God calls us to proclaim the message that salvation is available through faith in Christ alone, not through works.
Faith is often a common theme in pop-culture. There are bestselling songs that tell people to “Just believe”, and never give up the faith you need to follow your dreams. There are popular books that encourage their readers to just believe in themselves in order to achieve their goals in life. There are movies that portray their main character as only needing to have faith in order to reach their destiny. However, whatever pop-culture medium is used, the common denominator is this: if you just believe in yourself enough, you’ll be able to do wonderful things.
How does their understanding of faith differ from faith in the bible? It’s important to not just talk about faith in this generic sense, as if only having “Faith” in it-self is important. Faith needs an object. Despite what pop-culture says, that object can’t be ourselves or our own strength. Biblical faith isn’t just about the person who believes; it’s about the Person in whom we believe.
It’s not about having faith in a general sense, but trusting in someone who is fully worthy of our faith. The object of our faith is what matters. It doesn’t matter how much you believe, if you put your faith in the wrong thing. The object of our faith must be in Christ and Christ alone. We see that all throughout the scripture 1 John 5:11-12, John 5:24, John 3:16, Eph. 2:8-9 and so on…..
In this study, we see how the church handled a heated disagreement about the nature of salvation for Gentiles. The question was, were Gentiles saved by faith alone, or did they have to enter into salvation through the path of obedience to the law first or fulfill some Jewish tradition?
This lesson is a reminder of how vitally important it is in preserving the gospel message of “Christ alone.” Like today’s church, the early church had some disputes and controversies. These were imperfect people, like us, who were trying to live out their new live in Christ together. We are the same way in that we are not perfect and we will run into controversies and deal with disputes even in the body of Christ today, because there is no perfect church. Our story today takes us into one of these disputes – one that touches on the very heart of the gospel – the issue whether Jesus alone is enough to save.
In Acts 13-14 we saw how the early church sent the first missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, to take the gospel further out from Jerusalem as Jesus had instructed in (Acts 1:8). The trip was difficult for the two missionaries, but many had come to faith in Christ, including a number of Gentiles. News of what God had done spread, but not everyone in the church was pleased with it. Read Acts 15:1-5
Some men – false teachers – Judaizers who were self-appointed guardians of legalism, teaching a doctrine of salvation by works – they began to teach that circumcision was necessary for salvation. When Paul and Barnabas heard what the men were teaching, they confronted them and argued about this matter with them. The whole debate can be boiled down to the question of whether Jesus alone is sufficient for salvation, or if something else – such as circumcision in this case – was needed in addition.
Paul and Barnabas rejected their teaching for at least two reasons. The primary reason concerned the core of the gospel – salvation by grace through faith alone (Eph.2:8-9). The men from Judea were teaching that faith alone was not sufficient for salvation. They argued that a person first had to belong to God’s covenant community, the people of Israel, and that becoming a part of God’s community required the mark of circumcision. They wanted the Gentiles to get circumcised or they said they wouldn’t be saved. Paul and Barnabas understood and taught that you do not have to be part of the right people before you can be saved; anyone, anywhere can be saved the moment they place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Another reason Paul and Barnabas confronted the men from Judea was because requiring circumcision of the Gentiles would be an added burden and hindrance to the gospel. Requiring a Gentile to be circumcised before salvation would mean they had to do something to earn the right to be saved, but no one is worthy to be saved. No one deserves an invitation into a relationship with the living God. Salvation is by grace through faith alone. Grace initiated it. Grace sustained it. Grace fulfills it. Gentiles should not have to do something to earn salvation when no one else did anything to deserve it either.
Why do some Christians struggle to accept that salvation is by grace alone and we don’t need to do anything to earn or keep it? We have trouble believing anything is free. We are proud and want to do something to fix ourselves rather than accepting the free gift of grace. We seem to think there is something we have to do or not to do to be right with God – but it’s not what we do or what we don’t do, because it has been done – what Christ had done on the cross.
When it became apparent such an important issue could not be settled in Antioch and that the debate had broad implications for the church, Paul and Barnabas traveled back to Jerusalem. As they traveled back they stopped along the way and shared with the believer’s what God was doing among the Gentiles, which caused joy to all the brethren.
The church leaders gathered to consider the issue in what has been called the Jerusalem Council. As we will read, settling this issue at stake was critically important, but so was the way the church would resolve it. The question was, would they appeal to tradition or God’s Word and what they had seen God doing around them?
Read Acts 15:6-12
The issue was debated for some time and then Peter stood to address the gathering and offered a strong defense of Gentiles being saved by grace apart from circumcision. Peter reminded the gathering of how God had revealed to Him (Cornelius) to set aside a mindset fixed on tradition and replace it with one fixed on the gospel and Christ alone. (Yet, we will see later how Peter continues to struggle with this mindset and how Paul confronts Peter later on in Antioch in which is a reminder to us how important it is for us to help restore our brother in Christ when they are going astray).
Peter then presented God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles as evidence of the Gentiles’ conversion apart from circumcision. God had given the Gentile believers the Holy Spirit just as He had given the Holy Spirit to them. No distinction was made based on circumcision or any other factor – everyone had been saved by faith, the giving of the Holy Spirit confirmed that God accepted that faith. Because when we believe in the Lord Jesus we receive the Holy Spirit that confirms with our spirit that we are a child of God (Romans 8:16).
After Peter finished, Paul and Barnabas then took the opportunity to echo what Peter had shared about how God had worked through them in seeing Gentiles come to faith in Christ. Paul and Barnabas relayed story after story of how God had transformed the lives of many Gentiles. Then it was James’ turn. He first affirmed Peter’s testimony but then pointed to the Scripture. James then quoted Amos 9:11-12 to show that what they had experienced with the Gentiles coming to faith was part of God’s plan all along.
God had told their ancestors that everyone – Jews and Gentiles alike – would seek the Lord. The message of salvation had never been only for the Jews – the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first the Jew and then the Gentile, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16-17).
The decision of the Jerusalem Council, after considering all the evidence, was that keeping the law and observing rituals were not requirements for salvation. The Judaizers were to cease troubling and annoying the Gentiles. James and the other leaders were concerned that the Gentile believers might take their personal freedom in Christ too far and live in such a way as to be a stumbling block to the convictions of their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Four practices were addressed from the book of Leviticus 17-18 where they were forbidden both Jew and Gentiles living among them. If the Gentile believers abstained from these four practices, they would safeguard themselves from being a burden to the Jewish believers or other Jews coming to faith in Christ. Circumcision had been a mark of purity and separateness from the world for God’s people. Now, in Christ, that mark comes by faith. In Christ, purity and separateness do not lead into salvation, but instead flow out of it.
Requiring circumcision before salvation undermined this essential aspect of the gospel. As the apostle Paul would say elsewhere, those who follow Christ experience a circumcision of the heart when they put off the old-self and take up the new (Rom.2:28-29). It is the inner life of faith in Christ that is important, not a ritual act.
Why is it important for us to stress that purity flows from faith rather than preceding faith? By emphasizing that good works are the natural outcome of a heart of faith, we are saying we are incapable of earning our salvation.
The way the Jerusalem Council handled the dispute surrounding circumcision in Acts 15 is an example for how we should handle disputes in the church today. We address disagreements as they arise, appeal to Scripture and what God has done, and call for freedom in Christ and love to guide how we all live together after the issue has been resolved. The Jerusalem Council also emphasized the sufficiency of faith in Jesus for salvation and inclusion into God’s family by stating that He alone is all we need for salvation. The early church protected the core message of the gospel.
Why is the doctrine of faith alone, in Christ alone, and not works so important? Essentially, this is the heart of the gospel. To deny faith alone in Christ alone is to deny the work of salvation Christ accomplished on the cross. We will see later on this issue is not the only time the apostles have to deal with this issue. This issue became a huge stumbling block with the early church and Paul addresses this matter of circumcision throughout His writings and even confronts Peter who falls back into some form of legalism.
Look at Gal.2:11-16 Paul reminds us that we are only justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law. Justification is not the result of human effort or good works, it comes through faith in the righteousness of Christ. Although good works do not lead to justification, justification leads to good works in the life of the believers (Eph.2:10).
Go and share the true Message of the Gospel that comes by grace alone, through faith only, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone!