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Lesson 26: Salvation for All Who Believe (Acts 10:34-48)

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Since life is short and uncertain and eternity is forever, the most important question anyone can answer is, “How can I be saved?” How can I know for certain that I am right with God? Sadly, even among professing Christians there are different answers to that crucial question. Many think that if a person is sincere, it really doesn’t matter what he believes. But you can sincerely believe that you are swallowing medicine that will make you well, but if it really is poison, your sincerity does not matter. It does matter greatly what you believe!

Another common belief is that to be saved, we must be good people. If we try to do our best, if we don’t hurt anyone, if we help others, then we will get into heaven. Often faith in Christ is combined with good works. If we believe in Jesus and do the best we can, the combination will get us into heaven.

As most of you know, the Bible teaches clearly that we are saved by grace (God’s undeserved favor) through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from our own goodness or good works (Eph. 2:8-9). But sometimes even those who know and believe that truth personally do not live it in terms of its practical application. For example, we may think that God can save someone who is a notorious sinner, but surely that person must first clean up his life a bit. But to say that is to deny God’s free grace.

Peter and the other apostles knew that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by our good works or efforts. But practically speaking, up till now they also believed that to be right with God, a pagan Gentile had to become a Jew in the sense of obeying the Jewish laws regarding circumcision and ceremonial issues. The thought of a Gentile getting saved without coming through the door of Judaism was foreign to them. But as we’ve seen, God has been breaking down Peter’s Jewish prejudices on this matter. Now they are all swept away in an instant, as the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house clearly get saved and receive the Holy Spirit in the same manner as the Jews had on the Day of Pentecost.

This was a radical turning point in God’s economy of salvation. For almost 2,000 years since Abraham, salvation had been from the Jews (John 4:22) and through the Jews. A Gentile had to become a Jewish proselyte in order to know and worship God in the way that God ordained. God had promised Abraham that through his descendants, all the nations would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). But up till now, the blessing of salvation was pretty much bottled up with the Jews. But now a radical shift takes place. The door of salvation swings wide open to the Gentiles, and it does not require them first to become Jews. It surprised Peter’s Jewish traveling companions (10:45), and although Peter had come to understand it intellectually (10:34), it probably startled him, too. The wonderful truth is:

Everyone who believes in Christ receives God’s salvation.

Peter’s sermon and its surprising result teach us five lessons:

1. Salvation is not based on national identity nor is it based on good works.

Peter begins his sermon by saying, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him” (10:34-35). The first part of that statement is easy to understand; the second part may cause some trouble.

By the first part, Peter means that God does not show favor to anyone based on the person’s nationality. That was not always the case. That God was not partial was taught in the Old Testament (Deut. 10:17), but it was in a decidedly Jewish context. Moses had just pointed out (Deut. 10:15) how God had chosen the Jews above all other peoples. In that context, he used God’s impartiality to exhort Israel not to accept bribes, to show equal justice to everyone, and even to treat aliens with love by meeting their basic needs. But the Old Testament clearly shows God’s favoritism for the Jews above other nations during the 2,000 years from Abraham to Christ. So you can see how difficult it would be for any Jew to shift his thinking on this matter.

But now God was doing a new thing. Through his vision of the sheet being let down from heaven and the subsequent events, Peter has come to this radical conclusion, that God is not partial to anyone on the basis of nationality. Now God could bring Gentiles directly into a relationship with Him apart from their becoming Jews. This insight would change the history of the world.

The application for us is that people from every racial and national background are on equal footing when it comes to receiving the gospel. They don’t have to become “Americanized” to become Christians. They can keep cultural traditions that do not violate Scripture. They can sing songs that fit with their culture, even if they don’t sound like American hymns. They can dress in their native styles, as long as they are modest. American missionaries need to be careful not to imply that to become a Christian is to become an American. God forbid!

The second part of Peter’s statement is more difficult to understand. At first glance, it seems to contradict the first part, that God does not show partiality. It sounds like God is partial to those who fear Him and do what is right. And it seems to imply that God accepts people based on good character and good works, which goes against salvation by grace through faith apart from works.

We need to interpret it in the context of this chapter. Cornelius was a God-fearing man who did many good deeds (10:2, 22). In his introduction, Peter seems to be courteously acknowledging this, much as an evangelist might find something in his audience to compliment as a way of building a bridge to them. But we need to understand that although Cornelius was a good man, his goodness had not saved him. Peter came to explain the way of salvation to him because he still needed to be saved (11:14). He still needed to receive forgiveness for his sins (10:43). The whole point of the narrative is to show how this man came to salvation.

As I have said in earlier messages, whenever a man is seeking after God, it is because God is working to draw that man to Himself (Rom. 3:10; John 6:44, 65). Cornelius has not yet come across the line of salvation, but his fear of God and his good deeds show that God is drawing him toward that point. Before Peter’s sermon is over, he crosses the line and gets saved.

God works differently with different people. He saves some right out of the cesspool of sin. They are wallowing in it, not seeking after God, when He dramatically enters their lives and rescues them. At that moment, they turn from their sins to follow Christ. But with others, like Cornelius, God puts the hunger in their hearts to know Him. They begin to seek Him and they try to please Him with their lives. But they’re still sinners and they do not get saved until they hear the gospel and believe in Jesus Christ.

Here’s the lesson to be learned from Cornelius: If you want to know God and have your sins forgiven, you’re more likely to succeed through reading the Bible and going to a Bible-preaching church than by going to the local bar. In other words, God uses certain means to save people. If a person keeps on in his sinful ways, he is not using the means that God has given to reveal His salvation. By reading God’s Word and by listening to the preaching of the Word, the seeking soul will be rewarded as Cornelius was, by obtaining eternal life. But in every case, salvation is not by nationality or by any righteousness of our own. It is by God’s grace.

2. Salvation centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Luke probably gives us just a synopsis of Peter’s sermon. Many commentators point out that it follows the pattern of Mark’s gospel, beginning with John’s baptism, telling of Jesus’ ministry of doing good and healing, both in Galilee and Jerusalem. He briefly mentions the crucifixion, but camps more on the resurrection and the witnesses who had been chosen beforehand by God to tell of these things. He emphasizes that the risen Lord had commanded them solemnly to testify that He has been appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead. He concludes by saying that all the prophets bear witness that through His name, everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.

Note several details from Peter’s sermon. First, God took the initiative in sending the gospel. He sent the word to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (10:36). Men may come up with various ways to approach or appease God, but they all fall short. Only God could initiate the way of peace by sending His Son to this earth as the One who would bear our sins. The fact that Christ preached peace implies that there is hostility and alienation between sinful men and the holy God. Many people are oblivious to such hostility. They do not understand God’s absolute holiness and His hatred of all sin. While they admit that they aren’t perfect, they see themselves as basically good. They compare themselves with criminals and other evil people, and conclude that God will let them into heaven someday because they are not like these overtly wicked people.

But the Bible plainly declares that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). If we have broken only one of God’s holy commandments, we are guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10). Those who think that they are righteous enough to enter God’s holy presence are guilty of pride of the worst sort. Thus there is hostility between them and God, even if they do not realize it. Jesus Christ is God’s only means of peace.

Also, notice that Peter states plainly that Jesus is Lord of all, meaning, not only Lord of the Jews, but also of Gentiles. This emphasizes both Jesus’ deity, since the Lord is God, and His absolute authority. This ties into the end of his sermon, where he states that God has appointed the risen Lord Jesus to be the Judge of the living and the dead. Everyone who has ever lived will stand trial before the Lord Jesus, who will judge every thought and intent of the heart.

Further, Peter emphasizes how God anointed Jesus 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 (10:38). Christ (or Messiah) means anointed one. In His humanity, Jesus showed us how we as humans should live, in dependence upon God, doing good to others, and overcoming Satan’s oppression. This also shows the cosmic battle that rages between God and Satan. To preach the gospel is to engage in combat with this evil enemy.

Jesus’ death on the cross (Peter uses the word “tree” to bring up the nuance of the curse) was God’s means of making peace between Himself and sinners. Jesus paid the debt that we deserve. God took our sin and laid it on Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb, who had no sin of His own (Isa. 53). Because He is God, His death has infinite value; because He is man, His death is the perfect substitute for the sins of humans.

But had Jesus died and remained in the grave, His death would not have sufficed. God raised Him up on the third day and substantiated His resurrection by making Him visible to certain chosen witnesses (10:40-41). Peter mentions that they ate and drank with Him to underscore the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and to show that it was not merely a spiritual resurrection, but physical. This risen Lord Jesus is the One whom God appointed to be the Judge of everyone who has ever lived. Peter concludes with the good news, that all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.

Peter’s sermon offers several applications for us. First, people need to understand the basic facts about the life and ministry of Jesus before they can make an intelligent decision to repent and believe in Him. If they have never read the Gospels, they may need to start there to gain enough information to respond to Christ.

Second, we need to stay focused on the person and work of Christ when we talk to people about spiritual things. It’s easy to get distracted and talk about evolution or predestination or some moral or social issue. Keep bringing the conversation back to who Jesus is and what He did on the cross. Jesus is the issue!

Third, we have not adequately proclaimed the gospel if we leave out the lordship of Jesus and the solemn fact of the coming judgment. Peter lets his audience know that Jesus is Lord whether they acknowledge Him as such or not, and that He is the coming Judge of everyone. Unless people realize that they have been in rebellion against the rightful Lord of the universe and that they will stand before Him as guilty someday, they have no reason to repent and flee to the cross for forgiveness. If we skim over the bad news in an attempt not to offend someone, they might “try” Jesus to see if He makes them happier. But if He “doesn’t work,” they will turn to something else. They won’t have what it takes to endure hardship or persecution.

3. Salvation spreads to others through the faithful proclamation of God’s appointed witnesses.

Peter repeatedly emphasizes this point. He says, “We are witnesses of all the things He did” (10:39). He repeats that they were witnesses of His resurrection, chosen beforehand by God (10:41). He adds that Jesus ordered them to preach to the people and testify about Jesus as the coming Judge (10:42). And, he adds how all the prophets bear witness of Jesus as the One we must believe in to receive forgiveness of sins (10:43).

The point for us is that if God has saved us from our sins, then He has appointed us as witnesses to others of the salvation that is available through Jesus Christ. God’s method is not to proclaim the gospel through the angels or to shout it from heaven. His method is to use His people to tell others.

4. Salvation comes to everyone who believes in the name of Jesus.

The name of Jesus refers to all that He is and all that He did. Even though Cornelius was a good man, he still needed to hear about Jesus Christ and to put his trust in Him. As Peter proclaimed in 4:12, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” This means that there is no salvation for good Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no salvation for good Americans who live in a supposedly “Christian” nation, apart from personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no salvation for good Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses as long as they continue to believe in a false Jesus rather than the person of the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the Bible. But there is salvation for everyone who believes in Him.

Believing in the name of Jesus does not refer to a general, vague sort of belief. Rather, it is specific and personal. To believe in Jesus means that I believe He is the Lord who gave Himself on the cross for my sins. I believe the promise of God, that whoever believes on Him receives eternal life as God’s gift, not based on any human merit, but only on God’s free grace. To believe in Jesus means that I no longer rely on anything in myself to commend myself to God. Rather, I trust only in what Jesus did on the cross as my hope for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Thus Peter’s sermon teaches us that salvation is not based on national identity or good works. It centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. It spreads to others through the faithful proclamation of God’s witnesses. It comes to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Finally,

5. Salvation results in obvious evidence in those who receive it.

Peter didn’t even get to finish his sermon before everyone responded! In fact, in recounting it, he says, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them” (11:15). He was just warming up when God intervened and everyone got saved! I can only touch on them, but note these four evident results:

  • They received the Holy Spirit.

Since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the believer at the moment of salvation (Rom. 8:9; Gal. 3:2). This is not something that we feel experientially, but rather a fact that God’s Word declares. As a believer learns to walk in the Spirit, over time the deeds of the flesh will diminish and the fruit of the Spirit will increase (Gal. 5:16-23), thus making the Spirit’s presence evident.

  • They spoke in unlearned foreign languages.

This text does not teach that speaking in tongues is the normal experience of those who get saved and receive the Holy Spirit. This was a unique situation. God gave this miraculous sign to the Gentiles so that the Jewish Christians would realize that they were on equal footing (11:15, 17). As I’ve said before, this gift was not ecstatic utterances, but rather speaking in translatable foreign languages that the speaker had not studied. This fact alone shows that most tongues-speaking today is not the New Testament gift.

  • They were baptized in water.

Water baptism is the outward profession of what God has done spiritually, and thus it follows salvation. Peter did not baptize these people himself, but let those Jews who had traveled with him do it to involve them in what had happened. Everyone who has believed in Christ as Savior and Lord should obey Him by being baptized in water.

  • They desired to know more and to grow in their faith.

They asked Peter to stay on for a few days, and the implication is that he did stay on to instruct them in their new faith. Everyone who is truly saved will desire to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). Like newborn babes, we will long for the milk of the Word, that by it we may grow in respect to salvation, if we have tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Pet. 2:2-3).

Conclusion

Dr. A. C. Gaebelein, a Bible teacher who lived early in the 20th century, was holding evangelistic meetings at a YMCA. As you know, the Y used to be distinctly Christian in focus. One day the director of the Y showed Gaebelein a card that he was in the habit of handing out. It read, “I promise faithfully henceforth to lead a religious and Christian life.” There was a place to sign one’s name. The man said, “How do you like that? Isn’t that a pretty good way of putting it?”

Dr. Gaebelein replied, “How on earth can a dead man live any kind of a life? What is the use of putting a card like that into the hands of a dead sinner and having him sign it and say, ‘I promise faithfully henceforth to lead a religious and Christian life’? You cannot live a life for God until you receive a life from God.” (Told by H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies [Loizeaux Brothers], p. 102.)

Salvation does not come to anyone through his or her efforts to live the Christian life. Even good, religious people need the forgiveness that Jesus offers. He will be either your Judge or your Savior. He offers salvation to everyone who will believe in Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is verse 35 not teaching that good works merit God’s favor?
  2. What are some illustrations you can use to show people that salvation is not by human effort or good works?
  3. Why must people hear and understand the bad news before they can truly receive the good news? Should we attempt to impress it on them or should we leave it to the Holy Spirit?
  4. Some say that speaking in tongues is the sign of receiving the Holy Spirit. How would you refute this biblically?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)