The grace message is controversial today. Some preachers emphasize that we are saved by grace. Other preachers urge believers to live holy lives. Often the supporters of these two viewpoints clash. Grace preachers accuse holiness preachers of preaching the Law. Holiness preachers warn those who preach “radical grace” that their message is unbalanced and that they are soft on sin. Others still try to combine the two views by saying that salvation comes by grace, but sanctification comes by continual effort to do what is right.
These conflicting views and the heated debates erupting from them should not surprise those in the church today. After all, it is no new controversy. The roots of these arguments go all the way back to the first century church. One group within the early church were called the “Judaizers” (they were also called “The Circumcision Group” or “the sect of the Pharisees”). This group taught that Gentile Christians should follow the Law of Moses. Another group, led by Paul, emphasized that salvation comes by faith, and not by adhering in any way to the works of the Law.
The two groups and their leaders met in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. Let’s peek in on their meeting and listen to what might have been said.
A former Pharisee stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and command them to keep the Law of Moses.”
Peter shared his testimony, “God gave me the vision of a sheet full of unclean animals. God told me, ‘Take and eat.’ At first, I did not want to obey, but God repeated the instruction three times. Because of that vision, I went and ministered among the Gentiles. Many of them were saved. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, just as the Jews were. Both the Jews and the Gentiles are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
James who was the chairman of the meeting said, “Paul, give us a report on what has been happening in Antioch.”
Paul stood up and shared, “The Holy Spirit has moved among the Gentiles in Antioch and many have been saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has worked many miracles and wonders among the Gentile believers.”
A Jewish believer interrupted Paul with an objection, “The problem is when Gentile believers invite Jewish believers over to their houses to partake of the Lord’s Supper—the Jewish believers do not know if the food they are eating is kosher. Some Gentiles eat food that has been sacrificed to idols or even eat meat that still has blood in it.”
One of the former Pharisees spoke up with anger in his voice, “The only solution is to force Gentile believers to fully keep the Law of Moses.”
Paul replied calmly, “I used to be a Pharisee myself. In keeping the Law of Moses, I was blameless. But the Law did not save me. I was saved by faith in Jesus Christ, not by my pitiful attempt to keep the Law.”
The Jewish believer had another comment, “But the Law must be kept—it is what makes us holy. If we tell people there is no Law, what will stop believers from lying, or stealing, or fornicating with another man’s wife?”
Paul explained, “If they live according to the Spirit, they will not satisfy the lusts of the flesh. We are made holy through the grace of God. If we require Gentile converts to be circumcised and to keep the Law, then we place them in the same bondage we used to be in ourselves.”
The Jewish believer is horrified, “But the Gentiles eat pork—we would contaminate ourselves if we ate at their table. We would be unholy.”
Paul continued, “When Peter first came to visit Antioch, he freely ate at the table with the Gentiles. But then one of ‘the Circumcision Group’ came to Antioch and Peter stopped eating with the Gentile believers. This caused great confusion.”
James spoke up, “I think Peter did the right thing. It would be wrong for him to flout the laws of God.”
Paul spoke again, “It was hypocritical of Peter to eat with the Gentiles and then to withdraw from eating with them. Either salvation comes by works of the Law or it comes through faith in Christ. The truth is that neither the Jew nor the Greek can become righteous before God by observing the Law. So, why should we ask them to keep the Law if it cannot make them righteous?”
Peter repented: “I never should have pulled back from fellowshipping with the Gentile believers. Sometimes it is difficult for me to understand what Paul says, but I agree with him, salvation comes by grace. We must not put a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear.”
Having heard all the arguments, James had the last word, “I think we should allow the Gentiles to turn to God without troubling them by forcing them to keep the Law. But, it does seem good to me that we ask them to stay away from food sacrificed to idols, and bloody meat, and sexual immorality.” At the Jerusalem council, grace was extended to everyone.