Dr. Guy Waters delivers the Fall 2010 convocation address on Acts 15 at RTS Jackson. The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Please turn with me in the Scripture to the Acts of the Apostles. We’ll be reading Acts 15, beginning at verse 1 and continuing down through verse 35. As you turn there, I do wish to express my gratitude to the administration for inviting me to give this 45th convocation address to you today. Turn your thoughts now to the Scripture beginning at Acts 15:1, we’ll read down through verse 35. Hear now the Word of God.
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.” 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. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenecia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 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.”
The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate. Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days, God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this, the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen. I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’ Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
May God add his blessing to this reading of his Word.
I feel under some obligation to say a word or two about the title of this address. What does Luke, the beloved physician, have to do with Julia Roberts, the beloved actress? And in all candor, not much, but we can see this at least: whether we’re looking at the book of Elizabeth Gilbert or whether we’re looking at this account in Acts 15, food figures prominently. And since our time abuts the lunch hour, fitting that we should think about a passage centered on food. That’s about all the connection I’m going to draw.
The Central Importance of Acts 15
Now, think for a moment what has brought us to this point in Luke’s account of the early church. Jesus had commissioned his apostles to preach the gospel, to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And in chapter 13, we see the church at Antioch directed by the spirit of Christ himself to send out Paul and Barnabas to the work to which he had called them, specifically the work of preaching the gospel in Gentile lands. Chapters 13 and 14, we see the wonderful account of the conversion of many Gentiles. Gentiles are coming to faith, and they are joining the church in droves.
But then this raises a natural question for Jewish believers: do these Gentiles need to be circumcised, as we were circumcised, before they can join the church? Now, that question had been asked and answered in chapter 10 and chapter 11. God had said to Peter, decisively, no, Gentiles do not need to be circumcised for them to join the church. But in chapter 15, that question gets ramped up because now, we read in verse 1, there are some saying that circumcision is necessary for salvation itself. If you were not circumcised, you cannot be saved, and your faith is in vain. That’s the question facing the church in Acts 15. And so it’s no wonder that this chapter is pivotal in this account. Ernst Haenchen has called it a centerpiece, a turning point in the Acts of the Apostles. I. Howard Marshall: the structural and theological center of the Book of Acts.
And you see this in a number of ways. You see it in terms of the word count. Joseph Fitzmyer has estimated that his English translation has some 24,887 words and Acts 15 falls right in the middle. Pity the poor research assistant who was tasked with that count. And then there are characters, people. This is the last we see of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles. From here on, it’s Paul. And then location. Up to this point, Jerusalem has been the hub and the epicenter of the church. But after this chapter, we only see the church in Jerusalem one more time. This is Jerusalem’s swansong.
Complex Questions in Acts 15
So Acts 15 is important, but as with most things that are important, they’re not simple. They’re complex. And this chapter poses so many questions that we could ask this morning. There’s the knotty question of does this record correspond to what Paul describes in Galatians 2? Save that for another occasion.
There’s Paul’s silence about this decree. He makes no mention of it in his letters, particularly in places where we would expect him to: Galatians, in First Corinthians, in Romans. It’s another question for another day.
Then there are these four commands, these four commands of the decree. Where did they come from? What’s the rationale? How do these things fit with one another? Are they things that you and I have to observe today? That’s another question for another day.
Or church government. Here in Acts 15 we see a council of the church. What is a council of the church? What’s the warrant for councils of the church? What’s the authority for their decisions? It’s another question for another day.
Is the Jerusalem Council about Salvation or Fellowship?
But there’s one question that’s even more basic than all of these. And what’s striking is that there’s a lack of clarity on this question in the commentaries. And the question is very basic. What is this council about? What exactly did this council come together to do? What questions did they answer? Did they come together to address questions of salvation in terms of salvation for Jews and Gentiles? Did they come together to address terms of fellowship, how Jewish and Gentile believers were to relate one with another in the church? And you can see both of these concerns at work here in the chapter.
Issues Surrounding Salvation in Acts 15
Concerning salvation, look at verse one. The occasion in question of this council is that some are teaching that unless you were circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved. This seems to be the very question that Paul was taking up in Galatians when he thundered that a man was justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law. No circumcision for justification. We see in verse 5 that this question wasn’t restricted to Antioch; it seems to have spilled over into the church in Jerusalem as well.
And then there’s Peters stirring statement to close his speech in verse 11: “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they will.” Sola gratia, by grace alone. Solo Christo, by Christ alone.
Issues Surrounding Fellowship in Acts 15
But then, in terms of fellowship, that seems to be important, too, because as the debate moves on, the council seems to be taking up more and more questions of how Jews and Gentiles in the church as believers are to relate to one another. You have these four commands in verse 20 and repeated in verse 29, and they’re repeated in Acts 21. That’s Luke’s way of telling us this is something important.
Then they draft a letter. Nothing said about circumcision, there’s no mention of it in express terms, there’s no mention of the terms or conditions of salvation. And the council sends its delegation, Barnabas and Paul and Judas and Silas. And there’s no mention of circumcision. There’s no mention of the terms of salvation. So our question: just what did the council take up and resolve? Was it salvation? Was it terms of fellowship among Jewish and Gentile believers? Was it, as Barrett has suggested, that the council just changed course midway and ended up asking and answering a different question than the one with which it had began?
Different Solutions Proposed by Commentators
This question has puzzled commentators. In the historical critical tradition, Joseph Fitzmyer has said that Luke has telescoped two incidents that were historically distinct in topic and time: controversy about salvation, a controversy about fellowship. While that does resolve the problem in the way that decapitation resolves a headache, that doesn’t help us much here.
Then there are others who have said, well, these two questions are really the same. Barrett says it’s all about the terms of salvation. And in verse 28, he understands the council to be saying, now you Gentiles, you don’t need to be circumcised, but if you’re going to be saved, you need to do these four other things. The problem is Peter’s speech in verse 11. We’re saved by grace, not by keeping one set of commands as opposed to another.
Others have said, well, it’s really about terms of fellowship and not about terms of salvation. And so Wright, in his exposition of Acts 15, he says Acts 15 is about the principle that precisely because God has fulfilled his covenant with Israel in sending Jesus as Messiah, the covenant family is now thrown open to all without distinction. Once again, Peter’s speech. We are saved by grace. It doesn’t seem to be all about questions of fellowship.
Now evangelical scholars have done better. There’s more consensus here. And if you survey recent evangelical commentators on Acts 15, all seem to recognize that both questions, in fact, are taken up. Conditions of Salvation, council concludes we are saved by grace alone. Terms of fellowship, yes, they see these four commands as regulating how it is that Jews and Gentiles are to behave one with another in the church.
Understanding How Salvation and Fellowship Fit Together
But what we don’t find, at least rarely, is any kind of integration of the two parts of the council’s decision. Yes, salvation by grace alone. Yes, terms of fellowship. But how do the two fit together? Both seem to stand on their own in the literature. Now we’re at the part where we put Humpty Dumpty back together again, or we try. Two things to see. The first is this: that the decree, the council, is in fact answering two questions. The conclusion is not some grand non sequitur to the issue that sparked this controversy. Two questions.
The Council Addresses the Question of Salvation
Now we’re going to leave aside for the moment that this council addresses terms of fellowship because most recognize that it’s so. But what about the question of salvation? Is that in view at the end of this chapter? And for our considerations to see that it most certainly is, there is James’s speech first in verse 19. “My judgment,” he says, “is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” “Trouble,” likely a reference to Peter’s words in 15:10, “placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear.” James is saying, ‘Brothers, let us not trouble these Gentiles by burdening them as though they must keep the law in order to be saved by it.’
James is saying, ‘Brothers, let us not trouble these Gentiles by burdening them as though they must keep the law in order to be saved by it.’Second, there’s the letter, verse 24. Notice how it begins: “Some persons have gone out from us and have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions.” Could they have more clearly repudiated the men of verse one who were saying you must be circumcised in order to be saved? They called these men troublesome. Their doctrine unsettling. Then there’s the letter itself. What do they say about Barnabas and Paul? These preachers, these ministers, who’ve been saying to Gentiles, you do not need to be circumcised to be saved? Look what the council says of them: they’re beloved. They risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. The council is affirming these men and their ministry. And then it’s what they do with the letter. You see, the council just doesn’t send the letter to the churches, but they send men with a letter to explain it. And two of those men are Barnabas and Paul, trusted men to explain their decision. So, yes, the council does resolve this question.
The Decisions about Salvation and Fellowship Are Connected by the Messenger
But then there’s this other question: how do we integrate these two decisions? They make a firm stand for salvation by grace alone. They discuss the terms of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers. How do they fit together? Now, the council doesn’t tell us in so many words. That’s the difficulty. And I suspect that’s the difficulty in much of the literature.
Now there certainly is what we might call a prudential connection between the two. Do not look to the law to be saved, and what then do you do with the law? Well, be mindful of it for reasons of fellowship. Well, there’s certainly that much. But is the council saying anything more? Is there a deeper connection between these two parts? And the answer is yes.
Now, as we said, the council itself doesn’t articulate that connection, but they do something important. They send Paul as its authorized representative to explain the letter. That is to say, they relied on Paul to give an integrated defense, an explanation of the council’s decisions, in both respects. We don’t know what Paul said or what Barnabas said or what Judas said or what Silas said. But of those four men, only Paul has left us written statements, letters. And there are, in fact, two places in Paul’s letters, at least, that point us to the kind of integrated argument that is behind the decision of this council and the first is in Galatians 5. We are justified solely on the ground of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us and received through faith alone.
You see Paul in the opening four chapters of Galatians labors, argument after argument, point after point, to show that we are not justified by any work that we have done or are doing. We are justified solely on the ground of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us and received through faith alone. And then in 5:1, he begins to explain what this means for the Christian life and the life of the church.
Chapter 5, verse 1: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The justified state is a state of freedom. Now how to exercise that freedom? Chapter 5, verse 13 of Galatians: “For you were called to freedom, brothers, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” That’s what you do with freedom: “through love serve one another.” And that’s precisely what the Jerusalem Council had concluded. Brothers, you are free in Christ. You have been justified by his work and not your own. And now exercise that freedom in the following way for the sake of love. Freedom helps us to understand how these two parts of the decision come together. That’s what you do with freedom: “through love serve one another.”
Here’s one other place and a different word. Romans 14 and 15. Paul labors for the first 11 chapters of Romans to make this basic point: there is a common plight of humanity. We are sinners, justly subject to the wrath of God for our sin. And there is one way of salvation for all kinds of people, for Jew and for Gentile alike.
And then Paul turns in Romans 14 and 15 to address a disagreement, a squabble in the church: the strong and the weak. And Paul says, that reality that I have labored for 11 chapters to expound, now needs to be applied and brought to bear in your lives. Look at Romans 14:3. “Let not the one who eat despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” 15:7: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.”
You see what Paul’s saying? You’re a sinner. Christ has welcomed you. He saved you. And now you in turn welcome one another. That is, let Christ’s mercies to you mold and shape and be the pattern for how you relate with other believers. The integration of freedom and welcome. Surely the connection in view in Acts 15.
We Work for the Joy and Unity of the Church
Now to close,a couple of thoughts by way of application. We’re beginning a new academic year by the grace of God. What does this Scripture have to say to us as we launch our academic and spiritual lives together as the RTS community for this year? Two things to see.
We learn from this chapter that the church is to be of one mind on the heart of the gospel: that we are justified by faith alone apart from any works that we have done, are doing, or shall do. The church is to be of one mind, of one accord on what is surely at the very heart of the gospel. And that’s the task of the church in every generation, that we would contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Do you think if the church that had Peter and James and Paul had to contend over this issue that you won’t? We won’t? Surely not. You know, one reason you are here at Reformed Seminary is to learn how to articulate and to explain and to defend the faith. Now, why is this important? Well, this chapter gives us several reasons. Let me call your attention simply to one: look at verse 31 of chapter 15: “When they had read it,” this letter, “they rejoiced because of its encouragement.” They rejoiced because of its encouragement. God had brought the church through a hard spot. There was division, there was dissension, touching a fundamental matter. And God brought glorious unity, one accord. And as they let the church know of what God had done through the church, what was the result? Not disagreement, not division, but joy and unity.
Friends, as you apply yourselves this year to your studies, as you parse those verbs, translate those verses, learn those councils, read those systematic theology passages, keep this in mind. You are working for the joy and for the unity of the church. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but your labors ought to bring joy and unity to the church as you articulate and defend and explain the faith that is ours through your studies. Well, that’s one thing.
But there’s a second thing that the council teaches us. Justification by faith alone speaks fundamentally to our reconciliation as sinners with God. But it also tells us how the reconciled ought to relate to each other. Many of you have only been at RTS for a few weeks, and you’re meeting all sorts of people coming from all parts of the globe. They’re coming from all kinds of denominational and theological backgrounds. You’re beginning to say things to yourself like, I never knew a Christian could look at something like that in that way. I never knew a Christian could think that way. It’s not sin, it’s just very different. Justification by faith alone speaks fundamentally to our reconciliation as sinners with God. But it also tells us how the reconciled ought to relate to each other.
And you see, it’s in those moments that your commitment to the faith that you’ve come here to study and to proclaim is going to be put to the test: to learn to live with your brother or sister, to bear with them, to love them, to serve them, even by forbearing the exercise of your liberty where you might otherwise have the right to exercise it.
Friends, this lesson that you’ll be learning here is going to be critical for your ministry in the church. John Stott quotes a portion of Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians and it ties together so well what we’ve seen this morning. This is what Luther wrote: “As concerning faith, we ought to be invincible, and more hard, if it might be, than the adamant stone. But as touching charity,” love, “we ought to be soft, and more flexible than the reed or leaf that is shaken with the wind, and ready to yield to anything.”
Friends, that’s my aspiration and prayer for you, for me, for us this year, that we would be hard in faith and soft in love to the glory of our Savior. Let us pray.