Are You Saved By Law Or Grace? (Part 1)

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[SLIDE 1] Introduction
If you have your Bible, then I would invite you to turn to Acts 15:1-21. (READ)
Today, we’re going to begin spending three Sundays answering this vital question: “Are You Saved By Law Or Grace?”
In other words, are you saved by obeying and keeping the law? Are good deeds and being good add to your salvation and grant you entrance into heaven?
OR are you saved by grace? Saved by the unmerited favour of God shown to sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ?
This may be a rhetorical question because you may already know the answer. So, why am I spending several Sundays talking about this?
I have three reasons:
First, Acts 15:1-35 directly addresses this question.
Second, by the providence of God, it just so happens that we’re covering this passage around the time of October 31st.
You may be asking, “You mean Halloween? What does this passage have to do with Halloween or trick or treat?” The truth is…this passage has nothing to do with what our culture celebrates.
[SLIDE 2] However, this passage does address a significant event that happened at least 500 years ago, which some Christians may have forgotten or just don’t know, which is the Protestant Reformation. So, I want to spend a Sunday talking about the Reformation and its significance for us.
Third, there is a sufficient number of professing evangelicals/Christians that get the answer of this question wrong. [SLIDE 3] Ligonier Ministry, the ministry that was founded by the late R.C. Sproul, conducted a research known as “The State Of Theology.” The purpose is to survey the theological landscape of America. So, this survey was given to thousands of evangelicals to answer.
In the survey, this question was asked as follows: “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”
24% strongly disagree
16% somewhat disagree
23% somewhat agree
37% strongly agree
So, 40% of those who claim to be evangelicals disagree. That’s about 4/10 people.
To put it into perspective, let’s say that an evangelical church like OBC has about 100 official members. If we take in the result of the survey, hypothetically speaking, that’s about 40% who may not know how to answer the question, “Are you saved by law or grace?”
What this might imply is something that’s greatly alarming: Almost half of professing evangelicals might not be truly born-again.
So, those are my three reasons why I’m going to have us think about this question for three Sundays: Are you saved by law or grace?
[SLIDE 4] Our passage begins with some men who went to the Antioch Church and were rocking their boat, if you will.
After all that God had done in saving the Gentiles through the gospel, these men from Judea came and were teaching the believers in Antioch, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you CANNOT be saved.”
Now, who were these men that came down from Judea?
Apparently, these men belonged to the Jerusalem church where the twelve apostles were at. [SLIDE 5] James speaks later on and says:
Acts 15:24 (ESV)
24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,
It is quite possible that these specific men were false believers.
In Paul’s letters, these Jewish men were known as “the circumcision party” or the Judaizers because they adhere to a false teaching that you need to follow the law (i.e. circumcision), become a Jew to be saved. This false teaching is known as “legalism” or “work-based righteousness.”
[SLIDE 6] In the letter to the Galatians, it seems like Paul was describing this event...
Galatians 2:4 (ESV)
4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—
These Judaizers - false believers- sneaked in to spy out on the freedom of the believers at Antioch. James mention that they are “some persons” instead of brothers/believers.
[SLIDE 7] So, they went to the Antioch church and were teaching the Gentile believers that they must be circumcised.
James clarifies that these men were not given authorization from the Jerusalem church to teach this doctrine.
Perhaps, they snuck in without permission to correct the theology and doctrine of the church in Antioch.
What would have caused these men to go all the way to the Antioch church to teach circumcision?
If you are not familiar with circumcision, it means to cut the foreskin off males for ritual purposes. Here’s a brief background:
God introduced this practice back in Genesis 17 when He made a covenant with Abraham.
And God instructed Abraham and his descendents that all male children are to be circumcised, especially 8 days after birth.
The meaning of circumcision was that it would be a sign of national identity, namely, Israel as God’s covenant people.
Remember, they had a Jewish background. They had a particular perspective on the Gentiles coming to know Christ.
In their thinking, they believe that Gentiles must become Jewish first before they can be saved. They must be circumcised to be included in the church.
The fact that Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised in order to be saved may have offended them and their Judaism.
They believed that God has given the Jews the law of Moses, and it was necessary and essential for everyone to keep it without taking shortcuts.
So, failing to keep the law of Moses and circumcision is an utter disobedience to God and His revelation.
If one were to fail to obey God’s Word in the Old Testament, then how can one claim to be saved?
If you think about it, it sounds like a persuasive and convincing argument on the doctrine of salvation.
However…biblical Christianity teaches that salvation is by grace. If that’s true…then...

[SLIDE 8] Salvation By Grace Must Be Contended

Jude 3 ESV
3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
Christians may get tempted to allow error to slide in the church. We may not feel the need to confront false teachings lest we offend people and sound negative, but being complacent is a dangerous position to the unity and health of the church.
[SLIDE 9] What the Jews taught caused quite a stir and commotion in the church. So, Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissention and debate with them.” In other words, they had an intense and heated debate.
Why were they debating with each other?
It is because the men from Judea were teaching that you must be circumcised in order to be saved. This was contrary to the teaching of Paul and Barnabas because they have been preaching to the Gentiles that you’re saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
One teaches that keeping the law and doing good deeds will save you. Another teaches that salvation is a free gift of God and that you are to receive this gift by trusting in Christ and what He has done on the cross.
Two completely different teachings on how a sinner can be saved and spend eternity with God in heaven.
Now, Christians in history have debated and disagreed on a lot of theological issues.
First, Baptists and Presbyterians have disagreed on baptism. Is it immersion or sprinkling? Can babies be baptized or can only believers in the Lord Jesus get baptized?
Second, all Christians agree that Jesus Christ will come back the 2nd time to establish the New Heaven and New Earth. However, Christians have disagreed on the fine details of the End Times. Are Christians currently living in the millennium or will there be a future millennial kingdom? When will the Rapture happen?
Third, Christians have disagreed and quarrelled over the colour of the carpet.
Now, the examples that I have provided are, what some would label as, secondary or tertiary issues that have no bearing on a Christian’s salvation. While I do have a position and can make a biblical case for each of them, those who have different views are still my brothers and sisters in Christ and still proclaim the true gospel.
However, Paul and Barnabas’ debate with these men were far from being a non-essential issue. It’s a primary issue. It’s a fundamental issue. It’s a gospel issue. It’s the essential of the faith.
That’s because this issue deals with how a sinner can be saved.
[SLIDE 10] The difference between sound doctrine and false doctrine on the matter of salvation is the difference between eternal life and eternal condemnation.
The Bible teaches that there is only one singular way for a sinner to be saved. [SLIDE 11] And it is summarized nicely in Ephesians 2:8-9
Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV)
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Now, this didn’t mean that the Jews didn’t believe that Jesus died for your sins to be saved.
These Jews, however, believed that you need to obey the law of Moses in order to be saved.
[SLIDE 12] In other words, salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus PLUS obedience to the law of Moses and getting circumcised.
Now, if the Jews were correct in verse 1 and Gentiles have to be circumcised, then there are huge implications.
If the Jews were right, then that puts Paul and Barnabas in the position of false teaching because they never taught that the Gentiles have to be circumcised, but that they’re to place their faith in Jesus (Acts 13:38-39).
If the Jews were right, then Paul and Barnabas have not been truly representing God and sent out by the Holy Spirit to the mission field.
If the Jews were right, then faith is NOT ENOUGH to save a sinner, but the keeping of the law of Moses.
If the Jews were right, then what Christ has done on the cross to save sinners wasn’t sufficient.
If the Jews were right, then what does that say about all the Gentiles around the world and throughout history (past and present)? They are not saved. They are not Christians.
The Apostles and Paul were preaching a false gospel and advancing a false religion.
However, the danger of adding requirements for salvation is that it corrupts and distorts the purity of the true gospel, and it becomes another gospel. Another message of salvation that departs from the Scriptures.
[SLIDE 13] God takes it so seriously that even the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 1:9
Galatians 1:9 (ESV)
9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

[SLIDE 14] Salvation By Grace Must Not Be Compromised

So, this was a serious matter. How would they resolve this contentious issue?
[SLIDE 15] At the end of verse 2, the Antioch church appointed Paul, Barnabas, and others to go to the Jerusalem Church.
Why Jerusalem? It is because Christ’s apostles were there. Since they’re apostles, they can contribute their beliefs to this controversy.
Furthermore, Peter was the one who witnessed the conversion of Gentiles, so he can testify about this matter.
It is also because that’s where the Judaizers came from.
Moreover, this issue was way too critical to be left at a local level.
Therefore, the Jerusalem Council was formed to discuss this matter and come to a consensus/unity on this question: Is Salvation by Law or Grace? Do Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be saved?
So, in verse 3, as they were going to Jerusalem, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria.
It seems like they stopped by on the way to share with them the conversion of the Gentiles.
Unlike the Jews, these Christians were rejoicing greatly.
They were enthusiastic about what God has been doing in saving Gentiles.
This support would affirm that Paul and Barnabas were on the right side of history.
Luke probably inserted this text as a subtle way to set the tone for the Jerusalem council.
After travelling for at least 400 km, they arrived to Jerusalem and were welcomed by the Christians and the church leadership: Apostles and Elders.
This gave Paul and Barnabas the opportunity to testify and declare all that God had done with them.
However, in verse 5, some Jewish believers in the Jerusalem Church counter their testimony with this statement: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
And I would suggest that this group is different from the ones in verse 1.
Luke identifies them as believers, but they used to be Pharisees, who were religious leaders.
They were the traditionalists and had a very conservative form of Judaism.
We probably can sympathize with them.
When you became a Christian, that didn’t mean all of your past experiences disappeared. You had a particular viewpoint. You had biases and traditions.
You looked at Christianity and the Bible from a set of lenses of your past experiences, human philosophy, or politics. You did not get all your doctrines and theology down perfectly.
And it takes time for believers to have their minds renewed and be more biblically-minded. This requires a lot of teaching and instruction in the church.
[SLIDE 16] Now, we move towards verses 6-12. This is where Peter, Paul, and Barnbas will give their testimony on the conversion of the Gentiles.
After the hearing the controversy, the twelve apostles and the elders of the church assembled to consider this matter.
And at the beginning of verse 7, it tells us that there’s been much debate.
Now, I wish Luke did a big favour for all of us, and that is to record for us what they debated about.
We would love to hear what transpired behind the scenes.
How did they debate with each other? What did they say to each other?
This might have been helpful to learn from in church leadership.
How should church leaders debate and discuss controversial topics?
Now, I’m not God of course, and He’s the One who inspired the Word.
But, Luke under the guidance of the Holy Spirit did record for us what’s said at the council.

[SLIDE 17] Salvation By Grace Is Conclusive

Henceforth, we hear Peter’s speech in verses 7-11.
[SLIDE 18] Peter’s main point is that it was GOD who initiated the work of salvation in the Gentiles, not him nor anybody. If anyone has issues with Gentiles being saved and included, then they are to take that to God.
This text describes Peter’s testimony that occurred back in Acts 10 where he proclaimed the gospel to the Gentiles, such as Cornelius.
Base on Peter’s experience, we can confirm that salvation is by grace because Cornelius and the Gentiles did not get circumcised.
Peter also brings in a divine witness, which God Himself.
Peter saw God giving the Gentiles the Holy Spirit without the need for circumcision.
Thus, the gift of the Holy Spirit confirms that salvation is by grace.
God accepted the Gentiles as Gentiles (not as Jews) who can be included into the family of God.
God showed no partiality. He made no distinction in the salvation of the Jews and the Gentiles.
Peter saw God cleansing their hearts by faith. It can also mean that their sins have been forgiven by God through the shed blood of Christ.
Thus, the cleansing of the heart confirms that salvation is by grace.
Peter would then interrogate them with a question in verse 10: “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”
The idea of testing God is a strong warning. It should not be sweeped under the rug as if it’s not a big deal. It should remind the Jews about what happened to their forefathers when they tested God in the wilderness.
The Israelites were complaining and failed to trust God and follow His ways and obey His will.
What happened? They tested God’s patience and goodness.
When Peter accuses them for testing God, how did they do so?
By placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples (namely, the Gentiles) that the Jews failed to bear.
If the Jews failed to bear the yoke, then why force the Gentiles to bear it?
Therefore, since the Jews and Gentiles cannot bear the burden of keeping the law, their salvation has to be by grace, not by keeping the law.
However, it is not just circumcision that they’re to keep, but the whole law, which all failed to do.
Just like the Israelites in the OT who complained and didn’t trust God, they are not trusting that God can save Gentiles without circumcision.
I would also add that keeping the law is not just an outward or external performance. God also requires you to obey at the heart level because ultimately God looks at your heart.
Jesus pointed this out in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Pharisees prided themselves on keeping the Law, but they were viewing it externally. They had never been unfaithful to their wives. However, Jesus said that if they had ever lusted in their hearts after another woman, they had broken God’s law.
By breaking one law, you have broken the whole law.
If you want to be saved by law, then you must keep the whole law PERFECTLY and WITHOUT breaking it even once.
Perhaps, you do not follow the law, but you can replace the law with being a decent and good person in society. For instance, you think you can be saved by doing good and being religious to try and merit your own salvation. If that’s you, then you must be perfectly good without any stain of sin in your life.
The Bible teaches that no one is good, no not even one. And nobody has ever kept the law perfectly, except for One Man, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, for us...

[SLIDE 19] Salvation By Law Is Impossible

So, in verse 11, Peter concludes his speech with a confession of faith. [SLIDE 20] It’s not an individual confession of faith, but it’s a corporate confession: “We believe.”
Now, James Montgomery Boice made an insightful commentary on this singular verse.
[SLIDE 21] He said the words of Peter in verse 11 are the most gracious. “Why is that so gracious? It is because Peter, the Jew, would normally have said it the other way around. He would have said, “We believe that they can be saved by grace through faith, just like us.” That is, they can be like us. But that was the issue. Did they have to become “like us” or not? Because he knew the answer to that question, Peter turned it around, saying, “We believe that by grace even we Jews can be saved, just like the Gentiles.”
Which is salvation by grace.
[SLIDE 22] Afterwards, the apostles and elders were silent and have no rebuttal. And then Barnabas and Paul start speaking up.
Their testimony supports and affirms the experience of Peter’s ministry to the Gentiles.
They most likely shared their report regarding their 1st missionary journey in Acts 13-14.
God working miracles in the midst of the Gentiles also affirm that salvation is by grace.
[SLIDE 23] However, there is one more speech that’s going to be given in the Jerusalem Council. After Peter, Paul, and Barnabas finished speaking, James steps in to give a final speech.
This may be confusing to some of you, but there were multiple James who were connected to Jesus Christ.
There was the Apostle James who was the son of Zebedee, a brother of Apostle John. However, he was killed by Herod back in Acts 12:2.
This James was most likely the half-brother of Jesus. He’s the same James that most likely wrote the letter of James.
He’s the leading elder of the Jerusalem Church. And he represents the Jewish Christians collectively. He’s probably the most Jewish and traditional in this room.
As a respectable and balanced man, he acknowledges Peter’s testimony (who’s also called Simeon) and recognizes that God has taken the Gentiles to be His people.
[SLIDE 24] And Luke records for us something that James did that Peter, Paul, and Barnabas did not do, which is to provide Scriptural evidence and support in verses 15-18.
Perhaps, during the debate, James might have been listening to various sides of the discussion while he was searching the Scriptures, particular what the prophets of the Old Testament have said about this matter.
And he quotes from Amos 9:11-12.
Now, this text is challenging to interpret. Time doesn’t permit me to get into all the details.
The main point of quoting from Amos is to clearly communicate that God will save those outside of the community of Israel without first becoming Jewish.
[SLIDE 25] If God has spoken about this matter, then therefore, in James’ judgment, we must not oppose God and we must not oppose Scripture.
And we must not trouble the Gentiles by adding extra prerequisites for them to turn to God for salvation.
In reverse, however, James also requests the Gentiles that they’re not to trouble the Jews and hurt their fellowship with the them by participating in the matters listed out in verse 20-21.
This is not a doctrinal issue, but a practical issue when it comes to how Gentiles and Jews are to fellowship with one another in the same gathering.
While the Gentiles have freedom in Christ by not becoming Jewish, they’re not to use their freedom to offend the Jews who want to maintain their consciences and practices as Jews.
[SLIDE 26] Application / Conclusion
In summary, what the situation at the Jerusalem Council has taught us is that salvation is by grace, and not by law.
Salvation by grace must be contended.
Salvation by grace must not be compromised.
Salvation by grace is conclusive.
Salvation by law is impossible.
[SLIDE 27] What is amazing about salvation by grace is that Christianity is the only religion in the world that teaches that message.
You study and learn different world religions. While they’re different in their practices and teachings, the foundational substance remains the same:
You must do something good and be a good person and HOPE to go to a better place in the afterlife.
But true biblical Christianity teaches that salvation does not depend on you because you are a sinner who have fallen short of the glory of God. Salvation is dependent upon the grace of God (the free gift of salvation) given to you through Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ lived the perfect life that you have failed to live.
Jesus Christ obeyed the whole law perfectly that you have failed to live.
So that He can become the perfect sacrifice for your sins.
So that He can pay the penalty of your sins.
So that He can satisfy the wrath of God on your behalf.
Buried, and raised to consequer sin on your behalf.
Christ did all of that because of His grace. It’s His gift for you that you absolutely do not deserve because you’re a transgressor. But He went to the cross so that He can redeem you if you repent and place your trust in what He has done for you.
And when you truly believe and understand that salvation is indeed by grace and not by works, you will be humbled and in awe at the amazing grace of God that saved a wretch like you. And God will transform your heart and you will have the desire to live for him.
So, will you come to Christ this morning? Will you humble yourself and confess your faith just like Peter, “we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
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