Can Unbelievers Seek God
and Work Righteousness?
by Bob Wilkin
One of the most famous chapters in the New Testament is Acts 10, which presents the conversion of Cornelius and his household. They were the first Gentile believers other than the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. A search of the Libronix Digital Library System uncovered 275 articles on this popular chapter.
In spite of the fact that Acts 10 is quite well known, one of the most important verses in that chapter is not. It conveys some vital information about the gospel. Acts 10:35 reads:
But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.
Various Understandings of Acts 10:35
Justification Apart from Faith in Christ
Some believe Peter to be saying that anyone in any nation will enter the kingdom if he fears God and works righteousness. Since Cornelius, a non-Christian, God-fearing Gentile who worshipped with Jews, met these requirements, so can people of any nation and any religion.
No Justification Apart from Faith in Christ
Others draw the opposite conclusion. They think Peter is saying that no one fears God and works righteousness apart from faith in Christ. What Peter was doing, they say, was showing that all need to come to faith in Christ to gain eternal life.
Saved People in Every Nation Can Please God
Still others suggest that Cornelius was already born again and that the issue here was not justification, but pleasing God. Cornelius was able to fear God and work righteousness, in this view, because he was already regenerate. But he needed to learn more about Christ in order to grow in his relationship with God.
Unsaved People in Every Nation Can Be Accepted by God
One final view is that the issue here is not justification per se. Some believe Cornelius was not yet born again, however, he did fear God and work righteousness. As a result, this unbeliever was accepted by God. According to this view, people in any nation can seek God and incite Him to send them the good news of Jesus Christ whereby they can and will be saved.
This last view is the one I hold. I am convinced that the text of Acts 10 clearly teaches this.
Inducing Him to Bring the Good News
First, we know from Acts 10:43-48 and 11:14 that Cornelius was not yet born again before Peter came to him. By his own testimony Cornelius indicated that an angel had told him, "Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved" (Acts 11:13-14, italics added). Any view that suggests Cornelius was already born again must thus be rejected.
Second, Cornelius is clearly presented in Acts 10 as one who fears God and works righteousness. In verse 2 he is called "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the [Jewish] people, and prayed to God always." An angel then appears to him and says, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God" (v 4).
Third, Peter is stressing the fact that membership in the church of Jesus Christ is open to all people of every nation. He had previously thought that only Jews or Gentiles who converted to Judaism were able to join the church. It is open to question whether he is indicating that all people everywhere have the ability to fear God and work righteousness. But what is clear is that anyone who does that "is accepted by Him."
Fourth, this idea of being accepted by God is not equivalent to justification. If it were, then Cornelius would already be justified. Peter would not need to come for him to gain justification salvation. Rather, being "accepted by Him" means that God will bring the saving message of Jesus Christ to that person so that he can believe it and be born again.
Unbelievers can genuinely fear God and work righteousness as an expression of seeking God. Those who do will hear the good news, come to faith in Christ, and be saved. Thus the age-old question about those who have never heard is answered quite nicely by Acts 10:35. There is no problem with God’s justice here. In every nation anyone who fears God and works righteousness is accepted by God.
So Acts 10:35 doesn’t go against the grain of passages that say we are eternally saved only by faith in Christ (e.g., Eph 2:8-9; Rom 4:5; Titus 3:5). Indeed, as many of the 275 articles on Acts 10 point out, Peter made it clear in verse 43, the conclusion of the sermon, that it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that anyone receives the forgiveness of sins. While unbelievers can do good deeds with proper motives, there is no merit in the deeds. They are still what Isaiah called filthy rags: "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Isa 64:6). Note well: Saying one is not justified by good works is not the same as saying that unbelievers are incapable of doing good works. Acts 10:35 makes that clear.
God Is Influenced When Unbelievers Genuinely Seek Him
Normally we think of prayers and giving as exclusively for believers. When he was the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bailey Smith even went so far as to say that God doesn’t hear the prayers of unbelievers. While many agree with that view, the apostle Peter, Luke, and the author of Acts did not. Scripture makes it clear that God was attentive to the prayers of Cornelius. God also observed his giving.
Why shouldn’t God react when an unbeliever is genuinely trying to find Him? Clearly, He is right in bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to all who are seeking Him.
Yet Rom 3:11 says that "none seek God." If that is an absolute statement it means that one must be born again before he can respond to God. But Acts 10:35 shows that understanding to be wrong. Cornelius was not yet born again, and yet he was seeking God.
The simple explanation of Rom 3:11 is that none seeks God on his own initiative. Were it not for the fact that God is drawing all men to Himself, no one would seek Him and no one would be saved (see John 6:44).
Principles from Acts 10:35
Four principles arise from this key verse. First, unbelievers can fear God and work righteousness. The text plainly says so.
Second, any unbeliever who does fear God and work righteousness will ultimately hear the good news and come to faith in Christ and be born again. God does not turn away any unbeliever who is responding to the light he has.
Third, unbelievers who persist in unbelief when confronted with the good news of justification by faith alone do not truly fear God and are not truly working righteousness. Otherwise, like Cornelius, they would have believed the good news when they heard it. Pharisaism is very much alive today in every religion. Such legalists think they are worthy to enter the kingdom because of how religious they are. Matthew 7:21-23 addresses such people. Jesus doesn’t refer to them as those who "work righteousness" but "ye that work iniquity" (KJV). We must be careful not to assume we can infallibly judge those who fear God and work righteousness.
Fourth, unbelievers who do not fear God and who do not work righteousness may or may not be confronted with the gospel and come to faith. There are examples in Acts of people like the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34) who were not God-fearers and were not working righteousness, yet they heard the good news and came to faith. (Saul of Tarsus may be an example of an extremely religious man who was nonetheless not truly fearing God or working righteousness.) The point of Acts 10:35 is the positive, not the negative. Any unbeliever who genuinely fears God and works righteousness will be accepted by God and will come to faith.
It’s great to know that unbelievers are capable of fearing God and working righteousness, and that when they do, God brings the good news to them so that they will believe and be saved. Any view of depravity which suggests that unbelievers are totally incapable of responding to God, fearing Him, or working righteousness does not adequately handle texts like Acts 10:35 (or Acts 17:27). Spiritual deadness means just that: lack of spiritual life. One who lacks spiritual life but is physically alive is able to think, pray, work righteousness, and respond to God.
In a sense, all Gentile believers are spiritual descendants of Cornelius. All in every nation and in every generation who fear God and work righteousness are accepted by God. That, too, is part of the good news message.
So if you meet a person who believes in works salvation, but who appears to fear God and work righteousness, witness to them. You may well be the person God has sent to tell him "words by which [he] will be saved."