(Act 15:11 ESV) 11 “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
We don’t really believe that, do we? Just a two weeks ago, I spoke to someone who’d been a member of our congregation for over 50 years, and he told me that he’d never felt saved until this year.
We’ve been teaching grace for decades — from the pulpit and in the classes — and yet we have members who’ve been here for decades who don’t feel saved because they just can’t escape the legalism they grew up on.
Here’s the deal. Until we accept that we really are saved by grace — not just at baptism but for our entire lives — we’re doomed to misery.
But Peter wasn’t speaking to Jews who doubted their salvation. Their problem is that they were too sure that they merited salvation. He was speaking to the arrogant who believed they actually got the rules right!
You see, when we’re taught a works-based salvation, we either respond with a plea for mercy, feeling utterly inadequate, or we respond by concluding that surely we deserve our salvation. We’re either miserable and defeated or arrogant and insufferable.
Grace allows us to be honest about who we really are (we don’t deserve our salvatoin; it’s a free gift) and yet see the good in us that God put there. We don’t have to pretend that we’ve got it all together. And we don’t have to pretend that we can’t do anything at all for God. Rather, we can be completely honest with ourselves and with God. No more pretending.
Race and scruples
Grace means that no one gets in by virtue of his race and no one is excluded by virtue of his race. It’s based on faith in Jesus as Messiah.
Therefore, the notion of “white” and “black” churches in the same town is deeply, deeply sinful and anti-gospel. It totally misunderstands God’s will. It is a parody of Christianity.
The easier thing for Paul and James to have done would have been to establish separate congregations so that no one had to put up with anyone else’s annoying scruples and cultural peculiarities. But they struggled valiantly to avoid exactly that. There’s only one church — and unity comes not from perfect agreement on opinions but from love, forbearance, and tolerance of those both on our left and our right.
God is in control. He doesn’t have to follow the patterns and rules we construct in an effort to fit him into our puny minds. In fact, God seems to take a certain delight in surprising his children. He loves irony.
It was God’s idea that a Roman soldier be the first Gentile convert. It was God’s idea that Peter be forced to show hospitality to another Roman soldier. It was God’s idea that Peter — the apostle to the Jews — preach salvation for the Gentiles in Jerusalem. It was God’s idea to baptize Cornelius with the Spirit before he was baptized with water — to force Peter’s hand. You see, God broke his own pattern to demonstrate a far more important pattern: that faith in Jesus saves, even the Gentiles.
We’ll, of course, get much more thorough instructions on the Law and gospel in Romans and Galatians, but some elements appear clearly here in Acts —
* Obedience to the Law of Moses is not an element of salvation. Salvation is by faith.
* Christian leaders should be very, very guarded against any effort to slip legalism into the church, that is, the idea that there are “tests of fellowship” and “salvation issues” other than faith in Jesus (“faith” being understood as I’ve taught here many times before, that is, as including trust and faithfulness/repentance). We can’t become legalists to create unity. We can’t become legalists to get along.
* However, love compels us to be respectful of the scruples of others — so long as they don’t bind them as tests of fellowship. That is, scruples can be honored if they don’t divide the church. But division over scruples is sin.
It’s a fine line, and never, ever about the desire of one faction to exert power over the other. It’s never “You must do this or I’ll leave.” Rather, it’s more, “Please, don’t make me violate my scruples so I am not forced to sin by staying.” The idea of separating or leaving over something other than the core of our faith should be unthinkable.
However, no one can complain that they are “forced to sin” by being in fellowship with someone they disagree with over scruples. That would be anti-gospel. We all sin. We’re going to disagree over some issues. And we have to be in full fellowship with those we disagree with — even if they seem unclean to us.
We struggle to understand portions of Acts because they centered their Christian lives around table fellowship. We center it around the song service and the sermon. We think the Lord’s Supper is theologically important but not important enough to spend any real effort on it. We hurry past it or dawdle over it, but we don’t work very hard at doing it well.
As we see throughout Paul’s epistles, eating together was a key part of the Christian experience. Consider —
(Gal 2:12 ESV) 12 For before certain men came from James, [Peter] was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.
(Rom 14:21 ESV) 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.
(1Co 11:33 ESV) 33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another–
(1Co 5:11 ESV) 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one.
Can you imagine the elders announcing that we are not to eat with a disfellowshipped Christian? This would rarely cause the sinner any pain because no one would have ever eaten with him!
Peter stood condemned(!) for refusing to eat with Gentiles. That is, he didn’t deny their salvation. He didn’t preach them into hell. Rather, to please the “conservatives,” he simply refused to be seen eating with them — and thereby contradicted the gospel.
These aren’t easy lessons to apply because our denominational culture is so very anti-gospel at times. You see, rather than being about love and accommodating differences, it’s become about power and imposing one party’s will on the other.
And power and feeling superior are addictive. There are plenty of good reasons to disagree about all sorts of things, but pride, the desire to feel superior to others, and an unwillingness to admit error aren’t good reasons to hold to any position. Any position.
Imagine how Peter felt when God told him to go see Cornelius. He’d been running from Jesus’ command to preach to the Gentiles for years. He was desperately trying to hold on to his identity as a faithful Jew. He wanted the pleasure of refusing to associate with Gentiles. And he wanted the approval of his friends and fellow church members.
When he went to preach to Cornelius, he gave up a lot — all for the sake of Jesus. He was criticized by his brothers in Christ and fellow Jews. He was caught up in controversy and disagreement. He surely lost many good friends in the process.
And if he’d not done it, we Gentiles would still be damned.