Acts 10:1 through 11:18 contains the story of a Roman soldier named Cornelius.
He was a minor character in the New Testament, but he played a significant
role. Jesus used him to change the course of history.
You remember the story: after his death and resurrection, Jesus wanted to extend his church to include the gentiles, so he sent a vision to Peter. But Peter could not receive the message, so the Lord played billiards: he found another man and used him to get the message to Peter. That man was Cornelius.
He was a centurion; that is, a company commander, in charge of 100 men. There were ten centurions in a cohort, sixty in a legion. It was the highest rank to which an ordinary soldier could aspire, and a very responsible position. Centurions were the working officers, the backbone of the Roman army.
Cornelius was stationed at Caesarea, the Roman headquarters in Palestine, and assigned to the Italian Cohort. He was a gentile--a pagan--but he was known as a devout man who respected the Jewish God and did many acts of mercy.
About three o'clock one afternoon while he was praying, an angel dropped in for a visit. Cornelius was terrified, but he kept enough of his wits about him to ask what the angel wanted.
The angel said, "Your prayers and your acts of mercy have gone up into the record kept in the presence of God."
Whoa! Wait a minute! Let's review the bidding. This guy was not a Christian or a Jew. He owned slaves. He was moderately wealthy. And he was a military man, a professional soldier in an army of occupation.
The Jews say that a man must be circumcised according to the law of Moses; but Cornelius was not. Christians say that one must be baptized in water according to the custom of John the Baptist; but Cornelius was not. Pentecostal Christians say one must also be baptized in the Holy Spirit; but Cornelius was not.
I have been told that God loves the poor and rejects the rich; but Cornelius was not poor. And I have been told to my face that I could not possibly be a Christian--that my worship is not acceptable to God--because I am a professional soldier. But so was Cornelius.
So here we have this man, this Roman officer, at three o'clock in the afternoon. An angel drops in and tells him he is known by name in heaven. Why? How was he qualified? Jews and Christians would have said he was condemned to hell. Suppose he had been run over by a chariot and killed on his way home that day. What would be the judgment concerning his soul?
I believe the answer is simple. Cornelius did not meet any human checklist for salvation. All he did was obey the two essential commandments: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. His prayers were a manifestation of his love for God, and his mercies were a product of his love for his neighbors. And that was enough. If he had died that day, he probably would have been surprised to learn that his genuine love for God and man were a matter of public record in heaven.
From this and many other passages in the New Testament, I believe God's plan of salvation does not include all the items on the checklist of any church. That is the lesson we can learn from Cornelius: if we obey the two essential commandments, we don't have to worry about the rest.