“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” (Acts 15:1–2)
The LORD’s justification of sinners is by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus alone to the glory of God alone. This is the heart of the Gospel. To oppose this is no small dissension or debate.
Romans 3:21-26 says, “21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
False teachers have always sought to approach God on the basis of something they can accomplish. In seeking to rest on their own laurels and self-righteousness, they effectively deny that God declares sinners righteous before Him solely on the basis of His sovereign grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.
To explain it another way, the sinner is justified by good works. However, the good works by which the sinner is redeemed, reconciled and justified before God is not their own works, but rather solely the work of Jesus Christ.
In the aftermath of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas encountered this heresy of justification being other than by grace alone, through faith alone, in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. It arose concerning the question of whether converted Gentiles must subsequently be circumcised in order to be truly justified before God.
Certain Jewish men from Judea came to Antioch and began teaching the Gentile believers that unless they were circumcised according to the Old Testament Law, they could not be saved. In other words, the visitors from Judea were teaching that justification was not by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. Some other work, in this context circumcision, had to be contributed for justification to be real. However, this teaching contradicted the apostles.
Dr. R. C. Sproul writes that, “Peter did not require Cornelius’ party to be circumcised, only baptized as Jesus commanded (Acts 10:47-48; Matthew 28:19). Paul taught Gentiles that justification is by faith alone (Acts 13:39). And God initiated both these outreaches and attested to Peter and Paul’s doctrine by sending the Holy Spirit on uncircumcised God-fearers and Gentiles.”
Acts 15:2 says, “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” Paul and Barnabas had a heated quarrel and dispute with the visitors from Judea about what they were teaching. It was then decided to send Paul, Barnabas, and others from Antioch to the apostles and church elders in Jerusalem to resolve this issue.
Justification is always by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. However, justification is not without the resulting works of the Holy Spirit within and through the lives of believers (Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 2:12-13; James 2:14-26). The Bible calls this sanctification (I Thessalonians 4:1-8). Sanctification is evidence that a believer is truly justified and never the basis by which a believer is justified.
Soli deo Gloria!