The question Are there non-Christians saved by their pagan faith in the New Testament? many seem like an oddly specific and out-of-the-blue question, but let me explain:
In previous articles in this series, we have been looking at the inclusivistic beliefs of scholar Clark Pinnock. Inclusivism is the belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work (including his death and resurrection) achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to benefit from it and be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or pursuing their personal understanding of God or spirituality.
To support his view, Pinnock cites Cornelius in the New Testament (Acts 10:1–48) and other “pagan saints” in the Old Testament like Abraham, Melchizedek, Abimelech, Job, and Abel. God shows no partiality in his love for the world, Pinnock argues, and Cornelius represents that “God never leaves himself without a witness among all people (Acts 14:17).”
On the other hand, Pinnock freely admits that he does not know “exactly what role, if any, a given religion plays,” but he is confident the Spirit is at work “when and where it is possible and appropriate” to use non-Christian religions. Pinnock states, “Everyone must eventually pass through Jesus to reach the Father, but there is more than one path for arriving at this place… All the paths that lead to God end up at Jesus, but they do not all start with him.”
We already explored whether the Holy Spirit works apart from Christ and concluded that he does not. We will look at the Old Testament in the next (and final) article in this series. For now, let’s quickly look at Cornelius, the supposed “pagan saint” of the New Testament.
Inclusivists like Pinnock often cite Cornelius in Acts 10 as an example of a saved nonbeliever, a “pagan saint” in the New Testament era, but this is not the case. (Take a moment to read the New Testament account here.)
First, the Roman Cornelius and his household are not pagans who have saving faith, but “God-fearers” — non-Jews who follow the Jewish faith. Cornelius is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (10:2). Despite this, Cornelius is not saved; Christ is the fulfillment of the Jewish faith (Matt. 5:17), so to follow Judaism without knowing Christ does not grant salvation.
Secondly, Cornelius and his household are clearly not saved until after learning of Christ. Peter clearly proclaims to them the gospel in 10:34–43, concluding with “everyone who believes in him [Christ Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).
Immediately, as Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit “fell on all who heard the word” (10:44) and they began speaking in tongues and praising God (10:46). Recognizing the Holy Spirit’s work in them, Peter calls for them to be immediately baptized. It’s odd that so many inclusivists appeal to Cornelius when it is so plain that salvation did not come until after learning of Christ and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Some inclusivists may say this episode illustrates how general revelation (that one can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses) can work in non-Christian religions to bring one to saving faith. Perhaps general revelation brought Cornelius from being a pagan to a God-fearer, but his salvation only came about through special revelation (the unique supernatural works of God throughout history) in visions to both him (10:3–6) and Peter (10:10–16), as well as the Holy Spirit speaking directly to Peter (10:19–20), through hearing a gospel proclamation, and through the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting Cornelius and his household of the truth of Peter’s proclamation.
The only part of this episode that may support inclusivism would be 10:34–35, where Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” It is doubtful Peter is speaking here of saving faith. The main point of Acts 10 is to show that God’s salvation extends to everyone, not just to the Jews, as illustrated in Peter’s vision of the animals (Acts 10), symbolizing the ending of Old Testament dietary laws due to Christ fulfilling the law.
Furthermore, the word translated “acceptable” (dektos) is not the word used in the New Testament for justification (dikaioo) — to be made right with God — and Peter goes on to explain specifically in 10:34 that salvation comes from believing in Christ.
Where the episode with Cornelius does not support the inclusivist view that general revelation (that one can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses) can bring saving faith apart from Christ, it does give hope that God seeks out his people and saves them through special revelation, the unique supernatural works of God throughout history, including Christ himself, the Bible, the gospel, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
NEXT: Are all the faithful people in the Old Testament damned to hell simply because they lived before the life and work of Jesus Christ?
Want to support me as I defend the faith and give a reason for the hope of Christ to college students at Rutgers University? Learn more by clicking here.