Have you been 'converted'?

‘What right have you got to go and preach to people of other religions?’

Over two decades ago, I was about to go and work as an architect in India with a mission agency. A relative at my commissioning service wasn’t happy. Their questions highlights an idea that is deeply ingrained in the way Western society thinks about religion today. ‘What right have you got to go and preach to people of other religions?’

Acts 10 is a helpful place to start thinking about the answer.

We’re dropping into the middle of a long account about how the risen Lord Jesus was growing his church and spreading his gospel through his apostles, that starts in Jerusalem and ends in multi-religious, multi-racial Rome. We know that the events of Acts 10 are significant because we hear them all over again in Peter’s report in Acts 11 – because they were such a shock to those first Jewish Christians.

There are two conversions going in Acts 10, and the first is obvious. Cornelius’ conversion shows us that even good, sincere, ‘religious’ people need the gospel.

Cornelius, his family, and those working under him were spiritually-sensitive, deeply ‘religious’ and sincere (1-8). I use ‘religious’ to describe Cornelius’ life: morally upright, devout in prayer, a Roman centurion ‘seeker’ on the fringes of Jewish religion. But he’d not been circumcised and while he was a God-fearer, he wasn’t a God-knower.

But God notices Cornelius’ prayers and sends an angel to him in a vision. When Cornelius fearfully asks him what this is about, the angel tells him to bring Simon Peter, staying in Joppa-by-the-Sea, for a visit.

Some people think that because God noticed Cornelius’ prayers and gifts, he’d also already accepted God. But it can’t be this way round – Cornelius’ sincerity and devotion are good, but they’re not good enough. In fact, this argument ignores the rest of chapter 10 and the whole of chapter 11, and the fact that God goes to great and astounding lengths to bring Peter to Cornelius. God wants Cornelius to really know the God he’d been searching for.

Let’s be careful that we never think another person doesn’t need the gospel. A sincere, generous and kind non-Christian is still a non-Christian – even if they are more sincere, generous and kind than other Christians you know! Acts 10 shows us that God still considers good, sincere, ‘religious’ people as not knowing him, or the forgiveness and new life that Jesus offers.

So, we’ve got a non-Christian who’d been prepared by God for the message he was going to hear from a Christian. But first of all, God had work to do in Peter’s heart. Peter needed to radically change his view on people from a different culture to his own – because even Christians may need to be ‘converted’.

Peter wasn’t just a genuine Christian – he was an apostle too! Yet even he needed a perspective shift. What Peter sees in his vision (v9-16) changes the way he thinks about the majority of the human race – the Gentiles. We see God’s perfect timing in v17 – it’s just when Peter is mulling over the vision that three ‘unclean’ Gentile men arrive after a 30-mile journey from Caesarea and Peter welcomes them in. What a transformation in a matter of minutes, after a lifetime of sticking to the Jewish purity laws! When Peter arrives in Caesarea, Cornelius has gathered his household and they’re all waiting expectantly. And when Peter starts to speak, we see that the vision has truly sunk in.

Peter had rightly understood that there was now no need to distinguish between ritually clean and unclean food. He could go to a Gentile’s home and eat whatever he was given, and he could welcome a Gentile into his house. From there, it was just a short step to understand that he must no longer distinguish between ritually clean and unclean people.

I’m struck by a story about William Carey. He was a humble shoemaker from Northamptonshire who founded the Baptist Missionary Society and became a brave missionary, educator and social reformer in India. The story goes that at a ministers’ meeting in 1787, William Carey raised the question about the Christian’s duty to go and share the gospel, including overseas. A minister snapped back: ‘Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.’

What a devastating dismissal. Fortunately, William Carey believed otherwise – that God has great concern for peoples of all nations, and that he does use men and women of all races and backgrounds to spread his gospel. But sometimes it takes seismic shifts in our thinking and attitudes.

Now we shouldn’t expect God to give us visions in order to change our thinking – he’s already made his concern and plans clear for us in the Bible, from these very events in Acts 10. But have we really understood them? Sadly, Christians can be prejudiced – even racially prejudiced.

Do we see the way God wants to transform our thinking about people of other cultures and faiths? Do we understand that God cares that others hear this wonderful gospel – including Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Jews, on our doorsteps and around the world? Do we see people how God sees people?

As the story in Acts 10 reaches a climax, we see how God confirms that anyone can know him (v36-48). Peter preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the Gentiles gathered there. Before he can even finish his sermon, God pours out his Holy Spirit on the group who are then baptised. Cornelius and his household went from God-fearers to God-knowers. They accepted the gospel – and God accepted them as authentic Christian believers to the Jewish onlookers.

What seems obvious to us – that the gospel is available and the church is open to all people – these first Jewish believers found shocking. ‘Anyone can know God?’ we imagine them thinking, ‘Really? Anyone?!’ Yes – everyone who believes in him (v43), from every nation (v35) can know God.

But, it requires them to hear – otherwise God wouldn’t have prepared Cornelius this way or chosen to change Peter’s perspective and then use him as messenger. Acts 10 is the story of two ‘conversions’, if we can put it like that.

Often our attitudes aren’t what they should be and we can have blind spots. We can be indifferent to people on our street, let alone in another country or part of a different culture. We need to be both aware of the need and our prejudices, if we’re ever going to really take the gospel needs of our world seriously.  

My prayer is that because we are convinced that the gospel really is for all people, we will rejoice that God is drawing people from all nations to himself – and even more, that we will be involved in it his global mission.

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Neil Watkinson

Neil is one of our mission partners and is seconded full-time to the Proclamation Trust, developing its international ministry and assisting with the Cornhill Training Course. He is also involved with Crosslinks Schools of Biblical Training, especially in south-east Asia, and teaches expository preaching training around the globe. You can find out more about his ministry and how you can support him here.