Acts 15:1-2 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.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
One of the big theological issues the Early Church had to grapple with and sort out was: if God was going to include ‘uncircumcised’ Gentiles among his people, as was evidenced by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit among them and their attendant faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, then where did they stand in relation to the Law of Moses? Jesus was clearly the Promised Messiah of the ‘circumcised’ descendants of Abraham, and for them the Mosaic Law was an integral part of what it meant to belong to God’s Chosen People! And after all, Jesus himself had said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17).
Fortunately for us, in the providence of God, the Apostle Paul had lived most of his life as a zealous Pharisee for whom scrupulous Law-keeping had been seen as the only way of gaining acceptance before God, and he had therefore discovered first-hand just how useless this was. He would write to the Christians in Rome: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:1-4).
Thinking that we can EARN God’s approval by the things that we DO is an error that belongs to our innate sinful condition as descendants of Adam, and, although, by God’s grace, the Early Church got ‘justification by grace alone through faith alone’ sorted OK, the Church ever since continues to be plagued by the error of ‘works righteousness’. Things had become so bad by the 16th Century that God had to oversee a wholesale Reformation of the Church under Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Knox, Cranmer and others; and even during the 500 years since then, maintaining the centrality of the Reformed Faith continues to be a battle.
Let us thank God that right at the beginning Paul and Barnabas could see the the absolute necessity of not letting anything direct us away from the fact that our saving faith is a gift of God’s grace ALONE – sola gratia, sola fide … soli Deo Gloria!