"Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils (Greek demons) also believe, and tremble." (James 2: 19)
I have reasoned with Hardshells and others who think that Cornelius was a saved or regenerate man before he came to believe in Jesus. I have already written on this in Chpt. 88 - Hardshell Proof Textx X. One of the reasons why this cannot be true is because of the word of God to Cornelius:
"...Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou, and all thy house shall be saved." (Acts 11: 13-14)
Hardshells insist that the salvation promised to Cornelius and his household, as a result of believing the Gospel, was not eternal salvation from sin and Hell, but a mere temporal salvation. They insist that Cornelius was already eternally saved, and would be finally saved, whether he ever heard the Gospel or believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. But, numerous Scriptures prove that all who do not believe in Christ are lost. For instance:
1) "He who does not believe shall be condemned." (Mark 16: 16) 2)
2) "...and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him." (John 3: 36) 3)
3) "...if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins." (John 8: 24)
4) "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha." (I Cor. 15: 22)
Hardshells argue that Cornelius' fear of God was proof of his regeneration and I cited the above words of James to show that such a deduction was untenable. If fearing God, in itself, was proof of a regenerated state, then the demons would be regenerate. One Hardshell recently attempted to answer this rebuttal by saying that it was not appropos to cite the case of demons and apply them to the case of men. In other words, he argued that it is true that the fear of God by demons does not prove they are regenerate but the fear of God by men does prove that they are regenerate. But, his reply should be directed to the Apostle James for James thought it was apropos to use the case of demons to prove his case relative to men.
James affirmed that believing in one God was not sufficient to prove that one is saved, and he brings up the case of demon belief in one God to prove it. But, our Hardshell opponent would say to James - "you are correct to argue that belief in one God by demons does not prove that demons are saved, but you are wrong to infer the same with regard to men; men who believe in one God are saved." But, James does use the case of demon faith in God to prove that men who believe in one God are not saved. Likewise, James proves that one can believe in one God and fear that one God and still be lost. And, what is the proof James gives? He says that the demons believe and fear God. But, they are lost. Ergo, men who believe in one God and fear God are not saved. What James is showing is that mere belief in one God and fear of him is not enough for salvation.
Besides, though Cornelius feared God, there was yet no faith in Christ. Fear of God, by itself, is no proof of regeneration. Faith is what proves that a man is regenerate and there is no record that Cornelius had faith in Christ before he heard the Gospel. In fact, Peter testifies that it was through his preaching to Cornelius that Cornelius came to faith.
"And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe." (Acts 15: 7)
Cornelius was not a believer in Jesus before he heard Peter preach to him about Jesus. This is what Paul taught.
"How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?...So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Rom. 10: 14-17)
How could Cornelius be saved before he believed and called upon the name of the Lord? If faith comes by hearing the word of God, and Cornelius had not yet heard it, then Cornelius did not have faith till he heard Peter preach the word.
Further, the Apostles interpreted the coming to faith in Christ, by Cornelius, as being equivalent to Cornelius being "granted repentance unto life." (Acts 11: 18)
Now let us look at some other men who feared God before they were saved, or men who feared God and his judgment and who were not saved.
"And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." (Acts 24: 25)
This was said of Felix, a wicked man who, at the time this was written, was clearly an unsaved man. Yet, the preaching of coming judgment caused him to tremble for fear. This is no unique experience. Lots of sinners have been made to fear when under conviction of sin. On this point Dr. Gill wrote:
"And this sort of fear arises, 2a1. From a sense of sin, and the guilt of it on the conscience, without a view of pardon; thus no sooner were Adam and Eve sensible of their sin and their nakedness by it, but they fled through fear from the presence of God, and hid themselves among the trees of the garden, as yet having no discovery of pardoning grace made to them; for said Adam to God calling for him, "I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself", Ge 3:10. Thus a wicked man, conscious of his guilt, flees when no man pursues, and is like Pashur, a Magormissabib, "fear round about", a terror to himself and others.
2a2. From the law entering the conscience of a sinner, having broken it and working wrath in it; for the law, when it comes with powerful convictions of sin, and with menaces of punishment for it, "it worketh" present "wrath", or a sense of it in the conscience, and leaves a "fearful looking for of judgment" to come, and of "fiery indignation" which shall consume "the adversaries" of God; when persons in such a condition and circumstances would be glad of rocks and mountains to fall on them and hide them from the wrath of God, which appears to them intolerable.
2a3. From the curse of the law, and the weight of it on the conscience. The voice of the law is terrible, it is a voice of words which they that heard intreated they might hear no more. It accuses of sin, pronounces guilty for it, is a ministration of condemnation and a killing letter; its language is, "Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them", #Ga 3:10 which to hear is dreadful when the conscience of a sinner is awakened; but how much more terrible is it, when a sinner feels as it were in his own apprehension all the curses of the law upon him, as he does when "the anger of the Lord, and his jealousy/ smoke against" him, "and all the curses written in the lair lie upon him", #De 29:20 with what slavish fear must he be then filled?
2a4. From a view of death as the demerit of sin; "The wages of sin is death", the just desert of it; sin is the sting of death, gives it its venom and fatal influence, and makes it that terrible thing it is; and some "through fear of death are all their life time subject to bondage", and are under a continual servile fear of it.
2a5. From a dread of hell and everlasting damnation. This fear is of the same kind with that of devils, who believe there is one God and tremble; tremble at present wrath and future torment. So wicked men, who have a fearful apprehension of everlasting punishment, it appears to them greater than they can bear, as it did to Cain." (on "The Fear Of God" in his Body of Practical Divinity)
Gill is right. Unregenerate men, when awakened to their danger, feel a deep sense of fear towards God and to coming judgment. Yet, this in itself is no proof of regeneration as Gill and other great Calvinists have pointed out. (See my chapters on "Hardshells and Conviction" for a further analysis of this issue.
"And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here. Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." (Acts 16: 27-31)
This jailer was under conviction of sin and possessed a fear of God and yet he knew that he was lost and needed to be saved. In answer to his question - "what must I do to be saved?" - the Apostle, had he been a Hardshell, would have said - "why nothing! The fact that you are in fear of God is evidence that you are already saved."
"Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences." (II Cor. 5: 11)
On this verse Spurgeon wrote in his autobiograhphy:
"I sometimes preach 'the terror of the Lord,' as Paul did when he said, 'Kinowing therefor the terror of the Lord, we persuade men;' but I do it as did the apostle, to bring them to a sense of their sins." (pg. 54 - see here)
Just as Felix trembled at the preaching of a final judgment day by the Apostle Paul, so we hope that sinners will likewise fall under such dread and fear. For such are good subjects for hearing the good news about salvation in Christ. The fear of God is what ought to lead men to Christ. It is a preparatory work to regeneration, not an evidence of it. The Hebrews who stood before Mt. Sinai when it "burned with fire," and its "blackness, and darkness, and tempest," (Heb. 12: 18) were terrified, and "so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake." (vs. 21) But, not all the Hebrews who stood before Mt. Sinai were born again children of God. In fact, the most of them were not. Yet, they all feared the God who appeared to them.
C. B. Hassell wrote:
"Should the Lord create an humble, teachable and inquiring disposition in the heart of an inhabitant of China, Japan or the unexplored parts of Africa, He would sooner send an angel from Heaven, or a minister from the uttermost part of the earth, to show him the way of salvation, than leave him destitute of that knowledge, for which he longs and prays without ceasing. The alms and supplications of such persons spring from right principles and motives, and go up as a memorial before God, not to merit His favor, but to plead with Him to fulfill His gracious promises." (pg. 203 of Hassell's History)
Cornelius' heart was prepared by the Lord for the preaching of the Gospel, or for salvation. His heart was plowed up and prepared like the good soil in the parable of the sower and the seed. But, such preparation is not regeneration, as our Old Baptist forefathers understood, but was preparation for it. Whereever there is such a heart and soul, the Lord will get the Gospel to that person, as the elder Hassell stated. When Christ said that he "must go through Samaria" (John 4: 4), it was because a woman was there who needed the Gospel, needed to be saved, and whose heart the Lord had prepared for it. But, she was not saved till he came to her with the good news about living water. The Hardshells need to understand the difference between a heart that is being prepared for regeneration and regeneration itself.