Cream or black? This coffee debate exists in every office and breakroom. Coffee connoisseurs bond over the subtle flavors of fresh beans and mock those whose mug is full of milk and sugar. Everyone laughs and returns to work.
There are little to no implications to this debate. Regardless of preference, the day moves forward unhindered and unaffected. The conversation itself isn’t really a debate but a difference of opinion.
There are far more critical conversations. Scripture would argue that there is one conversation that transcends the rest. Acts 15 engages us in the conversation. Verse 2 begins, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” In addition, verse 5 says, “It is necessary…to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
The conflict presented is not a matter of preference but of eternal substance. The question on the table is the source and sustenance of salvation. As readers continue it’s evident that the gospel is at stake, and so is the formation of the early church.
Readers ought to ask Scripture: what’s the nature and implication of this conflict?
The text is clear: circumcision and adherence to the law are proposed methods of earning salvation. In the Old Testament, God gave circumcision as the sign of his covenant to Abraham. God graciously chose and called Abraham to be the father of promise1. Through Abraham, God would send the Messiah to bless the world with salvation.
God’s covenant was contingent on his own character. No sin was great enough to thwart God’s will. Despite years of rebellion, idolatry, and hypocrisy, God provided redemption through Jesus.
The gracious call and covenant promise came before the sign of circumcision2. The gracious call and covenant promise came before the law was given. God’s purpose for circumcision and the moral law was to be external witnesses to an internal reality–a people saved by grace.
The nation of Israel came to believe that those things were the source of their blessing and salvation. Belief in earning salvation follows us into the Book of Acts.
Luke refers to this conflict as “no small dissension” and “debate3.” Disagreement on the issue resulted in the first gathered church council. The council’s posture was not equivalent to coworkers poking fun at another’s coffee preference.
At this point in Acts, we have seen salvation bridge cultural, ethnic, and geographical lines. Story after story, the gospel unites people in Christ. One of the most significant unions occurs between Jews and Gentiles. In Acts 10 God actively intervenes to direct the paths of a Roman leader, Cornelius, and the apostle Peter. In a vision, God showed Peter that the source of spiritual cleansing was grace. Jews understood cleanliness as something physical in order to worship the Lord in the temple. Like circumcision and the law, physical cleanliness represented a spiritual reality. Jews were to regard the presence of God with utmost respect and integrity in recognition of his holiness.
Peter learned that Gentiles were not unclean because of their ethnicity, they were unclean because they needed the gospel, and God was determined to bring it to them.
The salvation of Cornelius was a powerful example of salvation by grace through faith. In Acts 15, however, the Jews believed subsequent circumcision and obedience were necessary for true salvation.
If this is true, Jesus did not accomplish salvation on the cross. The gospel becomes one part of the equation where it’s second is works.
In response to this controversy, Luke records three speech accounts. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas point us to past events (like Cornelius) to show God’s miraculous work of salvation apart from circumcision and adherence to the law. James refers to the prophets to show that grace has always been the means of salvation and the plan has always been for the Gentiles to receive it.
It was paramount that the early church accurately understood this foundational truth. God’s plan for salvation has never changed. From eternity past God’s will has been to save through grace. This was worth debating.
Salvation hinges on the necessity and accuracy of the gospel message. On this message, we do not waver. For our own faith and the faith of others, we ought to proclaim a consistent, unwavering God. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the New Testament. God the Father planned and willed to send his Son into the world to redeem sinners by the power of his Spirit. We are humble recipients of his miraculous grace.