Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— 18 things known from long ago.
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
THROUGH FAITH ALONE, BY GRACE ALONE, IN CHRIST ALONE. That’s it?
It was exceedingly difficult for some Jewish Christians to accept Gentiles could be brought into the church as ‘equal partners’ without first coming through the Law of Moses. It was one thing to accept the occasional God-fearer into the church, someone already in sympathy with Jewish ways, it was quite another to welcome large numbers of Gentiles who had no regard for the Law and no intention of keeping it.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the debate surrounding circumcision in the early church. In Genesis 17, God told Abraham to circumcise all males who belonged to the people of God as a sign that they were members of God’s covenant people. There were some Jewish Christians in the early church who thought the requirement of circumcision was binding for Gentiles who professed faith in Jesus
Christ. If they wanted to experience God’s salvation and belong to God’s people they needed to accept the covenant sign of circumcision.
This was huge for the Jewish church leaders. They obviously felt threatened in so many ways. The questions raised by the Jerusalem council was immense. Are Christians saved by faith alone, or by a combination of faith and obedience to the Law of Moses? Is the work of Jesus by itself enough to save the one who trusts in Him, or must we add our work to His work in order to be saved? The questions still go on today. Saved through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. That’s it!
In Acts 15:6-11, Peter tells the Jerusalem Council that Gentiles had come to a saving knowledge of Jesus in the same way they had. (Remember Peter’s experience in Acts 10?) That is, they were saved by grace alone through faith alone in the Lord Jesus alone. And the outward sign that they had been granted salvation through faith in Jesus Christ was they had received the promised Holy Spirit.
In Acts 15 what we discover is that these leaders in Jerusalem were going to have to trust the Holy Spirit in this process., to let go and let God. We see this throughout Scripture in stories like Sarah, who laughed at the thought of having a baby in her nineties, and Mary, who was shocked at the thought of giving birth to Jesus as a virgin. Her response in Luke 1:38 is what I’d like mine to be. Though overwhelmed, Mary believed: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”. Jesus told many parables around this very subject of the people He calls, parables like the persistent widow, the crooked servant, the story of wages being given out for people who had worked all day and the ones who had worked for only an hour receiving the same. All this challenges our thinking about the people whom Jesus would call.
Most of us know in our heads that God saves us by grace through faith. However, we often allow our cultural preferences, or a particular aspect of Church tradition, to become essential markers of who is in and who is out when it comes to the kingdom of God.
Wayne Splawn, in his devotional on Acts writes,
“One of the most helpful things I have been reminded of during mission trips over the years is the truth that the gospel transcends all cultures. Whether it was serving alongside other believers in South Africa or worshipping with Christians in India, God has allowed me to catch a glimpse of the multicultural makeup of the global church. We would do well to remember that God shows no partiality when it comes to salvation. Christians around the world enjoy different cultural expressions of our faith, but the thing that unites us is our common belief that God saves each of us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.”
May God redeem us from any “elder brother” thinking. Do you recall the Elder Brother in the Lost Son story of Luke 15? When he learns that a party is thrown for his brother he is angry and refuses to join in the celebration. As the parable goes, we read that “his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”