One of the things that frustrates me the most is labels. Personally, I’ve been called just about everything. The liberals say that I am an evangelical because of my strong preaching of the Gospel and the fact that I believe the Bible to be the complete inspired Word of God. The evangelicals will say that I am a fundamentalist because of my strong preaching against sin. Some will say that I am a Calvinist because I believe in the sovereignty of God. Some say that I am a legalist because of the high standards that I stand for and instruct people to live by. The fundamentalist will claim that I am a liberal because I use versions of the Bible other than the King James and I listen to Christian Contemporary music. So, I guess that makes me a Liberal Evangelical Legalistic Fundamental Calvinist. The thing I never really understood is why we have to put a label on everything and identify ourselves with one group or another. As a matter of fact, when I study scripture, I do not see any indication that there is to be a separation amongst believers in Christ. We are called to be separated from the world, but not separated from each other. However, identification with a certain camp or group is the reality of our day. Unfortunately, though, we have a tendency to label each other. Often times we use terms such as legalist, fundamental, conservative, liberal, evangelical, reformed, and so forth. We tend to throw these words around and call each other this or that when often times we do not even realize what these terms actually mean. This happens most often with the term ‘legalism.’ Have you ever been accused of being a legalist? Have you ever accused someone else of being a legalist? In Acts chapter 15, we see an argument taking place that hits to the core of what real legalism is. Let’s break down this chapter and see what we can learn about legalism.
Conflict over circumcision and the Mosaic Law. Notice what the scripture says in Acts 15:1-5:
1 “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. 3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. 4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. 5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
There was a conflict that occurred amongst believers as to the means of salvation. Some were saying that not only must you believe in Jesus, but you must also be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. This teaching brought great confusion amongst the believers. This is very similar to what many teach even today. There are those in Christian circles that will say that you must be baptized in order to be saved. Some will say that you must speak in tongues in order to really be saved. Still others will go to the extreme of saying that you are not really saved if you were lead to the Lord through a Bible version other than the King James Version. These are examples of true legalism. Often times we will label someone or a certain church as being legalistic when they have different standards of living than we do. We will accuse a preacher of being legalistic when he preaches against specific sins. Brothers and Sisters, this is not what legalism is. Just because you have certain standards for your life, does not mean that you are a legalist. Just because you stand strong against specific sins that plague our society, does not mean that you are a legalist. Legalism is when you add to the Gospel. These certain men from Judaea were adding to the message of the Gospel. They were saying that you must trust in Christ in addition to keeping the law in order to be saved. This adding to the Gospel is very dangerous. Notice what Paul said in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” Anybody who adds to the Gospel is accursed. This is why it is so important that we take the scriptures for what they say. Take the Bible at face value. God said what He said and He means what He said. If God says that Jesus died for the sins of the whole word, then Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. If God says that Jesus is the only way to salvation, then Jesus is the only way to salvation. If God says is it is by grace through faith that we are saved, then it is by grace through faith that we are saved. Let the Bible speak for itself. We do not have to add to it. God gave us a complete revelation of Himself and His plan and His Gospel in the written Word of God. There is no need to add to what God has already said. A legalist is simply one who adds to Gospel.
The Jerusalem council. In response to this confusion, the apostles and elders come together to discuss how they should respond to what these people were teaching. Look at Acts 15:6-21.
6 “And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; 9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. 12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14 Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. 18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.”
After some of the Pharisees gave their argument that those who believe in Jesus must also keep the Law of Moses and be circumcised, we have the apostles and elders meeting together to discuss the issue. Several prominent leaders gave their arguments. First, notice the argument of Peter. In verses 6-11, we see Peter making his claim that everyone, both Jew and Gentile, are saved the same way. He testifies to the fact that the uncircumcised Gentiles believed in Jesus and was baptized in the Holy Ghost the same way the believing Jews did. God did not require that they keep the law or be circumcised in order to be saved and to receive the Holy Ghost. Paul spoke of this extensively in the book of Romans. In chapters 1-3 of Romans, we find that all people are condemned in their sin. This is referred to as the universal need for righteousness. We are all sinners, we are all condemned, and we all need the righteousness of God. In chapters 3-4 of Romans, we learn that there is only one way to be saved and that is justification through faith. Paul gives the examples of Abraham and of David as Old Testament saints who were saved, not because they kept the law, but because they believed in God and were thus justified. Peter’s argument was simply that there is only one Gospel and we are all saved only one way, and that is through Jesus Christ alone. Secondly, we see the arguments of Paul and Barnabas. This is found in verse 12 of Acts 15 as they share with the council all the wonderful things that God has done among the Gentiles. They testified to the miracles that God did through them for the Gentile people. They shared how the lives of the Gentiles were changed by the Gospel. One could say that Peter gave the thesis while Paul and Barnabas gave the evidence. The principle we see here is that there is no greater proof for the Gospel of Jesus Christ than the life changing power that it brings. The greatest testimony and witness of all is a changed life. When people see a supernatural change in you, it points them to the means by which you were changed, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Finally, at the Jerusalem Council we see the argument of James. This is found in verse 13-21 of Acts 15. This James is the half-brother of Jesus who became the leader of the Jerusalem church in Peter’s place. His words are very profound and must be understood if the church is to carry on God’s plan for this age. The simple argument of James is that God is taking out from the Gentiles a people for His name. The fact here is that there is no longer Jew and Gentile. We all stand on the same ground as sinners before God and we all need a Savior. James quoted Amos 9:11-12. In doing so, he was not saying that this is a fulfillment of prophecy; he was just simple saying that the words of Amos agree with God’s plan of redemption for all of mankind. Therefore, as James says, there should not be certain requirements added to the Gospel. However, as he points out in verses 20-21, the principles of the law is still useful for us today, though not a requirement for salvation. In other words, we should live in obedience to God’s Word, not as a way for salvation, but out of our love for Jesus and our desire to be holy before Him.
The Jerusalem Decree. In Acts 15:22-29, we find the conclusion of the meeting of the elders and apostles.
22 “Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: 23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: 24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: 25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.”
The council agreed with the arguments that were presented and as a result they sent a letter out to the Gentile believers. There are two basic truths that we see here. First of all, the Gospel is the same for everyone. There is not a Gospel for the Jews and a Gospel for the Gentiles. Both are saved the same way. It is by grace through faith that we are saved. It is not in keeping the law or in any other requirement other than faith in Jesus Christ. This faith should be understood as an act of surrender on the part of the sinner. This faith includes repentance as it is a surrendering or a turning from ones will of sin to a complete dependence on Jesus for salvation. The second truth we see here is that those who do come to faith in Christ should live holy lives. The admonitions handed down by the apostles and elders were not official dogmas by a superior body. They were wise suggestions the spiritual men received as they were led by the Holy Spirit. They were not giving believers a new ‘law’ to keep; they were simply addressing issues that would help to keep the unity between Gentile believers and Jewish believers. The principle here is that though we are not saved by the way we live; we should live like the changed people that we are. Believers do have a responsibility to pursue holiness. We should strive each and every day to live a life pleasing to God. We should have high standards of living based on true Biblical principles. Having such standards is not legalism. These standards may vary from one believer to another based on their own conscious and personal relationship with Jesus. This too, is not legalism. All believers are called to be holy as He is holy. If you are going to claim to be a Christian, then you should live like it.
Acts 15 sheds a lot of light on what matters the most. Instead of putting labels on each other and trying to fit within a certain ‘camp’, may we just simply focus on the main thing, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is where our unity is found. Don’t be a legalist. Do not add to the Gospel. Just believe the Bible for what it says and follow Jesus and not a certain group. Be a Christian, not a subgroup of Christianity. Just follow Jesus and nothing else.