The passage we come to in Acts today is long, and because it’s so long, I’m not going to read all of it right now. Instead, I’m going to summarize for us what takes place first, and then we will refer to specific verses throughout the sermon today.
It’s basically a theological debate, and the outcome represented the official Church verdict on a very important issue.
- Paul and Barnabas are on their first missionary journey and some Jews show up saying that the Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved.
- Paul and Barnabas disagree with them. The gentiles are saved by faith alone. They do not need to be circumcised to be saved.
- The debate rises to such a level that they depart to Jerusalem to get the biggest voices in the early church to weigh in.
- They gather everyone, including Peter and James, and debate the issue.
- Peter stands up and says he has witnessed the Gentiles coming to faith by grace and that they do not need the yoke of the law for salvation.
- Paul and Barnabas then share what has happened among the Gentiles on their journey, confirming Peter’s statement.
- Then James says that this testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas fits with the prophecy of the Old Testament that the Gentiles would be brought into God’s kingdom.
- And he suggests that the Gentiles do not need to become obedient to all of the Old Testament laws in order to be included in the church, but he does suggest that they write to them to abstain from 4 things, which we will talk about later.
- So they send Paul and Barnabas off to the Gentile believers with a letter.
- They read the letter and there is much rejoicing because it is clear to everyone that Jews and Gentiles can live in peace together under Christ, because he has saved them all through grace.
So this is a huge event in the early church.
This Great Debate gives us three insights:
- How the gospel saves (vv. 7-11)
- How the gospel frees (vv. 28-29)
- Where the gospel leads (vv. 30-31)
How the Gospel Saves
Look at verses 7-11.
“7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
So after the disciples and apostles have been at it for a while, Peter stands up and makes a short speech that begins clarifying the entire issue for everyone. And what he’s saying, essentially, is that we know how the gospel saves.
So how does the gospel save?
First, by bearing witness to our heart through the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 8). How were you saved? Did you perform certain rituals that lead to belief? Did you say a magic formula that created a new heart? Did you convince yourself? Or did the message come to your heart and just explode in truth? We believe the gospel because God comes to our heart and reveals the good news to us. It’s not a routine or a formula, it’s God giving us eyes to see and ears to hear.
This happens through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Notice that word “gift.” We might be prone to think that Peter was saved because of the work he did for Christ. Paul as well. They were apostles. So their actions must have given them favor with God, but that’s not true. Peter and Paul were both saved because God showed up to them and gave himself to them.
Isn’t that a wonderful picture? God comes to us! The heart is the center of our body, it represents the innermost part of us. It’s where our thinking, our willing, and our decisions all originate. The heart is where our most basic and deepest convictions are held. And that’s where God comes – to our truest self. He doesn’t come and modify our behavior, he changes the very part of us that controls everything. He saves us. He cleanses our hearts by faith.
Salvation is a miracle of God. We can’t save ourselves! Only God, in his grace, can set us right with him.
So, second, the gospel saves us by the grace of Christ (v.10-11). Notice Peter's words in verses 10 and 11, "why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
What is he saying?
You have to realize that most of the first Christians were Jewish. They had grown up in a culture that was devoted to the Mosaic law. Circumcision, for instance, was the sign of the covenant with Abraham. It was a marker that you were in the family of God. And there were all kinds of other laws to obey too – so many that it was impossible to obey them all the time. You were always failing and in need of a sacrifice to bring forgiveness.
He's saying that the law was something no one could ever obey perfectly. It was a heavy yoke. But when Jesus shows up he calls out to the world, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Jesus’ yoke is easy because he obeyed the law perfectly, fulfilling the requirement for us. And after he lived the perfect life he laid it down in sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. We failed, but Jesus succeeded and he’s giving all his success to us. All we need to do to be saved is receive the gift he’s offering. He did the work; we get the prize. Salvation is a gift. It’s grace.
Even if the Gentiles were to be circumcised and follow the rest of the law of Moses, it wouldn’t guarantee their salvation, because salvation is not, and has never been, about works, but about faith. Paul says in Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
And the Gentiles have faith. They believe the gospel. Their hearts have been cleansed by faith. In a culture that emphasized cleanliness in order to come before God, Peter is saying these gentiles are perfectly clean. God has cleansed their hearts by faith! There is no cleaning work left to do! They are saved, and adding law won’t do anything to change that.
It’s the great news of the gospel – that Jesus Christ has given us free justification. That is to say, we have been set right with God and counted innocent because on the cross Jesus took all our sin and gave back all his righteousness. And the Holy Spirit bears witness to this truth in our hearts.
And as we receive that inward revelation to the heart and experience salvation by grace we start to see something else – that the gospel frees us.
How the Gospel Frees
Look at verses 28-29.
The Jerusalem council drafts a letter and sends it to the Gentile believers. It says,
28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
They decide the Gentiles do not have to come under the yoke of the Mosaic law. There is freedom in the gospel. But how does the gospel free us? And if it frees us, why do they include these other requirements?
It’s confusing, so let’s look at each part.
First, the gospel frees us from saving ourselves. Some Jews had wanted to put the burden of the law of Moses, especially the ceremonial law, upon these Gentile believers. But to place upon men what God has removed in Christ is to reverse the grace of God into law. We are not saved by our works, but by our faith.
When James stands up and delivers the verdict from the Jerusalem council, what we see is that they agree the Gentiles do not need to become Jews in order to become Christians. The gospel has freed them from pursuing a relationship with God based on the ceremonial law.
What makes the gospel such good news is that our salvation is completely dependent on God and not on us. You can’t be saved by obeying God, you can only be saved by receiving the free gift of grace. Jesus obeyed God and he’s giving his obedience to all of us disobedient people.
So here’s what that means for us today. We’re always having this debate in our mind. We’re always trying to add law where God puts grace. (PAUSE) One of the reasons we need to hear the gospel constantly is because we always slip back into self-salvation mode. But we can’t save ourselves! If you had to save yourself, how could you ever be sure you were good enough? How could you ever know you obeyed enough? How could you have any assurance at all? You couldn’t! (PAUSE)
But God saves us by grace in Christ. So it doesn’t depend on you anymore. It depends on God. What happens when you believe the gospel is you are saying, “God, I can’t save myself. I need you to save me.” And he does!
So why don’t the gentiles have to come under the law? Because in Christ they’ve already come under the law and been judged by it. They were hidden in Christ, and one the cross he bore the punishment they deserved, and in his resurrection gave back the life they now have. What happened on the cross wasn’t just a pardon from God, it was full acceptance by him. It’s as if you have always obeyed. You are not just forgiven, but welcomed.
Now, what about those 4 requirements listed there? I thought the gospel frees? It does!
The gospel also frees us to obey God. You can’t read this passage and not scratch your head at verse 29. There we see 4 specific requests for obedience. Why? Aren’t the Gentiles free from the law? Yes, they are. But the gospel is more than just an unburdening from the law, it’s also a releasing to obey.
The first three requirements help the Gentiles create unity with the Jewish believers and any unbelieving Jews that may become believers in the future. Obeying removes the stumbling block. They center around food and one of the greatest community events happens around the dinner table. Jews still observe these dietary laws. So if the Gentiles and Jews are going to eat together, for the sake of unity they’re are asked to obey these requirements even though this does nothing to merit their salvation. The last one, sexual immorality, is a moral law, and the moral law of God is something we should always obey as Christians. So it’s not obeying to be justified, it’s obeying out of love for God and one another.
Until you are saved you can never really obey God. Why? (PAUSE) Because until you see that you are only saved by the grace of God apart from all your works, you are constantly working to earn your salvation. So you’re always anxious and afraid. But as soon as you see the free grace of God for you something happens. You begin to have a power to obey that you didn’t have before. Now you’re not obeying to earn salvation, you’re obeying out of love to God. You’ll never obey until you know you’re loved. You might outwardly follow rules, but you’re heart won’t have joy or peace until you know you are utterly loved.
The gospel says the full wrath of God has fallen on Jesus instead of on us. So our sins no longer hang over our head. God is alive in us! We can obey him because he is with us and empowering us. And when you start to love God rightly, you can then love others rightly as well. And as we obey we see that the gospel is leading us somewhere.
Where the Gospel Leads
Verses 30-31 say,
30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.
This council meeting could have gone terribly wrong. What was a divisive issue could have split the early church between a Jewish conservative church and a Gentile liberal church. But it didn’t. Because the gospel leads somewhere. It leads to the unity of the church.
In Christ disunity cannot reside. We have differences, sure, but if we all open ourselves to the Holy Spirit he will create unity within this church and all other Bible-believing, Christ-honoring churches.
So as the gospel keeps us together it also pushes us out to others. From time to time very serious issues are raised that the church must address. And we have here in Acts 15 the biblical model for how to handle such issues: fierce obedience to Jesus Christ and his gospel and rejoicing in one another. Those two, Jesus first, community second, leads into the mission.
If we will remain faithful to the biblical gospel and protect and spread that good news among ourselves in community, God will give us opportunities for mission. More and more people will come to faith by the grace of God and enter into our churches. They will be welcomed, Jew or Gentile, Black or White, Poor or Rich, because the grace of God has made us all one in Christ. We will see, and experience ourselves, the great unburdening that comes only from the gospel. We will see people freed in ways that can only be explained by grace.
The spread of the gospel is, and should be, a cause for great joy among God’s people.
J. Gresham Machen, the early 20th century theologian, explained the situation like this:
“These Jews said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God the best he can, and then (3) is justified. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God’s law.”
See, when we realize the proper order of the gospel we are utterly stunned. When we realize that we believe first, then are justified, then keep the law, we are stunned into silence at the free gift of grace. The gospel says, look at what was done for you and receive the good things by trusting Jesus, then, and only then, can you obey at all.
Look at verse 12, “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”
Here we see silence in the middle of the debate. Why?
Because they all recognize the wonder of the gospel. And what do they do? They listen to Paul and Barnabas tell of the wonderful work God has been doing among them. When we are grabbed by the gospel we sit in amazement at the work of God. Becoming a Christian is not coming to a set on ideas or behaviors. It’s coming to a person. Have you ever noticed how many times the Bible retells the story of God’s work among his people? Why is that? It’s because no matter how many times we hear it the grace of God never gets old.
If we as a church will be so open to God that we fall silent in wonder and awe and rejoice always in his grace, then we will find that not only do others unlike us have a place in the family of God, but we will see just how much we fit into the family of God as well. One of the tests for your love of God is how much you rejoice in the salvation of others. If you believe salvation is free, you'll rejoice. If you don't, you won't.
But as we open our hearts to God in the gospel we find all the reasons in the world to rejoice, and all the reasons in the world to have hope, and all the reasons in the world to love one another.