I talk often, just last week actually, about how blessed we are to have the full council and revelation of God’s word available to each and every single one of us.
That you and I don’t have to wonder about what God thinks about us or desires for us as his creation. He has laid it all out in his word. The Bible is our supreme authority for life.
But for a large portion of Church history, this was not the case. Prior to the Protestant Reformation you have to understand that people did not have access to a Bible as they were very expensive and usually in Latin.
So to know anything that God might have said in his word, you needed a Priest to interpret the scriptures for you.
As a result, there were a number or teachings that came out of the Church that when compared to what the bible actually taught, did not line up. One of these teachings, and one of the largest issues that let to the Reformation was the sale of indulgences.
Essentially, at the time the Catholic Church taught that a person could donate money and purchase an “indulgence”, and this indulgence would reduce the time a person had to spend in purgatory and could get them to heaven sooner.
In other words it was a way for a person to atone for their sins, through a financial transaction. One could also do this by commission artwork for the Church. In fact it was Pope Leo X who used the sale of indulgences as a way to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Well, this did not sit right with a catholic professor of theology and monk name Martin Luther. As someone who studied and taught God’s word, the idea of purchasing one’s way into heaven troubled him greatly.
So finally, after a lot of study and self-reflection Martin Luther came to the conclusion that number one, no matter how hard he tried, he could not overcome his sinful nature. That despite his best efforts, it was impossible for him to attain sinless perfection.
And number two, if he could not attain justification for his sins by his own merit, especially through the purchase of indulgence then he would be doomed if not for the words of Paul in...
Romans 1:17 NLT 17 This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”
Martin Luther went on to publish 95 arguments or theses agains the teachings and doctrines of the Church.
So when the Great Reformer nailed these Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany he set the world on fire, but he wasn’t inventing anything new.
Point 62 stated, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” Though it may have shocked people who were not aware of what the Bible taught, Luther’s theses were right in line with the first church council, the council of Jerusalem.
This amazing, historic event is recorded in chapter 15 of Acts. It’s the debate that took place there to which we now turn in the fifth week of our series on the proclamations of the early church. This time, the proclamation is both a literal proclamation and a defense made at the church council.
Power in the Text
Power in the Text
How are people saved? This is still an important question today. And it was an important question during the time of the first church too.
What we can gather from the writings of Paul is that certain Jewish believers in Jesus were following Paul around, and after he left they would tell the gentile converts that they weren’t fully saved unless they were circumcised and started to follow the Law of Moses.
Paul and Barnabas disagreed with this, so they took their argument to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
Acts 15:1-2 NLT While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers: “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing vehemently. Finally, the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question.
Acts 15:4-6 NLT 4 When they arrived in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported everything God had done through them. 5 But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.” 6 So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue.
The leaders gathered and debated the matter at length, until Peter stands and makes a speech.
Acts 15:7-11 NLT 7 At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe. 8 God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. 10 So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? 11 We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.”
What’s clear here is that there wasn’t uniformity of thought on all matters in the early church. But the church had come to a unified position of what the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus meant for believers.
Then Peter stands and begins to speak to all of those assembled. He first makes a point that he’d made in Acts 10 when he was confronted with the believer Cornelius: that God does not make a distinction between Jew and gentile (v. 9).
Indeed, “why,” Peter asks, “are we requiring them to do something that we ourselves recognize is impossible? For we know that we are saved by the grace of God” (see vv. 10–11).
What is God’s grace? It is God’s unmerited favor. It is kindness that is not deserved or earned.
Imagine a parent sets a jar on the counter. Every day that the kids are good, they each get to put a dime in the jar.
Every day they are bad, they take a dime out; and if they are all really, really bad, the parent has the option of emptying the jar. When this jar is full, the kids all get to go out for ice cream.
Now, imagine a day at home with the kids when every one of them is as bad as can be. The day starts out with screaming and crying and fights. They yell at the parent. They insult one another. They refuse to do their chores. If a rule can be broken, it is broken, and if there is a chore to be done, it’s ignored. There is total chaos.
The agreed “contract” in place is that on a day like that, the jar gets emptied. But instead, the parent calls the children into the kitchen and says, “I love you. Let’s go get ice cream.” That’s grace.
The Jews had lived for generations under the weight of the Law of Moses. They believed that salvation was only attainable through faith in Jesus as well as obedience to the law.
Peter here made it clear that it is impossible to live in complete and perfect obedience, which is why it would take an act of grace for us to be forgiven and made right with God.
Peter acknowledges this: God’s people hadn’t been able to bear the yoke of the Law (Acts 15:10). So why test God by making others do what God’s own people could not do?
Every day we are faced with a choice: to try to earn God’s favor and approval by being as good as we can, or to respond to his love and grace, knowing that if we fail, he loves us and there is grace that helps us trust that everything is going to be okay.
We are saved by grace alone; that’s what Peter proclaimed that day, and it’s a proclamation that has reverberated through history ever since.
Pauls puts it this way...
Romans 5:20-21 NLT 20 God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. 21 So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
God knew we would never be able to live in perfect obedience to the law. In fact, because of the impossibility of doing so, he sent Jesus.
The law was only ever given to show us how sinful and broken we actually are. In fact, he said that the more and more humans sinned, the more amazing his grace became. This is likely why there was such a long period of time between the giving of the law and the first coming of Jesus.
The simple truth is that you and I cannot earn our salvation. And we can not secure our salvation. Only Jesus could do that through his death and resurrections. It takes God’s grace and undeserved forgiveness.
Now, it must be noted before we close here that some in Paul’s day and inevitably in our own will hear or read these words and make assumptions about God’s grace.
Chief among them is that if God’s grace is made more wonderful the worse a person’s sin is, then shouldn’t we keep sinning and make that grace even more wonderful.
If we can’t earn or maintain our salvation by good works or by being sinless, then that must mean I can be saved and continue to sin however much I want. Paul, being the wise teacher he was knew that some would jump to these conclusions and so he addresses it in...
Romans 6:1-6 NLT Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? 2 Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? 3 Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? 4 For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
5 Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. 6 We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin.
The early Church proclaimed freedom from the burden of the law and the need to earn salvation through sinless perfection. They proclaimed that salvation was by grace alone. It is provided not because we deserve it, but because we don’t.
But at the same time, we understand that God’s grace is not a license to sin. The if we have truly experienced God’s grace and died to sin, then we must live as people who have died to sin.
Allow the grace of God to fill your hearts today. Walk in the freedom that comes with knowing you don’t have to be perfect and you can’t earn his love and favor. You already have it. So may you live your lives accordingly.