“In order to be a Christian you must _____.”
“You can’t be a Christian and _____.”
How would you fill in those blanks? Your answer might depend on what church tradition you come from or how strict your parents were. But imagine facing those questions when Christianity was a brand new, rapidly spreading faith. Its disciples taught about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had died to save sinners and was resurrected. And they proclaimed Him as Savior. But there wasn’t an established set of doctrines about procedures, traditions, moral expectations, or rituals. How did this new faith differ from Judaism or from Greek polytheism? What did it look like to be a Christian?
This is essentially the question posed to the apostles in Acts 15. Peter and Paul were teaching that salvation was by grace, through faith in Christ alone. Others brought in the teaching of the Old Testament Law, that to be saved someone must be circumcised. To us, this seems obviously wrong and even bizarre. But to a first century Jew (which all the apostles were, and Jesus was too) it made sense. Since their very beginning, to be part of God’s chosen people had required the covenant sign of circumcision. So if this new Christian faith was redefining God’s people, why shouldn’t there be the same sign? Even the church leaders weren’t of one mind, so they “gathered to consider this matter” and there was “much debate” (Acts 15:6–7).
The reason this issue mattered so much, and why it should matter so much to us today, is because it is not only a question about circumcision but about what makes someone a Christian. It fills in those blanks. Did God define His people by whether they followed certain religious traditions, or by the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives? Peter spoke clearly and made clear God’s intent: “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to [the Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith” (vv.8–9).
The Law, Peter went on to say, was “a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v.10), a teaching echoed by Paul in Romans 2:17–24 when he points the impossibility of keeping the Law and how it can even make hypocrites out of us. So what did the apostles decide? They wrote a letter to all the Gentile churches that said “it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—not to place further burdens on you beyond these requirements” which called them to flee from idolatry and overt paganism (v.28).
Thank God for His grace in this letter, for the early Church and for us. Our reaction should be the same as the church at Antioch: “When they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement” (v.31). The apostles recognized that “for freedom, Christ set us free” and to add restrictions or requirements to the work of Christ is to reduce the hope of the gospel and to exclude people (Galatians 5:1). Instead they saw the work of the Spirit, rejoiced in it, and submitted to God’s amazing plan to build a worldwide Church for Himself.