In Acts 10 was Cornelius a sinner and did God answer his prayer before he was baptized?
When Cornelius had his vision of the angel, he was engaged in prayer. "So Cornelius said, "Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing" (Acts 10:30). It appears that the ninth hour (or 3 p.m.) was Cornelius's customary time for prayer. A Jewish historian, Josephus, states in Antiquities 14.4.3 that public sacrifices were offered in the temple, "twice daily, in the early morning and about the ninth hour." It was customary for the Jews to offer prayers during the time of the offering. Hence, the ninth hour was known as the hour of prayer (Acts 3:1). Though Cornelius was not a Jew and probably not even a proselyte, his practice of praying during the ninth hour demonstrates that Cornelius most likely had knowledge of the Jewish practices of his day.
But Cornelius was not just a man who prayed, he was a man whom God heard praying. His prayers and alms were described as ascending as a memorial before God (Acts 10:4). The phrasing is an allusion to the sacrifices done before God in the Old Testament (Leviticus 2:1-2). As the Psalmist requested, "LORD, I cry out to You; Make haste to me! Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You. Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141:1-2). Therefore, it is not surprising that Christians' deeds are described in a similar manner. Paul said of the Philippians' gift to him, "I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God" (Philippians 4:18). Or, as the Hebrew writer notes, "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Hebrews 13:15-16).
Not only were Cornelius's prayers and alms sacrifices to God, but he was told that God took note of them. Imagine hearing from God that He noticed what you did in His name! The greatest fear for any man ought to be being forgotten or forsaken by his God (Matthew 27:46). Yet, we are told that our deeds can bring remembrance, just as the simple deed of one woman is forever memorialized (Matthew 26:13). It is not that God needs man to remind Him of our existence, but the language of the verse describes God's acceptance of Cornelius's prayers and deeds. It tells us that God took note of what Cornelius had done, just as He takes note of what we do. "For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister" (Hebrews 6:10).
The fact that God heard his prayers demonstrates that Cornelius had a heart that was willing to obey God. It is the disobedient to whom God will not listen. "One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Proverbs 28:9). I'm sure some reading this will exclaim, "Ah! Now I have you! God doesn't hear the prayer of the sinner, so Cornelius must have been saved." This concept comes from John 9:31 where a formerly blind man stated, "Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him." The man made this claim in response to the Pharisees' charge that Jesus was a sinner (John 9:24). The formerly blind man could not comment on Jesus' standing before God (John 9:25), but he did note that Jesus must not have been such a sinner that God was against him. The fact that God heard Cornelius's prayer proves that at the least that Cornelius was a man willing to obey God. However, Cornelius's willingness to obey did not reflect whether he was saved or not.
Cornelius prayed, but the answer to his prayer was not salvation: "And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to 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). The answer to Cornelius's prayer was instructions on how to be saved. In other words, Cornelius was not saved prior to God's response, nor was he saved when God answered his prayer. He was offered a chance to be saved in the future when he did as God instructed him.
The answer Cornelius received was no different from what Saul was told prior to his conversion. "So he, trembling and astonished, said, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" Then the Lord said to him, "Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."" (Acts 9:6). While waiting, Saul continued to pray. "And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." So the Lord said to him, "Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying"" (Acts 9:9-11). Yet even these prayers did not bring Saul salvation. Instead, when Ananias visited Saul he told Saul what he had to do -- and it wasn't to keep on praying until he prayed through to salvation. "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). The answer to Saul's prayer was the same as Cornelius. He received instructions concerning what was necessary for him to be saved.
You Must Hear the Gospel
You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)
You Must Repent
You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)
You Must Confess
You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)
You Must Be Baptized
Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)