The Gospel Under Siege: Christianity Confronts a Cult (Acts 15:1-31)
It is a startling fact that the cults of today are conceived in the soil of orthodox, evangelical Christianity. Harold Bussell, in his excellent book Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, has come to this disturbing conclusion:
A close examination of popular Western cults reveals that many began in an Evangelical church or under leaders who claimed Christianity—men and women from solid church backgrounds. … Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, was reared in a Presbyterian home. Jim Jones, founder of the People’s Temple, at one time attended a Nazarene church; later he pastored an interdenominational church and a Disciples of Christ congregation. Moses David (David Berg), founder of the Children of God, is the son of Evangelical parents, served as a minister in a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, and was involved for a time in a Christian television ministry. Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of The Way, came out of the Reformed Church, where he served as pastor to a number of active congregations; during the forties he served as an adjunct professor of New Testament at a leading Evangelical college. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Scientists, and Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were both raised in markedly Christian homes and churches.1
The Mormon church has chosen the city of Dallas as one of its principle targets from which to gain converts and in which to build a temple. Here, in the very “buckle of the Bible belt,” this cult has chosen to make a massive thrust. I am told that the Southern Baptist denomination is the greatest source of converts to this cult. How can this possibly be true? Bussell’s disconcerting conclusion is that while in matters of doctrine the church of our Lord Jesus Christ is decidedly different from the cults, in practice it is often similar. Thus the transition from the true church to a cult does not appear to be as great as our doctrine would indicate.
The purpose of this series of messages in the Book of Galatians, quite honestly, is intended to counter erroneous teaching pertaining to salvation and the spiritual life which has been introduced in this city. As I have investigated this teaching and compared it with the teaching of the Scriptures, I have come to the conclusion that it is, in essence, cultic. I will not name this cult, for it must be recognized in contrast to the doctrines of the Word of God. Neither will I refute the teachings of this cult point by point, for this would tend to spread the error and allow them, rather than allowing the Bible, to provide us with the agenda for study. I will instead address the issue from a book of the Bible which deals with such error and which counters it with truth.
The doctrines of salvation and sanctification are unrivaled in their importance. Yet the misrepresentation of such doctrines is the source of countless errors. The false teaching of these doctrines so crucial to the Christian faith has not only spawned countless cults, but affected the Christian walk in all its facets. The Book of Galatians counters such teachings by instructing us in the essentials of true spirituality. Its goal is not to refute various forms of error, but to guide us along the path of true Christian living. Let us approach this study with open hearts and minds. Let us seek to understand the mind of the Spirit as conveyed through the Apostle Paul. Finally, let us seek to apply what we learn for our good and for God’s glory.
The Contribution of Acts 15 to the Study of Galatians
It is worth examining a relationship between the Book of Galatians and the 15th chapter of the Book of Acts. I have chosen Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Council as the introduction to our study for several reasons. First, this chapter provides us with the origin of the issue with which Paul deals in Galatians. It gives us an historical context by which we may better understand both the issue and its implications. Second, Acts 15 enables us to more clearly see the issue as one which is proposed by a cult. With this perspective, we find in this chapter many of the characteristics of the cults, thus better preparing us to identify them and to stand apart from them. Third, we learn from the Jerusalem Council how to deal with a cult. Let us seek to see how this struggle and its solution relates to practical Christian living today for in this account we find an attack on the gospel itself, an attack which could have devastated the early church, and one which has unfortunately wrought havoc in many churches throughout the centuries.
The Controversy, Its Roots and Its Fruits (15:1-3)
The church was well progressed by the time the Jerusalem Council was convened. Unregenerate Judaism had vigorously resisted the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles to the extent that Paul was nearly killed for telling his fellow countrymen that God had commanded him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21-22). Such reaction would not be surprising from those who rejected Christ and the preaching of the gospel. However, the church itself struggled with the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles.
The Christians remained in Jerusalem until a severe persecution scattered them (Acts 8:1-4). Philip went as far as Samaria (8:5). An angel commanded Philip to leave Samaria to lead an Ethiopian eunuch to Christ (8:26-39). The purpose of the dramatic conversion of Paul was to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles (9:15). Peter was compelled by a vision and a direct command before he would preach to Cornelius and a house full of Gentiles (Acts 10). Because of his preaching to the Gentiles, Peter was confronted by the Jerusalem church (11:1-3). When he related his experience, no one could deny that God had chosen to save the Gentiles (11:18). Nevertheless, the church at large still did not preach to the Gentiles (11:19). Only a handful of Christians from Cyprus dared do so, which resulted in the first Gentile church in Antioch (11: 20-26).
It was from this Gentile church at Antioch that Silas and Paul were sent as the first missionaries to the Gentiles (13:1-3). Many Gentiles were converted to faith in Christ and a number of predominantly Gentile churches were established. The Jewish church which had once dominated the spiritual scene was quickly being outnumbered. Antioch, a largely Gentile congregation (cf. Acts 11:19-22), had become the launching pad for missionary outreach. The handwriting on the wall was already apparent—the composition and the control of the church was changing hands, from Jews to Gentiles.
Jewish believers, including Paul (cf. Acts 18:18; 20:16; 1 Cor. 16:8), still continued to practice much of the Old Testament Law, not so much as an essential aspect of Christianity but as a part of their Jewish culture (cf. Acts 21:17-26). When Barnabas and Paul preached the gospel, they did not compel the Gentiles to imitate their Jewish brethren by insisting that they keep the Law. This was a matter of concern for Jewish Christians and the basis for later accusations that Paul even went so far as to discourage Jewish Christians from observing the Law as Jewish believers (Acts 21:21).
The whole matter came to a head at Antioch upon the arrival of a group of Jewish Christians who began to teach the Gentile brethren that they had to be circumcised and keep the Law in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas vigorously opposed this teaching, which resulted in great dissension and debate (v. 2).
The root of the conflict between Paul and Barnabas and the Judaizers in Antioch was a difference over the definition of the gospel. Paul and Barnabas preached that faith in the shed blood of Christ alone was sufficient to save. The Judaizers adamantly protested that this was not enough. The Gentiles, they insisted, could only be saved by converting to Judaism, in addition to confessing Christ as their Savior. The consequences of this error brought division and dissension to the church. Dissension and debate had forced every Christian to take sides, and rightly so, for one doctrine was truth and the other was falsehood; one led to life and the other to death.
The problem created by the Judaizers was taken seriously for two principle reasons: they distorted the gospel and they divided the church (vv. 1-2). The decision reached by the church at Antioch2 revealed both humility and wisdom. Humility was evidenced by the fact that this growing Gentile congregation was eager to have the Jewish leaders of the Jerusalem church decide this matter, which was highly charged with racial overtones. Wisdom also prevailed, for once the Jerusalem church had spoken, the issue was laid to rest. In addition, the composition of the group which was sent fairly represented all sides, so that the controversy was fully discussed and the decision binding on all parties.
The delegation made its way toward Jerusalem. Along the way these saints stopped to visit other believers, sharing with them the way in which God had been saving the Gentiles. This brought great joy to all the brethren (v. 3). I personally believe this verse provides us with a significant clue. Acts 11:10 suggests that the “brethren” of Phoenicia (if not of Samaria) were Jewish Christians. The Jewish believers rejoiced at the salvation of the Gentiles. The issue was no longer to whom the gospel should be preached (cf. Acts 10 and 11); instead it centered around the content of the gospel. The Jewish church had truly progressed since its inception. Instead of excluding Gentiles from the gospel, they now rejoiced in their salvation. Now the Jewish brethren were asking, “what are the requirements for the salvation of the Gentiles?”
The Issue Debated and Decided (15:4-29)
The formalities had hardly been completed when the fireworks began. The issue was forced by a group which gained the floor (lit. stood up)3 and insisted, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law4 of Moses” (v. 5).
Just who were these people so adamant about the Old Testament Law? In verse 1 they are identified as those who had come down from Judea. Verse 5 further enlightens us with the indication that they were a part of the “sect”5 of the Pharisees who had believed. Paul himself had been a member of the strictest party of Pharisees before his conversion (Acts 26:5),6 but his testimony reveals that the kind of righteousness which his Pharisaism produced was but “dung,” compared to the righteousness of Christ (cf. Phil. 3:1-13, esp. vv. 5, 7-9). In Acts, Luke intends for us to look upon the members of this “sect” as genuine believers, although this would certainly not be true of the Pharisees as a whole. In Galatians, Paul is much more stern, calling this same teaching “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6), and pronouncing a curse on any who preached it (Gal. 1:8-9). From Acts 15:24 we learn that while these false teachers were indeed members of the Jerusalem church, they did not have the sanction of the apostles. What they preached as apostolic were merely the doctrines of man.
Historically, the Pharisaic party was founded following the exile and during the inter-testamental period to preserve Judaism at a time of growing Gentile political and social dominance. By the time of our Lord’s coming, their teachings had become legalistic. They saw law-keeping as the means of man’s salvation and as the basis for the coming of Messiah. Jesus frequently was confronted by this party, and His response was a scathing rebuke for their hypocrisy (cf. Matthew 19:3-12; 22:15-22, 34-46; 23:1-39; John 8:3-11). It would seem that while a number of Pharisees had come to faith in Christ, some of these had failed to fully renounce the legalism of this sect, thus striving to keep Christianity within the narrow boundaries of Pharisaism.
The issue before the Council was clear: Do Gentiles have to convert to Judaism in addition to converting to Christ? The deeper and more fundamental issue was: Are men saved by faith alone, or by faith plus the keeping of the Old Testament Law? A formal hearing was convened and the matter was thoroughly debated before a decision was reached.
Notice that what Luke records is only a sketch of the total proceedings. Much more was spoken than became Scripture. Why doesn’t Luke give us a blow-by-blow description of the debate? I would suggest that in this debate, as in most, there is a great deal said that is not worthy of recording, especially in the Word of God. I think there is considerable wisdom in providing us with only the “bottom line” of the teaching of the Pharisees. Why give error a broader hearing than necessary? The arguments of Peter, Barnabas, Paul and James are more than sufficient to show that grace and law are incompatible.
After much debate, Peter stood (v. 7). His testimony was particularly pertinent because of the events already described in chapters 10 and 11. It was the Pharisaic interpretation of the Jewish food laws which prohibited Peter from sitting at the table of a Gentile. The vision which God gave Peter in chapter 10 was intended to remove such restrictions. Thus evangelism among the Gentiles could prosper, and Jews and Gentiles could become one in spirit and in truth in the church.
There had been considerable reaction among the leaders of the Jerusalem church to Peter’s unauthorized missionary activity regarding Cornelius and the Gentiles gathered to hear the gospel (Acts 11:1-3). Only after Peter’s explanation of God’s guidance and the gift of the Holy Spirit did the church leaders come to the conclusion that God had chosen to save the Gentiles (Acts 11:17-18). Peter’s argument was based upon the previous conclusion of these leaders. What was true in Acts 11 was the precedent for the decision of the Jerusalem Council in chapter 15. God had divinely called Peter to preach to the Gentiles, putting aside such legalistic matters as the food laws. Since God had shown no partiality between Jews and Gentiles by giving both His Spirit in the same way (Acts 11:15-17; 15:8), how could the church make any distinction? Had the Pharisees won the day the church would have acted contrary to what God had already taught them, that is, that He had saved and accepted into fellowship Gentiles as Gentiles (and not as Jewish proselytes).
Peter’s first argument was based on the lesson he and the church had learned concerning Cornelius and those gathered in his house. His second argument went even further, pressing for the basis of salvation for either Jew or Gentile. Finally he turned to the lesson which should have been learned from the history of Israel and from the teaching of our Lord. Gentiles need not become Jewish to be saved because Judaism has never saved anyone. In his first argument, Peter concluded that once saved, God did not distinguish between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Peter continued the debate by showing that Judaism was not essential to salvation.
Peter rightly perceived that the Judaizers were teaching that salvation was not a matter of grace but of works. These false teachers insisted that the Gentiles could only be saved by being circumcised according to the custom of Moses (Acts 15:1). The gospel had been redefined, just as Paul forcefully stated in Galatians (1:6-10). To insist upon the Gentiles becoming Jewish proselytes was to limit salvation to Jews alone. This further implied that Jews were saved by the keeping of the Law. The Gentiles, however, had been saved only by faith (Acts 15:9). In fact, the Jews had never been saved by the Law; it was an unbearable yoke that only condemned: “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Peter powerfully concluded: “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:11).
The true underlying issue is: How are men saved? Both Jews and Gentiles are saved alike, by the grace of God (v. 11), through faith alone (v. 9), and not by law-keeping (v. 10). The Law can only condemn; it cannot save (Gal. 3:1-14). It is a yoke of bondage, not of freedom (Gal. 5:1).
The error which was taught by the Judaizers was not only serious, it was sin. It was, to use Peter’s very words, to “put God to the test” (Acts 15:10). How is God put to the test by our requiring others to live under the Law? The expression, “to put God to the test,” is found several times in Scripture. As we consider these instances, we shall learn the nature of this sin and the way it was manifested in the teachings of the Judaizers.
The first instance of this expression, “to put God to the test,” is found in Exodus 17:
Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” … And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exod. 17:2, 7).
Only a short time before, God had manifested His power and might by smiting Egypt with plagues and by bringing His people out of Egypt through the parting of the Red Sea. Yet they quarreled with Moses because they came to a place without water. They tested God by demanding that He reveal (prove) Himself by giving them water. In other words, they refused to believe God was with them unless He gave them what they wanted, when they wanted it. They tested God by demanding proof of His presence through an outward, visible act, which they specified. To put God to the test is to demand that He act as we want Him to. Such unbelief and testing is based upon God’s miraculous activities in the past and upon some present painful circumstance.
God later referred to this incident when He commanded, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah” (Deut. 6:16). The context of this passage is crucial to our understanding of this command. This command was given just prior to Israel’s entrance into the promised land, with all of its prosperity (Deut. 6:10-12). The immediately preceding verses prohibit following the religion of the land and practicing their idolatry (vv. 13-15).
The false religions of the Canaanites and the people of the land were based upon a direct relationship between the god they worshipped and the prosperity of the people. These religions worshipped gods who controlled nature (fertility, rain, prosperity). Idolatry was always involved because the people wanted a visual symbol of their belief. In the context of Deuteronomy, I believe that God was warning His people about obedience which was based only on tangible, visible evidences of His blessings. He was warning His people not to insist upon Him proving His presence among them by the outward manifestations of His power. The people of God should obey Him because He is God, not because He brings prosperity. Obedience and trust are not to be conditioned upon God’s performance according to our expectations and standards. Job is an example of the kind of trust God requires of His people.
The expression, “to put God to the test,” occurs again in the gospels in the temptation of our Lord by Satan. Satan challenged our Lord to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, based upon the promise of deliverance in Scripture (Psalm 91:11-12; Matt. 4:5-6). Our Lord responded by quoting this passage from Deuteronomy 6: “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’” (Matt. 4:7).
Do you see Satan’s line of reasoning? First he began with a promise of God’s protection. Then he urged our Lord to prove God’s faithfulness by forcing Him to keep that promise. In effect Satan’s argument was: “God is only to be trusted when He visibly proves Himself by acting according to a way which we prescribe, based upon His Word.”
When our Lord quoted the passage from Deuteronomy 6 (based upon Exod. 17:2, 7), He reminded Satan what faith really is. Faith trusts in God in the midst of adversity, without demanding that He perform according to our preferences, based upon His promises. God’s promises are true, but we have no right to demand that God act according to our desires. Satan was implying that it was wrong for our Lord to be deprived of food for forty days, but it was God’s Spirit who led Him into that time of testing (Matt. 4:1). Our Lord told Satan that He did not need to “prove” His Father’s care in order to trust in Him. If suffering and self-denial were His will (as the cross would be), then He would trust and obey. Faith in God does not require outward, visible proof, demanding that God keep His promises according to our preferences.
In Acts 5:9 Peter said to Sapphira, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” This is a difficult text to interpret, but I believe that previous uses of this expression provide us with the key. Ananias and Sapphira had sold their property and had given most of the proceeds to the apostles. They had kept a small portion for themselves, but had indicated that what they gave the apostles was the entire amount received from the sale of their property. Such deception was sin because it was lying to God (Acts 5:4). In verse 10 Peter addressed the sin which was the primary motive for withholding part of the proceeds. They “put God to the test.” Why did they keep some money for themselves? I believe Peter’s words provide the reason. They did not trust God. They needed tangible proof of God’s presence—in this case, a little money in the bank. They were not willing to trust God with absolutely no visible basis for security. They wanted to have tangible evidence to bolster their faith, but this is inconsistent with faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
All this precisely describes the problem with the teachings of the Judaizers. They felt that they needed tangible proof of God’s presence among the Gentiles in order to believe He had saved them. The visible evidence which they demanded was provided by the Jewish Law, especially that which stressed external, outward action, such as circumcision. With this evidence, they could believe that God was present with the Gentiles. Such proof is always contrary to faith. Faith rests upon the basis of God’s person and promises, not on the basis of external evidence.
Let me seek to apply the principle of trusting God rather than testing God. We have said that we should never test God’s faithfulness by visible, tangible signs of His presence. If we dare not test God’s faithfulness by miraculous activities, why is it that some Christians seek to test their own faith by the miraculous hand of God in their life? The faith-healer tells the dying patient that if he has enough faith, God will heal him. Of course God can heal him. Perhaps God will heal him. If God’s presence and power is not to be tested by demanding a miracle, why do some test our faith in terms of whether or not we are healed? It takes far greater faith to trust in the goodness and the promises of God when He does not deliver us than when He does. If God’s faithfulness must not be tested by visible proofs, let us not seek to test our faith in Him by them either.
The demand of the Judaizers that the Gentiles give outward, visible proof of their salvation by keeping the Law was sinful for several reasons. First, it demeaned the person of Christ. What Christians are is solely dependent upon who Christ is. Our salvation, our security, our sanctification, are all “in Him” (cf. Eph. 1, Col. 1, esp. vv. 14-23). To question the salvation, security, and sanctification of a Christian, Jew or Gentile, is to question the worth of our Lord. Second, to demand the keeping of the Law doubts the power of the resurrected Christ, for it is only in His power that we can live righteously (cf. Rom. 8, esp. v. 11). Third, adherence to a code denies the principle of grace. It is not as a result of works, but through the benefits of grace that we are saved (Rom. 3:21-31; Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 3:5-7).
When Peter finished speaking there was the hush of silence. Perhaps no further argument was needed, but Barnabas and Paul now shared their testimony of the “signs and wonders” which had accompanied the salvation of the Gentiles. This was indeed significant, for signs and wonders had accredited the ministry of our Lord and that of His apostles (2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:3-4). The same signs which accompanied the birth of the church in Acts 2 also accompanied the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17), the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-46), and the Ephesian disciples of John (Acts 19:1-7).
The significance of “signs and wonders” accompanying the conversion of the Gentiles was immediately apparent to the leaders of the Jerusalem church. Such manifestations were regarded as the testimony of the Holy Spirit to true conversion and to membership in the body of Christ on equal standing with the Jewish Christians. Far from being an evidence of personal spirituality, the miraculous phenomena of tongues in Acts was proof of God’s acceptance of these new believers. They necessitated the Jewish church acting consistently with God’s testimony.
Lastly, James spoke perhaps as the most respected leader of the church at that time. James added one final evidence for the acceptance of the Gentile converts as Christians (vv. 13-18). He turned to the Old Testament prophets to show that God had indicated long beforehand that He intended to save Jews and Gentiles alike. What God had indicated to Peter, and had confirmed through the ministries of Barnabas and Paul, was consistent with the “word of the Prophets” (v. 15).
The meaning of the quotation which James cited is clear. The Jews had come to expect that when the kingdom was restored, the Gentiles would fall at their feet. Their expectation was that Gentiles might be saved, but that they would become, in effect, proselytes. The prophet Amos, as cited by James,7 not only spoke of the conversion of Gentiles, but did so as a separate entity rather than as a segment of Judaism. If this was the purpose of God, which could hardly be denied, then why would it be necessary for the Gentile converts to cease to be Gentiles and to convert to Judaism as well? It was a question which none of the Judaizers could answer.
There was probably a very practical reason for this added argument by James. Little, if any, New Testament Scripture had yet been recorded and recognized as such. The Judaizers must have therefore felt quite comfortable in turning to the Old Testament Scriptures to prove their point. After all, hadn’t God commanded His people to keep the Law? To allow the Gentiles to do otherwise appeared to be a violation of the Word of God. By citing this text in Amos as typical of the teaching of the Old Testament prophets, James proved that the doctrine defended by Paul and Barnabas was, indeed, a doctrine foretold in the Old Testament. Could the legalists use the Old Testament to prove their point? James used the Old Testament prophets (who were the interpreters of the Law), to disprove it.
While we have not completed our study of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, this is an appropriate place to end this lesson by raising the most critical question we can ever face, the question which is decided once and for all by the apostles: How is a man saved—by faith alone, or by faith plus some work? The answer of the apostles is absolutely clear—man is saved by faith alone.
“And God, who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are” (Acts 15: 8-11).
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction (Rom. 3:21-22).
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).
Unfortunately there are many churches which teach that we are saved by faith and works. For some, such work is the keeping of the Law. For others, the work may be baptism. To teach thus is to pollute the gospel and to contradict the decision of the apostles. May I ask you with all the earnestness of an eternal issue, my friend, “In what are you trusting to save you?” You may be trusting in something which you have done—raising your hand, walking the aisle, praying a prayer, signing a card, catechism class or confirmation. None of these acts can save anyone. They may, for some, have been the expression of faith, but they can also be for others the substitute for faith. I urge you, in the quietness of this very moment, to consider in whom or in what you are trusting for the forgiveness of sins and for the assurance of entrance into God’s heaven. Christ alone is the adequate Object for your faith. Regardless of what you have done in the past, I urge you to acknowledge Him as the only basis for your eternal life. He died on the cross for your sins. He was raised so that you might live forever. Eternal life is yours for trusting in Him as God’s only provision for your salvation.
This passage has much to say to those of us who are believers in Jesus Christ. First, it reminds us of the heart of the gospel. The issues are those of personal sin, the wrath of God, and the truth that God’s wrath is satisfied by the death of Jesus Christ for all who trust in Him. That is frequently the gospel which we proclaim. We act as though God were in desperate need of more converts, and so we seek to attract men and women by telling them all of the wonderful benefits of becoming a Christian. We imply that God needs them more than they need God. If we are saved by faith alone, there is nothing which we are or can do which will somehow impress God and incline Him to save us. When we present salvation as a work of God’s grace, it is He that is central, not man. Let us learn from Acts 15 the message we need to share with men if they are to be saved.
Let us also learn that we dare not add requirements to the gospel which God has not made Himself. Often churches are afraid that unless we give a “hard sell,” telling the individual all that will be required of him as a Christian, we will produce ungodly Christians. That, I believe, was the fear of the Judaizers. If salvation were made too easy, the Gentiles would surely paganize the church. We often add our own “fine print” to the gospel, saying that converts must stop smoking, never touch alcohol again, and comply with a list of church “do’s and don’ts.” Let us be warned by the legalism of the Judaizers. We do not assure godly Christians by making the gospel more demanding than did our Lord or the apostles.
Finally, the purity of the gospel is not only vital because it defines God’s terms for salvation and determines the destiny of men, but it is also vital because the gospel defines the process of sanctification. When men begin to tamper with the gospel, they invariably pervert the biblical teaching on sanctification. The means of sanctification are the very same as those for salvation. The way we are saved is the way God sanctifies us as well:
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Rom. 8:29-30).
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:3).
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6).
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him (Col. 2:6).
The gospel of salvation and the doctrine of sanctification are of one piece. Neither one is the combination of faith and human works. Both involve human action, but only that prompted and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Whenever we attempt to produce holiness and purity by law-keeping and legalism, we pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Many of those who pervert the gospel do not do so directly. They “back into” their heresy. They begin by claiming to believe in salvation by faith in Christ alone, but then they insist on law-keeping for sanctification. If salvation and sanctification are of one piece, then to pervert the one is to pervert the other. Let us be very careful to approach the ongoing of the spiritual life in the same way that we have its initiation.
2 The Greek text does not demand that we understand the decision to send a delegation to Jerusalem to be made by the Antiochan church or its leaders. The Western text suggests that it was the Judean delegation which demanded that their case be heard by the Jerusalem church leaders: “Those who had come from Jesusalem ordered … Paul and Barnabas themselves and some others to go up to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem to be judged before them about this question.” Quoted by Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 206.
No doubt, the Judaisers did appeal to the Jerusalem church for a decision, but the text seems to imply that this was a decision reached by the church, rather than one imposed upon it by these self-appointed teachers. Verse 3 clearly indicates that it was “the church” which sent this delegation on its way. If not at their initiative (as I believe it was), then at least with their blessing, the delegation is sent to Jerusalem.
3 The impression I get from verses 5 and 6 is that the Pharisees “stood up” at some kind of preliminary hearing or meeting, forcing the issue. The result was a more formal gathering, during which the issue was debated and decided.
4 Carter and Earle remark that the Pharisaic requirements of verse 5 are even more demanding here than in verse 1 (Carter and Earle, p. 210). I disagree. In verse 1 we find the teaching of the Judaisers addressed to the Gentile converts themselves, stressing the necessity of keeping the “custom of Moses,” while in verse 5 the Jerusalem church leaders are told that they must circumcise the Gentile converts and direct them to observe the “Law of Moses.” In verse 1 the Judaisers taught that keeping the Mosaic traditions was necessary because their salvation depended on it. In verse 5 the basis for insisting on circumcision and the keeping of the Mosaic Law was not mentioned. Did the Judaisers tone down their argument when faced with the leaders of the church? It would seem so.
5 The term “sect” is the Greek word hairesis. While later usage has the sense of the transliteration “heresy,” such was not the case in New Testament Greek. Here the term refers to a faction, sect, or party.
7 There is a problem with the text which James cited in verses 16-18. The argument which James puts forward seems to be based primarily on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This version differs from the Massoretic (the original Hebrew) text. Carter and Earle (pp. 214-215) conclude that the problem, at this time, is beyond a satisfactory solution. Certainly we must hold the view of James to be inspired.