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Lesson 36: When Unity is Wrong (Acts 15:1-11)

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There is a strong movement toward Christian unity in our day. In 1994, a number of evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders signed the document, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which sought to emphasize what Catholics and Evangelical Protestants believe in common, and to encourage greater cooperation between the two camps. In October, 1997 a second document, “The Gift of Salvation,” was signed. According to one evangelical who signed it, the signers were committed to unity in the truth (Christianity Today online, 12/8/97, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: a New Initiative”). But the Catholic Church has not budged an inch from their statements in the Councils of Trent that condemn those who hold to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

The Promise Keepers movement has also encouraged this movement toward unity between Catholics and Protestants. One of the seven promises that every Promise Keeper commits himself to is, “reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.”

Someone sent me a tape of a message that the popular author, Max Lucado, delivered at the 1996 Promise Keepers Pastors Conference in Atlanta. Lucado compares the church to a large ship, with Jesus at the helm. On board, the passengers are arguing over all sorts of doctrinal issues. He implicitly ridicules any doctrinal disputes as if they are petty and inconsequential, since we’re all headed for the same destination on the same ship. At one point, he exclaims, “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have the labels ‘Methodist,’ ‘Presbyterian,’ and ‘Baptist’?” His audience of 40,000 pastors cheers. He continues, “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have the labels ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’?” The pastors cheered again!

He then urges every pastor who has ever criticized any other man’s denomination to get up, find someone from that denomination, and ask his forgiveness before they all took communion together. If Martin Luther and John Calvin had been in the audience, Lucado would have had them asking forgiveness of the pope for criticizing the Roman Catholic Church!

The famous evangelist, Billy Graham, for many years has also played down any differences between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. He has said, “I have no quarrel with the Roman Catholic Church.” Speaking of the difference between evangelicalism and Catholicism, he said, “I don’t think the differences are important as far as personal salvation is concerned” (both quotes in Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided [Banner of Truth], p. 68).

Because of the powerful influence of Graham, of Promise Keepers, and of the evangelical leaders who signed the two evangelical-Roman Catholic accords, there is immense pressure on pastors today to drop all doctrinal differences and join together with all who call themselves “Christian.” One evangelical leader dogmatically states, “It is sin to refuse to join in ecumenical dialogue and processes with other Christians who confess Jesus Christ as God and Savior. It is a sin to send our missionaries to other lands with long Christian traditions without first consulting with the churches already there.” In the context, he is referring to countries where Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church are strong (Ron Sider, World Vision [April/May, 1994], p. 9).

I will readily admit that there have been many sinful and shameful divisions among Christians over petty issues. While we should avoid such selfish squabbling, our text shows that there are times when it is a sin not to divide over doctrine. When the doctrine concerns how a person gets saved, there can be no compromise.

Unity is wrong when it compromises the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone.

Some men came from Judea to Antioch and began teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1). Paul and Barnabas did not say, “They will know that we are Christians by our love, not by our doctrinal agreement, so we won’t judge you brothers for your personal beliefs.” Even though these teachers hailed from the mother church in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas did not begin with ecumenical dialogue. They began with “great dissension and debate.” Since this matter threatened to undermine the gospel itself, the church sent Paul, Barnabas, and some others to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to get the matter resolved.

The issue at stake was huge: Must Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law in order to be saved? Or, are Gentiles and Jews both saved by faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any observance of the Law? The answers to these questions have ongoing relevance for us, not only in upholding the true gospel of salvation, but also in the current movement toward unity between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. We will look at Peter’s response to these issues, which Luke records after stating simply that “there had been much debate” (15:7). Peter’s words establish that …

1. Salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

The issue here is salvation (15:1, 11), which refers to how a person can be delivered from God’s eternal judgment; or, with how a person’s heart can be cleansed from sin (15:9).

A. Salvation is by God’s grace alone.

Grace means “undeserved favor.” If in any way you deserve it, it is not grace (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6). Peter makes it clear that the salvation of the Gentiles originated with God’s choice, that through Peter they would hear the word of the gospel and believe (15:7). He further underscores that God made no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles (15:9). In other words, He saved the Gentiles apart from their becoming Jews or any other merit on their part. And, Peter sums up, “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (15:11).

That’s quite a statement for a Jew to make! You would have expected, “They are saved in the same way as we are.” But, rather, Peter is saying, “We religious Jews are saved in the same way as these pagan Gentiles are, namely, through the grace of the Lord Jesus.” In other words, their Jewish religion didn’t chalk up “Brownie points” with God. Their keeping all of the ceremonial and moral laws didn’t move them an inch closer to salvation, because salvation is not based on any goodness in us or any religious activities on our part.

You may have been raised in the church, as I was. You may have devoted your whole life to service in the church. You can even serve as a missionary and suffer greatly for your religious work. None of it weights the scale of heaven even a little bit in your favor. The pagan murderer on death row is just as close to salvation as you are. In fact, he may be closer, because he is more likely to see his need for God’s grace than the religious person who takes pride in his good deeds. The Bible says that we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. Thus we all need to be justified as a gift by God’s grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23-24).

B. Salvation is through faith alone.

Peter says that God proclaimed the gospel through him to the Gentiles so that they might believe (15:7). He made no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, in that He cleansed the Gentiles hearts by faith (15:9). The proof that the Gentiles had believed and were saved is that God, who knows the heart, bore witness to their faith by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did with the Jews (15:8). Even before Peter finished his sermon at Cornelius’ house, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began speaking in unlearned foreign languages, just as the Jews had done at the Day of Pentecost. It happened right after Peter had said, “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (10:43).

Peter’s argument is that God would not give His Holy Spirit to those who were unclean in their hearts. The fact that He sent the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles the instant that they believed, apart from their being circumcised, shows that salvation is by faith alone, not by faith plus circumcision or some other act of keeping the law. Circumcision is not the means to a clean heart before God; faith in Jesus Christ is! It is obvious that the instant that the Gentiles believed, they were cleansed totally and completely from all their sins. It was not the beginning of a process of purification that had to be completed by their good works. Nothing remained to be added. God saved them by His grace through their faith plus nothing.

It is important to emphasize that we are saved by faith alone, not by faith plus our works. And, as John Calvin makes clear, “faith does not make us clean, as a virtue or quality poured into our souls; but because it receives that cleanness which is offered in Christ” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Acts, vol. 2, pp. 50-51; I updated the English). The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith. But the catch is, they say that we must add our works to our faith in order to bring the process of justification to completion. The Canons and Decrees of Trent, which represent the official Catholic teaching to this day, state:

If any one says, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112.)

If any one says, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema (Session 6, Canon 12, ibid., 2:113).

If any one says, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema (Session 6, Canon 24, ibid., 2:115).

If any one says, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened [to him]: let him be anathema (Session 6, Canon 30, ibid., 2:117).

In other words, the Catholic Church declares that we are justified before God by grace through faith, but not through faith alone, but that our good works must be added to that faith in order both to preserve and increase our right standing before God. Justification is not completed at the initial point of faith in Christ, and not even in this life, but only, hopefully, in Purgatory.  Thus the Catholic Church denies the sufficiency of the guilty sinner’s faith in Christ’s sacrifice as the means of right standing with God.  (For further treatment, see Justification by Faith Alone [Soli Deo Gloria], ed. by Don Kistler, especially pp. 7-14, by John MacArthur, Jr.) The Bible clearly declares that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone (Romans 4).

C. Salvation is in Christ alone.

Jesus Christ, by His perfect life, fulfilled the Law of God. By His substitutionary death on the cross, He paid the penalty that we as guilty sinners deserved. Thus, as Paul puts it in Romans 10:4, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” He paid it all; there is not one thing left for us to pay. It is not our righteousness in any degree that qualifies us for heaven, but rather the righteousness of Christ applied to our hearts through faith in Him. This means that …

2. Salvation by keeping the law is impossible.

Peter calls the Law of Moses “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (15:10). Certainly he is referring to the hundreds of ceremonial laws that were so complex as to be almost impossible to keep. But some Pharisees had done a pretty decent job of keeping those regulations, at least outwardly. Many of these same men had also kept the moral law of God outwardly. So I agree with John Calvin, who argues that Peter is referring to the human inability, even of the most godly of the fathers of the faith, to keep God’s law on the heart level (ibid., pp. 50-55). Note three things:

A. The purpose of God’s law was never to save sinners, but to show them their need for God’s grace.

Paul says, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). As he goes on to argue in Romans 4, even Abraham, the father of faith, was not justified by his good deeds, including circumcision, but rather by faith in God’s promise of salvation. God has always offered two ways of salvation: (1) Keep His holy law perfectly, including your thought life, from birth to death; or, if that fails, which it always does, (2) come to Him as a guilty sinner, confessing your need of His grace, and trust in His provision of a substitute to pay the penalty you deserve. In the Old Testament, the sacrificial system looked forward to the perfect sacrifice God would provide in Jesus Christ. Since then, our faith looks back to Christ. But the law was never given to save sinners. It cannot do that because of the weakness of our flesh (Rom. 8:3).

B. Salvation by keeping the law is impossible because God requires obedience on the heart level.

Jesus pointed this out in the Sermon on the Mount. The Pharisees prided themselves on keeping the Law, but they were viewing it externally. They had never been unfaithful to their wives. But Jesus said that if they had ever lusted in their hearts after another woman, they had broken God’s law. They had never murdered anyone. But Jesus said that if they had ever been angry with their brother, they had violated God’s commandment (Matt. 5:21-32). God looks on the heart, and thus all of us are guilty many times over of breaking His holy law.

C. Thus salvation by keeping the Law is a burden that no one can bear.

As Paul argues in Galatians 5:3, if a person argues that circumcision is necessary for salvation, he puts himself under obligation to keep the whole law. As James 2:10 states, you can keep the whole law and just stumble in one point, and you become a law-breaker, guilty of the whole law. So if you wish to be saved by your good deeds, lots of luck! One strike and you’re out! If we add anything to faith as being necessary for salvation, then it is by works, not by grace alone.

Thus we’ve seen that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation by keeping God’s law is not possible, since the Law demands purity in the heart, not just outward observance.

3. The difference between sound doctrine and false doctrine on the matter of salvation is the difference between eternal life and eternal condemnation.

We need to understand that these Judaizers professed faith in Jesus Christ, but to their faith they added the necessity of being circumcised and keeping the Law of Moses (15:5). If you had asked them, they would have said, “We believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. But, we also believe that in order to be saved, a person must also keep the Law of Moses.” For that error, Paul states that they were preaching another gospel, which is not really another, and that they should be accursed (Greek, anathema, which means, eternally damned; Gal. 1:6-9).

The Roman Catholic Church teaches precisely the same error as the Judaizers. They believe that a person is saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But, they add, faith in Christ alone is not sufficient to save you; you must add to it your good works. Further, they pronounce anathema on the one who says that faith alone is sufficient to save. You must either believe their word or the word of the apostle Paul. The two are completely opposed to one another.

This is to say that sound doctrine on the matter of salvation is absolutely essential! Don’t drift into the postmodern thinking that truth is relative and doesn’t matter. Don’t fall into the simplistic error that love, not sound doctrine, is the main thing, and that somehow we are unloving if we hold firmly to the biblical doctrine of salvation. You do not love another person if you see him heading for eternity under God’s condemnation because he is trusting in his own good works, and you don’t confront him with his fatal error. That is like watching a person about to drink poison, and saying, “I love you, brother,” but not warning him.

4. To promote unity with those who teach a false way of salvation is to sin by compromising the gospel as revealed by God.

Peter makes it clear (15:7-8) that the gospel of grace to all people who believe originated with God, not with men. Peter didn’t think it up; in fact, he would have sided with the Judaizers prior to his vision and experience with Cornelius. James reinforces the same point and supports it with Scripture (15:14-18). The doctrine of the gospel cannot be based on human wisdom or tradition, but rather on God’s Word and on His clear confirmation of the salvation of the Gentiles by faith alone, as evidenced by Peter and by Paul and Barnabas (15:12).

The point is, the Jerusalem Council did not decide that love and unity are more important than truth, and so we must set aside our quibbles. They didn’t say, “Whether a person is saved by grace through faith in Christ, or whether he must add circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses, aren’t the main thing. The main thing is to affirm one another as brothers in Christ, and not to divide over doctrine.” No! The foundation for Christian unity is the truth of the gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith apart from any good works. Good works inevitably follow saving faith. If a person claims to have faith, but has no good works as a result, his faith is not genuine (James 2:14-26). But it is faith alone in Christ alone that saves a person from God’s judgment.


Many do not like messages like this one, because they stir up controversy, and we all like peace. I’ve had people leave the church over similar messages that I’ve preached in the past. But as John Calvin wrote, “The name of peace is indeed plausible and sweet, but cursed is that peace which is purchased with so great loss, that we suffer the doctrine of Christ to perish, by which alone we grow together into godly and holy unity” (ibid., p. 38).

J. C. Ryle, a 19th century Anglican bishop, wrote,

Controversy and religious strife, no doubt, are odious things; but there are times when they are a positive necessity. Unity and peace are very delightful; but they are bought too dear if they are bought at the expense of truth…. It is a pity, no doubt, that there should be so much controversy; but it is also a pity that human nature should be so bad as it is, and that the devil should be loose in the world. It was a pity that Arius taught error about Christ’s person: but it would have been a greater pity if Athanasius had not opposed him. It was a pity that Tetzel went about preaching up the Pope’s indulgences: it would have been a far greater pity if Luther had not withstood him. Controversy, in fact, is one of the conditions under which truth in every age has to be defended and maintained, and it is nonsense to ignore it (source unknown).

The Jerusalem Council teaches us that unity is wrong when it compromises the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. May we join Martin Luther in saying, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it essential to emphasize justification by faith alone, with nothing added (see Rom. 4:2)?
  2. Can a Catholic believe in the teachings of his church and be truly saved? Why/ why not?
  3. Is God fair to save a terrible sinner the instant he believes, but to condemn a good person who never believes in Christ?
  4. How do you harmonize James 2:14-26 and Romans 4?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, False Teachers, Fellowship, Grace, Leadership, Scripture Twisting, Soteriology (Salvation)

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