Sermon #1364 Miscellaneous Notes
Title: THE FIRST SOVEREIGN GRACE
Text: Acts 15:1-21
Subject: The Jerusalem Conference
I thought it might be good for me to open the conference by rehearsing the message of the very first sovereign grace Bible conference. It was held in Jerusalem more than 1900 years ago. We are given an inspired account of what transpired at that conference in Acts 15:1-21. That will be my text tonight.
Throughout the history of Christianity there have been numerous church councils. Some have been of monumental significance, but most have been of very little consequence. Denominational churches have regular councils for the purpose of determining both doctrine and practices among the churches of the denomination. In those councils three things always take place: debate, negotiation, and compromise. In order for opposing parties to get along and function together in a united, co-operative program, there must be compromise on both sides. That is the way denominations survive.
However, with men of principle and conviction there can be no compromise. The truth of God is not debatable! It is not possible for a person or a church believing the gospel to co-operate with people who do not believe the gospel in religious works and activities.
When Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah formed a compromising, ungodly alliance with Ahab, the king of Israel, (a compromise by which he hoped to preserve and protect the kingdom of God), Jehu rebuked him sharply (2 Chron. 19:2).
I repeat, with men of principle and conviction there can be no compromise. The truth of God is not debatable! It is not possible for a person or a church believing the gospel to co-operate with people who do not believe the gospel in religious works and activities.
The conference at Jerusalem was not anything like the religious synods, counsels, and denominational conventions we read about in history, or those which take place around the world every year.
· The apostles and elders did not meet at Jerusalem to debate doctrine, but to declare the truth of God with a unified voice.
In that day, as in ours, there were legalists in the church who tried to mix law and grace, trying to bring God's elect under the yoke of legal bondage, subverting their souls. Therefore the church at Jerusalem held a conference. Many apostles, elders, and preachers attended, but only three spoke: Paul, Peter, and James. They spoke as one and the church made a unified denunciation of legalism. Here, in Acts 15 Luke gives us the historical narrative of the conference. Paul explains the theological issues of it in Galatians 2.
Again, I repeat myself deliberately, the conference at Jerusalem was not a church council to debate doctrine. When Paul went up to Jerusalem his mind was already made up about the issues at hand. He refused to budge an inch, or give any ground at all to the legalists (Gal. 2:5, 21).
· Paul’s purpose in going up to Jerusalem was only so that the doctrine of the believer's absolute freedom in Christ from the law of Moses might be publicly avowed, even by those whose primary sphere of ministry was among the Jews.
At the Jerusalem conference the apostles and elders, and the church as a whole, being led by the Holy Spirit, as we are told in verse 28, publicly denounced legalism and stripped all preachers of law and legality of all credibility.
WITH THE LEGALISTS (vv. 1-3)
There were some self-appointed, freelance preachers who came from Jerusalem to Antioch perverting the gospel, teaching salvation by the works of the law. They were Pharisees who professed faith in Christ. They claimed to believe the gospel doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But they mixed works with grace and said, “Unless you keep the law you cannot be saved.”
Paul, Barnabas, and the church at Antioch, by their example, demonstrate that the doctrine and spirit of legalism must never be tolerated (Gal. 2:1-5).
Paul declares these legalists to be "false brethren.” It matters not whether men teach obedience to the law as a basis of justification, the measure of sanctification, the believer's rule of life, the motive for Christian service, or the ground of reward in heaven, all attempts to put believers under the yoke of the law are intolerably evil. The Word of God states, plainly and emphatically, that in Christ believers are entirely free from and no longer under the law (Rom. 6:14-15; 7:4; 10:4; Gal. 3:24-26; 5:1-4; Col. 2:8-23; I Tim. 1:5-10).
Never, not even once, in the New Testament is a believer commanded to do anything on the basis of, or being motivated by the law. So far is the law from being a rule of life that Paul declares it is “the ministration of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). Legalists say, "The preaching of the law promotes holiness." But Paul says the law is “the strength of sin” (I Cor. 15:56).
Let no one be confused. The issue is not godliness or ungodliness. The issue is not what a believer does. The issue is the motive of the heart. Legalists are motivated by fear of punishment and desire for reward. Believers are motivated by love for Christ ( “The love of Christ constraineth us” -- 2 Cor. 5:14).
THE CONFERENCE OF THE LEADERS (vv. 4-21)
There were many gifted men in the church in those days, but three stood out as men gifted of God and specifically chosen by him to be his messengers to that first generation of Christians.
The first spokesman at the conference was Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (vv. 4-6).
The second preacher was Peter, the apostle to the Jews (vv. 7-11).
We will look at this in more detail in a moment, but Peter’s message had two main points.
(1) God purifies the hearts of men by faith in Christ (v. 9)
(2) Salvation is by grace alone (v. 11).
In verse 12 Paul rose to speak again, declaring what wonders God had done through him and Barnabas among the Gentiles.
The third man to speak at the conference was James, our Lord's half brother, pastor of the church at Jerusalem (vv. 13-21).
It was fitting that James, the pastor at Jerusalem, bring the concluding message. He gave the opinion of the apostles, the opinion of the Holy Spirit, the opinion of the New Testament regarding the issue at hand (the relation of the law to believers in the New Testament age) in four points.
1. The calling of the Gentiles in one body with the Jews was foretold by the prophets (vv. 13-17; Isa. 11:10; Amos 9:11-12).
2. The fall of Israel and the calling of the Gentiles was according to the eternal purpose of God (v. 18; Rom. 11:25-26).
3. Believers in the Gentile world must never be troubled with the yoke of bondage, which no man other than Jesus Christ the God-man has ever kept (vv. 19, 10).
4. In matters of indifference it was recommended that the Gentile believers should abstain from those things that might hinder the preaching of the gospel and offend weaker brethren (vv. 20-21).
NOTE: Certainly fornication is not a matter of indifference. It is a horribly evil thing. Yet, it was treated as a matter of indifference because to the Gentiles, who were uninstructed in the law of God, it was commonly looked upon as such.
THE CIRCULATION OF THE LETTER (vv. 22-34)
In verses 22-34, we are told that the church at Jerusalem drafted a letter to be sent to the churches in the Gentile world. To confirm the truthfulness of the letter they sent Judas and Silas back to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The letter denounced all preachers of the law as false prophets (v. 24), commended Paul and Barnabas as faithful servants of God (vv. 25-26), and assured God's saints that their liberty in Christ was approved of God (vv. 28-29). When it was read in the churches this letter was the cause of great joy among God's saints (v. 31)
Let’s go back now to Peter’s message (vv. 7-11), and let me wrap this up with a few comments about it.
Peter was an apostle of Christ. The words he spoke at the Jerusalem conference, like those which he wrote in his epistles, were inspired by God the Holy Spirit (v. 28). The words of this passage, being inspired of God, are recorded for our learning and admonition.
The apostle stood and said, “We believe.” He spoke with bold, unbending, unyielding, uncompromising dogmatism. Speaking as an apostle of Christ, Peter was not speaking for himself alone, but for all the apostles, all the church of God, all true gospel preachers, and all true Christians.
When Peter said, “We believe,” he was saying, "This is the truth of God. It must be believed by all. Anything contrary to this is heresy, damnable and destructive to men's souls. This is what all true Christians believe. Those who do not believe and teach this are not Christians."
This then is the doctrine of God - “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” With regard to this gospel doctrine of salvation by grace alone we must be perfectly clear in our understanding, unhesitating in our witness, and intolerant of any deviation from the message of God's pure, free, sovereign, effectual grace in Christ.
THIS IS AN APOSTOLIC CONFESSION OF FAITH. Concerning less important issues God's saints may and do differ and yet remain in essential harmony and fellowship. No one has a perfect knowledge of divine truth. But the gospel doctrine of salvation by grace alone is vital. With regard to this vital issue the doctrine of the church is stated plainly. "We believe that we shall be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, even as they." All who deviate from this deviate from the doctrine of the apostles and deviate from Christ himself!
THE APOSTLES OF CHRIST OBVIOUSLY DID NOT BELIEVE MOST OF WHAT IS TAUGHT TODAY ABOUT THE WAY OF SALVATION. Peter's statement is complete. It includes all that is vital to the souls of men. But some things are obviously and deliberately omitted.
· There is no mention of any religious ritual or ceremony. The two ordinances which Christ left us, baptism and the Lord's Supper, are important aspects of worship and obedience. Believer's baptism is the believer's public confession of faith in and allegiance to Christ (Rom. 6:4-6). The Lord's Supper is the church's celebration of redemption by Christ, a symbolic picture of the gospel, and a visible reminder of our Savior's glorious person and work (I Cor. 11:24-26).
· No mention is made of personal obedience to the law of God. That was the issue at the Jerusalem conference. Surely, if obedience to the law had any bearing upon salvation, sanctification, or our relationship to God, Peter would have mentioned it here. But we are not under the law and must never attempt to put any believer under the yoke of bondage (v. 10).
· There is no mention of personal righteousness. The creed of the world is, "Do the best you can and God will accept you." To deny that creed is treason against human pride. Every child of Adam is born a Pharisee. Self-righteousness is bred in us. It will manifest itself in time. But those who promote self-righteousness are treasonous toward God.
"Perish all thoughts of human pride,
Let God alone be magnified!"
· And no mention is made of man's freewill. It is true that all believers choose Christ, trust Christ, and come to Christ. But it is heretical to assert that man's freewill is the cause of God's saving grace (John 1:11-13; Rom. 9:15-18; 2 Tim. 1:9).
PETER'S DOCTRINE IS THE DOCTRINE OF GRACE. He tells us that salvation is from beginning to end, all of grace. This is the doctrine of Christ and his apostles. This is the doctrine of the Bible. Any denial of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone is a denial of the gospel of Christ. All attempts to mix grace and works is antichrist. Eight things are implied and taught in Peter's words.
I. THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD'S GRACE - He tells us that saving grace belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. He gives it to whom he will (John 5:21; 17:2).
II. THE TOTAL DEPRAVITY OF MAN- When Peter speaks of people being "saved” (passive voice), the implication is that they do not have the ability to save themselves (Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3).
III. GOD'S UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION
Perhaps you are thinking, “Bro. Don, you are stretching the text a bit now Peter does not mention the word election in this passage.” Did you miss it? Peter and James both spoke of election with such casualness that they seem to presume that all who heard them had sense enough to know that salvation must, of necessity, begin with God’s election (vv. 7, 14).
Peter’s mind had not been corrupted by freewill, works religion. To him and the rest of the apostles the word "grace" always included election. They understood that the grace of God is eternal, unmerited, and immutable (I Pet. 1:2-5).
IV. CHRIST'S LIMITED ATONEMENT
When Peter speaks of "grace,” he is referring to that grace which comes flowing to sinners from the wounds of the crucified Christ, that grace which was effectually obtained for God's elect when Christ died as their Substitute and obtained eternal salvation for them (Heb. 9:12; I Pet. 1:18-21; 2:24).
There are two points about the redemptive work of Christ upon which we must be clear.
A. First, redemption was obtained for a particular people (Isa. 53:8; John 10:11, 15, 26).
B. Second, it was effectually accomplished when Christ died (Heb. 10:10-14; Isa. 53:10-12).
This is the essence of all gospel doctrine, the heart of all truth, the core of Holy Scripture. Anyone who fails to see the fulness and efficacy of Christ's redemptive work does not and cannot see or understand any other aspect of divine truth clearly.
V. GOD'S IRRESISTIBLE GRACE - Peter said, "We shall be saved.” He does not speak of God's saving grace as a possibility, but as a matter of certainty. Salvation is not something God hopes to do. It is something God does (Psa. 65:4; 110:3).
VI. THE BELIEVER’S FREEDOM FROM THE LAW (v. 10)
Peter calls all legalism tempting God. He calls the keeping of the law a yoke of bondage that no man can keep. He was not just talking about the law of circumcision. Anyone can do that!
He was talking about gaining holiness by obedience to the commandments of the law. Nobody can do that! You and cannot keep any commandment of the law for a solitary second. All we are capable of doing is sin!
But blessed be God, our Substitute, the Lord Jesus Christ has met every demand and requirement of the law for us, and we are “complete in Christ!” In Christ, we have already entered into that blessed freedom of grace called “the glorious liberty of the sons of God!”
“Free from the law, O happy condition!
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission,
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,
Christ hath redeemed us, once for all!
A. Christ is my righteousness.
B. Christ is my sanctification.
C. Christ is my redemption.
VII. THE FINAL PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Peter was not in a fog about what he believed. He knew that salvation is God's work. He knew that it was forever (Eccles. 3:14). He knew that God's promise (John 10:27-29), his justice (Rom. 4:8), his power (I Pet. 1:5), and his immutability (Mal. 3:6) demand the absolute, infallible, eternal security of his elect.
VIII. THE EQUALITY OF ALL BELIEVERS (vv. 9, 11)
When Peter said, "We shall be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, even as they,” he seems to imply that the Jewish believers have no preference over the Gentile believers. In Christ all are one! All are saved by grace alone (Col. 3:11).
Let others cling to their man made, denominational creeds, argue theology and debate doctrine, and try to find common ground with reprobate men by compromise, if they dare. I take the Book of God as my creed and confession.
THIS IS THE CONFESSION OF EVERY TRUE BELIEVER. All who are saved are saved by grace alone and gladly acknowledge it (“By the grace of God I am what I am.”--I Cor. 15:10).
Self-righteous moralists, religious ritualists, and profligate sinners must all be saved the same way. Grace is unconditional! It is not attracted by good works, and it is not repelled by the lack of good works. Grace washes all believers in the blood of Christ, robes all in the righteousness of Christ, and makes all accepted in Christ.
· Some are more gifted than others, but none are more accepted.
· Some are more responsible than others, but none are more redeemed.
· Some are more dependable than others, but none are more righteous.
· Some are happier than others, but none are more holy.
· Some are more faithful than others, but none are more favored.
· Some are stronger than others, but none are more sanctified.
· Some are more confident than others, but none are more beloved, and none are more secure.
· Some are more useful than others, but none shall be more rewarded.
Salvation is either by grace or by works, but it is not by grace and works. Either salvation is by God’s will or your will, but it is not by both. Either Christ is our Savior altogether, or he is no Savior at all. He has either met, fulfilled, and satisfied every demand of God’s holy law and justice for us, or we must meet them, fulfil them, and satisfy them ourselves.
This is our doctrine - “WE BELIEVE THAT THROUGH THE GRACE OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST WE SHALL BE SAVED, EVEN AS THEY.”