This was probably the biggest theological debate the early church faced, and it was a critical one.
Paul and Barnabas had been taking the gospel to the Gentiles, but not everyone was happy about the gospel they were preaching. They were telling the Gentiles (and Jews),
Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. (13:38-39)
But not all the Jewish believers, particularly those who belonged to the party of the Pharisees, could fully accept this. Yes, they believed in the forgiveness of sins through Christ, but they added an additional requirement, that Gentiles be circumcised as Jews and follow all the requirements of the law.
I like how the ESV puts the situation.
Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them. (2)
I can bet there was no small dissension between these men.
And so a great council was held in Jerusalem to discuss the question. First, Paul and Barnabas talked about about all that God had done among the Gentiles. Then the Pharisees stood up and basically said, “That’s all well and good, but they still have to be circumcised and follow all the Jewish laws.”
That set off a round of heated discussion.
I can only imagine the conflict going on in Peter’s heart. On one hand, he had been born and raised a Jew, following as best as he could the law of Moses. It was still probably hard for him to accept completely God’s message of grace to the Gentiles, and he probably sympathized with these Pharisees. But it was he who had opened this can of worms in the first place by taking the gospel to Cornelius. And through these discussions, he probably went through the same war in his mind that he had when God first told him in a vision to kill and eat from the unclean animals and to not call, “unclean” what God had made clean.
But ultimately, it was those words, and the lesson that God shows no distinction between Jew and Gentile (Acts 1:34-35) that swayed Peter. And finally he spoke out saying,
God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are. (8-11)
That quieted everyone, and lent more impact to Paul and Barnabas’ words when they reiterated their experiences with Gentiles. Then James confirmed it all by quoting from scripture all that had been said, and with that all objections died.
What can we get from this? Simply this: it is by the grace of God alone that we are saved. We’re not saved by Christ’s work and our work. We are not saved, as the Mormons would put it, “by grace after we’ve done all we can do.” Nor are we saved by grace plus all we can do.
We are accepted by God because of Christ’s work alone.
Like Peter, though, we often struggle with this idea. And because of it, we find ourselves struggling with God’s acceptance of us because we’re not “good enough.” Or worse, we start looking down on others because they’re not “good enough.”
The truth is that none of us are worthy of salvation. That is in fact the whole point of grace. That though none of us are worthy, through the blood Christ shed on the cross, we are made right with God, We don’t have to worry about making ourselves worthy before God. We are already acceptable in his eyes.
Do you believe that? Do you really believe God accepts you?
Never forget the words of Paul who said,
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)