The Dispute Over Law and Grace

The Dispute Over Law and Grace

During my first year at Dallas Theological Seminary, Kimberly, who eventually would become my wife, came down to visit me. She was living with her parents in Kansas City at the time. When she came down, some friends taxied us to the Cotton Bowl where we spent the entire day together at the Texas State Fair. At the end of the day, we planned to walk the two miles back the Dallas Seminary and as the sun began to set, we began our trek. What I did not know at the time was that the area that we had to walk through was labeled by the Dallas Police Department as the most dangerous eight blocks in the Metroplex. We soon, as darkness was growing, sensed our peril as the environment around us seemed a little foreign to us. So we quickened out pace. We were about a half-mile from home when a slightly inebriated, homeless man approached us begging for food. The “7-11” sign across the street read, “Two hot dogs for $1.00.” The price was right! We stopped in there and gave this man some hot dogs and he sat down by the comer of the building. Kimberly and I went over to him and we crouched down beside him as he ate and we were talking to him about Jesus and about the Gospel, hoping to give him something more that physical food. As we did so, two men came walking out of the “7-11” and one of them immediately began to make some crude comments in regards to Kimberly. I first ignored that comment, but out of the comer of my eye I noticed that they were quickly approaching our direction and the one man continued to make these comments. In about a half-second time I made three decisions: one, Kimberly was worth fighting for; two, squatting down with my back to these potential assailants was not the best strategy for success; and three, quickness of action was my only hope. From that squatting position I jumped up quickly and turned around, spread out my shoulders and found myself, to my surprise, nose-to-nose, literally one inch from the nose of this other man, staring him in the eye. As I turned around, I said, shouted, “DO YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME?” No, I really didn’t say that! But what I did shout, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” Whereupon, thank the Lord for this second man who was with the first and who seemed to be frightened by this outrageous display that I had just given. He immediately said, “No, no, we don’t want any trouble.” He grabbed his friend and ushered him back into the car and away they went. Thinking that this may have been my finest hour, I immediately asked Kimberly to marry me. Again, no, that is not what happened. I felt the adrenalin rush out of my body at that point and I felt so weak and together we managed to walk our way that half-mile safely back to Dallas Seminary.

The point of the story is simply this: there are some things worth fighting for, and sometimes it is necessary to fight to protect those things which are precious, which are valuable. In Acts 15, we find Paul and Barnabus nose-to-nose with teachers who are attacking the Gospel of Grace. Dear Saints, Paul and Barnabus, were rolling up their sleeves, ready for a battle in a defense of the Gospel.

From this point in Acts 15, in the Church history forward, the Body of Christ has had to revisit this same battlefield over and over again. The Gospel of Jesus reveals the glorious truth that salvation from sin is entirely a work of God. It is entirely by God’s Grace alone; through faith alone; in Jesus Christ alone. This salvation is absolutely apart from any human effort that you and I or anyone else may make. We believers in the 21st Century should not be surprised that attacks against this Gospel are still strong, prevalent, and dangerous. These attacks come not only from outside the church, but that these attacks come from the same source that they came from in Acts 15, from within the church of Jesus Christ.

In the Epistle of Jude, Jude will write:

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share…

He says, “I want to just write to you the Good News of the description of all that God has done. That is what I wanted to write to you.”

He says:

…I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

Friends, as we read this account of our forefathers of faith defending the Gospel, let us ready ourselves to fight as well, to contend for a Gospel, to contend for this Gospel, with vigor, with strength, with energy, with commitment, with honor, and with faithfulness to our Lord.

As we study this conflict in Acts 15, we consider four aspects of this conflict.

We are first going to look at the fact of the conflict.
Then we are going to observe the nature of the conflict.

Then the resolution of the conflict – how did it end up?

And finally, the results that followed the resolution.

We first take up the fact of the conflict, and in verses 1 & 2 we read of this fact:

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Then it says in verse 2:

This brought Paul and Barnabus into sharp dispute and debate with them.

Before we consider the nature of this conflict, or why this fight broke out, and what it is all about, it is important for us to observe that a necessary dispute raged within the early church, and that Paul and Barnabus led it – particularly Barnabus, who was called Barnabus because he was the “Son of Encouragement.” He was not a fighter, a battler by nature. And yet, here we see Paul and Barnabus leading the charge.

It is true that church fights are often sad events. So often, churches fight within themselves for unnecessary reasons; for reasons that protect personal pride or selfishness. The only thing that is more grievous, and it is very grievous for a church to fight unnecessarily, is a church that refuses to fight when it is necessary. That is far more grievous. In the first case, we see the church being divided by a fight that is unnecessary. In the second, we see the church destroyed because she has lost the Gospel, lost the truth, herself.

There are some who are uncomfortable with any kind of fighting. The nature of life, however, teaches us that when we love something we must fight to protect it and that it is proper and it is right to do so. A physician’s love for her patient’s health demands that she fights; she fights germs, she fights diseases, she fights pain. A police officer’s love for justice demands that he or she fights crime and fights injustice. A farmer’s love for a bountiful harvest demands that he fight against weeds and pests that would seek to destroy that crop. A proper love for the Truth of the Gospel, for personal holiness, demands that the church necessarily roll up her sleeves and fight at times.

God tells His people that there are two valuable treasures worth fighting for. The first is the personal holiness of the church; that if the church looses her personal holiness and her commitment to that, then she has lost her integrity. When a church turns a blind eye to ongoing, unrepentant sin in the lives of her members, this is not a sign of patience, as some would deem it. This is not a sign of forgiveness and acceptance of love, but this is a sign that the church despises the work of Jesus in purifying His bride. It is a sign that the church does not love the things that Jesus loves.

The second valuable treasure worth fighting for is what is fought over in Acts 15 – the truth of the Gospel. When a church is unwilling to challenge false doctrine that tears at the roots of the Gospel of Jesus Christ this is not a sign of a commitment to unity; a sign of a commitment to peaceableness and unselfishness. This is a sign that the church does not value, does not love the Gospel that God has entrusted to us.

Verse 2, tells us:

This brought Paul and Barnabus into a sharp dispute.

Paul and Barnabus loved the Gospel. This Gospel had saved them from sin’s curse. This Gospel had given them life. This Gospel had redeemed them from bondage to the Law. They fought for her. Brothers and sisters in Christ, so must we.

What is this conflict all about? We want to observe now the nature of this conflict.

Some Jewish teachers came to Antioch and taught that the Disciples, the Christians and Gentiles who had become believers, had to obey the Mosaic Law and had to be circumcised in order to be saved, in order to be included in the people of God. We read of that in Verse 1 and Verse 5.

Verse 1 describes it very clearly for us.

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised…”

They were teaching the Gentile brothers. Remember the church is expanding. Paul and Barnabus had completed the first missionary journey. Churches were established in Lystra and Derby and Pisidia Antioch. They wanted to be clear on something:

“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

The question at issue is: “How is it that a person is saved? What are the conditions that a person must meet in order to be accepted by God?”

In Verse 5, we read another report:

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses.”

The issue now is not whether the Gentiles can be saved, that was a question earlier for some. Peter’s experience with Cornelius had settled that question. Now the issue was “How, can the Gentiles be saved? What conditions do the Gentiles have to meet in order to be accepted by God and included in God’s new community?”

Remember for a moment, all the truths and all the doctrines these teachers agreed upon with Paul and Barnabus. These teachers agreed, for instance, that Jesus was the Messiah. They weren’t questioning that. These teachers agreed that Jesus died upon the Cross; that He rose the third day. These teachers claimed to be part of the church; that they were members of her; that they had “believed”. These teachers were moral people; they weren’t dreadful breakers of the Law. They weren’t hypocrites in the sense they told people to try to obey the Law but they themselves lived profligate lives. These teachers did not reject the idea of salvation being by Grace through faith. They simply said that “salvation came by Grace through faith PLUS…” That seems like a very small distinction at first. “We are saved on the basis of God’s Grace through faith PLUS obedience to the Law of Moses, PLUS circumcision, PLUS some of these rituals.”

Why did they do this? You can imagine being raised as a young Jewish boy. All your life you have attended to the Old Testament. All your life you lived according to these ceremonial laws. All your life you rightly were taught that God chose Israel as His people. The identifying mark of a person within the Jewish community, who was connecting their lives to the Covenant that God had made with them, was the mark of circumcision. That was absolutely essential for even a Jew to participate in the blessings that God had promised within His Covenant; the promises of the Old Testament. It was deeply offensive to think that a person could be included among the Covenant people of God apart from these aspects of the Law, particularly circumcision.

It is possible to look at this dispute and to consider, “Well, consider their background for a moment you really can’t hardly fault them for thinking this way and even teaching this way. What is the big deal? Why not just go along to get along in this particular instance?”

I want you to consider Paul’s answer to this in Galatians. Paul had been on his first missionary journey and just returned not long before Acts 15. On that missionary journey, he traveled through southern Galatia. These teachers who are teaching the necessity of circumcision and obedience to Mosaic Law had infiltrated the churches in southern Galatia. Prior to Acts 15, Paul is going to write a letter to these churches. The Book of Galatians is written before Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 15. In that letter, Paul addresses why that is such a huge deal.

First, Galatians 1:6,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the One who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…

This is not just a variation upon the real Gospel, but this is an entirely different gospel. To add something to the condition of acceptance by God apart from faith is to change the Gospel that was delivered to us by God in the Bible, into a different gospel; something wholly other.
In Galatians 2:5, he is talking about these teachers and says:

We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the Gospel might remain (in) you.

What the issue is that the Truth of the Gospel would remain in the churches. If they gave in, even in a small measure, the Truth of the Gospel would be lost.

Chapter 2:11 is very interesting and it helps us in view of the context of Acts 15:

When Peter came to Antioch,

Peter made a visit prior to the Jerusalem Council. Paul said, “I opposed him to his face…”

Do you see why some of these teachers had become emboldened? They thought that they had Peter and James in their comer. They fully expected when they got to Jerusalem to have Peter and James rebuke Paul and Barnabus. They didn’t know the conversation that Paul had had with Peter prior. What was that conversation? We read about it here:

“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong.”

This was wrong in reference to the applications of the Gospel. He says:

Before certain men came from James…

There is the word “James” again. We are going to see him in Acts 15,

certain men came from James…

That doesn’t mean they were authorized by James, but they were people who said, “We believe in what James is teaching.” They were people who were sympathetic in teaching this idea that a person had to be circumcised in order to be saved. He says:

Before certain men came from James, (Peter) used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy.

Paul is talking about Peter,

The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

He says,

“My man Barnabas also lost his way and he was with me on these missionary journeys. He was with me when we declared the Gospel to you.”

Verses 14, and following:

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Jesus Christ that we (might) be justified by faith…and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

He says, “Peter, we know this. Why are you acting as though there are two classes of Christians? There are Jewish Christians who are really spiritual because they continue to follow the Law of Moses, and then these ‘Gentile Christians’ who are sort of Christians and you are distancing yourself from them because you have misplaced the applications of the Truth of the Gospel in your life.” He says, “I stood up and I opposed Peter and I rebuked him in front of everyone.”
Why is it that this matter is so important? The Gospel is at stake. That is what Paul is saying.

Galatians 3:10,

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…

Verse 11,

Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”

Paul understood something that we often miss, and that is, by adding anything to the Gospel, we fall back under the curse of the Law. We fall back underneath bondage and into condemnation itself.

The Gospel tells us plainly that Jesus the Messiah, has done everything we need to be accepted by God. This is the Good News. We cannot add our actions, our goods deeds, our rituals to the work that Jesus Christ completed on the Cross. That is why this is so important and significant.

I want to offer three practical applications.

First, the hardest of all ideas for a man or woman to understand and to accept is the idea that God accepts us on the basis of His Grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone. We, as men and women, are constantly tempted to add something that we have done, some bit of our performance, to the work of Jesus. Here is the truth – if a person attempts to add anything to the work of Jesus, and trusts in that, that person cannot be saved. That person is under the curse of the Law.

You say, “But that person believes in Jesus!” No. Not the Jesus of the Bible and not the Gospel of the Bible. “That person claims to trust in Jesus.” They are also trusting in, and you add it: baptism, communion, confession, good works, and rituals, what ever it might be. As a result, that person is not saved because the only way a person can be saved is if they are saved by Grace through faith. That is the Gospel and Paul fought for this because he knew that the Gospel was about to be lost from the church itself, or at least a large portion of it.

The second practical application that I would bring to you: false teachers try to make the Gospel less offensive by adapting it to their culture. These were not people who opposed Jesus, but these were people who said, “We believe in Jesus.” They understood that when the Gentiles were accepted, and they were accepted without having to adopt for themselves any of the requirements of the Law, not even circumcision, they understood how hard it was going to be for the Jews, who without Christ, to accept and embrace a Christianity, a religion, that accepted Gentiles on that basis. They understood that this Gospel message was going to be so offensive that as soon as they spoke it in Jerusalem, and told these other Pharisee friends of theirs, “Hey, Gentiles are a part of the people of God, and they don’t even have to be circumcised,” that these other Pharisees, who are outside of Jesus Christ are going to say, “Forget that! I don’t want any part of that kind of a message.” They sought to say, “How can we shape this message so it is more acceptable to our Jewish friends, to other Pharisees, who we want to lead to Christ?” Undoubtedly there were good motivations for this, but in their motivations in order to reach more people with the Gospel, they ultimately were loosing the Gospel itself. May this lesson, from the 1st Century, have a profound impact upon our lives today. We can actually undermine the Gospel’s power; undermine the Gospel’s effect, if we add our personal spin to it, if we somehow try to adapt it to our culture in some way so it becomes less offensive to the 21st Century hearer. God forbid that we would enter in to the error of these Judaizers, of these false teachers of the 1st Century, by adapting the Gospel in such a way to make it more acceptable to the heart and mind of a natural man, a natural woman, who resists God in heart.

The third application: the Apostle Peter was influenced for a time by his background.

Paul had to oppose Peter publicly. Peter began to warm up to the idea of adding conditions beyond faith in Jesus for inclusion into fellowship. I don’t think he lost the Gospel. He lost a sense of what the church is. He began to separate the church into two groups. There was this “in-group” who trusted Jesus and were circumcised and followed the Law of Moses. “That our group,” he was saying. “That’s who I’m going to eat with. That’s where I’m going to go to church.” Then there was this “sort of in-group,” “Yeah, I’m not going to deny that God doesn’t accept them, but they are different from us. They are not quite as with it; not quite as on-target as we are.” All of these thoughts were based upon requirements that he learned from his background as a boy in the synagogue.

Beloved, this is a profound danger to each one of us. We are very much influenced by our past experiences, by our personal preferences, and by our personal practices. It is our past environment that can easily pull us away from sound doctrine, even from the Gospel itself.

When I was a young man, my neighbor went to a Gospel-believing church, and so I would often go with him to church and to the summer camps, etc., that his church held. At that church I knew that I was always just “sort of in;” really I was “sort of out” because I had longer hair than what they said was necessary to be a Godly Christian young man. I wore tank tops, that is to say, I wore muscle shirts – no muscles, but I wore the shirts. For them, that was outside the realm of acceptability for Christians. They had these man-made standards that they said, “This is what a ‘real’ spiritual Christian is, and we are going to eat with these folks and include these folks in our church. But, if you have these other things, you are outside. You are sort of included, but not really included, in our group.” Peter is a good example of a man who first was influenced by his background in adding things to the Gospel for full inclusion into the church. He is also a man who is a great example to us as one who listened to correction and change. It is hard to listen to correction and be changed. Peter did just that and we see that in Acts 15.

Living out the Grace of Jesus Christ is, indeed, very hard. We so easily push our preferences on others and make it part of the standards, the requirements that we have for inclusion.

Listen to Kent Hughes. He writes, “We assume that people will either do things our way or that they are ‘unspiritual’. We too often put others through the paces of our own heritage before we fully accept them as brothers and sisters. Sadly, sometimes a church will radiate more of this than Gospel. May we be always on guard.”
We’ve noted the fact of the conflict, the nature of the conflict, now the resolution. What came of this dispute? How was it resolve?

Acts 15:6,

The apostles and elders met to consider this question.

First, notice there wasn’t a dictator who said, “This is how we are going to solve it.” The whole group convened together for a meeting underneath submission to God’s Spirit. Also, notice that it was not be a “congregational vote”. They didn’t gather all the believers together and say, “Hey, what do you all think?” and let the majority rule. The leaders were entrusted with the task of sorting this out, and that they did. There were three witnesses who stood up to give testimony.

The first is Peter. Acts 15:7, says,

…Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the Gospel and believe.”

He is referring back to that story in Acts 10 that we studied where Cornelius came to him and Cornelius received the Holy Spirit along with a whole bunch of other folks, and as a result, Peter asked the question, “Since these guys received the Holy Spirit, just as we have, what keeps them from being baptized? What keeps them from being fully included in the family of God?”

The second witness really is two. We put them as one because they appear that way, and that is Paul and Barnabas, Verse 12,

The whole assembly became silent as they listened to (Paul and Barnabas) telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.

Luke doesn’t rehearse those events because he had just written of them in Acts 13 and 15. One of those events was the healing of this crippled man who was lame from birth. He says, “Hey, this shows that God is accepting these people as He pours out His blessing upon them.”

Then there is James. If there is anyone that these false teachers thought was going to be in their comer, it was James. James was the central leader in the church in Jerusalem. He was a man who upheld the Law all of his life. James was the moderator for this particular council. This was not the James who was the Disciple of Jesus. Remember in Acts 12, that James was killed by Herod, and martyred. This was the James who was Jesus’ half-brother. This was the James who would eventually go on to write the Epistle of James. The false teachers thought, “Okay, we have someone in James here. We have an ally.”

But James gets up and in Verse 13, he says,

“…Brothers, listen to me.”

He goes on to quote from Amos. By quoting from Amos, he did so because he wanted to establish the “rule,” the “principle” that it’s not church councils that have “authority,” unless they show that they fall in line with the Scriptures; that the ultimate “authority” is the Word of God. James says, “Okay, you have heard the experiences of Peter. You have heard the experiences of Paul and Barnabus. Here is what the Word of God has to say and it lines up with what these two men have just said their experiences have been. The Word of God is in agreement that God includes Gentiles into His family. Why would we be surprised that that is so; that God did not say in the Old Testament they had to become Jews in order to be part of God’s family? Let’s not oppose God’s work and let’s not make it more difficult for Gentiles to turn to God.” That is what he says in Verse 19, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” This is not James’ opinion. This is his message from the Word of God.

Just an aside, understand that Peter, Barnabus and Paul, and James are all in agreement here. Remember that when you study the Epistle of James. Some people come to the Epistle of James and say, “Well, James is not in agreement with Paul.” Read the Book of Acts, Chapter 15, because there it is very clear that these two guys talked about these things and they didn’t think they were in opposition. There is away for us to understand the writing of James and the writing of Paul and how they agree on this basic doctrine – that salvation is by God’s grace alone; through faith alone; in Jesus Christ alone.

These three witnesses come together with this solution of, “We have to stand on the Gospel.” I think the whole resolution is best stated by Peter in Verses 10 and 11.

“Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor out fathers have been able to bear?

He says, “First, legalism places us into bondage. Legalism weighs us down. It weighs people down by first adding conditions to faith, to salvation, that God does not add. It weighs us down by adding a whole list of rules that man makes up beyond that which God has given. Legalism weighs us down.”

Just as a practical point, beloved, beware of the dangers of “legalistic spirit” whereby we begin to add conditions of faith for inclusion into Christ’s church or whereby we begin to add man-made rules along side of God’s rules as “God’s absolute standards” for life in Godliness. Legalism is not a commitment to obedience. Sometimes people condemn legalism just because people are committed to obeying God. Legalism is when we add conditions beyond faith in the Gospel. It is when we add man-made rules to God’s rules as “absolute standards” for all believers everywhere before we would accept them.

Then Peter says this in Verse 11,

“No! We believe…”

Understand that Christianity is a religion base on “truth;” on what we believe. It is not an experience. It is not an emotional appeal. At its very heart and its core, we are bound together by what we believe. Peter says, “We believe…”, and it’s this little creed; it is not a long doctrinal statement but it is absolutely precious.

“We believe it is through the grace of out Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

I love this. We would have expected Peter to say something to the effect, “We believe that it is through the Grace of Jesus Christ that they are saved just as we are.” That is not what he says. He says, “We believe that it is by the Grace of Jesus Christ we are saved just as they are.” These false teachers were asked the question, “What do ‘they’ need to do to be saved?” Peter answers the question and he turns the table upside down. He says, “This is what do we need to do to be saved? We shouldn’t be concerned about their salvation. They demonstrated that. They have been accepted. What about you? You see, not only do they not have to become like us in order to be saved, but we have to become like them – wholly leaning upon the Grace of Jesus Christ. Do you want to be saved? This is how we do it.”

The last point we wish to make is the results of the resolution. The church leaders are unified in what needs to be done. They send this letter. In that letter, they first provide rejection of any false gospel; that’s found in Verse 19. Secondly, not only do they provide a firm rejection of the false gospel, but they also offer up a soft response out of concession to the unity of the church; “There are four things that I think we should do in light of the fact that there are Jewish brothers and sisters who are worshipping together with us and we ought to be conscious of their sensitivities.” He lists four things that have to do with the Ceremonial Law: not eating blood, not eating meat that’s strangled because the blood wasn’t drained, not eating meat of food that’s been offered to idols, and I believe when it talks about sexual immorality, it is also a reference to the ceremonial marriage laws that the Jews held to in regards to how close of a relative could you be married in Leviticus 18. He says, “Just adhere to these things.” Why? Because we love each other and we must be willing to fight; to stand firm; to suffer loss of goods, of life, of health, of peace – everything, in order to hold on to the Gospel. When it comes to the sensitivities of others that we would with open arms say, “There is room for you. We are going to make it as easy as possible. We are willing to give up all of our freedoms in order to advance the cause of the Gospel in order to help you on in your faith with Jesus Christ.”

Well, how about you? This is the Gospel message – we are saved on the basis of God’s Grace through faith in Jesus Christ. How about you? Do you believe? Have you trusted in the One who did everything for you as he died upon the cross for you – to forgive you and to bring you life?