IIT UBF - University Bible Fellowship at IIT





The Question of Salvation

Date: Apr. 13, 2014

Author: Michael Mark

Acts 15:1-35

Key Verse: Acts 15:11

“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

As we have progressed through the book of Acts, we are seeing non-Jews the Gentiles, being saved and the number of believers growing rapidly. What does it mean to you to be saved? Have you ever thought, “If I believe I’m saved, what am I saved from?” Are you saved, and how did you become saved? Within that word saved, you may notice it is similar to, and actually the same as the word safe. When you’re saved, you’re safe: you are protected, shielded, rescued, preserved and delivered from danger and harm. The ultimate salvation then, is the salvation of your life. Is your life safe from threat, from danger or harm?

Just this past week, on Wednesday night, a few of us witnessed, right here on campus, a hit and run incident. Right on 32nd and State, in the crosswalk going from the MTCC to the HUB, where by law cars are supposed to stop for pedestrians, we heard the sound of a skateboard get run over by a car, and 2 students chasing and shouting a moving car that didn’t stop. As we looked over, one student ended up on top of the car, and he rolled off. We saw him get up after that. Thank God it was not fatal or critical, and that his life was spared. But what else was going through our minds, and the minds of his friends? We wanted justice. I wished there was some way I could throw a rock at the car and break his window to stop him. The ambulance came, along with the police and campus safety, so the situation is being taken care of.

Now let’s turn our attention to something deeper. Our lives are fragile. Our lives are in danger – all of us have the threat of death looming over our heads. Why? Because of sin. Death is the evidence of sin. What is sin? Sin is a crime against a holy God, an offense against the Most High God. You haven’t just offended anyone – you offended the King of kings, and Lord of lords. If you were to punch a stranger, a regular guy in the face, you might get away with it. But imagine if you punched the president in the face – you would be sent straight to jail and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. You don’t attack the president and get away with it, neither can you attack God and get away with it.

God demands justice from sinners who have broken his law, just was we would demand justice to come to the hit and run driver. We are not only in danger of death, sooner or later, but we are also in danger of God’s wrath for our sins. And just as God is eternal, and our souls are eternal, the wrath of God means eternal punishment in hell for our sins. Who can save us, who can rescue us from the wrath of God? Only God himself can, and he has demonstrated his great grace and mercy by offering to us a free way of salvation. He has announced to the world the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, his Son, who can deliver us from death and from hell.

This was the message that was preached, as we went through the book of Acts, starting in Jerusalem, and then to Judea and Samaria. The Jews and Samaritans were being saved. We then followed Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey preaching the good news from Antioch, Cyprus, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, and during that journey large numbers of Gentiles were being saved. In this passage, we come to the end of that first journey, and we see here that the gospel came under attack, and the good news was now in jeopardy. We have come now to the Jerusalem Council, the first meeting of its kind to define standards for the church, and the subject was vitally important. In fact, some might say it is the most important question: “How can I be saved?” This question is what the Bible is about – salvation, and the answer to it affects you and me. Look at v.1, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’” These men had traveled at least 200 miles to get from Judea to Antioch. They were Jewish believers who professed faith in Jesus, but they were also strict followers of the Jewish law.

Why would they come all that distance to teach circumcision? One reason is that they believed salvation came from the Jews, so anyone who wanted to be saved had to first become a Jew, and then they could come to Jesus. Throughout history, they had been God’s chosen people. The God of heaven and earth, the only one true God had revealed himself only to the Israelites, proving himself over and over again to be superior and sovereign over the kings and false gods of all world powers throughout time, including Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and now Rome. Out of all nations the people of Israel were given the prophets, the patriarchs and the promises. The human ancestry of the Savior is traced through them. God made a covenant (which is a solemn agreement, like a contract) with them, and the symbol of that covenant was circumcision (Gen 17:10). If you were circumcised, you entered into that covenant and could receive the promises of God, including salvation. In that old covenant, if you were not circumcised, you would be considered cut off from God. In most Jewish believers’ minds, they could not see anyone who was not a Jew turn to God and be saved. The Gentiles coming to faith in the God of Israel was revolutionary. So when they saw all of these Gentiles turning to God, they wanted them all to take a step back and become Jews first by circumcision.

This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. Paul himself was once a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling party. Barnabas himself was sent from the church at Jerusalem. You would think that with their Jewish backgrounds, they could find some common ground with these visitors from Judea, but they strongly resisted them. Why? Because the gospel was at stake here. These men were trying to add human works to the saving work that God had already completed. According to Calvin, the dangerous teachings would lead to worshipping the law, it would put Christians freed by the blood of Christ back under bondage, and it would darken their light by obscuring Jesus Christ as their Savior. This teaching would threaten the future of Gentile ministry, ultimately threatening the future of the church. This was a critical issue, and the answer needed to be established, or this chaos and confusion would continue. Paul and Barnabas, along with some others, went up to Jerusalem, to the church where it all began, and met with the apostles and elders, the pillars and leaders of the church to answer this extremely essential question: “How can we be saved?”

This was not an easy question to answer. Paul and Barnabas had to dispute and debate the Judean visitors. When they came to Jerusalem, the apostles and elders met to consider this question and had much discussion. The Jews wanted to honor the law of Moses, and continue to do so to this day. The covenant of circumcision was also so ingrained in their history, culture and tradition, and attached with it the promises of God, that it took considerable debate to see if it should still be required for salvation. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed the apostles and elders, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” Peter was the chief apostle, and his words would carry a lot of weight. In his speech he was referring to the time Cornelius and other Gentiles were converted, which had been almost 10 years back. But he himself witnessed God pouring the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles, in the same way the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost where they began to speak in tongues and praised God. This was evidence that God had granted repentance to the Gentiles unto salvation.

Look at v.8-9, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” Peter is beginning to talk about how we can be saved. God does not look at the outward things, but at our hearts. He is the only one that can see and search our hearts – the demons can’t do it, the devil can’t do it, even your spouse, your soul mate can’t search your heart, but God is able to read your heart, and judge your actions and motives. We must worship God in spirit and in truth, from the bottom of our hearts, and be careful that we do not do things mindlessly, habitually or half-hearted. Circumcision, or following tradition doesn’t mean anything if the heart is not in it. But also, God purifies our hearts – not by works, not by the things we do, but by faith. By turning to him, trusting him and believing in him for our salvation. And it is God who purifies our hearts. We do not purify our hearts. Even if we try to “mentally” purify our hearts, we will find that on our own we will defile it more and more. It’s like washing an oily window with a dirty cloth. But God, who is righteous and just, is also gracious and merciful, gentle and loving, willing to purify our hearts by faith in him.

Peter continues in v.10, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” Testing God means to provoke God and anger him. The Jewish believers who demanded Gentiles be circumcised and keep the law of Moses would provoke God by treating his people harshly, and requiring them to keep commands that they nor their ancestors were able to keep. Stephen testified to this before he was martyred in Acts 7:51, “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” He was only echoing what God also said in Ex 32:9, 33:3,5, and numerous other times in the Bible where the Israelites were disobedient to God even when he was gracious to them.

Here we see that the Law cannot save us, it only shows us our sins. We find that the more we try whole-heartedly and sincerely to keep the law, the more we fail. For example, when the law says, “Do not covet (that is, envy),” and we focus hard on trying not to envy anyone or anything, we might find that we start envying more. But it’s not even just envy. As soon as we try to keep any law, we are required to keep ALL of it – so even if we break it at one small point, we have broken the entire law. The law is powerless to save us; we cannot depend on being saved by keeping the law, because we find that we break it. Practically, what does this mean? It means that you may say “I’m generally a good person, I give to charity, I serve in soup kitchens, and I don’t steal or do anything bad,” but you still will not be able to go to heaven, because even in your hearts, if you have thought just one bad thought, you have broken the law. And the harder you try to keep the law, the more you find you can’t. Meditation won’t help. Chanting won’t help. Yoga won’t help. The law cannot save us. None of our own efforts cannot save us. So how can we be saved?

We need grace. We need mercy. Can we all please read v.11, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Peter shows us the way of salvation. Peter shows us how we can be saved. We are saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus. We are saved by grace alone through Christ alone – by faith in him. How does that work? Well let me tell you. We all have violated the laws of God: we have offended in the matter of loving God, and we have transgressed in the matter of loving our neighbor. We also did not just offend some person we might know, but by our sins we have offended the Most High God, who is eternal. We are under the curse and condemnation of the law, which we violated. Our punishment is eternal, and we are under the wrath of God. Who can rescue us from this situation? Who of us in the world can wipe away sins?

Jesus Christ, saw our helpless state, and left his estate in heaven. He left his power, his glory and his majesty – He was the Son of God, but he became the Son of Man, so that he could be with us here.   He voluntarily left heaven, he experienced our hardships and miseries, and by his suffering and death he obtained for us the salvation that we could not get on our own. He must obtain it. We cannot. We are like kids, trying to get the cookie jar all the way at the top of the book shelf. We cannot get it, we cannot reach for it. But someone who is big and tall can obtain it for us, we are dependent on them. Likewise, we are dependent on Christ for salvation. God demanded justice for our sins, but he offered his Son to pay our price, and won for us the redemption of our lives. Through Jesus Christ alone, there is peace with God. He gladly paid the price for the forgiveness of our sins. Through his perfect obedience, he removed the curse of the law from us. Through his blood, our hearts are sprinkled and purified by faith. We must trust in God, and believe in Jesus Christ.

After Peter testified about the grace of God to the Gentiles, Barnabas and Paul testified about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. They were continuing to make the case the God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, offered them salvation without having to become a Jew through circumcision first. When they finished, James, the chief elder spoke up. So now the answer to the question has some credibility, authority and power behind it, because it is now supported by the two top leaders of the Jewish believers, Peter the top apostle and James the top elder, and also by the two foremost leaders of the Gentile church: Paul and Barnabas. James now had pointed out that what was happening is also in agreement with another top authority: the Scripture. He quotes from Amos a prophecy, that according to the Lord himself, from times long ago, one day the Gentiles will seek the Lord and bear his name, meaning that they will be his people. All God’s people who bear his name, whether Jew or Gentile, will be one.

Look at James’ conclusion in v.19-20, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” There is much wisdom and grace in James’ answer. James, again the chief elder, has concluded that circumcision and the keeping of the law of Moses are not required in order for the Gentiles to be saved. It is a very gracious answer: “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” There is not a lot of human effort required for salvation – it will be done by the grace of God. Then James suggests that a letter be written with some requirements. There is a lot of wisdom in what he suggests. These are not requirements for salvation, but are commands for the believers in the early church. They were probably temporary, needed for the situation at that time.

The wisdom found in his requirements address two issues at once. The commands to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood were both the weakness of Gentile believers, and strong offense to the Jewish believers. For the Gentiles, especially those who once practiced pagan idolatry, they thought lightly of these issues. They probably bought meat once sacrificed to idols at the temples, and also had little issue with the sexual immorality that was prevalent in the culture. But the wisdom also in pointing these out would help preserve the Gentiles from straying away from grace. Food and sex were temptations to slip back into pagan idolatry. The other benefit to observing these requirements were to promote the unity among Gentile and Jewish believers. The Jews truly detested these practices, and may avoid the Gentiles who did these things.

The Gentiles, all believers actually, even the Jewish believers, have Christian liberty. These directives would help the Gentiles, who were free from keeping the law of Moses, from offending the Jews, some of who still strictly observed the law. It was a way to practice brotherly love, to avoid causing a brother to stumble. We have Christian liberty say, to drink a glass of wine or eat meat. But if someone is terribly conscience-stricken by it, and believes that wine or meat would offend God – it would be the brotherly thing to do to avoid wine and meat when eating with that person. Otherwise you would cause him to be tempted to drink wine and eat meat, and violate his own conscience, which could lead him into sin. In v.21 James says, “For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” What he’s saying is, that these requirements should not even be a huge burden for the Gentiles, because they might already have already heard of them. Either the Gentiles went to the synagogues with the Jews, or they were around Jewish believers to have an idea of their customs.

The four requirements that James suggested are also a summary of the law of Moses, found in Deut 17-18. Although God’s law cannot save us, God’s law is not bad. In the beginning of the passage, the Judaizers were trying to make the law a way to salvation. This is not the proper use of the law. But the law in and of itself is not bad. We should not look for the law to save us, but we should understand the proper uses of the law and have a proper respect for them. One use of the law is to drive us to despair of our sins, which then points us to Christ for salvation. For unbelievers, the law condemns them as lawbreakers, hopefully so that they may run to Christ for the free gift of righteousness. Another use of God’s law is to maintain order in society. I don’t know if anyone here remembers a time when the Ten Commandments were posted in every school in America. But by the time I was in grade school I think they were being taken down. God’s commands to honor God, do not worship images, do not use his name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy, honor mother and father, to not murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony and covet helped to restrain sin. Imagine if we started to live again by those ideals in America, even in Chicago.

One last uses of the law is to help us to grow in the image of Christ. Again, the law does not save us or make us righteous, the gospel does that. For believers, there is no more condemnation from the law. Instead the law will show us we are not perfect, much is still required, and hopefully turn us to Christ for help in keeping the law. In this way, the law also makes us humble, as we acknowledge our weaknesses. When we are saved, we are free from the bondage to sin. Before we were saved, we had no help in obeying or keeping the law. For those who are saved in Christ, they are free – free to obey the law, free to serve God, and they are given much needed assistance from the Holy Spirit. The law is not required for salvation, but when we are saved we are all the more encouraged to walk according to God’s law. Gal 5:6 says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” God’s law can be summed up in two commands: love God & love your neighbor. By faith we can carry out God’s law, expressing itself through love.

The question of salvation has now been resolved. It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, no other burden is necessary. Now an official decree, a formal letter has been written and sent out to the Gentile churches. In the letter was a denouncement of the men who were troubling the churches, followed by a commendation of Paul and Barnabas, who risked their lives for the Lord. Judas and Silas, leaders among believers in the Jerusalem church were sent with the letter to confirm the message. We will see Silas play a greater role in the gospel later on. Their presence, along with the commendation of Paul and Barnabas, authenticates and validates the letter sent from Jerusalem. This reverses the confusion caused at the beginning by the unauthorized visitors from Judea. Notice also in verse 28, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.” The message of salvation by grace, and not by works was also confirmed and validated by the Holy Spirit, by God himself, as the truth and the true will of God.

When the church read the letter, they were glad for its encouraging message. The believers were encouraged this time by the visitors, and not burdened or discouraged. God’s grace should encourage us. Jesus says in Matt 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Through this message of grace, the church continued to flourish and grow. The word of the Lord continued to be preached, and notice in v.35, “But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.” Perhaps this many others may include growing Gentile believers. The church at Antioch was becoming mature.

What does it mean to you to be saved? How can you be saved? We must realize our good works cannot save us. We cannot think that because we’re good people and we don’t do anything bad that we’re going to get to heaven. Unbelievers live under the judgment and condemnation of God because of their sins. But God has shown the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved. We simply need to look and live. Look to Jesus and live! Thank God that there’s not more required. I urge you, do not wait while your life is in danger, while the flames of hell burn beneath you, Christ is ready to rescue you. Salvation through Christ is not our own doing, but it is the gift of God, so that no one may boast, and that God may receive all the glory.   And when we are saved, he gives us even more grace. Jude 24-25 says, “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” God gives us more grace to keep us from stumbling, and presents us to himself with great joy. God delights in our salvation – “to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.”

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