The Essence of the Gospel
In Acts 15:1-35 we get to listen in on the great Jerusalem Council. This episode is far from being an irrelevant 1st century debate. In fact, here we learn about the primary enemy of the gospel and the primary essence of the gospel. This is vital for us as we seek toincreasingly become a Gospel astonished church, filled with people who give everything they have because they understand that in Christ they already have everything the need.
This morning we are continuing our study through the great book of Acts. Throughout our study, we’ve been asking big questions like, “What is Christianity?”, “What is the church?”, “How does all of this impact our everyday life in Seattle, today?” “Why difference does it make?” This morning we’re going to look at Acts 15:1-35. This particular section serves as the heart of the book (literally, the middle) and addresses the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In particular, this section gives us insight into the primary enemy of the gospel and the primary essence of the gospel. If you’re wondering, “What makes Christianity so different?” and/or, “Why am I not growing, maturing, experiencing greater vibrancy of faith?” Today is for you.
15:1-5 Primary Enemy of the Gospel.
The first Christians were all Jewish and some reasoned that for Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) to become part of God’s people, they too must become culturally Jewish – Jewish Christians, as it were. Now, this isn’t as scandalous or strange as it may first seem. Throughout the history of Israel, the primary sign/mark that you are reconciled and saved as part of God’s people was that you were circumcised. This practice goes back to Abraham, nearly 2000 years prior to this story (e.g. Ge 17:10). Therefore, some of the early Jewish Christians reasoned that since Jesus was Jewish, they were Jewish, and Gentiles have always become Jewish (via circumcision) to join God’s people, therefore that must still be the case.
Not surprisingly, this resulted in “no small dissension and debate” (vs2) within the church at Antioch. In other words, there was a major disagreement. Why is that? Answer: The very essence of the gospel was at stake. The gospel message itself was being unwittingly threatened. By requiring circumcision, these Jewish believers were making circumcision a condition of salvation; i.e. salvation is achieved through Jesus and by becoming Jewish. But, Paul and Barnabas (and others) were arguing that salvation was from Jesus alone, apart from anything we do; i.e. Jesus is all we need. The tension is clear: Is salvation achieved through Jesus plus something else? Or, is salvation achieved through Jesus plus nothing else?
It’s here that we encounter the primary enemy of the gospel:
Jesus + something else = everything (salvation, life, joy, hope) If anything but Jesus is needed for salvation (including circumcision), the Jesus is not everything we need; then, he is not an all-sufficient savior. Inevitably, anytime we try to add anything to complete who Jesus is and what He has already done, the result is a Christless Christianity. This, of course, is why they are so upset.
You may ask? What does this have to do with me. This has everything to do with you. In fact, whether you know it or not, you experience this same tension in your soul every day. Throughout history, philosophers and sages alike have noted that every human being craves deep acceptance, deep favor, deep affection, deep approval, deep meaning, deep purpose. We have an insatiable desire for something bigger, better, faster, stronger, richer, happier…something more. In fact, whatever measure of happiness, relief, rescue and meaning we do have – it is never enough. We continue to hunger for what we don’t have.
“You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Augustine
“All men seek happiness, this is the motive for every action of every man, even those who hang themselves…the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object…God himself” Pascal
“Every human being is on a quest for God; the problem is that we don’t know that, and in our quest for stability, we attempt to stand on an endless catalog of God-replacements that end up sinking with us..there is an inner rest to be experienced that deeper than conceptual understanding, human love, personal success, and the accumulation of possessions. There is a rock that will give you rest even when all of those things have been taken away. That rock is Christ and you were hardwired to find what you are seeking in him.” Paul Tripp
Jesus is the only one who will ultimately satisfy, but we don’t naturally look to Him for all we need. Instead, we add to Him. “Christianity and…” was one of the main weapons recommended by Uncle Screwtape to Wormwood to use to cultivate distracted, powerless, and ineffective Christians (Screwtape Letters, by CS Lewis). Make sure, recommends Uncle Screwtape, that Christians never come to a place of believing that Jesus is enough; make them feel good about adding something to their faith, something other than Jesus.
What could that look like? Really, an infinite number of arrangements, such as Jesus and…our achievements, strengths, reputation, relationships, family, ambitions, personal preferences, spiritual growth, hobbies and recreation, entertainment, latest fad, particular cause, etc. What is that thing for you?
Often, that “something else” is our performance, also known as legalism. It is very subtle, but spiritually deadly. Performancism happens when what we do, not what Jesus has already done becomes our main focus, our main source of life, our main source of hope and joy. Inevitably, it leads to pride when we succeed and despair when we fail. Performancism is all about us, what we must do instead of resting in what Jesus has done and who we already are in him.Q: What gets greater attention in your life? Your performance or His performance for you, in your place?
“The great mistake made by people is hoping to discover in themselves that which is to be found in X alone.” AW Pink
The underlying assumption of “performancism” is that we believe that our performance for God will impress him to the point of blessing us or will provide us with more than He can provide us. We may easily say “salvation is by grace alone, not by works” but we often don’t live that way. There is not a Christian who doesn’t struggle with believing our good behavior is required to keep God’s favor, blessing and acceptance. Too often, Christian preaching reinforces our slavery to performance by telling us to “do more, try harder, keep rules”.
But, and this should really be no surprise, transformation and progress only happen when we realize God’s love for us does not depend on us. Heart of human problem is the problem of the human heart. (Tchividjian) Rules, behavior, performance are not the solution of the things we most deeply crave and long for – only Jesus is. That is why the primary enemy of the gospel: Jesus + something else = everything. But, the primary essence of the gospel: Jesus + nothing = everything.
Therefore, they head off to Jerusalem (300 miles) to settle this once and for all.
15:6-21 Primary Essence of the Gospel.
Here we see the primary essence of the gospel:
Jesus + nothing = everything (salvation, life, joy, hope)
Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James all chime in. What we have here is a condensed version of the entire debate and discussion. Luke provides us with the highlights. Peter begins by sharing his story of Cornelius, God’s vision to him, and the reception of the Holy Spirit by the Gentiles by faith alone. He lands on “grace”.
Q: What does it mean to be saved by the grace of God?
- By grace, in Christ, God freely, unconditionally, undeservedly forgives and makes us His.
- By grace, in Christ, He loves us because he loves us, not b/c we’re lovable, not b/c we perform well, not b/c we follow the rules, not b/c we manage our sin, not b/c we stay out of trouble, not b/c we obey, not b/c we caught him on a good day, not b/c we earned it.
- By grace, in Christ, there nothing we can do to make him love us more and there is nothing we can do to make him love us less.
- By grace, in Christ, he loves us no matter what.
- By grace, in Christ, we receive a new identity, apart from any identity we create on our own. We are forgiven + adopted + made heirs + eternal life + sealed w/ Spirit + part of His redeemed people.
God’s grace is a one-sided divine rescue, based entirely on his initiative – not our own. The biggest lie about grace is that it needs to be kept in check. “We need to balance grace with law”. We think “well, too much grace and people will just take it for granted…and take advantage of God.” That couldn’t be more wrong. The only way we change is when we get a taste of God’s radical, untamable, unconditional acceptance of us, in Christ. In fact, the more we understand grace, the less we will see Jesus as an angry dictator, and more like a loving friend, savior, deliverer, rescuer, shepherd. In other words, the more you understand grace, the more your heart will be captivated by Jesus. The great irony here is that those who end up obeying more are those who realize their standing isn’t based on their obedience.
“The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar of fifteen-hundred year old, two hundred proof grace… one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly…. Grace is to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale…” Robert Capone, Between Noon and Three
James, Jesus’ half brother and leader of the church in Jerusalem, agrees and points the entire congregation to a prophecy of Amos. Amos declared there was coming a day when God will rebuild his people. James says, “That is happening right now! Jesus is the new king. His church is His new house, being rebuilt w/ Gentiles! It is a fresh work.” He recommends they “not trouble” the Gentiles by placing any unnecessary burden on them. In other words, he says, don’t make it hard for them, over-complicate the gospel. He says Jesus + nothing = everything. Salvation is not a matter of human works and performance, but the reception of Gods’ grace from first to last. To place your faith in something is to place your trust in something. Faith is trusting and relying on what God has provided.Faith is not merely acknowledging something exists. Faith is making it yours. Saving faith says “There he is…and I make Him mine because He has made me his.”
Don’t over-complicate the gospel. The essence of the gospel is that faith in Jesus is sufficient for salvation, reconciliation and more. If you follow Jesus, that is the thing you must keep clear, uncluttered and uncomplicated. If you don’t follow Jesus, that’s where to begin. Don’t merely acknowledge him, make him yours by faith.
vs20. BUT, then James goes on to list certain things Gentiles should avoid. Quite a strange list really:
- “things polluted by idols”: food sacrificed in pagan temples; sold in marketplace for profit; scandalous
- “sexual immorality” (porneia) = Any sexual immorality outside marriage. 1 man + 1 woman + 1 lifetime
- “what has been strangled”: animal killed by strangling, wouldn’t get all the blood out which was scandalous for the Jewish people.
- “from blood”: eating things that still have blood in them. The Jews associated blood with the sacredness of life.
Q: Why these things? These particular things were scandalous to Jewish people. In Lev 17-18 we are told that the practice of such things could get you “cut off from God’s people”. So, that should cause us to stop and ask, “What in the world is going on here?” So, do Gentiles need to follow law or not? Is salvation by faith alone or faith plus this list?
What James is saying is that Gentiles should be culturally sensitive. Gentiles should not needlessly or unnecessarily offend Jewish people so they don’t even want to hear the gospel. In other words, avoid creating obstacles to the gospel by needlessly slapping Jewish people in the face with your freedom in Christ. Ex. “If you live in Seattle…and start talking trash about dogs, recycling and baby seals you will create a stumbling block for the gospel.” James is asking, “Why make it so difficult for them?” Don’t create unnecessary stumbling blocks to the gospel. Primary essence of gospel is salvation by faith alone. Jesus + nothing = everything. But, we should be culturally sensitive so as not to create unnecessary obstacles to the gospel.
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law…that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law…that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” 1 Cor 9:19-23
Here, Paul is saying I’m adaptable to the mission field that God has called me to, where ever he has put me. At the root, Christians love others enough to not demand our rights all the time. We are willing to give up what is permissible if it means that more people come to faith in Jesus and cultivates further unity in the church. Paul, above, is saying he would rather give up certain practices than be causing others to stumble or create obstacles to the gospel. That’s good practice.
So, they wrote a letter, sent a delegation and announced the news to the Gentiles in Antioch and beyond. For clear reasons, there was rejoicing. The message for us is same as the message was for them. Keep the gospel clear, uncluttered and uncomplicated. How? Being aware primary enemy to the gospel = Jesus + something else = everything. But,primary essence of the gospel = Jesus + nothing = everything. If we do this, it will cause us to increasingly become a Gospel astonished church that is filled with people who give everything they have because they understand that in Christ they already have everything the need.