God’s Word for You
Acts 15:1 “Unless”
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, September 7, 2020
When we left Paul and Barnabas, they had finished their first missionary trip and had arrived in Antioch in Syria, many miles to the north of Judea and Galilee. They remained there “for some time” (Acts 14:28). In this chapter, Luke presents the first obstacle to the ministry of the gospel that came from within the church. Before this there had been persecution of Christians, but now there was a doctrinal crisis that touched the very heart of the gospel and the soul of every single Christian, from that time on, down to this very day.
15 Then some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
We think that this happened in about 49 or 50 AD, some twenty years or so after our Lord’s ascension into heaven. Luke says that these men came “down” from Judea because, to a Jew, Jerusalem and the temple are always “up,” and so any other trip involves going “down.” In this case, “down” meant a journey northward more than 320 miles.
What they brought with them was a path that led away from Christ.
I still hear echoes of this sentence today, with (perhaps?) well-meaning people who want to say, “Unless you _____, you cannot be saved.” There are all sorts of things to slide into the blank in that sentence, and all of them are wrong. Since the whole chapter will present the debate about this claim, it would be good to expose the trouble with the statement right away.
God had promised a new covenant. “The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… for I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31,34). Jesus announced this new covenant of forgiveness: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). And the Holy Spirit declares: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). At the house of Cornelius, Peter had even seen a vision that declared all foods to be clean, a reminder of Jesus’ simple statement that we are not made unclean by what we consume (Mark 7:15).
By saying, “You must do this one thing to be saved,” the Jews were really insisting that the entire covenant of Moses was still in place. Circumcision was just the beginning. Re-adopting circumcision would mean that we are saved partly by Christ, but also partly by something else. That something else is obedience. If God insists on obedience for my salvation, then everything Christ did is wrecked and ruined by my disobedience, since I can’t keep his law perfectly. Moses himself couldn’t keep the law of circumcision without sinning (Exodus 4:24-26). How could I ever be certain that I obeyed, loved, revered, respected God’s law enough to be saved by my obedience? Doesn’t it become clear that Christ’s obedience and sacrifice must stand alone? If not, then my obedience becomes the deciding factor, and I cannot obey perfectly. I am already ruined by my inherited original sin. Every other sin I commit is only a testimony to the fallen state of man; to my fallen condition.
So it doesn’t matter what anyone puts into the blank: “Unless you _____, you cannot be saved.” Only Christ saves. The comfort this brings is indescribable because it frees us from the burden of our sins. We are absolutely free and forgiven in Jesus. We never need to wonder what God thinks of us, whether we are worthy or loved. We were so beloved that God sent his Son to rescue us with his own death. He made us worthy. He made us his own dear children.
The task of the church faced by this question of salvation was to reassure its people of the victory of Jesus. This is still our task today. Be a witness of salvation through Jesus alone. Let your family know, your friends, the people you love—because they are the family of God, the friends of God, and the people God loves, too.
Pastor Timothy Smith