MVMT 10: Grace alone

Acts 15:1-21

Acts 15:6-12 – The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 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. 10 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 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.

We know that in life there are things that are worth fighting for and there are things that are not worth fighting for. The list might look very different to different people and it might change through the years. When I was young, almost everything was worth fighting for. I fought and argued with my mom pretty much on everything. I argued with her on my behaviour, hairstyle, clothe, food and most importantly, girls. It did not matter if what she said was true or false, good or bad, I would just argue with her. I was stupid and childish. But as I grew older, I learned to pick my battles. The same can be said about Christianity. As Christians, there are things worth fighting for and there are things not worth fighting for. The problem is a lot of time Christians fight for things that are not worth fighting and refused to fight for things that are worth fighting. For example, last week I talked to my friends who served in an Indonesian church in America. And they told me that some of the members of the church left the church because of strong disagreement between voting for Donald Trump or Joe Biden. I am not saying politics are not important, but I am saying they are not as important. And yet many Christians refused to fight on what really matters, that is the gospel. We get our priority wrong. This passage will tell us what is worth fighting for and what is not worth fighting for in Christian life.

Let me set up the passage first. Acts 15 is a very important debate on circumcision. What happens in this chapter is what makes Christianity a Christian movement and not a Jewish movement. If we do not have this debate on circumcision, the on-site church today will be filled with women while all the men are tuning in online. Many years ago, I wrote a paper on the importance of Acts 15. I thought I did very well, and I expected to get high distinction for it. But I only got distinction. I was a little upset. Then a few years later Tim took the same subject and wrote a paper on the same topic. I was kind enough to let Tim used my paper as his framework. But then I got very upset because he told me got high distinction for his paper. So, I stopped letting him use my paper. By the time we reach Acts 15, there are two very influential churches: The church of Jerusalem and the church of Antioch. The church of Jerusalem is filled with Jewish Christians while the church of Antioch is filled with gentile Christians. In Acts 13, the church of Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas for missions to the gentile areas. So, the gospel movement among the gentiles is gathering momentum. And this creates a problem. The church of Antioch continues to grow but the gentile Christians continue to live as gentiles and not Jews. And there are some Jewish Christians who are not happy about it. They do not deny that God’s plan of salvation involves the gentiles, but they cannot accept salvation without circumcision. In their understanding, in order for a person to receive salvation, that person has to put his faith in Jesus, but he also needs to observe Jewish laws. But Paul would have none of it. According to Paul, salvation is by grace alone. The moment you add anything to the gospel, you lose the gospel. And it leads to a long theological debate between the apostles and the elders of the church. That’s the background story of Acts 15.

The theological debate of Acts 15 is an extremely important matter. Just think about it. At the time, Paul’s ministry is flourishing. He is the superstar of the gospel movement. He is extremely successful. His face is on the cover on Christianity Today magazine. And yet here in the middle of his flourishing successful ministry to the gentiles, he travels all the way from Antioch to Jerusalem for a theological debate. He does not say, “Who cares about theology? As long as my ministry is changing the world, as long as I see many gentiles come to know Christ, that’s what matters.” Paul does not do that. But Paul hits the pause button on his extremely successful ministry and make time for theological debate. Why? Because Paul knows how important it is to get his theology right. Or to be more exact, Paul understands how crucial it is to get the gospel right. Here is why I am telling you all this. I have heard many Christians who said that doctrine is not important. Theology does not matter. What important is how you live your life. Really? Paul strongly disagrees with this. Because the Bible tells us that it is impossible for us to live rightly without knowing the truth. The way we live is governed by the truth that we believe. It is impossible to live the right Christian life without knowing the right Christian truth. And this theological debate of Acts 15 is very important. What at stake is the gospel of grace. This tells us something about what is worth fighting for in Christianity. If the gospel is at stake, we should always fight. Because we can only live Christian life rightly if we get the gospel right. The gospel is the one thing that Christians must not get it wrong.

In this important debate, two questions are being addressed. First, is salvation by grace alone? Or do the gentiles have to become Jews? Second, if the gentiles don’t have to become Jews, then how can the Jews and the gentiles live together? Especially when they have a different set of values. This passage will address these questions. I separate this sermon into three different parts. Grace disputed; Grace defended; Grace applied.

Grace disputed

Acts 15:1-5 – 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 dissension 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. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 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.”

So here is what happened. There are many Jews who believe that in order for you to be saved, you not only need to put your faith in Christ, but you also need to be circumcised. They do not oppose to the gentiles being included in God’s plan of salvation, but they argue that the gentiles’ salvation must come under the umbrella of being Jews. In other words, the gentiles have to live like the Jews in order to be saved. And Paul and Barnabas disagree strongly with them. Paul is not against circumcision. In fact, the book of Acts tells us that Paul tells Timothy to get circumcised to help his ministry to the Jews. So, if you are circumcised, there is nothing wrong with it. I was tricked and bribed by my dad into it. He said he would buy me a super Nintendo if I do it. I thought it was a good deal. No pain no gain. Only to find out later that the gain was not equal to the pain. Especially when the surgeon tried out a new anaesthetic and found out later that he only gave me half the doses from what was needed. It was painful enough to make me scream in despair, “Take back the super Nintendo. I don’t want it anymore!” Anyway, let’s get back to the topic.

Circumcision. Why is it important to the Jews? If you do not know the history of Israel, you would not understand the importance of circumcision. The history of Israel began with a single man by the name of Abraham. God called him out of his family and made a covenant with Abraham to make a great nation out of his descendants. They would be a people for God’s own name. And to differentiate between them and the other nations, every male at the age of 8 days must be circumcised. So, circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant and the external mark of being God’s chosen people. That’s what differentiates them from everyone else. And if any non-Jews wanted to become part of God’s covenant people, they had to be circumcised and followed all Jewish laws. So, if a gentile guy wanted to go out with a Jewish girl, he could not just walk to her and say, “Hey girl, how you doing?” There was an extremely high price to pay. Some cutting needed to be done. If you know what I mean. You might say, “Geez, that is incredibly hard.” And that’s the point. The purpose of these laws was to protect Jewish ethnic identities. The Jews were to be different from every other nation. They were chosen by God and they alone had the Scriptures and the promises of God. It was absolutely crucial that they did not mix and assimilate with the nations around them and intermarry. So, when they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, many of them believed. Jesus himself is a Jew. He is the one whom God had promised throughout the Old Testament. He is the Saviour they are waiting for. In many ways, Jesus is the extension of the Jewish’s faith. So now that Jesus had come and offers salvation to the non-Jews, it is logical for them to think that the non-Jews who believe in Christ need to be circumcised to become part of them. It is the external sign of being God’s chosen people. Are you with me?

This is the problem Paul has with circumcision. Although circumcision itself is not wrong, if circumcision becomes a criterion to which one receives salvation, then Paul would have none of it. For Paul, salvation is only by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. No addition. Jesus is enough. Full stop. For Paul, the gospel formula looks like this. Jesus + nothing = Everything. Jesus + something = Nothing. The moment we add anything to the gospel, we lose the gospel. The moment we add anything to the perfect work of Christ, it is no longer perfect. In fact, it destroys the perfect work of Christ. This is the way Paul puts it. Galatians 2:21 – I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. If there is anything we can do to earn our salvation, then Christ died for no purpose. Salvation is either by grace alone or human effort alone. There cannot be any mixture between the two. Amen?

Now, some of us are quick to say amen to it. But do we realize that we often have our own version of circumcision? Our heart default mode is work-based righteousness. We want to add something to the gospel. Let me give you one example. Coming to church. You have heard me say week after week that coming to church is not optional. It is how God sustains our Christian life and shapes us into Christlikeness. But if I am not careful, I can easily make coming to church as a criterion for salvation. The truth is, coming to church or not coming to church has nothing to do with our salvation. And all the people who are tuning in online are smiling right now. Our tendency is to add something to Jesus. Jesus plus coming to church. Jesus plus baptism, Jesus plus MC, Jesus plus no smoking and tattoo etc.

Here is what Paul says. If you accept Jesus plus, then Christ will be of no advantage to you. Salvation is either Christ alone or none of Christ. You cannot have 99% Christ and 1% you. It is 100% Christ or zero. Imagine I have a basketball with Michael Jordan signature in it. And one day I get broke and I know I can sell it for a lot of money. So, I decided to sell it. But when I look at the ball, I realize that the signature is badly faded. So, I take out a marker and carefully trace over the signature with it. M.J. Now, what happens to the basketball? Let me tell you what happens. It might worth $10,000 before. But the moment I traced that signature with my marker, that signature is no longer M.J. It becomes mine. And the ball’s worth drops to $1 because unlike M.J., I don’t know how to ball. I know how to look cool playing ball, but I don’t know how to get the ball into the net, which kind of miss the point. So, if we add just a bit of our work to Jesus’ perfect work, if we accept even just one small addition to Jesus, then Christ become worthless to us. And not only that, but we are also obligated to keep the whole law. Our only choice is either we fully trust in Christ or fully obey the law. And as long as we are still relying on the plus plus, Paul says that we are severed from Christ. We have fallen away from grace. This is a strong warning. Salvation is either by grace alone or none at all. There is no in-between. This is why Paul fights aggressively against those who teach circumcision. This is a fight worth fighting for.

Grace defended

Acts 15:6-12 – The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 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. 10 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 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.

The apostles and the elders of the church gather together to discuss the gospel of grace. And after a long debate, Peter stands up to speak. Now, remember, Peter was sent specifically by God to minister to Cornelius, a gentile. So, Peter starts to defend the gospel of grace. He gives three arguments. First, Peter says that God makes no distinction between the Jews and the gentiles. It is not Peter’s idea to preach the gospel to the gentiles; it is part of God’s sovereign plan. God is the one who orchestrated Peter’s encounter with Cornelius. When Peter gets to Cornelius’ house, Peter does not say, “Cornelius, if you want to be saved, here is what you must do. First, you need to be circumcised. Second, you need to stop eating bacon. Third, no more medium-rare steak. Well-done only.” He does not say that. Peter simply preaches the good news of Jesus Christ and just like that, the Holy Spirit fells on Cornelius and his household. Just as God gives the Holy Spirit to the Jews, God also gives the Holy Spirit to the gentiles. If that is the case, it means that the gentiles can be saved without becoming Jews. Peter argues that if God has already said yes to the gentiles, who are we to demand more than what God demands? Gentile Christians are as much Christians as the Jewish Christians. They are not second-class Christians. That’s the first argument.

Second, no one can bear the yoke of the law. Not even the Jews. If the Jews themselves cannot bear the yoke of the laws, why would they insist for the gentiles to bear what they cannot bear? This is extremely crucial. This tells us something significant about the purpose of the law. The main purpose of the laws of God is not for us to save ourselves through it; it is to show that we need a Saviour. Think about it. What is the purpose of ceremonial laws? If you read the book of Leviticus and manage to not fall asleep, you will find many laws that say you cannot eat this, you cannot eat that, you cannot touch this, you cannot touch that, you have to sacrifice this, you have to sacrifice that, you have to wash your hand, and not only once but you have to wash and wash and wash. If you think Covid19 protocols are hard, this is like Covid19 protocols on steroids. And you wonder, what is the point of all these laws? Let me tell you what the purpose of the ceremonial laws is. It is to communicate to us that we are spiritually unclean. It is to tell us that we are sinners and God is holy. We can’t just walk into a holy God. There is a thick barrier between us sinful people and a holy God. These ceremonial laws drive the point vividly into our hearts and minds that we are spiritually unclean, and we are reminded of our uncleanness every day. Something must happen to make us clean.

The same is true about God’s moral laws, the 10 commandments. The 10 commandments are not given as a checklist for us to be saved. The 10 commandments are the expression of God’s standard of holiness. It shows us the kind of person we must be in order to be accepted by God. The problem is none of us can live up to that standard. Let me choose one law. You shall not covet. What is covet? Covet is not only when your heart desires something that is not yours. So, it is not only to look at somebody else and say, “Wow, I would love to have his car.” Covet means to want something so much that you are discontent. Let me give you a personal example. Right now, you might disagree with me, I think I am still the best preacher in RSI. Edrick is vying my spot but he is not there yet. He will eventually become a better preacher than me but not yet. I need to keep him humble for now. So, in this little pool called RSI, I think I am the best preacher. But if I leave this little pool of RSI and jump to a slightly larger pool called YouTube, I am no longer the best preacher. If you open our church YouTube channel and look at my video sermon, it takes about a week for it to reach 100 views. But if you look at other churches YouTube channel, the sermon might have just been uploaded for one minute, and it already has more than 100 views. And do you know what the respond of my heart is? “How come they have more views than I do? Oh, I know. People love them because they are great communicators. But their sermons are so shallow. It’s all milk and no meat. They don’t preach the gospel. I preach the gospel deep and wide. I preach solid food.” Can you see what happened? That is covetousness. I look at other people’s ministry and I become discontent with mine. You look at other people’s family, spouse, job, car, and you become discontent with yours. Do you ever feel that? If you don’t, all you have to do is to look at people’s Instagram stories for a few minutes and you would start to think that your life sucks. That’s covetousness. And the law of God tells us that we must not feel that way. We are supposed to love God so much, to be so satisfied with God and his love, that we are always content. That’s what God required of us. And the laws of God show us that we fail miserably in keeping the law. It tells us that there is a standard that we must live up to, but we can’t. No one can bear the yoke of the laws of God, not even the Jews. All of us desperately need a Saviour. That’s the second argument.

Third, salvation is by grace alone. Peter is extremely clear. Since no one can live up to God’s standard, salvation is only possible through grace. We cannot deserve nor earn salvation. We can only receive it as a free gift. And this is what separates Christianity from other religions. All other religions give us advice. They tell us, “Here are the 10 things you must do to be accepted by God.” But Christianity is not primarily about advice. Yes, there are lots of advice in the Bible, but it is not primarily about what we must do. Christianity is primarily about the good news of what Christ has done for us. Salvation is not something we achieved but something we received. Christianity is not about adding burden to lives; it is about removing burden. The moment we put our faith in Christ, it takes off the burden of trying to prove ourselves anymore. We no longer have to perform to be accepted. God has accepted us and that is why we perform. The gospel puts the weight on Christ’s performance and not our performance.

And because salvation is by grace alone, it levels the ground for everyone. It means that it does not matter who you are. You might grow up in a broken family. You might have no idea about the Bible and Christianity. You might be a drug addict. You might be a rapist. You might be homeless. You might be an adulterer. You might be John Wick. Or you might grow up in a nice loving family. You might go to church every Sunday. You might be a Nobel prize winner. You might be the richest person in Carlingford. You might be the president of a country. You might be a pastor of a big church. It does not matter who you are. The gospel put everyone on the same playing field. There are no good people and bad people. There are no kind people and mean people. The gospel tells us that all of us have rebelled against the almighty God. All of us are sinners in need of the mercy of God. And we received salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ alone. The gospel levels the ground for everyone.

But how can sinners receive the grace of God? I am glad you ask. Colossians 2:11-12 – 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. Grace is free, not because it is cheap, but because we cannot afford it. We no longer need to be circumcised because we have received the circumcision of Christ. Remember that circumcision is the sign of a covenant. Covenant is a legal binding agreement between two-party. In ancient times, when you made a covenant with somebody, you acted out the curse of breaking the covenant. So, if I were making a covenant with you, I would say, “I promise to do this and that.” And then I would take animals, cut them in half, walk between the pieces, and say, “If I don’t keep my promise, if I don’t keep our covenant, may I be cut to pieces like these animals.” I am acting out the curse. That is what circumcision points at. A part of the body is cut to represent that we are in the covenant. What is the curse of breaking the covenant with God? It is to be cut off from relationship with God. With another word, all of us deserve to be cut off from God for breaking God’s commandments.

But the good news of the gospel is that we are not cut off from our relationship with God. Why? Because we are circumcised with Christ’s circumcision. What is Christ’s circumcision? It is when he died on the cross. On the cross, Jesus was cut off from his relationship with God. On the cross, Jesus experienced the curse of breaking God’s covenant. Jesus, the only person who lived out God’s covenant perfectly was cut off so that you and I who put our faith in Jesus can be brought in. On the cross, Jesus became unclean so that we might become clean. It doesn’t matter who you are, it does not matter what you have done, the moment you put your faith in Christ, you are cleansed of all your sins. Jesus has paid the debt of sin so that we may receive salvation by grace alone. This is Peter’s third argument. And when the people hear the gospel, they fall silent. The gospel silences every human effort to justify themselves.

Grace applied

Acts 15:13-21 – 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Here is what happened. After Peter finishes his defence of the gospel of grace, and after Paul and Barnabas tell the story of God’s endorsement, it is James’ turn to talk. This is James the half-brother of Jesus, the same James that writes the letter of James in the Bible. He is probably the main leader of the church in Jerusalem. And he says that it is clear that it has always been part of God’s plan to include the gentiles in the plan of salvation. Just as Israel was specially chosen and called by God to be his people in the past, the gentiles are also chosen and called by God to be a people for his own name. And to prove his point, James quotes what the prophet Amos prophesied hundreds of years before. Amos spoke of a day where God’s people would no longer be just Jews but everyone who is called by God’s name. With another word, there is a massive shift that happens. James is saying that God’s chosen people no longer consist of Jews but everyone who put their faith in Jesus.

But then something strange happens. He continues to say that they should not make it hard for the gentiles who turn to God, but then he adds four little additional requirements for the gentile Christians to keep. Let me list it out for you. Four prohibitions: Abstain from things polluted by idols; stay away from sexual immorality; do not eat from animals that have been strangled; do not eat blood. What happens here? So, is salvation by grace alone plus four little additional laws? Does it mean that we need to stop eating medium-rare steak? I don’t think so. Because we know from Paul’s letters that Paul says that we can eat anything we want. Paul tells us, “Do you want to eat rare steak? Go ahead. Do you want to eat well-done steak aka empal? Go ahead. Do you want to eat food that is offered to idols? Go ahead. Because idol is nothing. The kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink. What important is in whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.” So, these four prohibitions cannot mean that we have to keep them to be saved. This is where we need to apply the prescriptive and descriptive lenses.

One of the main struggles of the early church is on how the Jews and the gentiles can live together. How can they sit and have fellowship with one another when the Jews considered the gentiles to be unclean because of their lifestyle? And the four requirements James outline are ritual matters that makes fellowship between Jewish and gentile Christians possible. The four actions listed are the social norm of idol worship. These four prohibitions are prohibitions against association with idol worship. The Jewish Christians who follow their laws cannot have fellowship with gentile Christians who might have been contaminated through their association with idol worship. Because if the gentile Christians are unclean, any food they serve to the Jewish Christians would also be unclean. Therefore, these prohibitions are given for the gentiles to restrict their behaviours that would be offensive to the Jewish Christians. It challenges them to use and exercise their freedom to love their Jewish brothers and sisters. It is not given to them as additional laws for salvation but as a basis for fellowship. James is asking the gentile Christians to abstain from these four things for the sake of their Jewish brothers and sisters’ conscience.

So, what does it mean for us? It means that salvation is a free gift of grace. Nothing can be added as a requirement for salvation. We are free. For freedom, Christ has set us free. But we are to use our freedom to serve and love one another. We are not to use our freedom for our own sake but for the sake of loving our brothers and sisters in the church. For example, let’s say that one day I become very rich and have more than enough money to buy a Ferrari. It is my own money, not the church’s money. And I can afford it. I can pay it off in cash. It’s not going to put me in debt. Will buying a Ferrari make me lose my salvation? Of course not. Salvation is by grace alone. I have the freedom in Christ to buy a Ferrari. But should I buy a Ferrari? The answer is most likely no. Why? Because even though I am free, I am to use my freedom in such a way that I can help you flourish in your walk with Christ. Even though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a Ferrari, a pastor owning a Ferrari could be a stumbling block for many. It might lead people to not trust the church and the leadership in the church. So, in that case, it is better for me to lay down my freedom and give up on a Ferrari so that I can serve you better. This is how we apply the gospel of grace.

Let me close with this. Imagine a church like this. Imagine a church where the gospel of grace is applied. Imagine a church where the people in the church serves one another. We no longer asked the question, “What can I get from you?” but we ask the question, “What can I do for you?” Imagine if we consistently put other’s good and best interest before ours. And this is the kind of church that Jesus desires. And I hope this is the kind of church that we will be. But in order for us to be this kind of church, we need to fight for the gospel of grace. We must teach the gospel of grace and we must not tolerate any modification of the gospel. We don’t become this kind of church by preaching that in order to be saved, we need Jesus, but we also need to be circumcised. We become this kind of church by preaching the gospel of grace consistently. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We have to be unmovable in the gospel. Because unless we get the gospel of grace, it is impossible for us to use our freedom to love one another. It is only when we get the gospel right that we find the freedom to lay down our freedom for the sake of loving others. Because that is what Jesus did for us. He laid down his freedom to make us God’s people. May we remain faithful to the gospel of grace. Let’s pray.

Discussion questions:

  1. Why do you think many Christians are not interested in theology and why is it an extremely important matter?
  2. Explain the importance of circumcision to the Jews and give some modern examples of it.
  3. What is the primary purpose of the law of God?
  4. Explain why salvation is by grace alone.
  5. Why do you think it is very hard for our heart to embrace salvation by grace alone?
  6. How does the gospel of grace enable us to love one another?
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.