worshipers of God, so common in the world, who forget their neighbors, or the wants and the needs of the poor, being satisfied with the idea that they have made their own peace with God, and who live the rest of their lives for themselves; but we are told in the next place, that “He gave much alms to the people.” The people mentioned are the Jewish people. He was in authority over the Jewish people in the city of Cæsarea, and He gave much alms to them—a benevolent man. And this is not all; you will find many men in these days who are benevolent, very benevolent, but who have no religious character whatever. They have inherited a kind disposition, perhaps, from good, pious fathers and mothers; they have been brought up from their childhood to have pity for the poor and distressed. But in addition to all this we are told that this man “Prayed to God always”—he was a praying man. Let us put all these statements together and see what kind of a character we have: A devout man who feared God with all his house, including his servants; who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God regularly, habitually. He is the man concerning whose conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ we are about to inquire, and perhaps you are ready to ask, What conversion did he need? What change did he need? This is a very legitimate inquiry. I hope you will keep your mind on it, until you see the answer coming out. What change, in order to become a Christian in the true sense of the word?
His character already puts to shame a great many of those who profess to be good Christians; but before we reach the answer to our question, I wish you would look at this case from another point of view. I know men, and I have met a great many, who are so good already, though out of the church, that they have no fears about the future. They will tell you how honest they are; how truthful they are; how prompt to pay every debt, and to discharge every obligation; that they try to be good husbands and fathers, good neighbors; and that they do their share in providing for the wants of the poor and needy in the community in which they live; and they say, “I can’t see what there is for me to fear.” And so they content themselves to live and die as they are. Now if there should be one of that class here tonight, male or female, I ask you to come up and let us take your portrait side by side with that of Cornelius, and see which presents the fairer appearance—which stands higher in the scale of excellence, according to a true estimate of humanity. He was a devout man; he gave much alms to the people; he feared God; and his whole family, including servants, did the same; and he prayed to God continually. If that man needed to hear words by which he might be saved, don’t you need something of the same kind? And, if that man did hear such words, wouldn’t it be wise in you to listen to those same words, and to secure that same heavenly boon, the salvation of your soul?
After all that is said about his excellence of character, he had committed sins; he knew, when he ran over his past life, that he had committed many sins against his God; and he had never approached God in His appointed way, to secure the forgiveness of a single sin; for he did not know how; he was not acquainted with Christ. The very best man or woman in this city today, has many sins which need to be forgiven.
Let us look at this case, and see what this man really needed in order that he might stand complete in all the fullness of Christ, and as a disciple of the Lord be ready for death and eternity. According to his custom, he was praying at the third hour of the day, one of his regular hours of prayer—notice, not just before he went to bed, his eyes heavy with sleep; not at some leisure hour, but in the very middle of the afternoon he had an appointed hour of prayer which he did not neglect. As he was praying—we can see, and he could see afterward—God chose that very moment to begin to make up what he lacked of being a Christian. How similar to the case of this morning! While the eunuch was riding along in his chariot, reading the book of Isaiah, studying the prophet’s words about the death of the Lord Jesus, which he could not understand, just at that moment God brings the preacher to the side of his chariot, to show him the way of salvation. Now this man was earnestly praying to the invisible God, and God had heard the prayers which he had put up before, and remembered his giving of alms; for God, my brethren, we are assured in the Bible, never forgets one good thing we do, even if it is nothing more than giving a cup of water to one of his disciples. Just then an angel stands visible before Cornelius in his room. How beautiful! What delightful beings the angels are! One of them stands before Cornelius. He says, “Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God.” Now when we hear the angel say this, we are thrown back to the question we raised awhile ago: If that man has led such a life, and this angel’s message is true, what does he need more? Suppose that next Sunday morning a man should go into some church in Louisville and say to the preacher: I would like to apply for membership in your church today, and I am ready to tell my experience when the time comes. He is called up at the close of the sermon to tell his experience. He says: Brethren, I have been, for a considerable time back, a devout man; I believe, and I think my neighbors will tell you the same, that I have feared God; I have taught my family and servants the same thing; I have been, for years, punctual and prompt in giving alms to the poor around me; and I have been habitually given to prayer. Yesterday afternoon at three o’clock an angel appeared before me, and said to me: “Thy prayer is heard and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God.” Now brethren, that is my experience—will you receive me? What church is there that would not? And yet, this man was not yet a Christian; he lacked something yet that was to be supplied, for that angel did not stop with telling him that his prayers and his alms had gone up for a memorial before God, but he added, “Send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter. He lodgeth with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside, that you may hear words from him.” And Peter, when he was telling the story afterwards, expressed it in this way: “That you may hear words by which you and your house maybe saved;” so he had yet to hear words by which he might be saved. That is very singular in appearance to our modern eyes, because we have not the scriptural conception of conversion altogether in our minds.
Cornelius was a very prompt man. I admire a man who does not dilly-dally about things—who goes right to work. It was now past the middle of the afternoon, but he called two of his devout servants and a devout soldier, and he told these three men all that the angel had said, and started them to Joppa. They could not get there that night, but they got there the next day about noon. From the state of the church, it would appear that those men would go on a hopeless errand; for up to this time, no uncircumcised person had ever been received into the church. The apostles had not yet been told that the old law had been set aside. They believed that in obedience to God’s own law, they ought not to receive into the church an uncircumcised man; and Peter would have said, No, I can not come. Something had to be done to make him willing to come; so, while the men were on the way to Joppa, Peter went on the housetop to pray, and he became very hungry; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw, in a sheet let down from heaven, all manner of beasts and creeping things, while a voice from heaven said, “Arise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean;” but the voice commanded him, “What God hath cleansed, make thou not common.” This was done three times; and while he was yet doubting what it should mean, the men who were sent from Cornelius reached the gate, and the Spirit said unto him, “Behold, three men seek thee; go with them, nothing doubting.” He went down and there were the three men. They had inquired for the house of Simon the tanner, and had found it. Peter received them, and the next day he went with them to Cæsarea. They got to the house of Cornelius about the same time of day that they had started for Joppa; and when Cornelius saw them coming, he went out and fell down at the feet of Peter, to do him homage as a messenger from God. But Peter, not knowing but that he meant to worship him, said, “Stand up; I myself, also, am a man.”
While the three men were on their journey, Cornelius, knowing the time it would take to go to Joppa and come back, had invited to his house a large number of his kinsmen and friends. I don’t suppose he invited any of his ungodly friends, but he picked his audience. Peter, on coming in, said: “You know that it is unlawful for me to go into the house of a man of another nation; but God hath showed me that I should not call any man unclean. With what intent did you send for me?” Cornelius stated the facts and then said: “We are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all things that have been commanded thee by the Lord.” What an audience! Assembled in the sight of God, ready to hear his message and ready to obey it! Oh, if I could have such an audience every time I come to Louisville, how many souls would be saved!
Then Peter opened his mouth and said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is acceptable to him.” Appropriate introduction. Then he went on to preach to his audience the word which God sent, preaching peace by Jesus Christ. “That word,” he says, “you know.” They were not ignorant of it. They had lived there in Palestine. They had heard it over and over again in the last few years. Every hill and valley had rung with it. That word which began after the baptism which John preached, how that Jesus Christ went about doing good; how the Jews took him and slew him on a tree. But God raised him from the dead, and commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify of Him, that whosoever believeth on Him shall receive remission of sins—shall be saved. The defect in Cornelius and his friends was not that they had not heard of Jesus—that they had not heard the whole story of his birth, burial and resurrection. It was something else, and we must watch carefully till we discover it.
While Peter was still speaking, suddenly his auditors began to speak. The Holy Spirit came upon them as it had come on the apostles on the day of Pentecost, and they began to speak in other tongues, praising God. That was a surprise to Peter and the six Jews who had come with him from Joppa. When all had quieted down, he finished his sermon. He said to the six Jews, Who shall forbid the water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we? There was no answer. Then he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord; and that is the end of the story. We can now see that there was just one thing added to that good man, so far as his intellect was concerned; there was added the information that it was his privilege, as well as that of the Jew, to become a member of the Church of God. And so far as his conduct was concerned, all that he was required to do, was to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I tell you, my good friends, there are many good people who need nothing more than to understand their privilege, and to be baptized, in order to stand as they ought to stand. Cornelius is an example for such, and they should all have faith enough to follow in his footsteps.
Perhaps some one in this audience is ready to say to me, You are overlooking one very important matter. I thought men had to receive the Holy Spirit before they could be baptized; and there it is. The Holy Spirit fell upon them, and Peter said, Who shall the forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Spirit as well as we? Now let us look at that for a moment. They certainly did receive the Holy Spirit. Suppose you say then, I shall not be baptized before I receive the Holy Spirit as Cornelius did. See what you wait for. They received the miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit; for they spoke in other tongues. Ought sinners to wait for that now? They will die waiting, if they do. No man, since miracles ceased, has received that gift of the Holy Spirit. We must remember that the miracles in these conversions are not for our imitation; but only that which is not miraculous. If I say that we shall be as Cornelius in receiving the Holy Spirit, why not say, Cornelius saw an angel before he was baptized, and therefore, I, too, must see an angel. That is plain enough. Angels do not appear visibly now. They appeared in those early days, to establish the fact that they are here and working among us; but their visible appearance is no longer needed. Furthermore, if you will look a little closely at this text, you will find why that miracle was wrought on Cornelius—that it was not for a change in him, but for the instruction of Peter and those Jews. We may learn what a thing is made for, by the use that is made of it. Suppose that tomorrow morning you get into the cab of a locomotive that is going out, and some one asks you, What is that handle for? and what is this one for? You say you do not know; but you sit there until you see the engineer move this to the right and that to the left, and immediately the purpose of each is apparent in the effect upon the engine. So here you see the miraculous tongues, but you do not see their purpose. But wait until you see what use Peter makes of the miracle. He uses it to convince the Jews that an uncircumcised man should be dealt with as the circumcised; for, “In every nation, he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him.” After he went to Jerusalem, the brethren called him to account; but he said, Brethren, when I saw the Holy Spirit come upon them as it did on us in the beginning, what was I, that I should withstand God? And when the brethren heard that, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life. This miraculous gift of the Spirit, then, was not intended to work a change in Cornelius and his friends, but to make it plain to everybody that the Gentiles had the privilege of entering the kingdom on the same terms with the Jew. It settled the question forever: and as no one has since denied this right of the Gentiles, no one else has to this day received the Holy Spirit as Cornelius did before baptism.
Cornelius had indirectly promised to be prompt in obeying the Lord, whenever he should learn what he had to do; and now he fulfills his pledge, and goes on his way rejoicing. He knows now that his sins are all blotted from God’s remembrance, and they are the same as if they had never been. I would like to see that good man—well, I expect to see him, and have a good long talk with him. I will say, Well, Cornelius, we do not know anything about you after your baptism, and I would like to know how you got along. I think his answer will be, I was a devout man before the apostle baptized me, but I was more devout afterwards. I taught my household; I gave alms to the people, before I became a member of Christ’s church; I prayed to God regularly and constantly before; but I prayed with more love and more zeal, with deeper satisfaction to my soul, all the rest of my days. I hope that this will be his story, and I am sure it will be.
Now, if there is any one here tonight who doesn’t feel conscious of being a very great sinner—and if you are not, you ought not pretend to be—what is it you need to do to be acceptable to God. The old idea that a man ought to feel himself to be the very worst sinner in the world before he can come to Christ, is wrong. If he persuades himself that he is the worst sinner when he is not, he is led into a blunder, a misconception of himself. A man ought to form as fair an estimate of himself as he can. We do not like to look on the dark side of ourselves. No man, looking into a mirror, likes to see the spots on the face that are not his beauty spots; and so in regard to our character. If there is one sin, and only one, that we have been guilty of, we must repent; we must repent of all of our sins, that by the efficacy of the blood of Christ, we may be saved. Now whether you have many sins, or few, they are the things to keep you out of heaven; nothing else can. All the enemies on earth cannot keep you out of heaven; all the angels in heaven, if they should turn away from God, could not keep you out of heaven; but one sin, of which you have not repented, may. Lift up your souls, brethren, and call upon God for help. Pray to Him for strength that you may live purer and holier lives every day—so live that your last hours may be your best. If to live such a life is the desire of any penitent sinner here tonight, heaven has opened to you the way to enter upon it, and made it very plain by these examples of conversion. Be prompt, as these men were, in your obedience to God, and go on your way like them, rejoicing in the forgiveness of your sins.
[This was taken from J.W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky (1894). Subtitles were added for reading ease].