By Grace Alone (Acts 15:1-5)

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Having completed their assigned missionary outreach (which lasted about two years) Paul and Barnabas returned to their home and sending church. They reported all that God had done with them in opening the door of faith to the Gentiles—that is, the “nations.” Those who previously had been spiritually “disenfranchised” had now clearly been brought into the fold of God.

There was no doubt great joy in the church as they heard of the number of conversions, the number of church plants, and how God had delivered the missionaries from the hands of murderous thugs while on their mission. Their time of reconnection with their home church was a time of joy for all. No doubt, all were encouraged to stay together for the gospel.

As these missionaries spent time with their local church, they would all have come to appreciate more and more the saving grace of God as revealed in the gospel. They would have been strengthened in the doctrine of the gospel, and they no doubt would have all been more firmly grounded in the truth that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). There was wonderful harmony between Jew and Gentile in the church as all saw that they were saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, because this was all according to Scripture alone.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

But what was a beautiful scene at the end of Acts 14 soon became ugly in Acts 15. All did not remain well, for soon some troublemakers came down from Judea. The result was a potential threat to the health and harmony of, not only their church, but the church at large. Simply put, the gospel came under attack from within. These troublemakers were known in the vernacular as “Judaisers.”

These “certain men” (v. 1) were the individuals that Paul spoke of so despairingly in his letter to the Galatians. They were false teachers who were attempting to undo the gospel. By their reshaping of the gospel they were perverting the good news into bad news. That is always the case when anything is added to the gospel truth that we are saved by grace alone.

These men were teaching that Moses must complete what Jesus had begun. Stott summarises the seriousness of this issue when he writes, “The issue was immense. The way of salvation was at stake. The gospel was in dispute. The very foundations of the Christian faith were being undermined.”1

These false teachers were teaching the brethren that they had to be circumcised in order to be saved. They were, in essence, disseminating the lie that one is saved by works as well as by grace through faith. You could also argue, as I will, that they were promulgating the lie that actually salvation is as much about race as it is about grace. In other words, while denying that salvation was by grace alone through faith alone, they were teaching that salvation comes about by what you do and by who you are. And in light of this false teaching, it is a small wonder that the harmony enjoyed by this church soon ebbed away and was replaced with a joyless burden; a heavy yoke around the neck of the church.

The First Council

However, what the false teachers perhaps did not reckon upon was the presence of two furloughed missionaries who would find their rest interrupted as they confronted this false teaching head on. What transpired was what in church history has become known as the first Church Council; the “Jerusalem Council,” where the doctrinal issue of how one is saved was “debated” and settled.

I must admit that am not completely happy with the designation “Jerusalem Council,” for in fact this was actually a local church meeting, with the addition of a few outsiders who were included. Nevertheless, what transpired affected the future course of the church in a huge and remarkable way.

Throughout history there have been many such Councils, in which leaders in the church at large have gathered to settle matters of doctrinal and ecclesiastical dispute. The two most famed have been those at Nicaea and Chalcedon. In these councils, major heresies, which attacked the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, were rejected and biblical orthodoxy was upheld. But if what is recorded here in Acts 15 had never been settled, then those later issues would never have been settled truthfully either. And the reason is that all doctrine rises or falls with one’s understanding of the gospel.

In a several part series, we will expound this chapter and discover many doctrinal and practical applications for where we live today. But in this study, I simply want to introduce the subject matter and to expound the first five verses. I trust that you will be encouraged, edified and perhaps even energised about your own involvement.

Dissension in the Church

As the chapter opens, we are introduced to some dissension that was taking place in the church, shortly after Paul and Barnabas’ return to Antioch. Luke informs us that “certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” This false teaching did not find easy footing, however, because “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them” (vv. 1-2).

Missionaries to the Rescue

Paul and Barnabas were zealous for the gospel and could smell a doctrinal rat a mile away. But here the rats are on the doorstop of their own church, and they were not happy about it!

Having experienced God’s grace in the conversion of a number of Gentiles, and having seen God’s blessings as they planted churches, they were deeply disturbed about such heretical teaching. At this point, a historical excursus will prove helpful.

I am persuaded that Galatians was one of the earliest—perhaps the earliest—of Paul’s inspired letters, and that he wrote it soon after his first missionary journey and prior to this trip to Jerusalem.

As I trust you have come to see, the Jews were a major threat to the early church and there is particular evidence of this in Acts 13—14. It is therefore very likely that as soon as Paul and Barnabas departed this region of southern Galatia to return home that the churches there were assaulted by the Judaisers. Perhaps the unbelieving Jews realised that they could not stop the spread of this new sect, and so they chose to infiltrate them and to infect their message with error. The idea of Gentiles being blessed by God was not something that the instructed Jew would deny (the Old Testament had much to say about this), but the idea that they could be blessed apart from a Jewish identification was unthinkable. This is what influenced the infiltration by these false teachers.

With this historical background we can see how the epistle to the Galatian churches would have come about. Paul was concerned that they had “so soon” departed from the gospel that he and Barnabas had proclaimed (Galatians 1:6). They were buying into the lie, promulgated by the Judaisers, that one had to be circumcised in order to be saved. In other words, Christ was not sufficient to save. One was not saved by grace alone, but rather by grace plus race.

Back to Antioch

There is a connection between what transpired in Galatia and with what was happening here now in Antioch.

According to Galatians 2, the Judaisers had come down from Jerusalem to Antioch and were causing such trouble that even Peter and Barnabas were caught off guard and compromised the gospel message. They too were involved in division as they seemingly treated Gentile believers as inferior to Jewish believers. But Paul withstood Peter to the face and Peter soon repented and corrected his ways. It should be observed that, in Galatians, Paul makes no mention of the Jerusalem Council. I interpret this silence as an indication that the letter was written prior to the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Certainly if such a monumental event had transpired then Paul would have mentioned it in that letter. His silence speaks volumes.

I have belaboured this point to help us to understand at least two things.

First, as the content of Acts 15 reveals, Peter was fully supportive of the equality between believing (“graced”) Jews and believing (“graced”) Gentiles, and so he had clearly learned his lesson in Antioch. He had once again been proven to be a wise man (Proverbs 9:8-9).

Second, this helps us to see that false teaching, especially heretical attacks on the gospel, is relentless. Having previously been confronted—and soundly defeated—by the apostle Paul, these false teachers persisted in Antioch. Let us learn from this that, even when there are theological giants in the land, heretics are also present. There will be tares, false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing until Jesus comes. We therefore must be vigilant.

Another lesson that we can learn from this is that biblical doctrine is not really the cause of division but rather false doctrine divides. Dissension is the result of deviation from the norm.

The Decision by the Church

Though there was no doubt in the mind of Paul and Barnabas that salvation was by grace alone, the Antioch church nevertheless “determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question” (v. 2).

In spite of the strong response of these missionaries to the heretics the matter was still of great concern to the church at Antioch. I would assume that they were troubled that perhaps the church in Jerusalem was proclaiming a different message. Were they therefore concerned that there might not be harmony between these churches?  Were they perhaps concerned that Paul himself had gotten it a bit wrong? After all, he was an apostle born out of due time (1 Corinthians 15:8). What we do know is that they realised that the issue needed to be settled and so they took the initiative to resolve it before more dissension spread.

This is a very instructive scene, both for the concern for biblical fidelity on the part of the church at Antioch as well as for the humility shown by both Paul and Barnabas. These gifted leaders were willing to submit to the request of the local church and the result, as we will see, was the fostering of greater unity, not only in their own local church, but also in the wider church. In fact, the actions of both the church and these missionaries resulted in the guarding and thus the promoting of the gospel. Oh, that we would learn from this!

The Declaration to the Churches

“So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them” (vv. 3-4).

The phrase “sent on their way” is a euphemism for “sent with provision and support.” This included, no doubt, moral and prayer support.

As they travelled to Jerusalem, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria. And as they did so, they took opportunity to visit believers in these areas. As they gathered with the churches they reported “the conversion of the Gentiles.” They told of God’s marvellous work of saving grace amongst the nations and the believers respond to the news with “great joy.” Think about that for a moment.

These believers were no doubt a mixture of Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles. But the entire body of believers were thrilled that the nations were being saved. Why? Presumably because it was testimony to the faithfulness of God in His promise that all the nations would be glad in Him. This is a frequent theme in the Old Testament, as just a few samples will show:

  • Genesis 22:18—In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.
  • Genesis 26:4—And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.
  • Genesis 28:14—Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
  • Isaiah 49:6—Indeed He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”
  • Isaiah 55:5-7—Surely you shall call a nation you do not know, and nations who do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and the Holy One of Israel; for He has glorified you. Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.
  • Zephaniah 3:9-10—For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the LORD, to serve Him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my worshippers, the daughter of My dispersed ones, shall bring My offering.
  • Zechariah 8:22—Yes, many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD.
  • Habakkuk 2:14—For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

These believers, I assume, were delighted at the news that God was being glorified (increasingly) in the nations. Their prayer, no doubt, was that of the psalmist:

God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us, that Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations. Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy! For You shall judge the people righteously, and govern the nations on earth. Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. Then the earth shall yield her increase; God, our own God, shall bless us. God shall bless us, and all the ends of the earth shall fear Him.

(Psalm 67:1-7)

The text tells us that they “described” the conversion of the Gentiles. I think it is safe to say that Paul and Barnabas, with the other representatives from Antioch, told of the open doors that the Lord had given to them and how the professions of faith were confirmed.

No doubt, they told of the founding of the church at Antioch and how the believers there had matured in the faith. Whatever they did and did not say, it is clear that these believers were left in no doubt that Gentiles had been converted by the grace of God and that circumcision had nothing to do with it!

I am intrigued by their response. “Great joy” was their unified response. Think about that. People, whom they did not know, who had been converted were the reason that these strangers were now rejoicing. They clearly were not a self-absorbed people. When they heard of gospel progress elsewhere they were encouraged and even edified. We do not know the state of the church in Phoenicia or in Samara. Perhaps things were not going well. But when they heard that the church was expanding elsewhere they were thrilled.

Such should be our response. Though things may not be happening as “fruitfully fast” as we would like, nevertheless the news of gospel growth in the kingdom elsewhere should cause us “great joy.” We should be so passionate about the glory of God in Christ that we respond with joy when we hear that God’s blessings are falling on others, even when we do not sense they are falling on us to the same degree. After all, as the nations are reached and converted, the Lord Jesus receives more and more glory (see Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 7:9-10). Our priority in prayer ought to be that set in the Lord’s Prayer: We should pray that God’s name be hallowed, that His kingdom come, and that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven long before we pray for our personal needs (Matthew 6:9-13).

Testifying in Jerusalem

It was not only in Phoenicia and in Samaria that these men reported God’s gospel blessings, but also in the church at Jerusalem (v.4). The text tells us that the entourage was “received by the church and the apostles and the elders.” No doubt, this was a warm reception.

It had been a few years, at least, since Paul and Barnabas had been in Jerusalem (see 11:30 and 12:25). On that earlier visit, they had brought material relief from the church at Antioch; a church, I will remind you, that was planted—by accident!—by members of the Jerusalem church. That church in Antioch had sent material relief as a practical demonstration of their unity in the gospel. No doubt, the church in Jerusalem at that crucial time was encouraged by what God was doing some five hundred kilometres north. But now these same representatives of the church returned with others and with even more stories to tell of God’s gospel blessings.

They doubtless reported on their recent missionary outreach in southern Galatia and how they had left behind established churches under the leadership of qualified men.

Note that they are God-centred in their testimonials: “all things that God had done with them.” They were not confused or self-deluded in thinking that they were sufficient for such gospel fruitfulness. And, as MacArthur notes, “It must have been a moving scene as the veteran warriors of the cross related their struggles and triumphs for the cause of Christ.”2

Though the text does not say so, I think we would be justified in concluding that these “brethren” would have also rejoiced at what they had heard. After all, when Peter was used of God to see the conversion of Cornelius and his household, the church was joyful (11:1-18). There is no reason to think that this scene would produce any less joy.

Happy but Confused

But having said this it must also be noted that these were early years in the transition from the old to the new covenant, and there was still much confusion among many Jewish believers. Therefore, even though they would have rejoiced at reports of Gentile conversions, nevertheless they were still wrestling with some issues of how Jew and Gentile would fit in one Body. And that confusion is highlighted in the next verse.

The Dissenters in the Church

According to v. 5, “some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.’”

Christian Pharisees

Imagine the scene: Paul, Barnabas and several members of the church at Antioch had gathered with the apostles, elders and many of the church members at Jerusalem. They were joyfully and convincingly proclaiming the conversion of the Gentiles. Perhaps they were interjecting reminders that all of this was in harmony with the Old Testament prophecies. There was great joy.

Upon finishing their testimony they perhaps said something like, “Are there any questions or comments?” At that point a group of men rose from their seats and a spokesman said something like, “Paul, Barnabas and brothers from Antioch: We are glad that God is saving Gentiles. In fact, in the light of the Old Testament we would expect nothing less. However we are concerned about one major issue. These Gentile believers, to be fully fledged members of God’s covenant people, need to be more ‘Jewish’ in their religious practice. Therefore we expect that these Gentiles who are being converted will both be circumcised and will keep the Law of Moses.”

As Macarthur observes, “The issue was not whether God wanted to save Gentiles, but how they were to be saved. Could they enter the kingdom of God directly, without coming through the vestibule of Judaism?”3

Two things must be interjected here.

First, these Pharisees were not the same group we saw in v. 1. At the opening of the chapter we encountered those who were clearly false teachers, like those in Galatia (Galatians 1:6-9). But these men are clearly referred to as believers. They were Christians, but confused Christians. They assumed that believing Gentiles needed to become more “Jewish” if they would fully enter into the new covenant. In other words, they did not grasp the issues of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants. In essence, they were a bit confused about what it means to be saved by grace alone.

Second, we are not told just why they believed that circumcision and keeping the law was necessary for these Gentiles. That is, did they believe so because they thought that grace was not sufficient for salvation and that a little bit of works was also necessary? Or did they believe this because they thought that, in order for one to fully enjoy the blessing of salvation, they needed to adopt the cultural norms of the Jews? I believe that it was the latter. In other words, unlike the Judaisers, these men did not believe that the Gentiles were required to keep the law in order to be saved, but rather that they must keep the law after they were saved. Theirs was the error of “Christian legalism,” a disease that is alive and well in our own day.

It was to both of these errors that the believers gave their attention, as recorded in vv. 6-21.

The Dispute at and Determination of the Church

Verses 6-21 record the dispute at and the determination of the church. As the Council gathered, a massive issue was deliberated. “Was their vision big enough to see the gospel of Christ not as a reform movement within Judaism but as good news for the whole world, and the church of Christ not as a Jewish sect but as the international family of God?”4

I will not give a detailed exposition of this passage here, but I want to highlight that when the apostles, elders and church members disputed over the concerns raised by the believing Pharisees as recorded in v. 5, the emphasis of their response was on grace.

Grace alone means exactly that: grace alone! It would seem that they interpreted any suggestion that the Gentile believers needed to adapt Jewish rituals as a denial of being saved by grace alone. This is important, for it is very possible, if not in fact very probable, that these Pharisees believed in salvation by grace through faith alone, and yet they also felt that it was important that the Gentile believers also embrace and imbibe the cultural rituals of Jewish believers. And there is clearly a difference between that viewpoint and that espoused by the Judaisers, who insisted that grace through faith was insufficient apart from circumcision.

But note at the same time that both of these are wrong views, and though the “cultural-ritualistic” viewpoint of the believing Pharisees was not as serious an error as that of the Judaisers, it could nevertheless have led to insidious results. Just like the teaching of the Judaisers, it failed to appreciate the enormity of grace and minimised the inability of the flesh to add anything of value to the gospel.

The Council was correct in not giving an inch to such a suggestion, and we would do well to listen to them.

Let it be noted that the gospel is often crucified between two thieves: legalism and license. We are all legalists by nature, and so we must guard against allowing it to get a foothold, no matter how “innocent” it may appear. If we are not careful, we can create a cultural Christianity in which traditions supplant truth. This is not to argue that we should not have traditions, or even ritual, in our worship and church practices, but to say that we must be on guard.

For example, parent dedications are a wonderful tradition in Christian worship, and in the worship of our own church. But even for Christian parents, there is the danger of assuming too much, of assuming that the observance of the tradition in some way secures God’s favour.

Even an order of worship—a liturgy—can become a form of legalism. We can fall into the trap of thinking that the way we “do church” is the way that church must be done, and that those who do things differently don’t have God’s favour quite as much as we have it.

The question to be answered is simply this: Is salvation by grace alone or a supplemented grace?

Let it also be noted that one can truly be a believer while at the same time being inconsistent about grace. We have a lot to learn. The issue is, how do we respond when corrected? We must never confuse the fruit with the root. And this is precisely what the decision of this Council seemed to understand and clarify.

When the Council made its decision the result was joy (v. 31). There was much joy among the Gentiles because they were indeed the people of God. And the tone and tenor of the meeting in Jerusalem would indicate that there was joy among the Jewish believers as well. There was gospel joy in the churches because of the gospel truth that salvation is by grace alone. Thus it should be in our day as well.

As we draw this study to a close, let me quote Charles Erdman with reference to these events of Acts 15: “The problem was caused by missionary activity. Missions are always causing problems; they are demanding men and money ad thought and prayer; they require the readjustment of personal plans and cooperation among men of divergent opinions.”5 I would add that the missionary message, the gospel itself, causes all kinds of problems and challenges.

As someone else once put it, the local church is called to do the Great Commission and to deal with the problem that doing the Great Commission creates. And to take this commission seriously therefore requires that the local church be committed to moving beyond its comfort zone. Will we? Will you?

Show 5 footnotes

  1. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 243.
  2. John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 2:63.
  3. MacArthur, Acts, 2:61.
  4. Stott, The Message of Acts, 241.
  5. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 125.