Unity & Concession
Sermon Text: Acts 15:1-35
Sermon Theme: Humility (looking to the interest of others) and convictional kindness (holding fast to the gospel with the heart, love and attitude of Christ) are essential for gospel unity.
Some from Judea taught the Gentile converts at Antioch, that they could not be saved, unless they observed the whole ceremonial law as given by Moses; and thus they sought to destroy Christian liberty. There is a strange proneness in us to think that all do wrong who do not just as we do. Their doctrine was very discouraging. Wise and good men desire to avoid contests and disputes as far as they can; yet when false teachers oppose the main truths of the gospel, or bring in hurtful doctrines, we must not decline to oppose them.
We see from the words “purifying their hearts by faith,” and the address of St. Peter, that justification by faith, and sanctification by the Holy Ghost, cannot be separated; and that both are the gift of God. We have great cause to bless God that we have heard the gospel. May we have that faith which the great Searcher of hearts approves, and attests by the seal of the Holy Spirit. Then our hearts and consciences will be purified from the guilt of sin, and we shall be freed from the burdens some try to lay upon the disciples of Christ. Paul and Barnabas showed by plain matters of fact, that God owned the preaching of the pure gospel to the Gentiles without the law of Moses; therefore to press that law upon them, was to undo what God had done. The opinion of James was, that the Gentile converts ought not to be troubled about Jewish rites, but that they should abstain from meats offered to idols, so that they might show their hatred of idolatry. Also, that they should be cautioned against fornication, which was not abhorred by the Gentiles as it should be, and even formed a part of some of their rites. They were counseled to abstain from things strangled, and from eating blood; this was forbidden by the law of Moses, and also here, from reverence to the blood of the sacrifices, which being then still offered, it would needlessly grieve the Jewish converts, and further prejudice the unconverted Jews. But as the reason has long ceased, we are left free in this, as in the like matters. Let converts be warned to avoid all appearances of the evils which they formerly practiced, or are likely to be tempted to; and caution them to use Christian liberty with moderation and prudence.
Being warranted to declare themselves directed by the immediate influence of the Holy Ghost, the apostles and disciples were assured that it seemed good unto God the Holy Spirit, as well as to them, to lay upon the converts no other burden than the things before mentioned, which were necessary, either on their own account, or from present circumstances. It was a comfort to hear that carnal ordinances were no longer imposed on them, which perplexed the conscience, but could not purify or pacify it; and that those who troubled their minds were silenced, so that the peace of the church was restored, and that which threatened division was removed. All this was consolation for which they blessed God. Many others were at Antioch. Where many labor in the word and doctrine, yet there may be opportunity for us: the zeal and usefulness of others should stir us up, not lay us asleep.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- What were the purposes of the law? What can’t the law do? The Mosaic Law was given specifically to the nation of Israel (Exodus 19; Leviticus 26:46; Romans 9:4). This consisted of 365 negative commands and 248 positive for a total of 613 commands. These may also be divided into three parts — the moral, the social, and the ceremonial. As such, it covered every possible area of the life of Israel. It was composed of: the Ten Commandments, the ordinances, and the worship system, which included the priesthood, the tabernacle, the offerings, and the festivals (Exodus 20 to Exodus 40; Leviticus 1 to Leviticus 7; Leviticus 23). The purpose of the Mosaic Law was to accomplish the following:
- Reveal the holy character of the eternal God to the nation of Israel (Leviticus 19:2; Leviticus 20:7-8).
- Set apart the nation of Israel as distinct from all the other nations (Exodus 19:5).
- Reveal the sinfulness of man (cf. Galatians 3:19). Although the Law was good and holy (Romans 7:12), it did not provide salvation for the nation of Israel. “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20; cf. Acts 13:38–39).
- Provide forgiveness through the sacrifice/offerings (Leviticus 1 to Leviticus 7) for the people who had faith in the Lord in the nation of Israel.
- Provide a way of worship for the community of faith through the yearly feasts (Leviticus 23).
- Provide God’s direction for the physical and spiritual health of the nation (Exodus 21 to Exodus 23; Deuteronomy 6:4-19; Psalm 119:97-104).
- Reveal to humanity that no one can keep the Law but everyone falls short of God’s standard of holiness. That realization causes us to rely on God’s mercy and grace. When Christ came, He fulfilled the Law and with His death paid the penalty for our breaking it (Galatians 3:24; Romans 10:4). By faith in Him, the believer has the very righteousness of Christ imputed to him.
- Is not the Mosaic Law showing how God’s plan unfolds gradually and progressively? The progressive nature of God’s revelation is alluded to in passages such as Acts 14:16 and Acts 17:30. The Law brought clarity and definiteness to the meaning of sin, and the precision of the commandments allowed us to easily identify infractions. But the Law itself was meant to be temporary. It was, in fact, “our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). Christ is the One who fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law on our behalf (Matthew 5:17). In taking the Law’s curse upon Himself, Christ brought an end to the curse and instituted the New Covenant (Galatians 3:13; Luke 22:20).
- What were these legalists actually doing and why were they so dangerous? They were attempting to mix law and grace and to pour the new wine into the ancient brittle wineskins (Luke 5:36-39). They were stitching up the rent veil (Luke 23:45) and blocking the new and living way to God that Jesus had opened when He died on the cross (Hebrews 10:19-25). They were rebuilding the wall between Jews and Gentiles that Jesus had torn down on the cross (Ephesians 2:14-16). They were putting the heavy Jewish yoke on Gentile shoulders (Acts 15:10; Galatians 5:1) and asking the church to move out of the sunlight into the shadows (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1). They were saying, “A Gentile must first become a Jew before he can become a Christian! It is not sufficient for them simply to trust Jesus Christ. They must also obey Moses.” But, let us remember that the difference between sound doctrine and false doctrine on the matter of salvation is the difference between eternal life and eternal condemnation — don’t be ignorant of the relationship between law and grace.
- Are extra-biblical restrictions taking their toll on the church today? Perhaps even more serious, are they blocking the proclamation of God’s grace to a dying world? God’s people may try to add rituals and rites to the requirements for salvation, but God never does. We all are influenced by our backgrounds. Each of us has experienced some doctrinal or practical distortion because of past experience or environment. The challenge is to identify those points of error or missed emphasis before we drift too far away from Christ. History and experience have proven that anything made a co-requirement with faith soon shoves faith aside and becomes the means of salvation. If the apostles had capitulated, there would soon have been a Christian doctrine of “salvation by circumcision.” Similarly, today we must withstand false doctrines of baptismal regeneration and salvation through sacraments. The progress of the gospel has often been hindered by people with closed minds who stand in front of open doors and block the way for others. God pronounces a solemn anathema on anyone who preaches any other gospel than the gospel of the grace of God found in Jesus Christ His Son (Galatians 1:1-9). When any religious leader says, “Unless you belong to our group, you cannot be saved!” or, “Unless you participate in our ceremonies and keep our rules, you cannot be saved!” he is adding to the gospel and denying the finished work of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians to make it clear that salvation is wholly by God’s grace, through faith in Christ, plus nothing.
- Are you sinning when you promote unity in the church with those who teach a false way of salvation? Are you comprising the integrity of the church? The foundation for Christian unity is the truth of the gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith apart from any good works. Good works inevitably follow saving faith. If a person claims to have faith, but has no good works as a result, his faith is not genuine (James 2:14-26). But it is faith alone in Christ alone that saves a person from God’s judgment. Many do not like messages like this one, because they stir up controversy, and we all like peace. But as J. C. Ryle wrote: “Controversy and religious strife, no doubt, are odious things; but there are times when they are a positive necessity. Unity and peace are very delightful; but they are bought too dear if they are bought at the expense of truth…. It is a pity, no doubt, that there should be so much controversy; but it is also a pity that human nature should be so bad as it is, and that the devil should be loose in the world. It was a pity that Arius taught error about Christ’s person: but it would have been a greater pity if Athanasius had not opposed him. It was a pity that Tetzel went about preaching up the Pope’s indulgences: it would have been a far greater pity if Luther had not withstood him. Controversy, in fact, is one of the conditions under which truth in every age has to be defended and maintained, and it is nonsense to ignore it.”
- How can we determine which doctrines in the Bible are essential to the faith and which are not as important? The gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is not to be set aside or compromised in the name of love and unity. It is the only way of salvation. If we compromise “the gospel,” we have given up the very essence of the Christian faith. Included under the term “the gospel” are the essential truths of the sinfulness of all humanity, of the inability of people to save themselves, and of our need for a spiritual new birth that can only come from God. But remember there are several other biblical truths that we cannot yield or we compromise the essence of the Christian faith. The inspiration, authority, and total trustworthiness of Scripture must never be compromised or we have no objective, authoritative basis for our faith. The nature of God as a Triune being, one God who subsists in three equal and co-eternal persons is another essential. We must affirm both the full deity and the full humanity of Jesus. It is also essential to affirm His sacrificial death on the cross, His bodily resurrection from the dead, His bodily ascension into heaven, and His bodily return in power and glory to judge all the living and the dead. Any concession on these essentials, even if it is for the sake of unity, is wrong because it is to join with those who are Christian in name only, but not in God’s sight. For concession is never right if it compromises essential truth from God’s Word. And, if unity is to be maintained, it must be maintained for the glory of God in His gospel.
- Are you struggling with the hardest of all ideas for human beings in grasping the doctrine of salvation by grace alone? This is because we all always want to add something to it. If a person is trying to add anything to the work of Christ for salvation, that person is not saved and is operating under a fatal misunderstanding. People will say, “Of course you need the grace of God to be saved. No one can save himself. But you still have to do something.” Some would say that this extra something is baptism. Some would say that this extra something is belonging to a particular church. Others want to add good works or some ecstatic spiritual experience. James gives us principles for grace-filled living: as those under grace we are not to make non-Biblical requirements of others – specifically, those that come from secondary cultural traditions. In that day this meant not foisting a Jewish lifestyle on Gentiles. Today this means we are not to make areas of our lifestyle that are not spelled out in Scripture normative for others if they are to be “good” Christians — for example, how we dress, how we run our church, the standards of living we think proper, personal tastes, musical preferences (including in a worship service), etc. If we thrust any of these on others as necessary to a life of grace, we repeat the sin of the Judaizers! We so easily push our preferences on others. We assume they will either do things our way or they are unspiritual. We too often put others through the paces of our own heritage before we fully accept them as brothers and sisters.
- As we deal with our differences, we must ask, “How will our decisions affect the united witness of the church to the lost?” Jesus prayed that His people might be united so that the world might believe in Him (John 17:20-21). Unity is not uniformity, for unity is based on love and not law. There is a great need in the church for diversity in unity (Ephesians 4:1-16), for that is the only way the body can mature and do its work in the world. But spiritual maturity requires discernment, so that we stand firm when it comes to essential truth; but, on matters not essential to the faith, where godly people may differ, we elevate love over our rights. For concession is right when it does not compromise essential truth and it is done out of love to avoid offending others. Thus, the local assembly should reflect the culture of the Kingdom far more than any local culture. And the Kingdom culture is one of humility and convictional kindness — looking to the interest of others and holding fast to the gospel with the heart, love and attitude of Christ more than demanding respect or patriotism or politics or any other local ambition. Although it is impossible to live so as not to offend anyone. We should seek to live in good conscience before God, seeking to please Him. If we know that we are offending another Christian, we should go to them and seek to get the matter resolved if possible. For the path we’re on is paved by the shed blood of a sacrificing King. Therefore, we can join with him in not troubling people by putting no greater burden than the gospel of grace and it’s life-giving joy and peace. It’s not a burden to live in the gospel of grace. It’s a joy to know and walk with Jesus — to serve like Jesus, serving folks we may not fully understand. A joy to look out for the interest of others like Jesus has done for us.
- Are we being imitators of God, as His beloved children? We live in a day when many who profess to be Christians are ignorant of God’s holy standards for His people. For there are college students who say that they know Christ, but who do not feel that it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage. Divorce has become so widespread, even in evangelical circles, that many professing Christians walk away from their marriages as if divorce were just an unfortunate event, rather than a grievous sin. God’s moral standards do not change over time or from culture to culture. We must not be so influenced by our culture that we violate God’s holy standards. Out of grateful obedience to God, we must never do things that are culturally accepted but absolutely forbidden by His Word. For Ephesians 5:1-17 tells us: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light…. Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
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