Monday, May 26, 2014

SOLA GRATIA (Acts Chapter 15)

Acts 15:11, “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Acts Chapter 15 records the events surrounding the calling of a council in Jerusalem to debate a matter of utmost importance to the future health and growth of the early church.  The matter under debate had been a festering concern for some Jewish believers regarding their Gentile counterparts.  The decision made by the council would have serious repercussions one way or the other.

Some Jewish Christians were teaching their Gentile brethren that it was necessary for them to be circumcised to be saved (Cf. Acts 15:1).  That was at the heart of the debate and question.  “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2) and were subsequently sent with some others to Jerusalem to seek council from the apostles and elders (Cf. Acts 15:2).  On their arrival in Jerusalem they were welcomed by the church, “but some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5).

Before proceeding to that which happened in the council, it would be good for us to consider the relevance of the matter which was being debated.  Is salvation entirely by grace, or is there something that man must or can do to contribute to it?  That’s a question which would henceforth occupy much of that which the Apostle Paul wrote about in his epistles.  The book of Galatians centers on this very theme.  Paul’s warning regarding a “gospel contrary to the one we preached to you” was a warning regarding a “grace + works” gospel (Cf. Galatians 1:8).  In the rest of the epistle he explains why such a gospel is contrary to “the grace of Christ” (Cf. Galatians 1:6).  Likewise, the book of Ephesians emphasizes the “grace-alone” nature of salvation (Cf. Ephesians chapters 1-3).  You will find the same teaching and emphasis throughout Paul’s epistles.  Ephesians 2:8-9 summarizes the matter, “For by grace you are saved though faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The question of whether salvation is by grace alone or by “grace + works” was at the heart of what gave rise to the Protestant Reformation.  “Sola gratia” was one of five “sola” statements that were established to summarize the Reformers' basic beliefs during the Protestant Reformation.  The phrase is a Latin term meaning “grace alone.”  

The question of salvation by grace or by grace + works is one thing that distinguishes false teaching from Biblical Christianity.  The false religions all teach that there are things that man can do to accomplish his or her salvation.  That’s a way of thinking that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve’s response to their sin.  They saw themselves naked and “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7).  But their “fig-leaf” approach to solving their problem was woefully inadequate.  By grace God subsequently clothed them with garments He Himself made (Cf. Genesis 3:21).  The only way by which any “dead in the trespasses and sins” person can be saved is by “his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:1, 7).

The Jerusalem Council listened to “much debate” (Acts 15:7).  Then Peter stood up and spoke to his own experience in witnessing the “by grace” salvation of the Gentiles (Cf. Acts 15:7-11).  Paul and Barnabas then “related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12).  Then James spoke and referenced the prophecy of Amos (Cf. Amos 9:11-12) which spoke to God’s inclusion of the Gentiles.  In the end, the council affirmed that salvation is by grace, but encouraged the Gentile believers to refrain from sexual immorality and disputed matters which would trouble their Jewish brethren (Cf. Acts 15:19-21; 15:28-29).  Then they sent some men out with a letter from the council regarding their decision (Cf. Acts 15:22-29).  The believers in Antioch gathered to hear what the letter said.  “And when they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement” (Acts 15:31).  In a salvation by “sola gratia” we all have good reason to rejoice.

No comments: