Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And there was a certain man of Cesarea named Cornelius, a captain [centurion] of the band which was called the Italian band; 2. A devout man, and one that feared God with his household, and one which gave alms to all the people, and which prayed to God continually. 3. He saw plainly in a vision, about the ninth hour of the day, an angel of God coming in unto him, and saying to him, Cornelius. 4. And beholding, and being afraid, he said, What is it, Lord? Then he said to him, Thy prayers and thy alms are come up into remembrance before God. 5. And now send men to Joppa, and fet [send for] Simon, which is called Peter: 6. He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house lieth to the sea; he shall tell thee what thou must do.
1. Luke passeth over now unto a worthy 643 history, to wit, that God vouchsafeth to advance a stranger, and one uncircumcised, unto singular honor above all the Jews, because he doth both send his angel unto him, and for his sake bringeth Peter to Cesarea, that he may instruct him in the gospel. But first of all Luke showeth what manner of person this Cornelius was, for whose cause an angel descended from heaven, and God spake to Peter in a vision. He was a captain [centurion] of the Italian band; a band [cohort] did consist upon [of] a thousand footmen, and he which was chief captain was called a tribune, (or marshal.) Again, every hundred had a captain. A legion had for the most part five bands. That band was called the Italian band, because the Romans did choose soldiers oftentimes from amongst those which dwelt in the provinces; but they had the strength of the army 644 out of Italy; therefore, Cornelius was an Italian born; but he was at Cesarea with his hundred, to guard the city. For the Romans were wont so to distribute their places of abode, 645 that every city of renown might have a garrison to stay sudden uproars. A rare example that a soldier was so devout towards God, so upright and courteous towards men! For at that time the Italians, when as they were carried into the provinces to live in warfare, ran to and fro like hungry wolves to get some prey; they had for the most part no more religion than beasts; they had as great care of innocency as cutthroats; for which cause the virtues of Cornelius deserve the greater commendation, in that leading a soldier’s life, which was at that time most corrupt, he served God holily, and lived amongst men without doing any hurt or injury. And this is no small amplification of his praise, in that casting away superstition wherein he was born and brought up, he embraced the pure worship of God; for we know what account the Italians made of themselves, and how proudly they despised others. And the Jews were at that time in such contempt, that for their sakes pure religion was counted infamous, and almost execrable. Seeing that none of these things could hinder Cornelius, but that forsaking his idols he did embrace the true worship of the true God alone, it must needs be that he was endued with rare and singular sincerity. Moreover, he could find scarce any thing amongst the Jews wherewith he could be allured unto the study of godliness, because there was then scarce one amongst a thousand which had even some small smattering of the law; and, undoubtedly, Cornelius had lighted upon some good worshipper of God, who being sound from corrupt opinions, did expound unto him the law faithfully, without mixing any leaven therewith; but because Luke giveth him many titles of commendation, we must note them all [singly.]
2. He saith that he was a godly man, and one that feared God; secondly, that like a good householder he had a care to instruct his families; he praiseth him afterward for the offices of love, because he was beneficial [beneficent] toward all the people; and, lastly, that he prayed [to] God continually. The sum is this, that Cornelius was a man of singular virtues, wherein the integrity of the godly consisteth, so that his life was framed, in all points, according to the rule which God prescribeth unto us. And because the law is contained in two tables, Luke commendeth, in the former place, Cornelius’ godliness; secondly, he descendeth unto the second part, that he exercised the offices of love toward men. This is very profitable to be marked, because we have a way to live well described in his person.
Wherefore, in ordering the life well, let faith and religion be the foundation, which being taken away, all other virtues are nothing else but smokes. Luke reckoneth up the fear of God and prayer as fruits and testimonies of godliness and of the worship of God, and that for good causes. For religion cannot be separated from the fear of God and the reverence of him, neither can any man be counted godly, save he who acknowledging God to be his Father and Lord, doth addict himself wholly to him. And let us know that voluntary fear is commended in this place when those men submit themselves to God willingly and from their heart, who duly consider themselves what is due to him.
Moreover, because a great part of the world doth, with reigned trifles, corrupt and deprave the worship of God, Luke added, for good causes, that Cornelius prayed continually; whereby he doth signify, that he proved not his godliness only with external ceremonies, but that he worshipped God spiritually, when as he exercised himself in prayer. We must also note the continuance of his prayer; whence we gather, that he did not pray only coldly, after the common custom, but that he was earnestly bent to prayer, as the continual benefits of God do exhort us and prick us forward thereunto, and the force of faith ought there to show itself. Wherefore let every one of us exhort himself to persevere in prayer by the example of Cornelius.
With all his house. We must not lightly pass over this commendation that Cornelius had a church in his house. And, surely, a true worshipper of God will not suffer so much as in him lieth God to be banished from his house. For how unmeet a thing is it for him to maintain his own right stoutly, that his wife, children, servants, and maids may obey him, and not to regard that God is disobeyed. It shall sometimes fall out so that a godly man cannot have even his wife to be of his mind; yet he, which ruleth others, must endeavor by all means to have God obeyed; and there is nothing more meet than that we should consecrate all ours to God as ourselves. Therefore, if a godly man have children which are unlike him, or a wife of evil conditions, or lewd and wicked servants, let him not wink, nor yet suffer his house to be polluted through his slothfulness. The diligence of Cornelius is not so much commended as the blessing of God, whereby it came to pass that he had his house obedient unto him in godliness. And we must not omit the circumstance, that he instructed his family in the fear of God, setting light by the fear of danger, which did hang over his head therefore. For the Jewish religion was in great contempt; 646 and no citizen of Rome might freely 647 receive any strange religion, as they called it. Wherefore, although the sincere profession of the gospel be evil spoken of in the world, yet is it too corrupt frightfulness 648 if that unjust hatred hinder any man from offering his family to God for a sacrifice, by godly instruction.
Giving alms. There is also the figure synecdoche in this member, [clause.] For as it was said, even now, that the worship of God was proved by prayers, so now, when Luke speaketh of love, he maketh choice of one kind; whereby he showeth that Cornelius was a liberal and bountiful man. For our godliness ought so to appear to men, that we declare that we fear God by using bountifulness and justice. The word alms is translated unto those external good works wherewith we help the poor, (Isa 58:7,) forasmuch as misericordia, or mercy, is the inward affection of the heart properly. For from this fountain springeth true and well ordered bountifulness, if the troubles and sorrows of our brethren do move us to compassion; if, considering the unity which is amongst us, we foster and cherish them as we would cherish our own flesh, and study to help them as we would help our own members. Hypocrites are, indeed, sometimes liberal, or at least bountiful; but howsoever they waste all, 649 yet no relief which they shall bestow upon the poor shall be worthy to be called by the name of alms. For we must hold that of Paul, He which hath no love is nothing, though he give all his goods to the poor, (1Co 13:3.) Let us, therefore, learn by this word, that God doth then allow our liberality, if we relieve the poverty of the poor, being moved with compassion, and if, as it were, with open bowels we bestow that which the liberality of God doth give.
Whereas Luke saith that he gave alms to all the people, it signifieth as much as everywhere to the poor; for there were not a few rich men to whom to have given had been an absurd thing. But whereas he bestowed so liberally upon the Jews, he declared how he agreed with them in religion; in which respect Luke saith, shortly after, that he was allowed of 650 all the Jews. And if so be it he was such an excellent mirror of godliness and holiness, even when he had but a small smattering of faith, although he were letted so many ways, 651 ought not we to be ashamed who will be accounted most Christian doctors, and are yet so cold in the exercises of godliness? If a small sparkle of faith prevailed so much in him, what ought the full brightness of knowledge to work in us? But howsoever we boast of Christ with full mouth, yet how far are we, for the most part, from the example of the holy man, so that there appeareth scarce a small shadow of those virtues wherewith he was replete? For how loose 652 are we in prayer? How slow and sluggish to do the duties of mercy? Yea, many are not only letted with filthiness and covetousness from giving liberally so much of their own as they ought, but they are so inflamed with a desire 653 to have, they are become so beastly through cruelty, 654 that they are not afraid to rob the poor of their substance, and to eat their very flesh.
3. He saw in a vision. Luke putteth vision for a kind of oracle coming from God, that we may know that Cornelius was brought unto the faith of Christ after an heavenly manner. And because men are oftentimes deceived with juggling, Luke setteth down the time to avoid all suspicion, when he mentioneth the ninth hour. And at that time they were wont to divide the day into twelve hours; from the rising of the sun until the going down thereof. Whereupon it followeth that it was fair daylight when the angel appeared, that the vision might be more evident. Although there were always seals added unto visions, that they might free the servants of God from fear of illusions, because when he appeared in dreams, yet were there such marks of certainty imparted in their minds as would not suffer them to doubt.
4. And he beheld, and was afraid. Luke expresseth his attentiveness in plain words, that we may know that it was no vain imagination which came upon the man as he was sleeping or doing some other thing. The fear wherewith he was taken 655 proceeded from the perceiving of the majesty of God; 656 for so soon as men conceive the presence of God, they must needs be afraid and cast down with fear. And whereas his words do no whit terrify us, that must be imputed to our sluggishness, because we do not know nor perceive that it is God which speaketh. But the godly, to whom God revealeth himself in his word, do tremble when they hear it, as Isaiah saith, (Isa. 66:2, 5.) Furthermore, the sight of God is unto them terrible, not that they may always lie confounded, and be swallowed up of fear, but only that they may humbly address themselves to reverence him.
What is it, Lord? It appeareth plainly by this answer, that Cornelius’ mind was touched with religion; that he knew that he had to deal with God. Therefore the common translation hath it evil, 657 Who art thou, Lord? And it is likely that that which is there read was put in instead of this, forasmuch as in the Greek text there is no doubtfulness, whereby the interpreter might be deceived, and all the copies agree together in this reading, τι εστι. And assuredly, when Cornelius perceived that it is God, he submitteth himself to obey; as the answer is nothing but a commandment.
Thy prayers and alms. Because God seemeth to be after a sort deaf, unless he answer our petitions by and by, hence cometh that speech, that our prayers come unto him, and that he is mindful thereof. Furthermore, the angel assigneth this as the cause why God vouchsafeth to show to Cornelius the light of his gospel; because he hath heard his prayers and accepted his alms. Whence we gather that virtues and good works do not only please God, but that they are also adorned with this excellent reward, that he heapeth upon us and enricheth us with greater gifts for their sakes; according to that, “To him that hath shall be given,” (Mt 13:12.) And again,
“Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful in a few things, I will set thee over many things,”
For God doth after this sort extol his by a continual course of his gifts, as it were by certain steps, until he bring them to the top.
But the Papists abuse this place two ways; for because God respected the prayers and alms of Cornelius, so that he endued him with the faith of the gospel, they wrest that unto the preparations which they have invented, as if a man did get faith by his own industry and power, and did prevent 658 the grace of God by the merits of works. Secondly, they gather, generally, that good works are meritorious in such sort, that the graces of God are increased in every man as he hath deserved. In the former they are too childishly deceived, whilst that they feign that the works of Cornelius were acceptable to God before he was illuminate by faith. And we need not to fet [seek] a proof far to refute their ignorance; for he could obtain nothing by prayer unless faith went before, which only openeth the gate for us to pray; and Augustine weigheth that well and wisely, who derideth Pelagius, because he said that faith was obtained by prayers before it was in man in any measure: Who (saith he) will seek a physician save he who is already healed in some part? And it is the health of faith which teacheth us to knock. Furthermore, the fear of God and godliness do plainly prove that he was regenerate by the Spirit. For Ezekiel giveth 659 this praise to God alone, that he frameth the hearts of men to fear him, (Ezekiel 32:40 [sic].) And Isaiah saith, that the Spirit of the fear of God resteth in Christ, (Isa 11:2,) that we may know that he can be found no where save only in his members. Therefore it is too great folly to feign a man in the person of Cornelius, who, having nature for his guide, can attain unto eternal life, or endeavor to come thither. Therefore they reason blockishly, that we are able to prevent the grace of God with the merits of works.
As touching the second error, when as they imagine that every one of us is increased with greater graces as he hath deserved, it may easily be refuted. First, we deny that we have any good works which God hath not freely given us; secondly, we say that the right use of gifts cometh from him also and that this is his second grace, that we use his former gifts well. Thirdly, we deny that we deserve any thing by our works, 660 which are always lame and corrupt. Good works do indeed purchase for us the increase of grace, but not by their own desert. For they cannot be acceptable to God without pardon, which they obtain by the benefit of faith. Wherefore it is faith alone which maketh them acceptable. 661 Thus did Cornelius obtain more perfect knowledge of Christ by his prayers and alms, but in that he had God to be favorable and merciful to his prayers and alms, that did depend upon faith.
Furthermore, if good works be esteemed [estimated] by faith, it is of mercy, and not of merit, that God doth allow [approve] them. For because faith findeth no worthy thing in us whereby we can please God, it borroweth that of Christ which we want. And this is too perverse, that though the Papists have this word merit every now and then in their mouths, and cease not to puff up fools with a vain confidence, yet they bring nothing whereby the studies of men may be moved to do well. For they leave their consciences always in a doubt, and command men to doubt whether their words please God or not. Must not men’s minds need faint when they are possessed with such fear? But as for us, though we take merit from works, yet when as we teach that there is a reward laid up for them, we prick men forward with an excellent and sharp prick, to desire to live well. For we address ourselves then joyfully to serve God, when we are persuaded that we lose not our labor. And whereas there appeareth at this day no more plentiful abundance of the gifts of the Spirit, but that the more part doth rather wither away, we must thank our unthankfulhess for that. For as God did crown Cornelius’ prayers and alms, and holiness, with the most precious pearl of his gospel, so there is just cause why he should suffer us to starve, being brought unto hungry poverty, when as he seeth us abuse the treasure of his gospel wickedly and ungodlily.
Yet here may a question be asked, Whether faith require the knowledge of Christ, or it be content with the simple persuasion of the mercy of God? for Cornelius seemeth to have known nothing at all concerning Christ. But it may be proved by sound proofs that faith cannot be separated from Christ; for if we lay hold upon the bare majesty of God, we are rather confounded with his glory, than that we feel any taste of his goodness. Therefore, Christ must come between, that the mind of man may conceive that God is merciful. And it is not without cause that he is called the image of the invisible God, (Col 1:15;) because the Father offereth himself to be holden in his face alone. Moreover, seeing that he is the way, the truth, and the life, (Joh 14:6;) whithersoever thou goest without him, thou shalt be enwrapped on every side in errors, and death shall meet you [thee] on every side. We may easily answer concerning Cornelius. All spiritual gifts are offered unto us in Christ; and especially whence cometh regeneration, save only because we are ingrafted into the death of Christ, our old man is crucified? (Romans, 6:5, 6.) And if Cornelius were made partaker of the Spirit of Christ, there is no cause why we should think that he was altogether void of his faith; neither had he so embraced the worship of the true God, (whom the Jews alone did worship,) but that he had also heard 662 somewhat of the promised Mediator; though the knowledge of him were obscure and entangled, yet was it some. Whosoever came at that time into Judea he was enforced to hear somewhat of the Messiah, yea, there was some fame of him spread through countries which were far off. 663 Wherefore, Cornelius must be put in the catalogue of the old fathers, who hoped for salvation of the Redeemer before he was revealed. And it is properly 664 [improperly] said of Augustine, that Peter grounded his faith; whereas it had now before a firm foundation; although Augustine thinketh as we do in the thing itself, who affirmeth plainly, that Cornelius could not pray unless he had faith, in his Book of the Predestination of Saints, and other places.
5. Now send to Joppa. God dealt most favorably with Cornelius, in that he doth not command him to go himself, but to send messengers unto Peter, that he may stay quietly at home, and that Peter may endure the toil of the journey for his sake. But let us not wonder that Cornelius was so courteously handled, seeing that God thrusteth the ministers of his word daily upon the unwilling; so that he appeareth of his accord to those which do not seek him, as he saith by Isaiah, (Isa 65:1.) But why doth not the angel rather teach him? 665 For this seemeth an inconvenient 666 thing that he resigneth his office to a mortal man; for the oracle should have had greater authority than when the gospel is preached to him by a mortal man. As when Christ appeared to Paul by a vision, he set, notwithstanding, Ananias to teach him, that he might by such an example establish the ministry of the preaching of the gospel, which he committed to his Church; so now the angel giveth place to Peter, that he may execute the office committed unto him by Christ. Therefore, whosoever will be the disciple of Christ, and be illuminated by the (heavenly) light of the heavenly wisdom, let him not grudge to use attentiveness and docility toward the external voice of men, which Christ useth as an instrument, and whereunto he will have our faith annexed. And we see how sore God hath punished their furious pride, who, contemning preaching, have looked for 667 revelations from heaven. For since God will be heard in men, the ministers to whom he hath given his word 668 cannot be contemned without contempt and reproach of him. Nevertheless, I confess that the spirits must be proved, (1Jo 4:1,) that we hear not without choice whosoever do pretend that they are ministers of Christ. But because faith cometh by hearing, (Ro 10:17,) no man shall attain thereunto which shall refuse and despise the word when it is preached,
“Robur exercituum,” the flower of their armies.
“Valde... exosa,” exceedingly hated.
“Impune,” with impunity.
“Timiditas,” timidity or cowardice.
“Ut omnia profundant,” how profuse soever they be.
“Probatum,” approved by.
“Quum tam multa offendicula occurrerent,” when so many obstacles or offenses stood in the way.
“Quantus... torpor,” how great our torpor or sluggishness.
“Insana cupidine,” an insane desire.
“Tanta crudelitate efferati sunt,” so rage with cruelty.
“Terror quo correptus est,” the terror with which he was seized.
“Ex sensu Divinae Majestatis,” from a sense of the Divine Majesty.
“Haabet male,” is inaccurate.
“Quae pretium illis statuit,” which gives them their value.
“Quin aliquid simal... audesset,” without having at the same time heard.
“Longe dissitas,” widely separated.
“Doctoris partes implet,” fulfill the office of teacher.
“Parum rationi consentareum,” little accordant with reason.
“Captarunt,” have caught at, longed for.
“Apud quos verbum suum deposuit,” with whom he had deposited.