Religious But Lost

Bible Book: Acts  10
Subject: Conversion; Salvation; Lostness

The Bible uses the term “lost” to describe every person who has not, through repentance and faith in Christ, been born again. Christ’s purpose for coming into the world was to rescue people from that condition. In Luke 19:10 he said, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” To be lost is a terrible thing, for it means inner turmoil and defeat in this present life, and eternal hell in the life beyond.

Thus, the greatest need of every lost person is to be born again--in other words, to be converted, to be redeemed, to become a Christian, to be saved; all those terms mean basically the same thing. But multitudes of lost people are blind to the fact that they need to be saved. Many are blind because they are religious and are confusing religion with salvation. The word “religious” comes from a Latin term which means “having respect for what is sacred.” Well, of course, folks ought to respect what is sacred, but no one should confuse religion with salvation; all of us ought to face the fact that a person can be religious but lost.

With a prayer that God will help each of us make the appropriate personal application, let’s look in the book of Acts at the account of a man who was in that very condition; he was religious but lost.


That is, the reality of the condition, religious but lost.

A. The MAN

The man I am speaking of was named Cornelius, and we read about him in Acts 10. Verse 1 says, “There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band.” Cornelius was a Roman military officer, a centurion, which means that he had 100 men under his command. Obviously he was a person of considerable leadership ability, to have attained that responsible position.


Verse 2 leaves no question but that he was a very religious man--yet the Biblical record also tells us with unmistakable clarity that he was lost. Before we go any further, let’s document that fact. According to Acts 10 an angel told Cornelius to send for Simon Peter. He did so and some wonderful things happened. But, notice why the angel told him to send for Peter. Later in Acts 11, after the fact, Peter is telling others about the incident, and here’s what he said in Acts 11:13-14: “And he [Cornelius] shewed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.” So at the time referred to in the early part of Acts 10 Cornelius was lost--but look at religious a man can be and still be lost.


Verse 2 says that he was “a devout man.” The word translated “devout” means “reverential”--he had respect for God and for that which pertains to God.

Verse 2 goes on to say that he “feared God.” He not only believed in God’s existence and had respect for him but more than that, he realized that God is all-powerful and that we are dependent on him and accountable to him; thus, he feared God--he felt a deep sense of awe in God’s presence. Cornelius would never have spoken of God in a light, flippant manner. Never would he have used God’s name in a slang expression or as a swear word--and at that point a lot of modern-day folks, some of them in churches on Sunday, need to take a lesson from that unconverted Roman soldier. We desperately need today a revival of the old-fashioned, no nonsense, Biblical fear of Almighty God. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Some people have such a distorted view of God that they think love is his only characteristic, and that the only effect our sins have on him is to make him sad and disappointed. Well, to be sure, God is indeed hurt and saddened by our sins, but the Bible also teaches that sin angers God and that he judges sin. Hebrews 10:32 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In Hebrews 12:28-29 we are told to “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire.”

Impressive also is the fact that, according to verse 2, all of Cornelius’ household stood with him in the fear of God. Apparently his sincere desire to find God and live right was evident to those around him and had a positive impact on his wife and children.

Verse 2 goes on to tell us that Cornelius “gave much alms to the people.” He wasn’t a miser or a “skinflint.” I’m confident that whenever someone was in real need in his community, people knew that they could count on Cornelius to help, because he was a man with compassion toward those who were hurting.

Are you bearing in mind that this was a lost man? “How could that be?” someone asks; “he was such a good man.” But keep in mind the following:

The best man you know is still a sinner and needs to be saved. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Isaiah 64:6 says, “But we are all as an unclean thing; and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” The best morality a man can produce is miserably, abysmally, woefully short of God’s standards.

No man, however good he appears, can earn salvation, wholly or in part. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Titus 3:5 says, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Sin in any form, fashion or amount--until or unless it has been forgiven through conversion--separates a person from God, for God is holy, spotless, sinless. Isaiah 59:2 says, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.” Adrian Rogers said, “I wouldn’t trust the best 15 minutes I ever lived to get me to heaven.”

However morally upright a man might seem to be, he will be a far better person once he invites Jesus into his heart. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Once Christ has come into his life, a person’s humanitarian impulses will be sanitized and energized by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Acts 10:32 speaks of Cornelius as “a just man.” He was fair-minded and treated people right.

That same verse says that he was “of good report among all the nation of the Jews.” In spite of the fact that generally the Jews deeply resented their Roman rulers and their enforcers, Cornelius’ upright life had earned him their respect.


And then, here is the real clincher: Acts 10:2 further says that Cornelius “prayed to God always.” That’s the blockbuster in this whole account. The devil has convinced many people that because they pray they are all right with God. But the fact that you pray doesn’t prove that you’re saved. Cornelius prayed regularly--but he was lost.

Which raises a question: To what extent can a lost man’s prayers be heard? Certainly he can’t be heard in the Christian sense, for Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” At the same time, there is another sense in which a lost man’s prayers can be heard--look at Acts 10:4, and we see that the angel said to Cornelius, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.” Acts 10:31 reports that conversation like this: “Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God.” Apparently God regarded Cornelius’ prayers as a cry for additional light--for the Bible teaches that in that sense a lost man’s prayers can be heard. In Jeremiah 29:13 God says, “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.”


Let’s look now at the remedy for the condition, religious but lost.


To give that additional spiritual light that Cornelius had searched for, God caused him to see a vision. We read about it in Acts 10:3-6:

“He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius. And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter: He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner whose house is by the seaside: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do.” The angel of God was saying, “Simon Peter will tell you what you ought to do in order to be saved.” Then verses 7-8 tell us that Cornelius sent for Simon Peter, as instructed.

It’s interesting to see that God was also at work on the other end of the line, preparing Simon Peter for the upcoming meeting with Cornelius. Look at verses 9-15:

“On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”

During the Old Testament era, as a symbolic reminder that there is a difference between clean and unclean, God had designated certain animals as “unclean” and had commanded the Jews not to eat them. However, God intended those restrictions only until the coming of Christ. But Peter and other Christian Jews had continued to cling to those outmoded ceremonial restrictions. So now, by means of this vision, God reminds Peter that he isn’t to consider any wholesome, edible meat as “unclean.” (God makes that same point in Colossians 2:17 and in 1 Timothy 4:1ff.)

But God, through that vision, was also teaching Peter a much larger lesson. He was saying, “Peter, neither are you to call any person “unclean.” Up to this time Peter, like most Jews of that day, regarded Gentiles as inferior and didn’t even like to associate with them. That, of course, was never a part of God’s plan; it was a man-made law of the Jews; but God, through this vision and through the experiences that followed, was saying, “Peter, you are not to reject the Gentile people; God loves everyone, and he expects you to do the same.”


Thus, when Cornelius’ messengers came and asked Peter to accompany them to Cornelius’ house, Peter did so. When he arrived he learned why Cornelius had sent for him. Then Cornelius said, in verse 33, “Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.”

Look then at verses 34-35: “Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” Race and nationality make no difference with God, and neither should they make any difference with you and me as we reach out to people and share the message of God’s love. God revealed to Peter that any person, such as Cornelius, who earnestly fears God and sincerely wants to do the right thing is accepted by God as an honest seeker, and the Holy Spirit will reveal to that person the truth as to how to be saved.

Then Peter proclaimed the gospel. He told of how Jesus died for our sins and rose again, and he concluded his message in verse 43: “To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.”


Then look at verses 44-46: “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God....”

Apparently two things happened:

1. CONVERSION. First, Cornelius and the others in his house were so open, so receptive, that the moment they heard the message of Christ they were overwhelmed with the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, to the extent that at that very moment they all believed in Christ and were saved. At the very instant a person is saved, Christ--in the person of the Holy Spirit--enters that individual’s life to dwell forever. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” Romans 8:9 declares that “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

2. EMPOWERMENT. Second, as brand-new Christians they immediately allowed the now-indwelling Holy Spirit to have full control of their lives; that’s what the Bible means by being filled with the Spirit. From the moment of conversion you have all of the Holy Spirit there is to have, in terms of quantity, yet the Bible teaches us that Christians are to be repeatedly filled with the Spirit--that is, over and over we are to yield afresh to his full control, so that we may be empowered for effective Christian living and service.

Verse 46 says that they spoke “with tongues.” On various occasions God gave to Christians this mysterious ability to speak in “tongues” as a sign that they had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Some people think God intended the gift of tongues only as a sign for the early church (often basing that view on 1 Corinthians 13:8: “whether there be tongues, they shall cease”), while others think he also sometimes gives tongues as a sign today. But be that as it may, never forget that according to the whole of Biblical teaching the main signs of being filled with the Spirit were then, and always have been, the following: number one, the living of a clean, upright, holy life, and number two, witnessing to others about Jesus Christ.

So, don’t let the issue of speaking in tongues obscure for you the main point of the passage before us: Cornelius and those of his household believed in Christ and God saved them, and their lives were no longer the same. When Simon Peter found Cornelius, he was religious but lost--but when Peter left him, he was eternally saved.

Then we read in verses 46-48: “Then answered Peter, can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord....” In the Great Commission, given in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus makes it clear that every person who is converted is to make public confession of it by being baptized.


Several years ago I was leading Evangelistic Explosion teams at Bellevue Baptist Church. One semester I had a man on my team who was a senior citizen, and a young single mother who was a very active member of another church, one I had served as interim pastor. One night the three of us made a “cold call” to the home of a doctor and his wife. It was one of those wonderful experiences where the Holy Spirit had obviously prepared the way. We presented the gospel, and that doctor and his wife, without hesitation, prayed to receive Christ. We rejoiced with them, gave them information as to how to proceed in their Christian life, and drove back to the church to make our report.

When I went home, I told Connie about the night’s events and she and I rejoiced and praised God. We were just about to go to bed for the evening when the phone rang. It was the young woman on my E.E. team. She said, “I need you to lead me in that same prayer that the doctor and his wife prayed, for I realize that although I’ve been an active church member I’ve never been saved.” It was my joy and privilege to lead her to Christ over the phone, and the next Sunday she made her public profession of faith and requested believer’s baptism. The last I heard she was going strong for the Lord. Prior that night she was exceedingly religious, but lost.

What about you today? I’m not asking, “Are you religious?” Most people are religious, after one fashion or another--but, as we see from the record of Cornelius, a person can be religious but lost. The question is this: Have you repented of your sins and personally received Christ into your life by faith as your Lord and Savior? If not, with all my heart I encourage you to do so.

Then, this word to every one of us who is already a Christian: I challenge us to take to heart the command of Ephesians 5:18: “ filled with the Spirit.” As a believer, confess whatever sins have crept into your life; yield yourself afresh to the indwelling Spirit; and from this day forward let God use you as a consistent, convincing witness for Christ.