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In Acts 15, we encounter a doctrinal disagreement in the early church. For certain Jewish Christians insisted that Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised. They argued that unless the Gentiles were circumcised, they could not be saved. Paul and Barnabas vehemently opposed this teaching, and they were sent to the church in Jerusalem to settle this matter.
Faith + Circumcision or Faith alone?
The issue at stake here was not merely circumcision per se. Paul didn’t oppose the act of circumcision – he himself was circumcised (Phil. 3:5) though he regarded it as of no value (Gal. 5:6), and he himself performed circumcision (Acts 16:3). Rather, Paul fiercely opposed the notion of circumcision being a prerequisite for salvation. For if any work is deemed necessary for salvation, then it entails that salvation is not by faith alone. This contention is at the very heart of the gospel, for to preach circumcision is to add works to the gospel of faith.
The Jerusalem Council
When Paul and Barnabas reach Jerusalem, the church in Jerusalem gathers to settle this matter. After much public debate, Peter convinces the congregation that Paul is right in his contention. Peter says,
“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15: 7b-11, ESV)
Peter’s plea is plain to grasp – if Jews were saved through God’s grace, why wouldn’t Gentiles too be saved by the same grace? To insist that Gentiles should be circumcised to be saved is to assert that God’s grace is insufficient to save the Gentiles. In other words, to preach circumcision is to add meritorious works to the gospel of grace.
Salvation by grace through faith
Peter’s argument can be reformulated as the following syllogism:
- Salvation is by grace alone.
- If salvation is by grace alone, then it is not by meritorious works.
- If salvation is not by meritorious works, then it is by faith alone.
- Therefore, salvation is by faith alone.
Succinctly put, Peter reasons that if salvation is by grace alone then salvation is by faith alone. In other words, Sola Gratia entails Sola Fide. This truth was later codified by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: 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. (Ephesians 2:8,9, ESV)
What then does this imply for us?
Despite the clear teaching of the scriptures, certain actions still tend to be treated as de facto requirements for salvation. Thus, these works become the modern-day counterparts of circumcision in the early church. These works may appear in several forms in various contexts. In a Reformed context, this may be an insistence on a new believer to clearly articulate the gospel. In a charismatic context, a new believer may be required to demonstrate certain spiritual gifts. Even baptism - which our Lord himself ordained - may be portrayed as a prerequisite for salvation in several contexts.
To be clear, this is not to disavow such works, for such works can have a place in the life of a Christian. These works may be obedient responses to the gospel, or self-edifying practices of the Christian, or signs of spiritual maturity. Yet, no matter how befitting they are, these works cannot be prerequisites for salvation.
The simple truth that salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ liberates us from an endless strife to earn our salvation. Our pious acts and our good deeds can never earn us our salvation; Christ’s atoning work alone accomplishes it. As we rely on Him alone for salvation we rejoice and say, ‘Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.’