Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Was Cornelius Justified By His Works?

A Romanian Orthodox visitor to the old manse recently averred that the reference to the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:1-5 contradicts the Lutheran doctrine of justification 'by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone':  
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!”  And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter.
The claim is a good example of reading one's theological presuppositions into a text. Clearly, like all the saints living under under old covenant, Cornelius was counted righteous before God on account of his faith in God and His promised Messiah, whom he had heard of through his contact with devout Jews, from which faith his piety flowed. As Chrysostom notes in his sermon on the text, "Cornelius's doctrine and life were both right". Here also is Luther:       
"Cornelius, Acts 10:1ff , had heard long before among the Jews of the coming Messiah, through whom he was righteous before God, and in such faith his prayers and alms were acceptable to God (as Luke calls him devout and God-fearing), and without such preceding Word and hearing could not have believed or been righteous. But St. Peter had to reveal to him that the Messiah (in whom, as one that was to come, he had hitherto believed) now had come, lest his faith concerning the coming Messiah hold him captive among the hardened and unbelieving Jews, but know that he was now to be saved by the present Messiah, and must not, with the Jews deny nor persecute Him."Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, III, VIII, 8
Cornelius's devout mode of life was rewarded by God with the visit of the apostle Peter to complete his faith and that of his relatives and friends by proclaiming the good news of Christ crucified and risen, through which they received the Holy Spirit and were baptised. 

Anticipating a further objection: Nor can the claim be made that the Biblical teaching of reward contradicts Evangelical Lutheran doctrine, which readily acknowledges that God rewards the works of believers both temporally and spiritually. But not with the forgiveness of sins, which comes to us through faith alone, as the Bible teaches us. Melanchthon writes:

"Here also we add something concerning rewards and merits. We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of believers. We teach that good works are meritorious, not for the remission of sins, for grace or justification (for these we obtain only by faith), but for other rewards, bodily and spiritual, in this life and after this life, because Paul says, 1 Cor. 3:8: Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor. There will, therefore be different rewards according to different labors. But the remission of sins is alike and equal to all, just as Christ is one, and is offered freely to all who believe that for Christ's sake their sins are remitted. Therefore the remission of sins and justification are received only by faith, and not on account of any works, as is evident in the terrors of conscience, because none of our works can be opposed to God's wrath, as Paul clearly says, Rom. 5:1: Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith, etc."   Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, III.
 So, we can thank God for the example that Cornelius - the 'first-fruit of the Gentiles' as the Orthodox kontakion (prayer of the day) describes him  - provides us, by which we are encouraged to adorn our faith with devotion and alms-giving in the service of the poor.