19 Sep 2020
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 15:1-16:5. Permanent lessons.
Students who read Acts 15 today are tempted to dismiss it impatiently as being of purely antiquarian interest. There is no circumcision party nowadays trying to impose Mosaic rituals on anybody, and it would be ludicrous to expect any contemporary Christian group to accept the four apostolic abstentions, although some of them (like eating kosher food) could still apply to Christians living among conservative Jews. Otherwise, the whole incident appears remote, even irrelevant. Yet it contains at least two lessons of permanent value, the first relating to salvation, and the second to fellowship.
a). Salvation: an issue of Christian truth.
The Judaizers were arguing that circumcision was necessary for salvation (1). There was, therefore, a danger of the church breaking up into competing theological factions, with different apostles teaching different gospels, and the church’s unity destroyed. The danger was real enough. The Judaizers claimed the authority of James and contradicted Paul. Peter was led astray and was opposed by Paul. The three apostles appeared to be at loggerheads, with James and Paul on opposite sides and Peter oscillating between them. The situation was critical. So Luke was at great pains to describe how in the Council Peter spoke first, then Paul, then James; how Scripture and experience coincided; and how the apostles (Peter, Paul and James), the elders and the whole church reached a unanimous decision (22, 28). Thus the unity of the gospel preserved the unity of the church. In spite of its rich diversity of formulation and emphasis in the New Testament, there is only one apostolic gospel. We must resist modern theologians who set the New Testament writers at variance with each other, and who talk about Pauline, Petrine and Johannine positions as if they were incompatible gospels. Even Paul and James, who were reconciled at the Council, can be reconciled in their New Testament letters too. They taught the same way of salvation.
Moreover the gospel of Christ’s apostles is the gospel of God’s free grace, of his undeserved love for sinners in the death of his Son in our place. Further, it is the gospel of God’s sufficient grace. It cannot be regarded either as a supplement to something else (e.g. Judaism) or as needing to be supplemented by something else (e.g. circumcision), without being undermined. Yet this was exactly the Judaizer’s mistake. To them faith in Jesus was not enough; circumcision and law works had to be added. Today people try to add works of a different kind, philanthropy perhaps or religious observances, or a particular ceremony or experience. In each case it is a ‘Jesus plus’ gospel, which is derogatory to the adequacy of his work. We need to echo Peter: ‘We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they’ (11). We and they, Jews and Gentiles, are saved in the same way, through the one and only apostolic gospel of God’s grace.
Tomorrow: b). Fellowship: an issue of Christian love.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.