The Grace of Jesus Alone
Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando
I once heard author Deepak Chopra say that he could give someone on the other side of the world a shot of the dopamine over the phone. You know how he said he could do it? By saying, “You’re beautiful.” He was talking about the power of words and pointing out that those two simple words, “You’re beautiful” can change a person’s brain chemistry and mood in a moment. Despite the stay-at-home order, we are inundated with words in our world, whether from the people with whom we’re stuck at home, the words we hear over the phone, from our television, podcast, or the words we read on our social media feeds. Words also feature prominently in the book of Acts, the book of the Bible at which we’re looking today. In it, Jesus’ followers go around proclaiming words about how someone can be saved. In the passage we’re looking at today we’ll see they consider those words important enough that when others come and say something different about salvation, the followers of Jesus fight for the true words. So also today, in the face of so many different words we hear, the words about Christ are worth fighting for, and we find a helpful summary of them in verse 11: We are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus. Therefore…Fight for grace, and live by grace.
Fight for grace
Verse 1 introduces us to the false words: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” In verse 5 we get another summary: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The message Paul and Barnabas, two early followers of Jesus, had been preaching was that everyone who believes is saved, meaning they are forgiven of their sins, receive the Holy Spirit, and are promised eternal life the moment they believe, before doing any good works. Now here come teachers saying unless you also obey the law of Moses, signified in circumcision, you cannot be saved.
This is a big deal to the Christians. Verse 2 says Paul and Barnabas had no small debate with the people saying it, the whole church sent them to Jerusalem according to verse 3, there was much debate there according to verse 7. So what is the big deal? We get some insight into that in verse 24, in the preface to the letter that results from the council. There one of the elders, James, gives the reason for their decision, and says they heard that some persons had gone out from them and troubled them with words, unsettling their minds. James acknowledges, basically, that it’s a debate about words. But it’s a debate worth having nonetheless, because words are powerful, especially words about God, which are called “Theology”. The words “Unless you are circumcised according to the law of Moses, you cannot be saved” are a theological statement, and they were very powerful to these new Christians who thought they had everything necessary to salvation in Christ. It unsettled their minds James says in verse 24, and James, along with the elders and apostles, cared about these Christians. That’s why they’re willing to fight over words and theology: They’re fighting for grace, for the good of these Christians.
Certainly, churches and Christians have gotten in trouble when they engage in debates over words and theology simply because they want to be right. But it’s no less dangerous for Christians to avoid debating words and theology simply because it’s uncomfortable. False theology, false words about God, hurt people; it unsettles their minds, and one of the things I love about you all at Citylight is you really do care about one another. When you hear of a fellow church member whose mind is unsettled, that matters to you, and that’s exactly why theology should matter to you too. It’s one of the reasons we’re doing Theology Tuesdays frankly; consider signing up for it. Let it be a help to you as you care for one another with your words. Of course, I’m not suggesting that every Christian can or should devote as much of their time to learning and discussing theology as a pastor would. This passage helpfully shows us the cooperation between the church and its elders. In verse 3 we read that Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem by the church. So the church knew theology well enough to realize this was an issue; it mattered to them, but they took advantage of the fact that they had pastors with training and gifting in theology and sent them off to devote their time to it. When they’d finished the debate, the members then received their decision with joy in verse 31. Let’s get into the actual debate then and see how they fought for grace.
Verse 7 tells us there was much debate, but two arguments are highlighted in particular, those of Peter and James. Peter recounts his experience with the Gentiles, how God gave the Holy Spirit to them in the same way He gave the Holy Spirit to the Jewish Christians: By faith, by believing what they heard, not doing something, i.e. not through the law of Moses. So Peter asks why we would put God to the test by adding requirements for salvation beyond what God Himself has required? And then he gives this beautiful summary in verse 11: But we believe we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. It’s the Lord Jesus who obeyed the law of Moses perfectly. It’s the Lord Jesus who suffered the curse for our disobedience of the law. It’s the Lord Jesus who rose from the dead, receiving the reward of eternal life, and therefore it is by His grace, received by faith alone, that we are saved. In other words, “Guys, even though we are Jewish and were brought up under the law of Moses, we aren’t saved through the law of Moses. We’re saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. Why then would we expect the way of salvation to be any different for them?”
It isn’t. The contrast here is clear: Salvation can either be through the grace of the Lord Jesus, or it can be through obedience to the law. Peter doesn’t allow for the possibility that salvation might be by grace + obedience to the law. It’s grace or the law, a total binary, one or the other. Salvation is either/or, not both/and. Romans 11:6 explains why: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” If you blow off your job, bankrupt the company and yourself, and your boss, out of her own savings, pays you, that’s grace. But if you say, “Ok I know I did a lot wrong, but I’ll at least work a day to make it up to you,” and then your boss pays you, that’s not grace anymore. It’s nice; it’s better than you deserve, but you did deserve some of the payment. Faith is not like that. Faith is simply trusting your boss when she says she’s going to pay you apart from your work, not working a day to make it up to her. So also when you add circumcision or anything else to faith as a requirement for salvation, grace is no longer grace. The joy and peace of believing that everything necessary to salvation is found in Christ is lost; minds are unsettled, and so Peter argues for salvation by the grace of the Lord Jesus alone.
Then James contributes his argument, and it’s an important one. What James does is he evaluates the experiences relayed by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas of God saving the Gentiles by grace in light of Scripture. We don’t ignore experience, but we do evaluate experience in the light of Scripture, rather than evaluating Scripture in the light of experience. In this case, he finds their experience is exactly what Scripture teaches, as he says in verse 15, “with this the words of the prophets agree.” So James renders the judgment in verse 19, “That we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” In other words, we shouldn’t lay on them requirements God’s not laying on them. If God is saving us and them by the grace of the Lord Jesus, who are we to require obedience to the law of Moses?
So here’s a question for you to consider today: What are you adding to the grace of the Lord Jesus for salvation? Whose words are unsettling your mind from a simple trust in the Lord Jesus? Here it was the words of those saying you needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses to be saved. In the 16th century it was the Roman Catholic Church saying you needed to be baptized, supplement your faith with love, not have any mortal sins, etc. I got love for my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters; I grew up in a Roman Catholic church myself and learned many good things there, but in their official teaching they have obscured grace and unsettled the minds of many. That’s why Luther fought for grace with them and why many of our Protestant forefathers were willing to be die over it. So also Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses carry on their mission by unsettling the minds of Christians, telling them faith in Christ is not enough. Many Christians’ minds have been unsettled by other professing Christians even who say, “Yes you have salvation by the grace of the Lord Jesus, but what you really need is to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues, have healing for your diseases, or hear God speak to you personally outside of Scripture.” It’s grace +, and therefore it’s no longer grace.
Grace + anything never works; none of our works can save. How many of your minds are unsettled simply by the reality that you are not what you know you ought to be, that there are problems in the world, in your neighborhood, and in your life that you haven’t solved? Welcome to the club. Try to save yourself by what you do, and you will find it to be what Peter described it as in verse 10: “A yoke that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” And finally, while it’s not usually stated in religious terms and it’s not the customs of Moses, how many times does our world inundate you with words telling you you need to follow its customs, buy its products, and experience its adventures? One of the things God seems to be doing in the stay-at-home order is showing us how false that message is, but whether it’s having that effect on you or not, it is false. The Lord Jesus is all you need, and if you believe in Him, by faith, apart from works, He is who you have. Let not your minds be unsettled. Now, if that’s the case, what kind of life should you then live? That’s where our passage goes next. Since you are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, fight for grace and live by grace.
Live by grace
Look back at verse 19 with me. James says there that it was his judgment that they should not trouble the Gentiles who turn to God, so you might expect verse 20 to say something like, “but should write to them that they can do whatever they want.” But that’s not the kind of life that grace produces. Salvation in the fullest sense of the word is not just pardon; it’s transformation. Think about some of the ways it’s described even in this chapter. Peter talks about it in verse 8 as God giving His Holy Spirit. In verse 9 he describes it as God cleansing the heart. In verse 14 James describes it as God “taking a people for his name.” In verse 17 he talks about it as people “seeking the Lord.” And of course in verse 19, he describes the Gentiles who God has saved as those who “turn to God.” So saved people are not only forgiven people who now go on living however they want to live; this is what saved people are: People in whom the Holy Spirit lives, with clean hearts, who exist for God’s name, seek the Lord, and turn to Him. So how do those people live?
Verse 20 shows us. James gives a list of commands there that probably seem arbitrary to us: abstain from things polluted by idols, sexual immorality, what has been strangled, and blood. And we know these commands aren’t absolute and binding on all Christians, because in 1 Corinthians 8 God does actually permit us to eat food sacrificed to idols in certain contexts. However, James give the reason for these prohibitions in verse 21: For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues. In other words, “No, you don’t need to obey the law of Moses to be saved; God already saved you through the grace of the Lord Jesus. But, you also have Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ who have heard Moses read every Sabbath in the synagogue, and unity with them will be really difficult if you’re inviting them over to dinner to eat foods they’ve spent their whole life hearing are unclean from God’s law. You also have Jewish neighbors we want to reach with the gospel who are going to have a very hard time listening to you if you’re buying the food in the marketplace that’s been sacrificed to idols.” Sexual immorality on the other hand is forbidden absolutely by God, but it’s probably mentioned here because it would have been particularly normal in Gentile culture, and particularly offensive to the Jews.
To summarize, the life that results from grace is a life of love. As Paul puts it in Galatians 5: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but faith working through love…For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:6,13). Our love doesn’t save us, the grace of Jesus does, received through faith, but that faith then works through love. Since I have all I need in Jesus, I do not need to obey the food laws in Moses, but I also don’t need to disobey them. I’ll eat whatever if it means I can eat with my fellow church members or with a neighbor who I want to love in Jesus’ name. There are all kinds of things like this in the Christian life: Christians commonly refer to them as Christian liberties; the theological term coming from Greek is adiaphora. In my native culture for example, white, American, middle-upper class, a normal way of getting to know people is asking some combination of the following questions: Where did you go to college, what do you do for a living, and where have you travelled in life? Nothing wrong with that per se; you’re free to ask those questions; they’re adiaphora. However, in this city and in our church, I’ve interacted with a lot of people for whom that’s not their native culture, and multiple people have graciously let me know they don’t feel welcomed by those questions, because they didn’t go to college, they’ve never taken vacations, and they don’t have a job that is prestigious in the eyes of the world. Now I can say, “Oh come on, don’t be so easily offended! I shouldn’t have to parse my words with others, especially not my brothers and sisters at church,” and the Gentiles who got this letter could have said, “Oh come on, I don’t want to have to go to the meat market and figure out whether the meat I’m buying was strangled first. We always eat that stuff in my family!” But they didn’t! Look at verse 31: When they got this letter, they rejoiced. Why? Because grace produces love. Instead of using our freedom to serve ourselves, we use it to serve one another.
Also pertinent to our moment right now is responding to COVID-19. There is certainly room for disagreement among Christians on when we should resume gathering for worship, but let me tell you at least part of why we as a church haven’t resumed gathering yet: There are a lot of people in our city who are understandably concerned about this virus, just like there were a lot of people in their city who were concerned about the law of Moses. How will it look to them if 100 of us get into a room together twice on a Sunday and engage in an activity that apparently increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission, singing, and then go back out into these neighborhoods where we live? That’s not the only reason we aren’t gathering, but how could it not be a significant factor? Whenever it does appear wise to gather again, it will also mean gathering looks different. We plan to spread chairs out, wear masks, have hand-washing stations, and that’s a big hassle; no doubt about it. In an absolute sense, do we have to worship in spread out chairs, in masks, and with clean hands? No, we have the freedom to come to God through grace alone; how the chairs are set up, whether you wear a mask, are matters of Christian liberty, adiaphora. But if we use that freedom to make worship comfortable for ourselves, we’ve missed the point of the freedom. Grace produces a love for our neighbor that is willing to inconvenience oneself to remove any unnecessary barriers to unity within the church and effective preaching of the gospel outside of it.
As you hear this message today, may you join those who received the letter in this passage and rejoice. Rejoice that the gospel is true: Jesus is really all you need, and it’s by His grace alone we’re saved. Grace + anything is no longer grace, and it cannot save. These words are worth fighting for, because grace is worth fighting for. Fight for it and live by it through love.