Pastor Chuck DeVane
Special to The Sentinel-Record
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." 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.
-- Acts 15:1-2, ESV
Acts 15 is the story of the church growing up, the Gospel gaining clarity, and the Christian life getting some boundaries. As far as the church is concerned, she is about 18 years old at this point. She's old enough to drive, old enough to vote, but not quite old enough to drink alcohol, although they (like our church) enjoyed real wine at Communion. Growing pains have surfaced, mostly caused by a clash of cultures, Jewish and Gentile. The Jews held seniority in the church, but the Gentiles were gaining a majority. Certain issues had to be settled.
Thus convenes the first great Church Council, held in the religious capital of the world, Jerusalem. All the major players are here. James, the half-brother of the Lord Jesus Christ, asserts himself as the real pope, first among equals, senior pastor of the Jerusalem Church. Simon Peter, star of Act I of Acts, makes his final appearance as the narrative gives way permanently to Paul, who has recently completed his first missionary journey with Barnabas. There is much to discuss and much to be decided about the Gospel.
A little later in the book of Acts, a Philippian jailer is going to ask the greatest question of all time. "What must I do to be saved" (ref. Acts 16:30). The right answer is rigorously debated and decided in this very chapter in the history of the church.
"Some men" (vs. 1) wanted to put a price tag on the Gospel. They were Pharisees from Judea who came to be known as Judaizers. While they, being Jews, had become Christian, they asserted that all Christians had to become Jews, Pharisaical Jews like them. Paul would go on to write a book about them, actually an epistle, called Galatians.
Let's give the rascals some credit before Paul emasculates them. They believed in grace, that God graciously shined on some in order to forgive their sins and grant them eternal life. They believed in faith, and professed such in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of David, the Son of God. But, in order to receive God's grace through faith in God's Son, males had to be "circumcised according to the custom of Moses" (vs. 1) and all had to "keep the law of Moses" (vs. 4).
In other words, their argument suggested salvation is not by grace, alone, God does His part but you must do yours. Salvation is not by faith, alone, for you must decide for Christ and then take part in some religious ritual or code to be saved. And the major code in question involves adhering to all of the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws of the Old Testament, along with the plethora of extra-biblical commandments developed by the Pharisees.
Salvation by, or even partially accomplished by, human works is the oldest heresy in history. When pride is wounded but not killed, when sin is conditionally confessed (yes, I'm a sinner, but I'm not as bad a sinner as so-and-so), when credit can be taken for salvation because of a religious ritual or the keeping of a commandment, then the Gospel gets contaminated like poison poured into pure water.
Such poison was being served up by the Pharisees here. It continues throughout church history. It is offered up in cans and bottles today by Catholic sacramentalism, Protestant altar calls, baptismal regeneration in both camps, and in the rampant Unitarianism that transcends all traditions and preaches all souls go to Heaven because all people are basically good.
Drink it and you will die. However, you can live forever, by a free Gospel furnished with grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Jesus Christ, alone! Such a doctrine is declared and defended at the Jerusalem Council by Simon Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James the Just.
It cost Jesus everything to save you. It costs you nothing to be saved. The Gospel is free. It opens the door to the Christian life, of which admission is free, too. But, in the Christian life, you are not free to do as you please, but free to do what pleases God. This we will discuss in the next column.
Chuck DeVane is the pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church. Call him at 501-525-8339 or email [email protected].