5 “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.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” (Acts 15:5–6)
The Lord may indeed deliver us from a works righteousness system of religion in justifying us by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. However, a remnant of works righteousness may still reside within the believer until it is completely eradicated through the process of sanctification. Such was the case at the Jerusalem Council.
To begin with, we must notice that those who rose up and said “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the Law of Moses” were believers in Christ. They belonged to the party of the Pharisees. They sincerely believed that justified Gentiles had to be circumcised, and to keep the Law of Moses, in order to be truly converted. This debate regarded the essential elements of justification and not sanctification. It was then that the apostles, and the elders of the Jerusalem Church, met together to discuss the matter.
One commentator writes, “Among the Pharisees, the stricter school of Shammai may have prevailed at this time; the school of Hillel, which predominated later, was much more generous toward Gentiles. Other Jews respected Pharisees for their piety, and the Jerusalem church no doubt accorded them high status for their knowledge of the law.”
Dr. Don Carson writes, “The modern reader can only appreciate with difficulty how compelling the argument, ‘unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses you cannot be saved, ‘ would have been to the early Jewish Christians. Centuries of reading the NT writers’ solutions have blunted the sharpness of this question for us. These were people who believed that the God of the Scriptures (there was of course no ‘New Testament’ yet) was the same God who sent Jesus. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the answer to Jewish questions, the fulfilment of the Jewish law and prophets, sent by the same God who sent those laws and prophets. How could a person claim to accept Jesus and the Father who sent him, while refusing to listen to the other things that God had said and asked? It must have appeared, even to those Jewish Christians who were prepared to see ‘even the Gentiles’ (10:45; 11:18) become part of the chosen people, that they should do so completely and become Jews before thinking they could become fulfilled, believing Jews.”
To be sure, this was no insignificant debate. The heart of the Gospel message was at stake. The question remains today. Is the sinner justified by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus alone, or must the sinner contribute something to their justification before God? More to come.
Soli deo Gloria!