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taken by itself, and thus understood, has emboldened many persons to put their salvation on their own strength, in opposition to the method revealed and declared by the Son of God. This error is so common, that it is essentially necessary for us to understand the true meaning of the Apostle, in order to guard our minds against it.
The Jews (as has been frequently observed) had a notion, that the blessings of the promised MESSIAH were peculiar to themselves, and not to be extended to any other nation or people whatever; looking upon them as aliens from GoD, and not under his care and protection. St. Peter had this opinion in common with
countrymen, till he found by comparing Cornelius's vision with his own, that God had determined to admit the Gentiles, as well as the Jews, into the church of CHRIST. On which he 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 accepted with him;" the meaning of which is, "I now at length perceive, that GOD hath not confined his mercies to a particular nation only, but that all are capable of inheriting the promises in CHRIST JESUS, who are duly prepared by righteousness and the fear of GOD."
This will farther appear to be the true interpretation, if we examine the case of Cornelius, and what the acceptance was that he found. Cornelius was a Gentile, and one of the best of them, a devout man, and one that feared GoD with all his house, gave much alms to the people, and prayed to Gon alway: and yet his goodness did not make it unnecessary for him to become a Christian. The heavenly vision was not sent to satisfy him that his righteousness was sufficient, and that he had no need to look out for farther assistance or direc
tion. On the contrary, it was sent to inform him where he might seek and find a proper instructor. St. Peter had a vision also, to prepare him to do the duty of an Apostle to a Gentile Centurion; and, in obedience to the heavenly warning, he baptized him with water; for St. Peter now understood, that men of all nations who do righteously are accepted with GOD. But he did not from this infer, that those who did the best by the light of nature, had no need of any other teacher; for had he thought so, he would not have instructed Cornelius in the knowledge of CHRIST, and baptized him in his name. St. Peter therefore certainly meant, that all Gentiles, duly prepared, were capable of the blessings of the Gospel through the mercy of Gon, in opposition to his former error, that none but Jews had such a privilege. And the Apostle undoubtedly understood, that the best of the Gentiles had need of the Gospel, or else his commendation of the goodness of GOD amounted only to this, that he per. ceived that God would give to the honest-minded Gentiles, who feared him and did righteously, that which they had no occasion to receive.
Hence we may understand what is the true notion of that acceptance, which St. Peter says the Gentiles of all nations are entitled to, through the mercy of GOD. We will next consider the terms to which he has limited this privilege. He does not say, that men of all nations are accepted of God, but that in every nation he that feareth GoD and worketh righteousness is accepted of him. The meaning of this will be best explained from a text in one of St. Paul's Epistles *, " Without FAITH it is impossible to please GOD: for he that cometh to him must believe
See Heb. xi. 6.
that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him ;” which implies, that a man cannot offer himself to God, much less enter into the covenant of his mercy, without a firm persuasion of his being, and a due notion of his attributes; which two articles of belief infer a just fear of GoD, as the supreme Governor of the world, and a desire to please him, as the disposer of rewards and punishments, according to the good or evil that we do. This then is the faith, without which it is impossible to please GOD-the faith with which men of every nation are accepted by him. From the light of REASON only, men may discover the Being of a God, and the necessity of righteousness, in order to obtain his favour; the Gospel confirms this doctrine; and supposing men possessed of this knowledge, shews them the perfect rule of righteousness prescribed by GoD himself, which reason, unassisted by divine revelation, could never have discovered.
Cornelius was as perfectly righteous as the light of reason could make him, yet St. Peter was sent to convert him to Christianity; which Cornelius, convinced of the insufficiency of his own righteousness, and glad to have a guide to direct his way, was willing to embrace. From which we may infer, that the best of the Gentiles, even those who worshipped the true GoD, stood in need of the assistance of the GOSPEL of CHRIST to make themselves secure of obtaining the end of their hopes, glory, and immmortality from Gon, who is the rewarder of those who diligently serve him.
Had Cornelius died as he lived, a devout Gentile in the fear of GOD, full of alms and prayers, without being called to the knowledge of CHRIST, we may from many texts of Scripture suppose, that he would have found rest to his soul through the mercy of GoD, and
sat down with Abraham and Isaac in the kingdom of GOD; but his happiness in this world at least was certainly increased, and his obedience rendered more acceptable to GoD, by having life and immortality brought to light by the Gospel. But what would have been his case if he had rejected the call, and refused to hearken to St. Peter, and had insisted on his own merit and virtues in opposition to the grace that was offered him through the Gospel? He would have no longer maintained the character of one fearing GOD, neither could he have prayed any more to God to guide and direct him, after having refused to be guided and directed by him. Nor would his alms have been an acceptable offering, after he had renounced that obedience which is better than sacrifice, and which is the only thing that can sanctify our imperfect works.
If reason and natural religion teach us that it is our duty to please and obey GOD, they cannot teach us to reject the counsel of GoD, and follow our own will in opposition to that of our Maker. Though the divine Will has not been made known to us as it was to Cornelius by a vision, we have been early instructed in the knowledge of the Gospel, and called to the faith and obedience of JESUS CHRIST, through the ordinary ministrations of the church. The voice of GOD is the same, whether he speaks by his Apostles or his Angels; and whatever the condition of those may be, who never heard of the LORD who bought them, ours is certainly very bad, if having heard of him we reject and despise him. 'Tis one thing not to believe in CHRIST because we know him not, and another to know him and disbelieve him. Though such ignorance may be our excuse, yet such knowledge must be our condemna.
Let us therefore imitate the good centurion, not merely in his moral conduct, but in an humble subjection of soul to the divine authority, that we may be disposed to receive salvation in the way God has been graciously pleased to appoint *.
PETER GIVES AN ACCOUNT OF HIS INTERVIEW WITH CORNELIUS. THE GOSPEL PREACHED AT ANTIOCH.
† After Peter and his brethren had continued some days with Cornelius they returned to Jerusalem, where the disciples were greatly alarmed at an imperfect report which had reached them, that some of the uncircumcised Gentiles had been admitted into the church by baptism; and as soon as they saw Peter, they questioned him with surprise and displeasure concerning his proceedings at Cesarea. Upon this Peter related the whole matter, informing them of his vision and that seen by Cornelius-the journey he took in consequence of it-the manner in which he found the good centurion and his friends assembled-and the extraordinary circumstance of the HOLY SPIRIT'S descent in the visible form of cloven tongues, as it did on the Apostles in the beginning of their ministry; which made him seriously reflect on our LORD'S words," John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the HOLY GHOST." He therefore considered this as a sign, that GoD accepted the Gentiles, and said he should have thought it the
* What I have given by way of Annotations and Reflections to this Section, is an abstract of Bishop Sherlock's dicourse on Acts x. 34, 35.
† Acts, ch. xi.