This is the third and final installment of Debate and Argumentation (if you’d like to catch up here they are in order: Debate and Argumentation for the Sake of Unity and Love; Debate and Argumentation: Part II ).
We live in a day and age that avoids all forms of debate like the Black Plague. And yet, debate, argumentation even heated discussion is necessary and important when the truth is at stake. Our public square will shout you down, attack you personally, and attempt to censure you but that is only because they do not want what they propose as truth to be scrutinized and to be found wanting. (Sometimes silence is attempted, but only insofar as you do not push the issue).
Back to Acts 15…
Last time, we were discussing Acts 15 and the heated debate that occurred in that day over “circumcision” and the “Law of Moses” (of God). The argument was over Scripture and flowed from two different interpretations of some very important key texts. I won’t rehash that here. If you’re really interested check out Part II linked above.
I do, however, need to address one issue that I left blank in the last post. Circumcision, although a vitally important element of the old covenantal system found its fulfillment in Christ Jesus (cf. Col 2.11-14; 3.11). The spiritual element is still mandatory, but the physical cutting of flesh has been done away with. That portion of ceremonial cleanliness is no longer necessary. Why? Because, the Lamb of God satisfied the purpose of those former shadows. Thus, the slaying of animals on an altar is no longer necessary. The separating of crops, of fabrics, even of various dietary restrictions have been met in the work of the Lord.
(NOTE TO READER: The book of Hebrews provides a wonderful explanation of why these former elements are no longer necessary, but the subject matter is too long to address in this relatively short article).
We are now going to turn our attention to the second major point of contention in Acts 15:5, “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (emphasis added). How one responds to this statement will reveal a lot of what they know, what they’ve been told, and what they’ve come to believe (i.e. convictions).
The Law: Physical and Spiritual Elements
There is a general precept found in Scripture at three vital points. That a person should not presume to add or take away from God’s Holy Word. We find this warning twice in Deuteronomy (4.2; 12.32), once in the book of Proverbs (30.6), and once again in the book of Revelation (22.18-19).
Each statement should be considered contextually first. For example, the book of Revelation’s statement on this subject is limited to the writings of that book. That does not mean the principle is invalid or inapplicable outside of that text. However, if that was the only warning, we were given in that regard then we would be stretching the intent of the passage to attempt to apply it elsewhere. Which is why I believe God was adamant about repeating it.
This particular teaching also links itself to false prophets and false teachers (Deut 13.1-5; 18.20-22). Those who desire to speak for God, but deviate from His Word teaching false truths, false Christ’s, false gospels (cf. 2Cor 11.3-4; Gal 1.6-9; compare 1Thess 5.20-21; 1John 4.1). Thus, we read about the Bereans when they heard the gospel they “searched the Scriptures” to see if those things Paul taught were true; they tested his words (Acts 17.11).
The problem with the Law of God is not with the Law, but with our hearts (Rom 7.14; 8.7-8). The Law is described as good and holy (Rom 7.12; Neh 9.13; 1Tim 1.8). We on the other hand are not (Eccl 7.20). Two extremes spring forth from our lack of holiness and goodness. The first is legalism and the second is anti-law.
These individuals look at God’s Law and find it insufficient in that they see the need to add extra guardrails to deter one from breaking them. This is an overreaction, and it is rooted in the false notion that we have within ourselves, the ability to live holy lives apart from the grace/power of God. Some good example passages are found in Mark 7:6-13 and Isa 1.2-20.[i]
The Anti-Law Advocates…
These individuals look at God’s Law in an archaic fashion. They assume that grace has freed them from obligation to the Law of God. Often, they misappropriate the second half of Rom 6:14, “…you are not under law but under grace.” Paul is not saying in Rom 6:14 that Christians are free from obeying the law of God, but that we are free of the curse brought about by the law of God. The law of God does not save, it condemns. Sin is aggravated by the law, stirred up in our hearts and immediately seeks to rebel against God’s Holy standard (cf. Rom 7-8.8). Paul tells the Christians in Rome they need not fear for “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace” (Rom 6:14; entire verse).
In other words, you, who are in Christ, have been set free from the bondage that sin once had on you. The chains of sin have been broken, for when you were baptized in Christ you were raised to new life; therefore, sin lost its hold, its power over you. You have been freed from the power of sin, which is grace. That’s what it means to be under grace. That’s exactly what Paul is saying.
To attempt to argue otherwise is vanity. First of all, it pits Paul against Christ Jesus. Second, it twists God’s Word through the addition and subtraction of what He has revealed.
Jesus said very clearly that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt 5.19a). Jesus taught the smallest law is to be upheld (i.e. obeyed), and the person who taught another to not keep it will be called “least.” Before Jesus sent His disciples into the world, He said that they were to teach the nations “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28.20a).
Some attempt to be wiser than they ought and say, “Well Jesus was only talking about the things He commanded during His ministry.” Really, where did He say that? Oh, he didn’t, you just assume it. Ah…so you’re in the habit of adding to the Word of God, are you?
There is no debate, Jesus settled it…
The fact of the matter is settled. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth passes away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5.17-18; emphasis added). And before the person can argue (as some have done and others do) that Jesus’ fulfillment of the law is the end of the law reread his words: “Do not think…I have not.”
Fulfilling of the law is upholding the law, observing the law, obeying the law, living in accordance with the law; which is precisely what the apostle Paul says in the same epistle some run to in order to support their folly. And so, to those individuals we ought to say, “Have you not read[ii]…Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary we uphold the law” (Rom 3.31).
Returning to Acts 15:5…
So, on the surface the demand of some of the believers from the Pharisee party seem to be legitimate. It is right to teach new believers to obey the Law of God. Not because we are saved by the law, but because we desire to please God. That is where they are wrong, where they have erred from the truth, and it is the reason for the heated discussion in Jerusalem (Acts 15.7a).
To think that our activities save us is to fall into the fallacy of Cain. He brought to the Lord his very best, but his best was a stench in the nostrils of God. God wanted to vomit over Cain’s sacrifice, but Abel’s—his brother—well that was a different situation altogether. What made Abel’s sacrifice acceptable (pleasing) to God? His was offered in faith (Heb 11.4). Which is what precisely? Faith, true faith, is an act of obedience by the one who takes God at His Word and trusts (believes) He has spoken rightly.
James 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (italics added).
I realize that some get really confused on the meaning here of James, so please allow me to clarify. Notice James does not say that works save, which would ultimately pit him against God (cf. Rom 3.28). His point, however, is that faith without works (obedience towards God) is dead! Can faith without obedience be said to be genuine faith in God? No, that would be a false faith. Supposed belief without any fruit of righteous obedience to show for it, is the same sort of pseudo-faith that the devil has (James 2.19).
What the Argument was truly over…
This is the opposite of what the “circumcision party” believed. In their mind, the only way someone was saved was by what they did. In short, they were their own justifiers. It is akin to the argument: “If God commands it, then I must be capable of doing it on my own. My own nature is essentially good, therefore, my works are good and ought to be honored by God: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get‘” (Luke 18.11-12).
What Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James were arguing is that not only did God never teach this (it is an incorrect interpretation of the Law), but history (both former and personal) proved that they could not bear the yoke they were attempting to prescribe to others (Acts 15.10). The Holy Spirit saved Cornelius’ household before they had done anything (see Acts 10). Just as God justified Abraham before he had done anything (see Rom 4:1-13).
The Closing Argument…
To put the matter to bed, let me point you to Christ. Did He obey the Law? Yes, on all points. Did His obedience save Him, or was His obedience evidence of having a heart that truly loved the Father? His love of the Father drove Him to obedience in all things: “not my will be done, but thine” (Luke 22.42). His faith was living not dead, therefore, He trusted and acted upon God’s Law-Word. And we who are called by His Name are likewise supposed to walk in the same steps that He has taken (1John 2.3-6; 3.22-24; 5.2-3; 2John 1:6).
This example, serves as a reminder of the benefit of argumentation and debate. We need to wrestle with the Scriptures, and not be afraid of discussing what they mean. Challenging some if needed, loving others when possible, so that we might prove our unity and love to our Lord first and foremost, and then as a necessary result…one another.
[i] In both passages we find those that profess to love God, profess to uphold His Law, rules and statutes, and yet along the way they have added their own personal standards to the practice. They are more concerned with the letter (the outward action), than the Spirit (inward motivation of the heart/mind) of the Law. Such individuals find a way to add further extensions (amendments, if you will) to progress God’s Law in a fashion they find acceptable to the people. They think themselves holy. They believe themselves just, but inside they are white washed sepulchers (tombs).
[ii] The phrase “have you not read” was a favorite of our Lord’s to rebuke and correct his opponents. See: Matt 12.3, 5; 19.4; 21.16; 22.31; Mark 12.20, 26; Luke 6.3. Sometimes he presents it as a rhetorical question that demands a negative answer as in Luke 10:26.