The opening verses of the tenth chapter of Acts give a rather glowing description of a man named Cornelius. The first verse notes that Cornelius was a ranking officer, a centurion, in the Roman army at Caesarea. The second verse describes him as, “A devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.” The next four verses depict Cornelius seeing an angel in a vision in answer to his prayers. The angel gave Cornelius instructions to send to the city of Joppa for Simon Peter in order that Peter could come to Cornelius’ home and teach him and his household the gospel. The rest of the chapter deals with God preparing Peter for the mission, the messengers from Cornelius traveling to Joppa, Peter entering the home of Cornelius, Cornelius recounting his vision for Peter, Peter teaching the gospel to those of Cornelius’ household, and their obedient reaction to that teaching, culminating in their being baptized. Now, back to verse two..
Cornelius was a “devout” man. Today we take that word to mean something it does not necessarily mean in the context of Acts ten. We think of devout as meaning sincere, devoted, dedicated, faithful, even spiritual. We would probably equate being devout with being godly and even carry it a step further and say that a devout person is saved. However, not all of that is necessarily indicated in the word, especially as used in the Greek text of the New Testament.
To be devout is to be dedicated, devoted and sincere. But what it is that a devout person is dedicated and devoted to, and sincere about, is not automatically understood in the word. A person can be a devout Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or even a devout atheist. There is no automatic connotation with Godliness inherent in the word devout. There is no unspoken connection with Christianity, and being devout says nothing about a person’s salvation. Indeed, the word devout is never used in the New Testament in connection with a Christian’s salvation.
Obviously, the text indicates that Cornelius being devout had something to do with his belief in God. He “feared God with all his household.” He “prayed to God always.” But this says nothing about his fuller understanding of God. It simply indicated that, according to whatever understanding of God Cornelius had, he was devout. He may have believed in and worshipped idols as well, for he undoubtedly was raised in that kind of culture.
Cornelius having been devout also says nothing about his salvation. Indeed, he obviously he needed to learn about salvation. That was the purpose of the angel’s instruction that Cornelius send for Peter. Peter came to Cornelius’ home and taught him of salvation in Christ. In response to that teaching, Cornelius and his household were baptized. There is no question but that baptism is the point at which a person receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16) and reaches a state of salvation (Mk. 16:15-16; 1 Pet. 3:21).
Cornelius was saved and became a Christian only when he was baptized. He was devout before he was baptized, but he was not saved. He was not a Christian. No doubt, he remained devout after he was baptized. But after his baptism he had a different understanding of God, and he had a different direction in which to live out his devotion. Before being baptized he was devout. After being baptized he was both devout and saved. We must be careful to not confuse the difference between being just devout and being saved…
Gary L. Hutchens