Recently, in one of my groups, we are going through the book of Acts. I have intentionally taught through the book of Acts in just about all of my groups and some church teaching venues with specific intentionality. It has been a mainstay of my spiritual walk for decades. For instance, I have a specific recollection of the days when I attended an 8th grade boys sunday school class taught by Jay Sedwick who took that group of young rambunctious boys through the book (think about that for a few minutes). Later when I attended Bryan College, I took a class from the prolific author Irving Jensen. The book of Acts provides a great foundation for studying the rest of the NT, particularly the Pauline letters. I cannot speak highly enough about my education at Capital Bible Seminary where I had countless professors invest into me each and every class! Each stepping stone in the process has impressed upon me the critical essence and the truth of the gospel.
One of the main issues in the book of Acts is the centrality of the gospel message, i.e. salvation and the critical importance of taking the message of the gospel to all people (Jew and Gentile). Early in the growing years of the primitive church one of the major issues that came into question was the gospel message. What it is and what it is not. In fact, this question became such a hotly a debated issue that it led to a tremendous conflict between Peter and Paul, perhaps in Antioch, before the 1st missionary journey (Gal 2: 11).
During the 1st missionary journey, Judaizers dogged the missionary team from city to city during their travels throughout Galatia (Antioch Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe), causing them to face several great challenges and beatings. Again the issue kept coming up upon their return to the city of Antioch when some came from Judea and taught in Antioch that they must be circumcised to be saved. Finally, in 49 AD, the issue came to a head where Paul went to Jerusalem and made an appeal to the Apostles to render a decision about salvation. The question of salvation by faith alone in Christ became a massive dispute and a divisive issue. Interestingly, Peter also aligned with Paul about the centrality of the Gospel - and that salvation came by faith alone (Acts 15: 7-11) before the Council in Jerusalem. At the center of this conflict regarding the gospel, i.e. the essence of salvation is this question. Do believers have to comply with the Judaic law and become a Jew in order to become a believer? In other words, are works (in this case circumcision) necessary for one to come to faith and keep their faith to be a Christ follower? Circumcision was just a front issue for all 613 laws of Judaism. Peter called it an unbearable yoke!
This issue continues to haunt Christendom even today (Barna Report; State of the Church 2016). It is not the issue of circumcision but it plays out in a whole host of different things when there is an assertion of belief + ________ (fill in the blank). Yes, many people seek to add to the issue of belief to be a Christ follower for salvation. This old lie from Satan continues to haunt Christendom and it leads many people deeply astray. It is instinctual for us as humans to "earn" benefit or to add something to the benefit. It is hard for us to fathom that something can be really free to us and we cannot add to its value. Further, many people believe they must first, clean-up their act to be worthy of the gift of salvation. The simple truth is, we cannot add to the work of Christ.
Works or "Law Keeping" Cannot Save Us
God's great love allows for Christ to come to be a perfect payment price for a sinful world (John 3:16-18). Jesus' death on the cross became a payment for our sin. His payment on the cross is what procures salvation for us! Our response to His work on the cross is accepted by faith and it is credited to us as righteousness. Most people are familiar with Ephesians 2: 8-9
For by grace you have been saved through faith: and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God' not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Paul records in Ephesians that it is by grace we are saved. Grace is technically unmerited favor that is granted by God to those who believe in Christ by faith. Faith is simply a response to God's offer of salvation. Notice, acquiring salvation is not a result of human works - because if it were, it would allow for boasting. Men cannot boast for any reason because salvation is a gift given by God.
Works or "Law Keeping" Cannot Keep Us Saved or Secure
Tragically, the fact is, the problem does not only impact the act of salvation but also the issue of security of the believer. Some would have us believe that we are not secure in Christ unless we live up to certain criteria. In other words, people make the grave error of believing that they have to perform works to maintain their salvation and ultimately keep their salvation. Some false teachers spread inaccurate information that a person can never be fully assured that they are secure in Christ. In other words, a person can "fall" from a state of grace meaning they can lose their salvation if they commit certain kinds of sins (gravity) or they commit too many sins (volume). They teach that works are mandatory to keep or maintain salvation. This too is horribly inaccurate. We are secure because of the work of Christ on the cross period.
Works righteousness cannot save us or keep us saved. In fact, to quote by one of my favorite professors Thomas Edgar, "If works cannot justify us for salvation, they certainly don't have enough power to secure us in salvation."
Be Aware of False Teachers Regarding Works Salvation
Paul goes on to speak very straightforwardly to those who read the letter to the people who were in the region of Galatia (now modern Turkey). Remember Paul was in this region during his first Missionary Journey communicating the gospel, to Jews and Gentiles. It is believed that Paul wrote the letter shortly after the decision in Acts 15 and the letter from James. It is believed that Paul took a copy of James letter with him on the 2nd Missionary Journey where he revisited those same cities in Galatia. Paul admonishes believers there that they should not fall to the erroneous teaching of the Judaizers who sought to bring Christians back under the Judaic law. He calls it a "different gospel" or a foreign gospel. In Galatians 1: 6-10 he admonishes them for believing a false gospel.
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say now, If any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
Paul repeatedly deals with the issue of the law and grace and the corruption of the gospel of faith alone. In no way is the law consistent with the true gospel of faith. The law cannot save us and it was never intended to do so. The law can only condemn us further into greater levels of guilt. Later in the book of Galatians, Paul says that the law was given to point us to the gospel. In fact, Paul says that it was a tutor. (Gal 3:24) The Greek word for tutor παιδαγωγός is transliterated as pedigogos which actually means harsh disciplinarian or a drill sergeant that watches and shadows you 24/7 and hounds you relentlessly to comply. Actually, the law acts as a constant pointer for us that reminds us of our great need for Christ & the cross! The law is an imposing oppressive force that keeps us in sin constantly. It is the exact opposite of grace. The law enslaves and condemns us, while faith by grace frees us from sin and liberates us in Christ.
Works Salvation Nullifies the Work of the Cross
Paul makes one additional point that is worthy of notation. If anyone believes that faith + ______ (fill in the blank) provides salvation, then Christ actually died in vain. In Galatians 2: 21, Paul states very clearly that if righteousness comes through (fill-in-the blank) acts of the law, then Christ died needlessly. When we attempt to "add" anything, i.e a human work to the death of Christ on the cross, then it essentially nullifies the redemptive work of the cross. Wow.
Galatians 2: 20-21
"I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly."
These are powerful words to remember. So if you are tempted to become legalistic and seek to live under the law you are essentially mocking the work of Christ on the cross. Anytime anyone adopts a view of faith + ________ (fill in the blank) the work of Christ becomes nullified. The ________ can be filled with all sorts of things such as baptism, tithing, communion/Eucharist, church attendance, obeying the Mosaic law, certain theological perspectives or certain modalities of worship, or anything else we might imagine. Just remember, works could never get us saved from sin nor can works keep us secure in Christ. We cannot add to something that has been perfected and when Jesus said "It is finished" (John 19:30) his death sealed the work of salvation for those who simply believe. The work of Christ is not only complete it is perfect. You cannot add to something that is perfect. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone - NOTHING ELSE! Christ's work on the cross (atonement) makes us and keeps us free!