In my post on the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit I made the remark that Cornelius is described as a ‘pious man, who feared God, who prayed continually; a righteous and God-fearing man, who was “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”’ (Acts 10:2, 22). Mike has asked in what version Cornelius is described as being “righteous”. I thought at first that he was being facetious (I get a bit paranoid sometimes), but it looks like a reasonable question.
In Acts 10:22 it is not Luke but two servants and a soldier (10:7) who commend Cornelius as anēr dikaios kai phoboumenos. But the fact that he is said to be “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” suggests that he is being judged “righteous” according to Jewish standards; and in 10:2 Luke himself says that he is a “devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God”. Verse 2 and verse 22 say pretty much the same thing.
The KJV translates dikaios with the less loaded word “just”, and the ESV has “upright”, which is a neutral ethical term, without theological overtones. The Message says, rather ludicrously, that he was “well-known for his fair play”, which evokes the image of a decent English cricketer walking back to the pavilion having admitted that he just nicked the ball that ended up in the wicket-keeper’s gloves. The NIV and ASV, however, have “righteous”, and “righteous” is what it should be.
The only other person in Acts described as dikaios is Jesus, who is the “righteous One” (cf. 3:14; 7:52; 22:14), but in Luke, in addition to Jesus, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon, Joseph of Arimathea are said to be “righteous” (Lk. 1:6; 2:25; 23:50).
It seems to me that Cornelius is one of those Gentiles who does the work of the Law (he is devout, he fears God, gives alms, prays to God), whom Paul will declare “righteous” in Romans 2:13. He is not at this stage a member of the covenant community, but Peter has learned from his vision on the roof that anyone who fears God and “does righteousness” (ergazomenos dikaiosunēn) is acceptable to God. Gentiles such as Cornelius were likely to find themselves excused, justified, on the coming day of judgment (Rom. 2:13-16). Indeed, they might well find themselves in a position to condemn unrighteous Israel (Rom. 2:27).
This is not, I should make clear, a final judgment. It is a judgment on first century Jews and on the world of classical paganism. The people of God will be saved through this eschatological crisis, by grace, through faith, on the basis of the death of Jesus. But Paul is realistic enough to recognize that there are righteous God-fearing Gentiles out there, if only as exceptions to the rule, who may not necessarily be included in the covenant people, but who will not be put to shame when the wrath of God comes upon the empire. They will be justified by their works, by the fact that, against the grain of pagan culture (cf. Rom. 1:19-32), they have worshipped the creator and done righteousness. In the age to come they will receive “glory and honour and peace” (Rom. 2:10).