At the close of the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas “sailed back to Antioch ... After they arrived and gathered the church together, they reported everything God had done with them and that he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they spent a considerable time with the disciples” (Acts 14:26–28). It must have been a prolonged and worshipful celebration as with great excitement, the missionaries told and retold the stories of God’s wonderous powers and miraculous provisions, of how people were converted, and how churches were established.
Here we find a cautionary tale. When God’s people obediently submit to God’s direction, Satan often rears his ugly head, attempting to divide, distract, and destroy. While the church at Antioch was worshipping, “some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved’ ”(Acts 15:1).
These false preachers from Jerusalem were emphatically declaring that Gentiles could never be saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone. “In order to be saved,” these tools of the enemy said, “a Gentile must first convert to Judaism. He must be circumcised. He must obey the Law of Moses. He must do something.”
Today, there are those who say one must qualify for the Kingdom by becoming a member of a certain church, by being baptized, or by being sufficiently holy and penitent. In short, one must work his way into heaven… so say the false teachers.
The Apostle Paul didn’t allow these false teachers to go unchecked, but “engaged them in serious argument and debate” (Acts 15:2). Soon, the church appointed Paul, Barnabas and others to “go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this issue”(Acts 15:2).
Theologians and historians call what transpired the “Jerusalem Council.” Paul and Barnabas, along with Peter, John, James the half-brother of Jesus, and other first-century dignitaries of the Christian faith, gathered to define the Gospel. To say that this conference was important is to understate the issue. This was a milestone. Their decision was of supreme importance.
As the council began its deliberations, Peter stood to recount the conversion of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, a Gentile. Peter had led Cornelius and his family to saving faith in Jesus, not by virtue of their righteous efforts, but by faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross. Cornelius’s transformation had come by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone … plus nothing (Acts 10). Nothing! When Peter’s coworkers witnessed the demonstration of divine power and presence, they “were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).
Surely the members of the Jerusalem Council remembered the words of the thief who hung on the cross near Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The convicted felon didn’t ask Jesus to recognize his righteousness or consider his merit. He’d simply begged for mercy. Jesus graciously granted him salvation, full and free.
After much debate, and no doubt with much trusting prayer, James rose to deliver the council’s unanimous decision. “Salvation is not earned by man’s merit but is always and only a generous and gracious gift of God, bought by the blood of Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God and demonstrated by His victorious resurrection from the grave. By grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone!”