Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime pastor and author John Piper. We finish the week with a question from a listener named Nancy. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for this podcast. Here’s my question. Can an unbeliever please God? If not, what are we to make of the account of Cornelius in Acts 10? Can you explain this to me? Thank you!”
Let me begin with a couple of passages of Scripture that draw out our answer to Nancy’s question about whether unbelievers can please God. Then on the basis of that, we’ll tackle Cornelius.
This is Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Then Romans 14:23, which says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
I infer from those two passages (we could add others) that there is a sense in which everything that comes out of an unbelieving heart displeases the Lord. Or to say it differently, nothing that comes out of the heart of unbelief pleases the Lord.
“Nothing that comes out of the heart of unbelief pleases the Lord.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that unbelievers can’t perform acts which outwardly conform to God’s law. They don’t kill. They don’t steal. They don’t lie. In other words, they conform outwardly to some of God’s revealed will. What this shows is that it’s not simply external conformity to prescribed deeds that pleases the Lord. Right?
We parents know that. We don’t want external compliance from our kids while their hearts are far from us. What pleases the Lord is a heart of trust and love. What comes out of that heart pleases the Lord. In that sense, even the so-called right things that an unbeliever does are not pleasing to the Lord, because they are not deeds of faith — faith towards God and love for Jesus.
Now this raises the question of how God looks upon the steps a person takes toward Christ before they believe in Christ. That’s getting toward Cornelius, but we’re not there yet.
The answer, I think, is that each of those steps is a gift of free, unmerited grace as God moves a person toward the gospel, toward salvation, toward faith. As God looks upon the person himself, he sees him as unworthy of that gift of grace. That’s why we call it grace.
That’s what grace is: undeserved. It is done for a person who is not in himself pleasing the Lord, which is what we all feel when we finally get saved, when we finally believe — don’t we? We say, “Grace brought me here.” God looks upon his own work as a good and right and pleasing thing that he’s doing to get somebody to faith. It’s good that a person be drawn to Christ.
Now what about Cornelius? It’s not only chapter 10, but chapter 11 is all important as it retells the story again. Cornelius gets a lot of attention in the Book of Acts. It’s really, really amazing, and there are reasons for that.
“In all of Cornelius’s praying and almsgiving and fearing God, he’s not saved.”
Let’s refresh our memory about Cornelius. He was a Gentile centurion — that is, a non-Jewish, Roman military official. He’s described in Acts 10:2 as a man “who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”
An angel shows up in a vision and tells him that his prayers have ascended to God and that he should now send for the apostle Peter. In other words, the angel doesn’t show up and say, “You’re a very good man. You pray a lot and you do good deeds, and that’s that. Way to go. You’ll go to heaven.”
He doesn’t say that at all. He says, “Your prayers have been heard.” What the answer to the prayer consisted of was a call to go and get a gospel messenger. “You got some news you need to know in order to be saved,” says the angel. This is exactly what Luke’s going to say in just a minute. We see that God is at work in his free grace to bring Cornelius to the point where he can hear the gospel and be saved.
Meanwhile, Peter, up in Joppa, is receiving a similar kind of vision to get him ready to do something as a Jew that would be very hard to do — namely, go hang out in the house of a Gentile.
He gets this vision of all these unclean animals, and God says, “Don’t call anything unclean that I call clean” (see Acts 10:15). During part of that vision, he is told that he should be ready to associate with Gentiles, these unclean Gentiles, without fretting or worrying because they are just as “acceptable.” That’s the word.
They’re just as acceptable into God’s family as any Jewish unbeliever would be if they believed in Jesus. In Acts 11:12, Peter says that the Spirit made it plain that we should “make no distinction” — no distinction between these unclean Gentiles and these unbelieving Jews. They’re both equally valid candidates for faith in Jesus.
According to Acts 11:14, what the angel said to Cornelius was that Peter would “declare to you a message by which you will be saved.” That’s why I said chapter 11 is so important. Let me say it again. In Acts 11:14, the angel says to Cornelius, “[Peter] will declare to you a message by which you will be saved.” In all his praying and almsgiving and fearing God, he’s not saved.
Anybody who uses the story of Cornelius to say there’s a lot of saved people out among the nations that don’t need to hear the gospel are turning the story exactly upside down. The whole point of the story is, yes, there are people out there who need the gospel that God intends to save because he’s not prejudiced against any ethnicity.
“Declare to you a message by which you will be saved” means “Go to the Gentiles, for God has granted repentance to life” (see Acts 11:18). That’s what the Christians infer when they watch Cornelius and his family believe. They say, “Whoa, then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
The point of the story of Cornelius is that there are Gentiles scattered through the world who are “acceptable” to God in the sense of being able to be saved just as much as anybody else — no matter what their ethnic condition is.
“Without faith, it is impossible to please God. But God in his mercy draws unbelieving sinners to himself.”
There are many people throughout the world whom God, in his amazing grace, is not only finding acceptable but is granting that they pray and that they have visions and that they be drawn into contact with the gospel so that they can be saved.
We should not look upon those prayers or those deeds as good in and of themselves. That’s her original question. But we should see them as wonderful acts of God’s grace leading a person toward repentance, toward faith in the hearing of the gospel.
Bottom line (a conclusion to Nancy’s question): Without faith, it is impossible to please God. But God in his mercy draws unbelieving sinners to himself. In the process, he grants them desires and actions that lead to an encounter with the gospel so that they may believe and then lead a life of faith pleasing to the Lord.
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