Believing What we Know, or When Was Cornelius Justified?, by David Bishop
Many who argue that justification is timeless also like to argue that the justification of all the elect happened when Christ died and rose again. One such self-contradictory person argues: “Another reason why the sinner’s faith is not the condition or instrument of his justification from sin is found in the story of Cornelius. According to Peter, Cornelius did not hear and believe the gospel until Peter preached it to him . . . Yet God informed Peter before he ever met Cornelius that Cornelius was already cleansed: ‘What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common (Acts 10:15).’ This surely proves that Cornelius was already freed from the guilt of sin before he believed!”
No, it doesn’t prove that Cornelius was already freed from the guilt of sin before he believed. What it does prove is exactly what the verse states, which is that Cornelius was not common! Or to put it another way, there exists one kind of vessel for common use, and another kind for uncommon.
Up until this moment in time in Peter’s life, Peter was under the impression that certain Jews only were numbered as God’s elect. God corrects him through a vision. No, Peter, certain Gentiles are also numbered as My elect.
The “timeless but at the cross” guys then argues: “Furthermore, it is the Holy Spirit’s own testimony that Cornelius had been a devout man and had feared God before he ever believed the gospel! Peter acknowledged this at the outset of his first discourse at Cornelius’ household: ‘But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righeousness is accepted with him.’ (Acts 10:35)”
We must not ignore the context in which that verse appears. Acts 10:37-43 very clearly and plainly states (Peter speaking to Cornelius and company): “You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God annointed Jesus of Nazareth 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. And we are witnesses of all that He did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put Him to death by hanging Him on a tree, but God raised Him on the third day and made Him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”
In Acts 10:37-43, it is very plain that Cornelius, a Gentile convert to the Jewish religion, and a man who lived in Joppa (a city located in the northwest corner of Judah, about forty or so miles from Jerusalem) knew who Jesus was, knew what He had done, knew that He had been crucified, and knew that certain men were proclaiming the news that they had ate and drank with Him after He had been raised from the dead.
Also, being a Jewish convert and one of God’s elect, Cornelius was well aware of the gospel message contained in the Old Testament Scriptures, and of the promise of a Messiah.
Now compare this with Ephesians 2:17 “and He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and peace to those who were near.” Afar off does not mean they lived an hour’s drive from the church. Afar off was a Pharisee term that was used to designate Gentile converts. Though they were converts, they were still nevertheless considered to be far from the covenant promises of God, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise – afar off, in other words.
The problem for Cornelius was that he had not yet been justified nor regenerated, and so did not believe what he knew. This does not mean Cornelius had been justified six months before he heard the gospel! Nor does it mean that I was born in a justified state, having been already justified for two-thousand years.
Faith is not the condition of justification. Imputed righteousness is the condition of justification. God in time imputes righteousness to the elect. If the “timeless” folks can say that the righteousness was imputed at the cross, why can’t they say it is imputed at different times to different elect?
We know when that time is, because the immediate effect of the imputation of the righteousness is faith in the gospel. Romans 8—the elect are given the Spirit of life because of righteousness. Galatians 4–because you are sons, God has given you the Spirit.