One of the most exciting passages of Scripture is Acts 10:1-48, wherein the Kingdom is extended to the Gentiles, making the Gospel universal in scope. Additionally, one of the most interesting questions is often raised after reading this passage: Prior to Cornelius’ conversion, under what Divine law was he accountable? The answer is not immediately obvious.
Remember, Cornelius was not a Christian before Peter’s visit; he had not obeyed the Gospel. Nor was he a Jew (or convert to Judaism) because he was an uncircumcised Gentile.
If he wasn’t under the Christian or Mosaical system, under what law was he?
There is only one other system we have left out: a patriarchal system, handed down since the Garden of Eden.
You will recall that before the Mosaical system was instituted, all of the earth was under a patriarchal arrangement (The Lord communicated His Will directly/indirectly to each ‘household’ or genealogical line). We know very little about this system (because details are not given to us through revelation), but it can be seen in the lives of men like Job (cf. Job 1:5) and Abraham (cf. Gen. 12:8; 13:4, &c).
The Law of Moses was given only to the descendants of Jacob (whose name was changed to ‘Israel,’ hence his descendants are called the Israelites). Gentiles (non-Israelites) had the option of converting to the Law of Moses by means of circumcision (cf. Ex. 12:43-49, &c), but were not required to do so in order to be in a right relationship with God (so long as they complied with their Patriarchal arrangement). The reason why the descendants of Jacob were segregated from the rest of humanity was because God wanted a “holy people” in order to preserve the lineage of the Messiah (cf. Deut. 7:6; 14:2, &c).
Again, Cornelius, prior to Peter’s visit in Acts 10, was living according to a Patriarchal system. He was following God’s Will, and God had found favor with him (Acts 10:1-4).
You may disagree with me, which is okay. But you must explain two things:
1. Was there no salvation for the millions of people who were outside of the lineage of Jacob from Sinai to the Cross? The idea that God ‘predestined’ only one lineage to be saved is just as dark and wicked as the modern Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. This is clearly refuted by Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:12-16. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).
2. Was every Gentile, in order to be saved, required to convert to the Mosaical System? Was there an Old Testament ‘Great Commission’ to “go into all the world” and proclaim the Law of Moses?
The idea that Cornelius was worshipping and living under a Patriarchal system is the only satisfying conclusion.
Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know the details of the Patriarchal arrangement for the Gentiles, possibly handed down for centuries?
Note two things from our Biblical conclusion about Cornelius:
1. We have an answer to the question of whether or not a Gentile had to convert to Judaism in order to be saved in Old Testament times.
2. The extension of the Gospel to the Gentiles was a ‘clean cut.’ Cornelius was not ‘on the fence’ regarding Judaism, picking & choosing which practices to observe. He was 100% Gentile. We can take comfort in the fact that the Gospel really has been extended to all of humanity.
 David Lipscomb took issue with this conclusion in his book, Questions & Answers (1921, pg. 150). Yet this is the conclusion of Guy N. Woods in his book Questions & Answers: Open Forum (1976, Vol. 1, pg. 63), supplying an explanation that is much more thorough and satisfying.
I really want to hear your comments, even if they are in disagreement! However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here