Life in a faithful church is never easy. There’s always something brewing in a church, an undertow of opposition. There really is no rest. Paul and Barnabas found this to be true after completing their first missionary journey in Acts 13-14. God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles through the ministry of these two men, and now others from Judea were coming down and teaching these Gentile converts that they have to be circumcised according to the custom of Moses or they could not be saved (Acts 15.1).
Legalism is rightly defined as adding human religious works to the finished work of Jesus Christ and insisting others follow your example. Legalism undermines the true Gospel of Christ. Acts 15.24 clearly says that these legalists were not sent from the church at Jerusalem. They arrogantly took it upon themselves to spread their doctrine. Paul and Barnabas stood firmly against these men and argued against their doctrine.
The church at Antioch determined that Paul and Barnabas should go to Jerusalem. Christianity began in Jerusalem. Christian doctrine issued forth from the apostles and was built around the Chief Cornerstone, Jesus Christ. It was time to put this question of Jewish legalism to rest once and for all.
As the two men traveled to Jerusalem, they described the conversion of the Gentiles to people. Many Jewish and Gentile believers rejoiced over this. When they arrived, the church itself received them gladly. Paul and Barnabas reported to the church regarding their first missionary journey. They spoke of all the things God had done with them; not about all the things they had done for God.
However, a sect of the Pharisees, who had become committed to Jesus Christ as the Messiah, stood up and said that it was necessary to circumcise Gentile believers and command that they keep the Law of Moses. So, these men received Christ as their Messiah, but continued to live as Jews. Most nominal Christian churches in our world today add good works to faith in Christ. This all started with these Pharisees in Jerusalem. This false doctrine has led many men and women to Hell. How would the church settle this issue?
Careful consideration is needed by church pastors when problems of any sort develop (Acts 15.6-11). This is particularly true with problems concerning the Gospel. The apostles along with elders carefully considered the matter before them. There was much dispute until the chief apostle rose up to speak.
- First, Peter pointed out what had happened in Acts 10 with Cornelius (Acts 15.7). It was God’s will for Gentiles to hear and receive the Gospel through the mouth of Peter.
- Second, God acknowledged the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit (Acts 15.8).
- Third, there is no longer a distinction between believing Jews and Gentiles (Acts 15.9). All believers have hearts purified by faith in Christ.
- Finally, Peter hits hard by asking a rhetorical question. “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15.10)? That yoke is obviously the Mosaic Law.
Now make no mistake. Many Christians today are equating sinful activity with this yoke and completely missing the point of Peter’s argument. Peter hammers it home in Acts 15.11: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” Pious Jews (Romans 7) are saved the same way miserable Gentiles are (Romans 6). We are saved by grace. All of us are saved by grace. However, it isn’t grace if you add the Mosaic Law, circumcision, or baptism to it. It isn’t grace if you add anything to the finished work of Jesus Christ! And that grace is received on the basis of faith alone. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Law-keeping Christianity is a great burden. “When you have done all those things which are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Luke 17.10). Jesus is telling us that even if you do everything you’re supposed to do, you are at best unprofitable. Many of the Pharisees boasted of keeping the Law, but they broke it constantly. We must be dead to the Law (Romans 7).