Many of the conflicts we engage in are really "bad fights," which we ought to avoid. Proverbs 20:3 explains that "it is to a man's honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel."
However, Paul speaks of the "good fight." Some issues are so important that we must uphold them at any cost. The leaders in the early church understood that the way of salvation must be a clear and correct teaching. In Acts 15 the early church concluded that faith is the key that unlocks heaven's door.
I. The disagreement over salvation by faith (1-5)
A. The intensity of the disagreement (1-2)
"Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.' This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them...
Paul and Barnabas felt strongly about this issue and rightly so. It is an issue of eternal import.
B. The issue of the disagreement (3-5)
When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!"
The divisive question was "How is someone saved?" The false teachers were right and wrong! They were right because there is only one way of salvation. However, they were wrong about which way!
The false teachers required faith in Jesus (v.5) from their converts. But they also added the necessity of male circumcision and a strict observance of the law. They were teaching that faith in Christ alone was not sufficient to please God.
There are contemporary parallels to this ancient error. Mistaken modern teachers might insist upon the following additions to faith:
"Unless you are baptized, you cannot be saved."
"Unless you keep the Ten Commandments, you cannot be saved."
"Unless you belong to a particular church, you cannot be saved."
You may not encounter a false teacher in your church. But you can encounter a false teaching in your thinking. The Christian who feels they must earn God's approval or do something extraordinary to gain God's forgiveness has fallen into the same error.
So if the false teachers were wrong, what is the right way to think about salvation? We must realize that:
We all have the same problem. Romans 3:23 …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
We all have the same provision. Romans 3:24 They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
We all have the same prescription. Romans 10:12-13 for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
II. The defense of salvation by faith (6-18)
A. The work of God (6-12)
Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: "Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Why, then, are you now testing God by putting on the disciples' necks a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are."
Then the whole assembly fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describing all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
Paul and Barnabas testified that God had saved the lost though they were uncircumcised and undeserving. How many of us can testify to the same? Though we were sinners, Christ died for us!
Peter makes an amazing statement in 15:11, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are . The false teachers argued that the Gentiles must find salvation through Jewish tradition and practice. Peter turns their argument on its head and declares the Jewish people must be saved just as the Gentiles are -- by faith alone.
Experience has to be backed up by exegesis! The personal accounts of Paul and Barnabas are quickly followed by references to specific scriptures quoted by James.
B. The word of God (13-18, esp. v. 15)
After they stopped speaking, James responded: "Brothers, listen to me! Simeon has reported how God first intervened to take from the Gentiles a people for His name. And the words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written: After these things I will return and will rebuild David's tent, which has fallen down. I will rebuild its ruins and will set it up again, so that those who are left of mankind may seek the Lord - even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord who does these things, which have been known from long ago.
God is calling out a people for himself from all the nations of the world! This is the testimony of all of Scripture.
Revelation 5:9 And they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals; because You were slaughtered, and You redeemed people for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.
C. The decision on salvation by faith (19-21)
Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those who turn to God from among the Gentiles, but instead we should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from blood. For since ancient times, Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, and he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath day."
1. Doctrinal decision
The consensus of the council was that salvation comes by faith apart from any human work. On this point there was no compromise. However, they recognized that for the community of faith to flourish, there must be a sensitivity one to another. Jews and Gentiles must make adjustments in order to live together."
2. Practical decision
Holiness. The requirements handed down by the council focus on personal holiness. Idolatry and immorality were, of course, forbidden. God's people must be holy.
Harmony. To preserve the harmony of the early Christian community other suggestions, such as dietary restrictions, were included. We must curb our liberties at times so that the higher good of mutual edification is accomplished. The early church leaders were concerned about doctrinal integrity and relational health.
Paul and Barnabas were unwilling to yield on this issue. So strongly did they believe that salvation is through faith that they were willing to travel to Jerusalem and vigorously uphold this doctrine. This is a principle that we cannot negotiate. Instead, we must faithfully proclaim it so that others may embrace it.
Trivial Pursuit is a board game centered on answering "trivial questions." Life is full of trivia. Whether you know the answer in a board game is trivial. However, the answer to the question, "What must I do to be saved?" is vital. It is a question you cannot afford to miss. It is this question that the Jerusalem Council answers.
The church throughout the ages has stood by sola fide at great cost. Early believers in the Roman world suffered harsh persecution. Martin Luther endured the wrath of the Church and the Prince to uphold it. Our early Anabaptist forbears paid a great price for their conviction that personal faith is essential for salvation and is the prerequisite for baptism. We are the heirs of this priceless doctrine. May we fight the good fight of faith for this doctrine!
Additional sermon starters
Pay attention to the prepositions (Ephesians 2:8-10)
There are three key prepositions in this passage that are packed with meaning. We are saved by grace, through faith, and unto good works. The sequence and significance of these affirmations clarify the truths surrounding our redemption.
Make yourself at home (John 1:10-12)
The Lord Jesus participated in the creation. Yet, oddly, He is often treated as a stranger or intruder. We ought to make our heart His home. Salvation is available to all through Jesus Christ is emphasized. The Lord is portrayed as (1) creator, (2) visitor, and (3) redeemer.