“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.” (v1)
Acts 15 is so utterly removed from our day-to-day lives that it is almost impossible to understand what a huge and dangerous situation was brewing here and that if left unchecked, could undermine the whole gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, Acts 15 is one of those crisis moments! Get this wrong and all the wonderful advance that the church had seen over the preceding chapters could come to a screeching halt and even start unravelling. Why? Because doctrine or theological clarity on fundamental issues of the faith really matters for faithful ongoing missions! And there is no great theological issue than what must a person do to be saved?
For the Christians in Antioch, this was a monumental moment because it was pressing to the very core of their understanding what it meant to be a Christian. Does one need circumcision, the Old Testament sign of being part of the family of God, to be saved? Yet it pressed even more profoundly upon the identity of God and his people. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. How could they choose to follow him and yet seemingly ignore some of the other things God the Father had initiated? There is something very compelling about this argument and you can see how powerful it must have been in their minds. However, as I’ve already stated, what was at stake here is not some peripheral or secondary practice, but the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. When Christ died on the cross, was his work sufficient in and of itself to save or not? Putting it another way, to be a Christian, do you need Jesus +? For the 1st century Christians, the issue was circumcision but throughout church history there has been a whole line of other things mistakingly added to Christ’s saving work.
Yet the beautiful, if not offensive, message of Christianity is this:
“A man [or woman] is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28; cf. Gal 2:16)
Just let that verse sink in. Our ability to stand boldly before a holy God is based solely on the saving work or activity of Jesus and not based upon any religious practice or paraphernalia – baptism, moral or ethical standards, or even good doctrine. It’s not that baptism isn’t important – it is – but it isn’t essential for salvation (just talk with the thief on the cross). It’s not that moral or ethical standards are not important – they are – God does want to transform our inner desires and then our actions, but these flow from a changed life and are not a requirement for the change to take place. God is more than able to save people who have totally wonky doctrine if there is a simple child-like faith in the sufficiency of Jesus’ cross work for salvation. However, that does not mean we need to stay in a place with wonky doctrine! To be a follower of Jesus means to grow up into maturity, but the very essence of our faith is always unmerited favour, lavish and extravagant grace, supernatural giving of life to spiritually dead people – salvation by faith alone.
Let me finish with a quote from Lenski:
“To add anything to Christ as being necessary to salvation, say circumcision or any human work of any kind, is to deny that Christ is the complete Savior, is to put something human on a par with him, yea to make it the crowning point”
Join John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, in praying:
I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I wish to be. I am not what I hope to be. Yet I can truly say, I am not what I once was. By the grace of God I am what I am.” Amen