'IT WAS FOR FREEDOM THAT CHRIST SET US FREE'
SERIES: PAUL, AN INSTRUMENT OF THE RISEN CHRIST
by Ron Ritchie
I was privileged to be the speaker at a family conference at Mount Hermon
last week. These conferences, which I always enjoy very much, invariably
present opportunities to meet people from all walks of life and from all
kinds of religious backgrounds. In several conversations I had with some
of those attending it soon became obvious that many were confused about
the biblical doctrine of salvation. Some who had formerly been members of
the various major cults were struggling to form a clear understanding of
their new faith. They believed they were saved by grace plus something else--an
additional work, a religious rite or whatever. It was hard for them to grasp
the fact that they truly had been saved by means of the free gift of the
grace of Jesus Christ. There was nothing they had to do to receive that
gift except believe that Jesus had died for their sins and that they would
be saved from the wrath of God by placing their faith in him.
I always find it interesting that the majority of the different groups who
claim to be Christian insist on adding something to the good news of the
gospel. For instance, here is what one cult says people must do to inherit
eternal life: "All who by reason of faith in Jehovah God and in Christ
Jesus [their theology holds that Jesus was not divine] dedicate themselves
to do God's will, and then faithfully carry out their dedication, will be
rewarded with eternal life." Faith plus works, in other words. Another
group says this of salvation: "Baptism is essential for salvation.
You must be baptized to become a true Christian." Faith plus baptism,
they maintain. Yet another major cult says this of salvation: "We believe
that through the atonement of Christ [although they do not consider him
divine either], all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances
of the gospel. 'They who believe not your words and are not baptized in
water in my name, for the remission of their sins...shall be damned.' Baptism
is...the very gateway into the kingdom of heaven, an indispensable step
in our salvation..." Again, faith plus works plus baptism.
While all these approaches sound religious and godly, they are not to be
found in the Bible. They are part of the trap of legalism, designed to capture,
not liberate people. Far from being good news, this is the worst possible
news. It merely offers to exchange one impossible burden for another.
Here, by contrast, is the good news as set out by the apostle Paul in his
letter to the Ephesians,
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not
of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no
one should boast. (Eph.2:8, 9)
These words formed the very heart of Paul's gospel from the day he first
encountered the Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road. But when the apostle later
ministered to Christians in Antioch he found that his gospel of salvation
by grace through faith was being severely threatened by a number of believing
Pharisees who had come into the city. The confrontation that resulted from
their error-filled teaching has kept Christians basically free from the
law for the past two thousand years. Every generation of Christians, however,
needs to hear the gospel restated in its purest terms so that they can be
protected from placing themselves under the law of Moses once more.
In this series we return to our studies in the life of the apostle Paul.
When I first decided to do a study on the apostle's life, I quickly discovered
that the record of scripture shows that Paul had very little to say about
himself but had volumes to speak about his Savior Jesus Christ. Thus, my
study became an education in how the resurrected Christ expressed himself
in and through the apostle. In the same way, therefore, Paul becomes a
model for how Jesus desires to be expressed in and through Christians. So
we pick up our studies once more, this time in Acts 15, where we find the
apostle and Barnabas home again in the church in Antioch. In verses 1 through
5 we will see that one is not justified by the law; but that, as verses
6 through 12 demonstrate, one is justified by grace through faith.
Following Paul's conversion, the Lord declared of him to Ananias, "...he
is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and
kings and the sons of Israel." Earlier we traced Paul's first missionary
journey, which he undertook with Barnabas. They began in 47 A.D. with a
visit to the island of Cyprus, and then traveled on to the cities of Galatia.
Following their return home to their Gentile church in Antioch, Acts 14
records, "...they gathered the church together, and began to report
all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith
to the Gentiles. And they spent a long time with the disciples." But
then, during this period of peace in Antioch, some Jewish Christians, who
had earlier been trained by the Pharisees, traveled down to the city, some
350 miles from Jerusalem, and set about disrupting the minds and hearts
of the new Gentile believers.
We take up the account again in Acts 15.
I. One is not justified by the law
And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren,
"Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot
be saved." And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate
with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others
of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning
the issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing
through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion
of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. And when
they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles
and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But certain
ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, "It
is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of
Jerusalem, of course, was the site of the mother church of the Jewish Christians.
Later, following the martyrdom of Stephen, the church spread to Phoenicia,
Samaria, Cyprus and then to Antioch, the city which was to become the center
of the mother church to the Gentiles. The Christians who arrived in Antioch
at first shared the gospel with the Jews only, but then some of them began
to preach also to the Gentiles in the city. Many of them came to faith as
a result, and thus the church at Antioch became the mother church of the
Gentiles. This was the church to which Barnabas brought Paul to become part
of the teaching staff, as it were, before they both departed on the first
It was obvious that a theological battle between the Jews and the Gentiles
would occur sooner or later. Sixteen years earlier, the church at Jerusalem
was founded on the day of Pentecost. Some men from that church apparently
took it upon themselves to visit this younger church at Antioch to see if
the teaching there was theologically sound. They soon discovered a great
difference between their definition of salvation and this Gentile church's
definition of salvation. If believers did not submit to the rite of circumcision,
and submit themselves to the Law of Moses, the believing Pharisees reasoned,
how could they possibly claim to be saved? These men were either unwilling
or unable to allow the Holy Spirit to shed any new light on their social
and racial prejudices. They were insisting, in fact, that all the new Gentile
believers become Jews. The Pharisees may have been willing to give in a
little in the case of Cornelius, the Roman centurion who earlier was led
into the Jerusalem fellowship by Peter, but here in Antioch, thousands of
Gentiles were coming to faith in Jesus Christ. That was just too much for
some of these men who had "come down from Judea" to check the
theological base of the church at Antioch.
These Judaizers would argue that Paul had no authority of his own and no
gospel of his own apart from what had already been taught in the church
at Jerusalem; and, furthermore, that he had not given believers at Antioch
the whole of that gospel. The Jerusalem believers and their leaders revered
the Law of Moses. All of them, of course, being Jews, had already been circumcised.
They discovered that the Gentile believers at Antioch had not been circumcised;
but, they held, if the Gentiles were to have the same foundation as their
Jewish brethren, they too had to be circumcised. If Paul and others had
taught them otherwise, they had no authority to do so, they claimed. They
had been taught a partial, and thus defective, gospel. They therefore invited
the believers at Antioch to come under their authority and teaching, and
by doing so they would again have peace in their midst.
These teachers would hold, then, that Christianity for the Jews was but
the fulfillment of the law, the completion of the history of their fathers;
while Christianity for the Gentiles started with Christ, but was without
Jewish history, tradition or laws, which were a necessary part of conversion.
To the Gentiles, they would say: "You cannot start in the middle of
the process. You must also come under the covenant of Abraham, receive the
sign of the covenant--circumcision--and submit yourselves to the Law of
Some time earlier, the apostle Peter had visited the church in Antioch to
see for himself what was going on there. But the Judaizers arrived and began
to challenge him as well as Barnabas. Paul, however, stepped in "and
had great dissension and debate with them." The apostle would later
write to the Galatians about this,
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face,
because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming certain of men from
James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to
withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision.
And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even
Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. (Gal.2:11-13)
Those who have been raised in a different religion or a different culture
before coming to faith in Jesus Christ may understand this. I was raised
as a Catholic, and I well remember the scent of the incense, the solemnity
of the services, the choirs, the feast days, etc. I sympathize therefore
with Catholics who have been born again but still struggle over whether
they should go to Mass and attend confession. They're still inclined to
pray to Mary and maintain their interest in the various services associated
with their old faith--just in case... My own mother-in-law is wrestling
with these very issues today; she has a lot of history to contend with.
Yes, we can sympathize with Peter. His Jewishness was no tokenism; it was
his very life. But Paul confronted him in Antioch and called him a hypocrite.
The upshot of this encounter was that the church there agreed to send Paul
and Barbabas to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders concerning
this issue of grace and works as the means of salvation. If the elders had
maintained that salvation was achieved by grace plus works, it would have
made no difference to Paul, however. He would have returned to Antioch holding
firm to grace plus nothing; and the division between Jew and Gentile would
So Paul and Barnabas set out for Jerusalem, accompanied by "certain
others," according to the text. One of those was Titus, an uncircumcised
Greek Gentile convert to Christianity. He would be Paul's "Exhibit
A" in Jerusalem. Later, Paul would write in Galatians that he went
to Jerusalem, not because he was selected to go by the elders of the church
at Antioch, but because of a revelation from the Lord which he had received.
On their way Paul and Barnabas passed through Phoenicia, which had been
evangelized by the Jews during the persecution which followed Stephen's
death (Acts 11:19); then they passed through Samaria, which had been evangelized
by Philip, and then by John and Peter. Wherever they went, our text says,
Paul and Barnabas "described in detail the conversion of the Gentiles,
and were bringing great joy to all the brethren."
Three groups, the church, the apostles, and the elders, greeted Paul and
Barnabas on their arrival in Jerusalem. The pair had been away from Jerusalem
for about 14 years so they had much to share with the church there, especially
concerning what the Lord had been doing among the Gentiles in Antioch. Another
group, however, "certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had
believed," stood up and interrupted the "body life" service.
These believers, former separatists, who loved the letter of the law rather
than the spirit of the law, were listening very closely to what Paul and
Barnabas were sharing. These men, who were still wearing their rags of Judaism
over their new faith in Christ, could not get a clear picture of what it
took for a Gentile to become a Christian. "It is necessary to circumcise
them, and to direct them to obey the law of Moses," they maintained.
What did the Jews regard circumcision to be? According to Genesis 17, the
cutting off of the male foreskin was a sign to Abraham of the covenant that
God made with him:
"I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your
descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant,
to be God to you and to your descendants after you" (Gen.17:7).
When one came under the Abrahamic covenant, one received all the physical
and spiritual blessings which God had promised to Abraham. But circumcision
was not the cause of God's promise to Abraham, rather it was meant to be
an act of faith symbolizing Abraham's confidence in God's ability to do
what he had promised. Circumcision was an outward symbol of the fact that
the Jews were separated to God and dependent upon him. All that they were,
and all that they were able to do in the world, arose from the activity
of God through them.
Unfortunately, however, circumcision had become a self-righteous symbol
for the Jews. They boasted in it, claiming that through it they had a special
relationship to Jehovah. The Jews who were of the opinion that the new Christian
church was just another party within Judaism, therefore, felt that Gentiles
should be admitted into the Jewish church in the usual manner whereby proselytes
were adopted into the Jewish commonwealth: first, the proselyte had to accept
the covenant and bring sacrifices; second, he had to obey the Torah; third,
he had to be circumcised; fourth, he had to take a ritual bath, symbolizing
purification. As a result, he would be accepted into the covenant community
and have a share in the life to come.
According to these Jews, the central issue was as follows: Unless Gentiles
became Jews they could not be saved. It was not that Gentiles sometimes
should be circumcised, but that unless every one of them was circumcised
according to the Law of Moses, they could not be eternally saved. This certainly
would rule out the work of Jesus the Messiah on the cross at Calvary. These
Jews were advocating works, not faith, saying that unless Gentiles first
come under the Jewish covenant they could not become true believers.
After I left the Catholic church, I felt I had found freedom. Later, in
the orphanage where I was raised, I became part of a group who claimed to
be Christians. But they taught that one was saved by grace plus something
else. That "something else" had more to do with baseball than
the Bible. For instance, they said we could not play baseball on Sundays;
old clothes could not be worn to play baseball on Sundays; and if I had
good clothes on, I could not throw a ball on Sundays. In fact, you could
do nothing on Sundays except sit and watch the cars go by. So we would count
how many Chevvys and Fords drove by us. But we could not use a pencil to
record the numbers as that would be work; we had to memorize the numbers.
I have been so ingrained in that kind of legalism from the Protestant side
of things that now I wash my car on a Sunday--but I always feel guilty for
doing so. I sometimes stop in the middle of my work, wondering who will
see me, feeling that one of you will drive by and say, "This is Sunday.
What are you doing?" I have my answer ready: "At least I'm not
playing ball!" I'm sure many of us have some of that kind of legalism
in our background.
To this statement by the believing Pharisees, however, Paul would empatically
reply, "No, a thousand times no! No one is justified by the law, rather,
II. One is justified by grace, through faith
And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this
matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to
them, "Brethren, 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, giving
them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction
between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why
do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke
which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe
that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as
they also are." And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening
to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had
done through them among the Gentiles.
The spiritual leaders of the church at Jerusalem, together with Paul, Barnabas
and Titus, held a private meeting in order to discover the mind of Christ
in the matter which the believing Pharisees had raised. Referring to this
meeting in his letter to the Galatians, Paul would later write, "I
submitted to them the gospel which I preached among the Gentiles, but I
did so in private to those who were of reputation for fear that I might
be running or had run in vain." It was not that the apostle feared
his gospel was wrong, but that it might be rendered fruitless by the Christian
Pharisees present. He met with the leaders so that he might overthrow their
influence, not that he might strengthen his own convictions; for his gospel
did not come by the teachings of men but by a revelation of Jesus Christ.
At that private meeting the issue discussed was as follows: Should Gentile
Christians, such as Titus, be made to be circumcised in order to be saved?
Should Titus be instructed to come under the law? Should a Gentile place
his faith in Jesus as Messiah and then become Jewish in order to be Christian?
According to Galatians 2:1-10, the answer arrived at at the meeting was
"No" on all three counts. The apostles James, Peter and John agreed
with the gospel which Paul had been preaching. Titus did not have to be
circumcised; the leaders of the church gave Paul and Barnabas the right
hand of fellowship; and they asked them to remember the poor.
Following this private meeting a public meeting held which was addressed
by Peter. The apostle had come a long way since the vision he had when God
showed him several kinds of unclean food and instructed him to eat. Later,
Peter had seen the Gentile Cornelius come to faith in Jesus. Later still,
he met with the Jerusalem Council and instructed them in what he was learning.
But in Antioch, Peter slipped back for a while into his legalistic ways.
He refused to eat with the Gentiles--that is, until he was confronted by
Paul and called a hypocrite. These incidents had taught Peter his lesson;
by now he was a strong advocate of the gospel of grace and nothing besides.
So Peter addresses the multitude and makes three points. First, he gives
a review of God's activity in the church of Jesus Christ. He reminds his
listeners that ten years earlier he had brought the gospel to the Gentiles,
beginning with Cornelius. Then he reminds them that they had confirmed that
ministry by agreeing that God had "granted to the Gentiles also the
repentance that leads to life" (11:8). Peter also reminds them that
the Jews had received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost;
and that the Gentiles, after confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior, also received
the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then, as the Lord God cleansed their Jewish
hearts from sin when they placed their faith in his Son, so he cleansed
the hearts of the Gentiles from sin when they likewise placed their faith
in Jesus. The Gentiles were cleansed from sin through faith plus nothing;
not baptism, not the Lord's Supper, not circumcision, not by obedience to
the law of Moses. When it comes to salvation, the message is the same for
all peoples of all races, Peter maintains, Jew and Gentile alike.
Secondly, Peter asks a question of the believing Pharisees: "Why do
you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke
which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" God had already
spoken of the faith of the Gentiles, Peter says. Why are you refusing to
respond to God's revelation, putting God to the test? he asks. The "yoke"
which Peter is referring to is the Law of Moses, which the Jews themselves
could not fulfill, and yet they now sought to place the new Gentile believers
under that very law. The Lord Jesus declared of the Pharisees,
"They tie heavy loads and lay them on men's shoulders...Come
to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take
my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and
you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is
light" (Matt.11:28, 29).
Jesus' burden was light because he himself would provide all the power people
would need to be men and women of God. He would put his law within their
hearts--and ours--and then give them the Holy Spirit and the power necessary
to keep the law.
Thirdly, Peter shares with them the message of the gospel: that Jew and
Gentile alike were saved by grace through faith, plus nothing. His message
at Pentecost to both Jew and Gentile was,
"Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of
the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive
the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children,
and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself"
(Acts 2:38, 39)
Peter's message to Cornelius and his family was: salvation by grace through
faith, plus nothing. The message of the Jewish evangelists who came to Antioch
was: salvation by grace through faith, plus nothing. The message of Paul
on the island of Cyprus, and later in Galatia, was: salvation by grace through
faith, plus nothing.
To emphasize this, here is what Paul said to Peter in their confrontation
"We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the
Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works
of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ
Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of
the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified."
There is not one thing you can add to your salvation once you have placed
your faith in Jesus Christ.
Verse 12 demonstrates that those listening confirmed what they had heard:
"And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas
and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through
them among the Gentiles." Here, Paul and Barnabas gave evidence of
their confirmation as apostles by relating of the signs and wonders that
had occurred during their minstry.
At the Mount Hermon family conference which I mentioned earlier, I went
in to dinner one evening hoping to sit at a table with some fun-loving family.
As I looked around the dining room, a young Vietnamese girl invited me to
sit at her table. Three of the eight seats at the table were already taken
when I sat down. There was one older woman, Sonya, sitting there, and another
woman, Linda, who had her deaf and retarded daughter sitting beside her.
This was not quite the group I had in mind to join for dinner; but I decided
I would meet some more interesting people later. About halfway through dinner,
the four empty places at the table were still not filled. It was then I
began to realize that that was where God would have me sit that evening.
Linda told me that the older woman, Sonya, had brought her to the conference,
and she said she was really enjoying being there. I decided to pour a lot
of godly interest into those at the table and the result was that I had
a very nice time with them.
Just before we finished eating, I asked Linda, "Are you a Christian,
or are you in the process of becoming one?" She said, "I am in
the process of becoming one." I asked her, "What has prevented
you from finishing that process?" She said, "No one ever asked
me." "Do you want to take a walk?" I asked her. She said,
"Yes." We went outside and I explained to her the gospel of the
love of Jesus Christ. I told her that if she would simply place her faith
in Jesus the sin-bearer, that all her sins would be forgiven, that she would
have power to live on earth until he comes again, and that she would live
forever in eternity with him. "Would you like to do that?" I asked
her. "Yes," she replied, "I would love to." So on 6:26
On Tuesday evening, July 21st, Linda came to know Jesus. The time is important,
because at 7 o'clock the meeting started and a young couple was in the audience.
The following Friday a letter was slipped under my door. I will read it
I just had to share with you that my husband just told me this
afternoon that he asked Jesus to be his personal Savior on Tuesday night
[after I had told the story of Linda's conversion]. We both sat here and
cried our eyes out with joy and happiness. As for me, I have rededicated
my life to the Lord this week. I was born into a Christian home, but I so
desire to have total faith in the Lord. Doug and I have been married for
only seven months, and the Lord certainly chose the right time to bring
us both on track. We are excited about our new faith and looking forward
to seeing what the Lord has planned for us. Please pray for us as we really
start our new (and renewed) Christian life together. Praise the Lord!
We are living in the age of the Spirit, an age when God is using all kinds
of people and circumstances--even rebellious and selfish people like me--to
be instruments in his wonderful plan of redemption. He is calling out of
every nation a people for his name's sake, and he wants you and I to be
part of that.
Your brother and sister in Christ,
Lynn and Doug.
Close to the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul said to these believers
who were being tempted to abandon their freedom in Christ and come once
more under the yoke of slavery.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free, therefore keep standing firm
and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to
you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.
The law cannot justify us any more than it could the Galatians in that first
century day. We are justified, declared righteous, as they were, by the
grace of God, through faith. Our salvation is a gift of God. It does not
depend on some work of righteousness by us but on his grace. Let us thank
him for that.
Catalog No. 4051
Ron R. Ritchie
July 26, 1987
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