Saved Through the Grace of the Lord Jesus
This will be a shorter sermon today since we get to celebrate baptism together after the service.
The main point of our text this morning comes from verse 11: Christians are “saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11).
There are three main parts to this:
The Debate (vv. 1–6): Does circumcision save?
Peter’s Argument (vv. 7–12): Salvation by Grace
James’s Resolution (vv. 13–21): A Way Forward for Jew and Gentile Harmony
This sermon will mainly focus on the first two. I will only briefly summarize what James is doing before looking to further apply parts one and two. Let’s jump right in.
1. The Debate (vv. 1–6): Does circumcision save?
“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.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissention and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.”—Acts 15:1–3
The debate is over what is necessary in order to be saved. In other words, this is not a petty issue. Whenever there is a conversation going on about what is necessary to be saved, your ears, as a Christian, should be burning. Are we getting the gospel right?
So these men were teaching the Gentile brothers, “Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.” Now at this point, we don’t hear any of the debate. All we know is that Paul and Barnabas disagree. That’s what dissention means in verse 2: a disagreement. Luke wants us to know immediately which side of the debate Paul and Barnabas are on. They are on high alert for the sake of their Gentile brothers who were just recently converted. They don’t want the new believers to be confused about where to truly place their hope. Paul and Barnabas don’t think circumcision should be in the conversation about salvation.
Luke says this was no small debate. Both sides were adamant about their view, which led to a lot of confusion, especially among those who were new to the faith. After all, both sides of the debate had the same background (Paul and Barnabas were Jews as well). Who should these new Christians believe? There was enough confusion that Paul and Barnabas were asked to seek counsel from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to settle the debate.
Now before we go further, I just want to quickly clarify why these Jews would say such a thing about circumcision. Well, in the Old Testament or old covenant, circumcision was the sign of the covenant Israel had with Yahweh. In other words, if you weren’t circumcised, you weren’t considered part of his people. These Jews are not deviating from that. “Unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved.” You cannot be part of the people of God. Another way of saying it: “If you aren’t a Jew, you are not part of God’s people. Therefore, you must be circumcised and become a Jew in order to get in on this. This has been God’s plan!”
That’s the debate. Does circumcision save or not? Do you have to be a Jew to be part of the people of God or not?
So Paul and Barnabas set off for Jerusalem, and they don’t waste any time on their journey. Verse 3 says “They passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.” I think this is a teaching tool before the debate. They wanted this group of brothers to hear what has happened among the Gentiles and take that with them into this Jerusalem discussion.
2. Peter’s Argument (vv. 7–12): Salvation by Grace
“When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.”—Acts 15:4–6
Verse four tells us that Paul and Barnabas are sharing stories (“declaring all that God had done with them”), and the Pharisees impatiently interrupt the stories in verse five to get to the main point of the council. Imagine Paul telling one of the stories of what God had done: “And when we got to Phoenicia, oh you should have seen what the Spirit did there! Barnabas told the good news of Jesus to this group of Gentiles sitting just off the main path, and they began praising God in loud voices and asked to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins! Then the Holy Spirit”…and then Paul gets interrupted by the group of Pharisees who rise up and call for the Gentiles’ circumcision. I really think there’s a certain impatience with their stories because we’re going to see, after Peter gives his strong argument against the necessity of circumcision, that the council quiets down and starts listening to their stories again.
Okay, so now we’re at the debate. We don’t hear most of the debate. We don’t hear any arguments from the pro-circumcision side, actually. I kind of wish we did. But the Spirit didn’t want to include them here so that’s just fine! Luke gets right to the heart of the matter and turns to Peter’s argument. Read along with me in verses 7–11:
“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. And God who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 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? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”—Acts 15:7–11
So Peter reminds the council of what God did through him in the house of Cornelius. He says this happened in the early days because even though that story is just 5 chapters earlier in Acts, it is probably close to ten years prior to this council. There are many things to see in Peter’s argument, but I’m just going to highlight two of them this morning.
God gave the Gentiles the Holy Spirit because of what was in their hearts, not because of a work they performed.
This is what Peter is drawing attention to in verse 8, “And God who knows the heart bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit”. In other words, because of what God knew was true in the hearts of Cornelius and his family, he gave the Holy Spirit. Peter is claiming here that it is not circumcision that saves, not a work of the flesh that saves and leads to receiving the Holy Spirit, but a heart of faith in the saving work of Jesus. And he implies that this is true not only for the Gentiles, but for the Jews as well. In verse 9, Peter says, “and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” If Peter says that the heart cleansing of the Gentiles leads to “no distinction” between them and the Jews, he must mean that that Jews’ hearts (those who were saved) were cleansed by faith as well. In other words, Peter is not saying, “Jews are saved through circumcision, but the Gentiles are saved by Jesus through faith in the gospel. We’re just saved in different ways.” No. He says that the Gentiles are cleansed by faith just like the Jews. No distinction. Both of us are saved, cleansed, by hearts of faith in Jesus, not by works of the law. And this leads to the second point.
2. Hoping in works for salvation is and always has been an unbearable burden.
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?—Acts 15:10
This is strong language. Peter essentially hears their argument and says, “that’s not salvation; that’s slavery!” When Peter says that they are putting a yoke on the disciples’ neck, he is referring to the idea that some form of law-keeping can lead to salvation. This is the idea that started this whole debate. Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved. OR unless you’ve kept the law, or at least “the most important parts,” you cannot be saved. But Peter is saying, you can’t bear that! I can’t bear that! Our fathers couldn’t bear that! These Gentiles can’t bear that! No one has ever been able to bear that yoke. He is not suggesting that the law is a burden in and of itself (it was a gracious gift!) but that it is a burden to rely on it for salvation. Why?
Because Peter knows that if you’re going to lean on the law to save you, you’ve got to keep the whole law, not just circumcision. And the Bible is abundantly clear in the old and new testaments (Psalm 53; Romans 3:10–12) that no one has ever been able to do that, and THAT is why our salvation needs to come from somewhere else, someone else.
Hop over to James 2. He explains this so clearly.
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ”Do not commit adultery,” also said, “do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”—James 2:8–11
James is simply saying that you’ve either kept the law or you haven’t. If you’ve broken the law, you’ve broken the law and need to pay the penalty for breaking the law. If you get caught speeding, and you’re handed a speeding ticket, you don’t get to hand it back saying, “I’ve never killed anyone; I’m good.” Good luck with that. You have to pay it!
So in this debate on circumcision, what Peter is getting at is this. You’re trying to solve a law-keeping problem with more law-keeping. That was our fathers’ problem, and it’s our problem. We’re all law breakers. All of us. We’ve fallen short. What we need is grace. This is how Peter ends his argument in verse 11. “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” The grace of the Lord Jesus is the only way any of us can be saved, Jew or Gentile.
Why will the grace of the Lord Jesus be enough? Because his gracious gift to those who believe in him is his own record. We need a perfect record. We don’t have one. Who does? Jesus, and only Jesus. And the good news for everyone who trusts in him is that he came not to keep that perfect record to himself and keep perfect fellowship with the Father to himself. He came that he might offer his record to all who would believe in him so that they could receive his reward and be restored to the Father. He gave up his life as a sacrifice so that he could trade his perfect record and the eternal reward that comes with it for the punishment and death promised to lawbreakers. He died so that we could live. As the song goes: “I’m forgiven because you were forsaken. I’m accepted; you were condemned. I’m alive and well, your Spirit lives within me, because you died and rose again.”
This is what Peter wants to make clear. Hearing the gospel, the good news of what Jesus has done, and trusting in it, trusting in him, is enough for salvation.
Verse 12 displays the appropriate response:
“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.”—Acts 15:12
I love that. Now they’re ready to listen a little more intently to the stories!
3. James’s Resolution (vv. 13–21): A Way Forward for Jew and Gentile Harmony
Before we apply the debate and Peter’s argument further, I want to briefly summarize the resolution given to the debate.
James recalls Peter’s argument, affirming its helpfulness.
He grounds Peter’s argument in the Old Testament, helping everyone see how Isaiah and Amos foretold of this inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. They should not be surprised!
He provides a way forward for two groups of people with completely different backgrounds to fellowship with one another. Many of the Jews grew up steeped in the law. Many Gentiles had never heard of it. Specifically, James suggests that they write to the Gentiles and help them know how they might love their Jewish brothers by not offending their brothers’ consciences through blatant violations of the law. We see Paul following through with this in Romans 14 and other places.
Now I want to apply this debate and Peter’s argument a little further. Something I breezed over earlier in this text is really important for us to keep in mind as we think about debates like this. Go back up to verse five: But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” Luke makes sure we know that both sides of this debate are held by believers. In other words, even those who are talking about circumcision this way have embraced Jesus and his saving work. But one side is continuing to struggle with their relationship to God’s commands and how their obedience to them interacts with their assurance of salvation.
And to that I want to say, “join the club.” We all struggle with this. Now I know there are people in this room that if you were to prick them they would practically bleed reformation doctrine. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We will never merit our salvation. Jesus is our only hope. He welcomes all who come to him in faith no matter how poor of a law-keeper they have been. Amen.
But we don’t always functionally live this way.
The main emphasis of this text, aside from the truth that salvation is by grace and not by works, is that God, in Christ, has leveled the playing field between Jews and Gentiles. No one is relying on their Jewish-ness or Gentile-ness. Anyone who puts their faith in Jesus has just as much claim as part of the people of God, just as much assurance of salvation, just as much pleasure before the Father because Jesus’ righteousness is now theirs by faith.
But strangely enough, we often spend time—whether we realize it or not—working to undo this leveling of the playing field that Christ has accomplished for us.
Some of us are more like those mentioned in Galatians 6:12: Paul says, “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised.” In other words, they subtly or not so subtly teach themselves and others to boast not in Jesus but in their flesh.
What might this look like? Some of us might have a habit of puffing ourselves up with how well we have kept particular commands while looking down on those who have not kept them well, almost as though the pleasure of God is stronger with us than the other person. We have this sinful bent to try to undo this level playing field, because, well, we like to feel ahead. We like to feel like we’re winning or at least doing better than this or that person. Before we know it, we’ve put so much stock in these things that our sense of security or sense of God’s love or acceptance rests in how much better we’re doing than others or how well we’re living up to our own standards.
Sometimes we do this with things that aren’t even commands. “I homeschool my kids.” “I public school my kids.” “I only shop at thrift stores because I’m not a slave to money or luxury. You, I’m not so sure.” “You only shop at thrift stores? You must be a legalist.” Or maybe you boast in your ability to keep a perfect balance between the two. “Why don’t you guys just get out of the ditch? Life is better up here.” We don’t really care that much to help them; we just kind of enjoy looking at them from a distance.
Now while some spend a lot of time trying to see themselves ahead of others and finding security in that, others of us struggle with the habit of condemning ourselves and always seeing ourselves as less holy, less loved by God, and more of a mess. We think we’re no good and sometimes, just maybe, we feel like God might give up on us in light of all our failures. We tend to see most unfortunate circumstances in our lives as evidence of God’s displeasure at our poor choices in life, whether it’s punishment for big mistakes in the past or something we did just yesterday.
Both groups of people are using works to pronounce judgment on themselves or others, whether that be good judgment or bad judgment. Either I’m more accepted, more loved, more enjoyed as a child of God because of my works and deserve more favor, or I’m less accepted, less loved, less enjoyed as a child of God because of my works and deserve less favor. Both are inconsistent with salvation by grace.
Christian, you will NEVER be saved by your works. Yes, works are a necessary fruit of true faith in Jesus. But works are just that: fruit. Jesus is the vine; without him your good fruit is never going to come. Leaning on your works always puts the cart before the horse. You will never entice God into saving you because of your works, and you will never entice God into keeping you because of your works after trusting in his sacrifice. Both your salvation and your perseverance of faith is rooted in the sufficiency of the cross of Christ for you. Do not mock the sufficiency of the cross by replacing it with your works or trying to mix some good works in with the cross.
And Christian, you will NEVER nullify the work of the cross by the ugliness of your works. Paul, the self-proclaimed “chief of sinners” knew this well. Do not think so little of the cross that you will tell the King of Kings who laid down his perfect life for you that you are too far gone for his loving sacrifice to be enough for you. We’re all too far gone. If we don’t think so, we don’t understand the Bible or the gospel. The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ exists because we are too far gone. Ephesians 2:12, “Remember that at that time you were separated from Christ…alienated…strangers…having no hope and without God in the world.” We were too far gone. But Jesus came to live and die so that all of us, foolish, rebellious children who have gone our own way and severed our ties to the King of glory can fall into his arms of grace, having nothing to bring to the table.
As the old hymn says:
I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
it is enough that Jesus died,
and that he died for me.
Enough for me that Jesus saves,
This ends my fear and doubt;
A sinful soul, I come to him,
He’ll never cast me out