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Acts #50 (chapter 15:1-12)
The Book of Acts
Is Salvation by Law or Grace? Part 1
Acts 15:1-12
I'm always hesitant to say something like, "Now the text before us is a very important passage of Scripture", because that implies there are some that are more important than others.  And yet it is all inspired by God and given to us to benefit from and learn and grow.  However, there are some passages that deal with subjects that are more relevant or maybe there are more consequences attached to understanding them.
Such is the case as we come to the fifteenth chapter of Acts.  By the time we get to chapter 15, the gospel has made its entrance into the Gentile world.   Paul and Barnabas have been out preaching salvation and Gentiles have been saved.  The Jerusalem church has affirmed what's happening and people everywhere in the ancient world, both Jew and Gentile are being saved and discipled.
And I think we who read the New Testament from a Gentile point of view don't really understand how big a deal it was for these early Jewish believers to come to accept the fact that Gentiles could be saved also, or even that God loved them.  We are accustomed to that and don't think twice about Gentiles being saved. 
But the fact that Gentiles had been included in the church becomes the fuel for a fire that roars into a blaze in chapter 15.
And the real issue at the heart of the dispute is the real essence of salvation.  It actually revolves around the age-old question of how a person is saved to begin with.  Is it by grace or is it through works?  That's the issue that is dealt with in a meeting of church leaders called the Jerusalem conference. 
How do you get saved? Is it by grace alone, or is it by grace and law? Is it by faith, or is it by faith and works? That was the issue them and it is still the primary dividing ground of Christians and churches today.   In fact, how a person can be made right with God is the longest running conflict in the history of the church.
In one camp are those that God saves us by His grace alone and 9on the other side are those that take grace and attach something else to it.
And for some reason, it is very difficult for men to accept the fact that they do nothing to contribute to salvation, even though that is obviously, overwhelmingly what the Bible teaches.
So even though things were settled at the Jerusalem Council and they all agreed, it really wasn't settled for some and they still don't agree.
So over the course of the next few Wednesday evenings that will be the topic before us as we study this 15th chapter. There are four primary features that easily outline or divide this chapter, and they will serve as the basis for our study.  So I'll go ahead and give you the sub-topics, then we'll work our way through them. 
First there was the dissension, then there was the discussion, then there was the decision, and then there was the development.
Let's begin with
1.  The Dissension
verse 1
So this conflict is initiated when false teachers show up and start proclaiming a false doctrine regarding salvation. They say salvation is not by grace alone.  Something, in this case, circumcision, must be added to grace. In other words, you must become a practicing Jew before you can become a Christian.
The word that we use to describe their teaching and them is "Judaizing".  They are identified as "judaizers", just in case you hear that term and wonder what it means.  And there are some who believe they are actually following the circuit Paul and Barnabas have been on, correcting the teaching of Paul.  And it has become a major issue in the church. And it has to be dealt with.
verse 2
So off they go to settle this great controversy between  grace and works.
verse 3
Paul doesn't wait to see what the verdict of the council will be.  He goes preaching and testifying about what has happened and everyone rejoices as he shares.  And eventually they arrive in Jerusalem.
verses 4-5
Notice, it is Christian Pharisees that oppose their teaching.  So could you be a Pharisee and a Christian? Absolutely! Pharisees were literalists. Pharisees believed in the literal interpretation of scripture. Pharisees believed in a literal resurrection, believed in literal angels, they were the literalists,  actually, the fundamentalists of Judaism and that carried over into their Christianity. 
So it makes sense that they would believe and say what they do.  They believed Gentiles could be saved, but they couldn't just be saved by faith, they had to be circumcised, go through an actual physical medical operation, and then keep the law of Moses before they could be saved. They were convinced of the claims of Christ, but they unable to disconnect themselves from Judaism.
That's the primary reason God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed in 70 A.D. After that, they had no temple to go to. They could no longer offer sacrifices as God designed.  It was all over.  But they couldn't make the break from Judaism to Christianity, so they came up with this ugly, unscriptural morph between the two.  And it creates a real problem for the early church.
So the dissension leads to
2.  The Discussion
verse 6
Now Luke didn't keep minutes of the meeting but he did give us highlights. Paul and Barnabas showed up and gave a missionary report that included the unbelievable news of what God did by grace through faith.  They gave the testimony and gave God the glory.
No sooner were they finished when the Pharisees hopped up and gave the other side of the picture, namely, nobody was saved out there in Gentile land unless they were circumcised and keeping the law of Mses. 
Now to their credit, notice how it was handled.  There wasn't a big public fight that came to men leaving fed-faced and angry.  Instead, 
verse 7
"Peter rose up and said to them"  Stop right there.  Peter stands up to speak and those gathered allow him the privilege.  In a little while, three others are going to speak and they will be given the opportunity also.  And when it was all said and done, they were in agreement.  First Peter makes a speech, then Paul and Barnabas speak, and finally, James speaks and all of these presentations are in support of salvation by grace, plus nothing. 
And what they give us is one of the most monumental passages proving salvation by grace through faith anywhere in scripture.
Let's listen as, first of all, we hear Peter.
verses 7b-11
Notice, first of all, right at the end, in verse 11, he says, "We believe", so he's not speaking only for himself.   The elders and the apostles have had a private conference and out of that conference comes this statement of faith.  This is what we believe concerning salvation.  Everyone gets saved the same way and that is through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
In other words, there is only one plan of salvation and it applies to everyone and it is dependent upon grace alone, which is God's free and undeserved favor. God does not save humans because of what they do or don't do as far as works are concerned.
So that is the thesis statement.  Then following that, he, along with Paul and Barnabas and James,  several points are given to support the statement.  And by the time they're  finished, what we wind up with is one of the best Scriptural presentations of salvation by grace through faith that is found anywhere in Scripture.
First, Peter says salvation by grace is proven by
- past revelation
verse 7
So Peter reminds them to look backwards and remember that this issue was settled at least ten years earlier when God chose Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.  All he was told to do was preach and if God had wanted circumcision included, He would have brought it up then.  If it wasn't necessary then, it isn't necessary now.
So that's the first point.  Salvation is by grace and that is verified through past revelation.
The second proof is
- the gift of the Holy Spirit
At this point, his argument becomes very logical.  To whom does God give His Holy Spirit?  That gift is for believers only.  So if those Gentiles to whom I preached received the Holy Spirit, they must have been saved. 
And notice, we are sure they were saved because "God knows the heart".  God wasn't deceived into believing they were saved and gave the Spirit by mistake.  They were genuinely converted and God affirmed that by the Holy Spirit.  
Notice, He, that is , God, acknowledged them.  KJV says He "bore them witness".  In other words, God testified to the genuineness of their salvation by giving them the Spirit.  That's how God always gives His testimony that you're truly saved.
These folk were truly saved by grace through faith.  They hadn't kept the law; they were not circumcised.  It was God's gift.  And the presence of the Holy Spirit validated that experience. 
The third is their
- cleansing from sin
Again Peter says, look, if it's not enough that you've seen past revelation and God didn't require circumcision or legalism, and if it's not enough that they got the gift of the Holy Spirit, then think about the fact that they were cleansed from sin.
Now God does not cleanse people from their sin unless they are genuinely saved.  He doesn't cleanse the heart of an unbeliever.  The fact that these Gentile converts were purified in their hearts by faith, means faith is enough to save.
In fact, what else would be needed to accomplish salvation other than purification? If God takes away sin, that's enough.  If God made them holy that settled it. If God declared them justified and righteousness, that's the end of the discussion.
Later, to the Ephesians, Paul would write, speaking of Jesus, "In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace."
And keep in mind, the primary argument is that works, namely circumcision is necessary for salvation.  Better than anyone else, the Jews should have understood from personal experience that works doesn't cleanse people from sin. 
The entire sacrificial system was designed to remind them of that fact.  They just kept on making sacrifices and performing rituals without any relief of their consciences. Christ came along and provided forgiveness and the conscience is cleared.
And it is at that point where Peter sums up his argument.  He points out, fourthly, that salvation is by grace alone because
- the law can't save
verse 10
Good question!  Why do you want to put unrealistic expectations and demands on others that you can't keep yourself?  And notice, to do that is to "test God", literally to provoke God.  Why would anybody ever want to irritate God? 
Think about it:  God provides this beautiful provision for man's sin condition through grace alone.  It costs us nothing.  We don't have to earn it or work for it.  God just loves us and extends His mercy and then we turn around and irritate Him by trying to impose on others restrictions and demands and conditions we can't even keep ourselves!
Don't test God and don't put a yoke, a burden, on the neck of those Gentiles that we couldn't even carry.  A yoke was a heavy burden!  In Matthew 23:2, Jesus said of the scribes and the Pharisees who sat Moses seat, "They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders."
They loved to weight people down with all the ritual.  That's the attitude some have toward being a Christian!  You've got to be unhappy and burdened!  You cant' enjoy life or living!  You have to frown like you've got gas pains and walk with a limp and make life miserable on those around you!
How much that is in contrast with what Jesus said!  Listen:  "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest. For My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
God forgive us when we make salvation and when we present salvation as something God never intended it to be!
What a burden it is to try and earn your salvation!  None of these Jews who were arguing with Peter and Paul and the others ever got saved by keep the law.  None of them ever got purified through law and they sure didn't get the Holy Spirit that way either!
And that's why Peter says,
verse 11
That's the only way to be saved.  And if you need to be, now's the time.
Let's pray.
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