Good people. We all know them. They are our friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family. They would offer the shirt off their back. They are the neighbors you would trust to tend to your home while you’re out of town. They are the friends who would come over at a moment’s notice to help patch your roof after a storm has blown off the shingles. Many of them attend church regularly and even carry a Bible.
They are hardworking, honest, dependable, and trustworthy; you know, those kind of good people. They are good, at least in the way the world defines good.
But I want to offer a sobering reminder that merely being good, from a human standpoint anyway, is not enough to be righteous in the sight of the Lord.
The sad reality is that good people, apart from the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ in their lives, will die and spend eternity in hell.
Luke presents such a man in the Book of Acts. Cornelius, in Acts 10, was a good man by worldly standards.
His position as a “centurion” (Acts 10:1) reveals quite a bit about the type of man he was.
The Roman army consisted of numerous legions of soldiers – anywhere from 20-50 legions.
A Roman legion consisted of about 6,000 men, which was further divided into cohorts of about 600 men each, which would mean about 10 cohorts per legion.
Cohorts were further divided into roughly 100 men each, with each cohort being led by one centurion.
So picture a massive 6,000-man legion, divided and led by only 60 choice men. Cornelius was one of those men.
His was no small rank or position. A man didn’t rise to this status by being a poor soldier.
In fact, as Kent Hughes pointed out, centurions “did most of the work and were the backbone of the Roman legion,” and John MacArthur commented that, “… Cornelius had reached his rank by proving to be a strong, responsible, reliable man.”
If status or position in society was any metric of one’s goodness, Cornelius had checked that box.
But his worldly goodness went far above just his rank. Luke details a number of qualities displayed in his life in Acts 10:2.
Cornelius was “[A] devout [man], and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.”
In that one verse, at least five things are detailed about the character of Cornelius.
- His Piety
He was “[A] devout [man] ...”
Luke is describing an extremely devoted religious man.
The Romans were known for polytheistic worship. In their eyes, each of their gods served different roles, thus they prayed to and worshipped their various gods depending on what they needed at a given moment.
Cornelius, however, had abandoned the pagan gods of the Romans and had focused his attention on the God of the Jews.
His understanding of the true God was limited at this point, as I mentioned in a previous blog, but nonetheless, he was as devoted to God as he could be with the knowledge he had.
The remaining points highlighting his character illustrate just how devoted he was.
- His Proselytization
Cornelius was “[A] [man], … that feared God ...”
Some scholars have pointed to Cornelius’s devotion and suggested he was saved before Peter came to share the Gospel with him.
But Scripture doesn’t allow that as a possibility. After Peter preached in the house of Cornelius, he had to explain to his Jewish brethren all that transpired. He told them an angel had appeared to Cornelius and told him to send for Peter. Why? Because Cornelius needed to hear the “… words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved” (Acts 11:14).
Clearly, Cornelius was not born again. He wasn’t even a full proselyte to Judaism.
A full Jewish proselyte completely bought into Judaism. They adopted all the customs and submitted to the rites and ordinances. They were circumcised and did all a Jew was expected to do. Thus, they were accepted and entered into all the privileges of the covenant people.
Cornelius had done none of those things, thus he wasn’t a full proselyte. Cornelius would have been granted the status of a God-fearer, one who had not fully converted to Judaism, but one who feared God, respected God, and lived in light of that truth.
One can easily see in Cornelius a man who is seeking God, moving closer to God, but has not yet reached the point of salvation.
- His Priorities
Cornelius was “[A] [man], … that feared God with all his house, …”
Clearly, he put his belief into action. His longing for God was not something that he kept private but rather something that affected every facet of his life.
Scripture makes it clear that Cornelius had a huge impact and influence on those under his care – his household.
This is a man who didn’t shirk his responsibilities within his home. And keep in mind, he was not a man who didn’t have anything else on his plate.
Here was a hardened soldier, one who had been through rigorous training, with 100 other men depending on his mind, his ability, and his leadership.
He could have done like so many men today and said, “Well, I just have so much going on in my career, I just have nothing left when I get home to pour into my family. My job and the people in my company just depend on me so much that I have to give 100% to my career.”
But not this man. Despite all he had going on, despite the rigors of being a Roman soldier, despite the extreme pressure of his superior Roman authorities, he still made time to lead his household, and he did it well.
- His Philanthropy
Cornelius was “[A] … [man], … which gave much alms to the people ...”
Again, his belief led to action, not only toward his family but also in benevolence towards others. Some translations make it clear that his benevolence was extended, not only to the Romans but to the Jewish people.
Contrast that to the reputation of many of the other soldiers of that day.
Because of their power and authority, and their general disdain for the Jews, many soldiers, far from giving to others, actually stole from others, and there was nothing anyone could say.
But Cornelius, rather than using his position to benefit himself, actually gave of himself to others.
Luke even says he “gave much.” Some translations render it “gave generously,” “did many charitable deeds,” or “made many charitable contributions.”
So it wasn’t a one-time thing or resulting from a feeling of obligation, but because he wanted to give. His life was one of generosity.
- His Prayer
Cornelius was “[A] … [man], … that … prayed to God alway.”
This man’s devotion caused him to lead his family, give to the needy, and pray. He truly lived what he had come to believe.
Notice how Luke describes his prayer life – “always.” In other words, Luke characterized him as a true man of prayer. So consider Cornelius. He checked all the boxes that would have characterized him as a “good man.”
Great position? Check.
God fearing? Check.
Good family leader? Check.
Giving to others? Check.
Praying to God? Check.
But as “good” as Cornelius was, he was still lost.
None of us would argue that the man in the gutter, drunk, strung out on drugs, uttering all sorts of blasphemies and vulgarities, needs to be saved.
But it’s a tough pill to swallow to think that our neighbor, our friend, or our loved one will die and go to hell, despite all their good deeds.
But … but … but they are good. They are moral and decent; they give; they pray, etc.
It doesn’t matter. Apart from Jesus, they will die and go to hell.
Unfortunately, hell is full of good people (at least good in that sense of the word).
You can take all the goodness man can muster up, and it still falls short of the standard.
Isaiah said, “But we are all as an unclean [thing], and all our righteousnesses [are] as filthy rags ...” (Isaiah 64:6).
We could never be good enough. But thank God we don’t have to be.
Through simple faith in Jesus, by believing in Him and His finished work, the Lord will remove our unrighteousness and impute to us the righteousness of Christ.
As Cornelius’s story unfolded, by the providential hand of God, a good man, became a saved man.
And that can happen to you today. I encourage you if you don’t know Jesus as your Savior, don’t think that being a good person will grant you good standing before a holy God. It won’t.
Place your faith in Jesus today, and let Him impute to you a goodness that you will never have any other way.