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Saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus

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Saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus

Acts 15:1–6 ESV
1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.
The problems of the early church are not so different from the problems the current church faces. In fact I would submit to you that the church seems to face similar issues all through out its history.
Today we have an opportunity to look at one of the oldest and yet most common arguments against the gospel. Namely, adding something to Christ for your salvation.
A quick review of where we are and how we got here will give us some insight into what is happening in this scene. From the beginning of the book of Acts we saw the church start from a small group of people praying and waiting for the promised Holy Spirit to come fill them to be be empowered to witness to Christs’ resurrection and preach the gospel.
Once that happens in dramatic fashion, we see the Apostles preach the gospel and many Jewish people become believers in Jesus Christ and obtain grace from God by believing the message of salvation found only in Jesus Christ. They hear it like this...
Acts 4:12 ESV
12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Seems pretty simple, right? Except there is a perspective that we are lacking when we read the scriptures about how the church started. We need to understand the worldview of a Jew at the time the church was established.
Here is what I mean… For Jews believing in God meant following all the laws very strictly. These were laws that they obtained from God by his servant Moses. There was some 630 ish laws that had included everything from the Moral laws - 10 commandments, to civil laws which governed the Jewish people in how they lived with one another, to ceremonial laws - which governed how they worshipped God and kept themselves clean for that worship.
The big idea of the whole OT was just how bad God’s people could not possibly ever fulfill following all the laws of God. Which may sound cruel, that God gave too many laws to a people he knew would never be able to keep them, but it demonstrated something of real importance.

God is Holy

The idea that the laws were so many and very specific so that it was an extreme weight on his people was not just to be mea to them, but to help them understand how infinitely Holy God was compared to them.
It was meant to illustrate after many generations that they could not earn anything from a holy God in their sinful condition, because just one sin would be a blemish that could not be near a holy God like the Lord.
So God promised his people that there would come 1 who would fulfill the law and set his people free from the power of sin. However this message gets very obscured for the Jews as they fall into exile and then are constantly under oppression from other countries. It becomes a message for them of liberation not from sin but from human oppressors. The idea of a messiah is now one of national liberty.
The problem is when they come face to face with their Messiah, Jesus Christ, he challenges them to re-think what it is they are doing and why. He tells them they are not looking to honor God and really don’t know God at all. That God has a plan to save them from themselves and the sin that they love more than they love him.
This does not go over well and the Jews are responsible for having him crucified. The same people that did this will now have to hear of the resurrection and see their people attracted to a message that frees them from the authority these men were lording over them.
For the Jew, following the laws were not as much their religion as it was their identity. So, to have this Gospel message release people from everything they identify with was a disturbing view for them to embrace, even if that wanted to believe the gospel.
What I am saying is that they were raised to always follow the laws in order to be good enough for God and now that was something they couldn’t just do away with. So lets look at the argument and see what the distortion of the gospel was.
Acts 15:1 ESV
1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
These men were teaching people that they needed to obey the ceremonial laws of circumcision, taking a sign into your flesh to signify you belonged to God’s covenant, in order to be saved.
But was this true??? Was circumcision necessary for someone to be saved?
NO. And this was not what Paul and Barnabas had just spent the last couple years traveling to tell people all over the world. They would not be happy to return home and hear that this was a debate… That basically you needed to covert to Judaism in order to receive Christ.
Its like they were saying, since this Jesus was Jewish, you also need to be Jewish too before you can really receive anything from him. So it was as if they were saying, “fine, you can believe in Jesus as your savior but you still must do something before that really counts.”
And while this may not be the same reasonings people today defile the gospel message the formula is still the same… which is this...

Jesus + something you do = salvation

In this case it was Jesus plus circumcision equals salvation. But nowadays it is no different than what many religions have tried to do to the gospel.
In fact this is exactly what Catholicism is… They believe in Jesus + acts of personal penance = salvation. Jesus plus praying to mother Mary, or plus saying enough hail Mary’s, the rosary, going to confession, lighting candles, or giving financially to the church to purchase good deeds from saints to count for you when you die… these things will bring you salvation.
Now, we may hear this and think, that is so crazy, but it is no different than anyone adding anything to belief in Jesus for their salvation. We are Americans and we like to work hard and be independent in order to be proud and strong and free. How do you think these things shape a people to receive the gospel?
It is very difficult for people who have these things as their identity as a people, to receive a message that proclaims that they are not good enough and cannot work hard enough in order for God to save them. Instead they must learn to fully surrender and submit to his authority and rule over them.
And when we frame it that way, it was exactly the same for the these early Jews who had fought wars with other nations in order to keep there God given ceremonies going as their national identity. They wanted nothing to do with the ways of the pagan world, because their distinctness was their identity. What they failed to understand is that it was supposed to point to how unique a Holy God is, and it became all about them and had nothing to truly do with God.
And so since then the same distortion has threatened the gospel, which is Jesus + Something you do or your works = salvation.
If we want to know how to handle this today we must ask ourselves, “How was this be handled in the early church?”
Acts 15:2 ESV
2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
When Luke tells us there was no small debate, that is his way of saying they were very angry and upset and they had a major blowout over this issue.
In fact it was such a big deal to them that they decided they needed to go to the main church and see the highest human authority in that church to settle this. So they were willing to drop everything and go get some answers. So they go, but not before spreading the good news of salvation to Gentiles or non Jews to other places that haven’t yet heard of it.
Acts 15:3 ESV
3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.
Paul and Barnabas are traveling to Jerusalem and stopping in to check on the church in other cities along the way. As they do they share the news about Gentiles being saved and it is recieved with great joy. Why was it so well received there?
Well these are areas where there was a lot of gentiles, in fact Samaria is a place where the majority of the people were considered half Jewish. So ti is good news, because they are not the outcasts any longer and even those farther away from the Jews than them are being saved.
This certainly would give them hope heading to Jerusalem, that more people are rejoicing in the extent of salvation for all peoples.
Acts 15:4 ESV
4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.
So they are being welcomed into the church, and they use it as an opportunity to share all that was happening in the uttermost places on earth.
This would be exciting for them to hear, remembering what Jesus had told them before he ascended into heaven, about the spread of the gospel and them being his witnesses to the ends of the earth...
Acts 1:8 ESV
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
You would think that this is enough for them. Jesus told them they would go this far and now the reports have come back that in fact they have gone that far preaching the gospel.
But wait… this church is not just full of new believers, but there are mostly Jews who are converting to Christianity, except they didn’t see it as that, but rather a fulfillment of Judaism… So they would largely see themselves as Jews still. Remember they were not first called Christians until the church in Antioch came about, long after the church in Jerusalem was established. And that term Christian was one that was somewhat derogatory meaning they identify with Christ above all else.
Watch how Luke describes the church in Jerusalem next...
Acts 15:5 ESV
5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
Notice that Luke doesn’t call them heretics, but believers, and yet he identifies them as believers that came from the Pharisees.
If you do not know already, Pharisees were one of the ruling Jewish groups who were the most conservative and strict among Jewish believers. They were legalists in every sense of the word, meaning they were very strict about following rules and lording it over those who did not follow the rules they were following.
They believed their works of rule following was what would set them apart and make them worthy for God, and they acted as if others were less valuable because they were as disciplined as they were. So right here, we have their world view which was their identity being co-mingled in a belief about Jesus Christ being their savior.
Basically they were saying, “If they want in, then they need to do what we had to do to get in...”
Which should be alarming… Whenever we hear someone explain what they believe the gospel to be and they say anything about what they have done, red flags should be going up. Why??? Well we are going to see in just a moment. Look what happens as a response to this demand from these former Pharisees.
Acts 15:6 ESV
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.
They had to come together and talk amongst themselves. Even in the earliest days of the church there were issues that were pressing in from the outside and from people on the inside that were identifying with issues from outside the church, that these elders had to deal with.
So, they debate among themselves and then pick one of them to address the whole on their decision. And it needs to be someone other than Paul and Barnabas.
Acts 15:7–10 ESV
7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
Listen to what Peter argues here. They know full well what happened at Cornelius’ house when Peter preached there and the Holy Spirit filled them and they were even given a sign to bear witness that God had saved these Gentiles, they spoke in tongues like the rest of them did in Acts 2...
And so Peter reminds them of this, that they know he was used b y God for something similar among them.
He points out that there is no distinction anymore to those who God saves… Why? Because when God cleanses your heart you should not be put at odds with those whom he has also cleansed as well. So Peter is trying to show them that they are no longer Jews and gentiles are no longer Gentiles, but the are all the same before God.
See part of the beauty of the gospel is the what it does to those who believe. The world divides people but the gospel unites people, and makes them into a new family of people who belong to each other. But he doesn’t just leave it there, he points out how their religious duties within Judaism wasn’t something they could do or their fathers ever could do, so why try and make others do them as well.
Peter needs to once again show them their need for Christ, and he sums it up beautifully in the next statement...
Acts 15:11 ESV
11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Peter puts us all into one category… Those who will be saved by Grace… Here is the gospel and here is always the point of attack by those who do not understand the gospel well.
GRACE - UNmerited or UNdeserved or UNearned favor from God.
So peter is saying that we are saved by this undeserved favor from God that comes through Jesus Christ. And everyone who believe will be saved, so they will just like we will… meaning this is the only way everyone is saved. So, here is the gospel...

Jesus + Nothing = Salvation

There is nothing in this equation that you do that helps your salvation...
I love how Jonathon Edwards put it...
“You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that makes it necessary”
Why? Because it is by grace alone! This is one of the 5 Solas of the reformation. By Grace alone, through Faith alone, in Christ alone, to the Glory of God alone and this is found in Scripture alone!!!!
And no work you do in keeping the Law, or living right will ever be the reason why God saves you...
If this is total news to you, then you haven’t known the gospel. Because Jesus is the one that did everything to save you, and he freely gives to you what he did earn from God.
It is at this point in Peter’s sermon that they must be thinking… No way, what about all we did and everything we have ever been, you mean it all means nothing??? Look at their response.
Acts 15:12 ESV
12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
After what Peter told them, there was no response that match it. It is at this point when Paul and Barnabas now tell of all the miraculous things God did through them. Because those miracles were not just for the main audience to hear the gospel, even though we have made a point to teach that Miracles validate the message.
They now serve as as a sign post to these who are far away from them to see that God approves. It was never said, we did miracles and you should too… Many people make the book of Acts about us trying to repeat these things for today, but it wasn’t about that at all. God moved in extraordinary ways in order to arrest the peoples attention to hear the gospel and for it to be reported back to others how far his gospel would reach.
So we see the miracles again will bring validation to messenger and verification the main church about the extent of the gospels reach.
But these new truths about the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the experience of the preachers in these foreign lands are not enough for the church to now have a new doctrine accepted… in this case that non Jews can receive salvation by doing nothing but believing… there is still one more very important thing… And it is delievered by Jesus’ brother one of the other heads of the church in Jerusalem.
Acts 15:13–19 ESV
13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “ ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’ 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,
James goes to the only real source of Authority for any pastor or elder… God’s word.
If what is being taught is not found in God’s word we must not permit it, likewise, if God’s word permits it then we must teach it.
He very correctly points out that this is not something that God’s word is silent about and so they must submit to the fact that God actually wants these non-Jews to be part of his family.
The only way you can silence these legalists is to bring them to God’s word and show them the truth. Nowhere does it forbid Gentiles, but rather it long ago proclaimed them to be a part of the plan for salvation. And if it did then it should also proclaim what the Pharisees are saying if they are right, yet it doesn’t.
But there is one last thing to consider. Jews believed that they were a distinct people from the idolatrous pagans of the world because of God’s word that they kept, and so some of what they have identified with does not necessarily need to be done away with.
There are things in a Pagan culture that no one who proclaims to believe in the Holy God of Scripture should be involved with, and there are things that make these pagan people so offensive that it destroys the conscious fo these Jewish-Christians.
James rightly recognizes that this is a place for Christian charity to make exceptions of each other, and so he gives his judgement, not just to impose something on these Jewish-Christians but also on these Gentile-Christians.
Acts 15:19–21 ESV
19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
And so, in the early church when the gospel was at stake they guarded it strongly and made sure their teachings were in line with the scriptures and that everyone would follow them.
And when it came down to what may divide, they rightly saw the higher gospel value and then used wisdom and charity in maintaining this unity by affirming the things that will help Christians from different backgrounds not offend each other and not sin against God in the process.
And so there are gospel issues and there are conscious issues, but nothing that should ever take precedence of your identity in Christ, and how people come into this family, must be amended of added to.
It is the same to this day. We are saved by Grace alone and nothing we do can contribute to that salvation. We should never place burdens on people to conform into some religious version of what we think a Christian should look like unless we have the scriptures to back that up. And for those that like to point things out in scripture, they should ask, does this use of scripture in any way diminish the central truths of the Gospel.
If we can’t be in a church with believers that have different cultural backgrounds than us, than we need to have the gospel adjust our idea of what it means to be in Christ.
May we never deny the gospel to those who simply have different ideas about the world. And may we never let those views interfere with bring unity to the body that Jesus died to reconcile to God eternally. We are all saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that alone...
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