A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 15:1-16:5. Permanent lessons.
Students who read Acts 15 today are tempted to dismiss it
impatiently as being of purely antiquarian interest. There is no
circumcision party nowadays trying to impose Mosaic rituals on
anybody, and it would be ludicrous to expect any contemporary
Christian group to accept the four apostolic abstentions, although
some of them (like eating kosher food) could still apply to
Christians living among conservative Jews. Otherwise, the whole
incident appears remote, even irrelevant. Yet it contains at least
two lessons of permanent value, the first relating to salvation,
and the second to fellowship.
a). Salvation: an issue of Christian truth.
The Judaizers were arguing that circumcision was necessary
for salvation (1). There was, therefore, a danger of the church
breaking up into competing theological factions, with different
apostles teaching different gospels, and the church’s unity
destroyed. The danger was real enough. The Judaizers claimed the
authority of James and contradicted Paul. Peter was led astray and
was opposed by Paul. The three apostles appeared to be at
loggerheads, with James and Paul on opposite sides and Peter
oscillating between them. The situation was critical. So Luke was
at great pains to describe how in the Council Peter spoke first,
then Paul, then James; how Scripture and experience coincided; and
how the apostles (Peter, Paul and James), the elders and the
whole church reached a unanimous decision (22, 28). Thus the
unity of the gospel preserved the unity of the church. In spite
of its rich diversity of formulation and emphasis in the New
Testament, there is only one apostolic gospel. We must resist
modern theologians who set the New Testament writers at
variance with each other, and who talk about Pauline, Petrine and
Johannine positions as if they were incompatible gospels. Even
Paul and James, who were reconciled at the Council, can be
reconciled in their New Testament letters too. They taught the
same way of salvation.
Moreover the gospel of Christ’s apostles is the gospel
of God’s free grace, of his undeserved love for sinners in the
death of his Son in our place. Further, it is the gospel of God’s
sufficient grace. It cannot be regarded either as a supplement to
something else (e.g. Judaism) or as needing to be supplemented
by something else (e.g. circumcision), without being undermined.
Yet this was exactly the Judaizer’s mistake. To them faith in
Jesus was not enough; circumcision and law works had to be added.
Today people try to add works of a different kind, philanthropy
perhaps or religious observances, or a particular ceremony or
experience. In each case it is a ‘Jesus plus’ gospel, which is
derogatory to the adequacy of his work. We need to echo Peter: ‘We
believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are
saved, just as they’ (11). We and they, Jews and Gentiles, are
saved in the same way, through the one and only apostolic gospel
of God’s grace.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts: Becoming a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.